Late Saturday night at Electric Daisy Carnival, Omar Marruto leaned against the side of a concrete pillar on the track of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. All around him, tens of thousands of young EDM fans wearing illuminated boots, beard glitter and X’s of neon nipple tape bounded past him on the fest’s main drag, Electric Avenue.
As he rested, the 26-year-old Las Vegas native held a giant flag aloft on a pole. “Vegas Strong,” it read, waving in the blustery desert night. Nobody had to ask him what it meant.
“It is on my mind,” Marruto said, of last year’s massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, where a gunman killed 59 concertgoers and wounded hundreds more, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Marruto wasn’t nervous of another tragedy this night, but it’s been heavy on his heart since October. “I can see officers here and I know security is tight. But you never know.”
Was he ever hesitant about coming to EDC this year? “No. I wasn’t going to let that affect me at all.”
It’s been a trying time in the extended EDC Las Vegas universe. The massacre last year — at a different but nearby site — put the entire city on edge about its public life, and nowhere more so than at its outdoor music events, of which EDC is by far the biggest and highest-profile, attracting around 400,000 attendees over the course of its three days.
Then last month came the news that Avicii, the 28-year-old Swedish producer born Tim Bergling, took his own life while in Muscat, Oman. Avicii was a foundational star in the contemporary EDM scene, and had headlined EDC Las Vegas in the past with hits like “Le7els” and “Wake Me Up.”
His music was often the entry point into dance music for a lot of fans. He’d struggled with depression and substance abuse, and his death gutted the young EDC fans who had grown up with his soulful pop-house. Add to that the overdose death of Lil Peep, the crossover rapper who worked with EDC headliner Marshmello, and it’s a reminder that addiction and depression can claim even the biggest stars.
In a scene and city that saw so much death last year, how do you still find escapism and joy in music? First and always, you find it in one another.
Marcus Sparks and Neeca Decastro, both 19, traveled from Santa Cruz and Fresno for their first EDC. They’re a little green in the mega-rave scene, but so far their weekend together had been overwhelmingly positive and life-affirming.
“It’s amazing, the people have been so upbeat. I thought it would be stressful but everyone’s been really chill,” Decastro said.
The tragedy last year and Avicii’s death did weigh on them, however.
“It was so sad, he meant so much for this culture,” Decastro said of Avicii’s death. She wasn’t scared about a repeat of the shooting, however. “My mom was worried, but it feels like it won’t happen here.”
At almost every corner of the Speedway grounds, you could hear Avicii’s music played in tribute. There was Kygo, on the main stage imploring that “This one is for Avicii” before kicking off Avicii’s track “Without You,” with its now-haunting chorus of “I got to learn how to love without you / I got to carry my cross without you.”
Over on the bass music stage, producer Saymyname howled into his microphone that “[Avicii’s] legacy is gonna live forever,” before turning into a double-time remix of “Le7els.” And Tiesto, the veteran producer and EDC fixture, brought out singer and Avicii collaborator Aloe Blacc for a live tribute to their hit “Wake Me Up.”
It wasn’t all melancholy — saxophonist Kenny G made a silly, out-of-nowhere cameo during Ookay’s hard-hitting set. But in a scene defined by youth and blissful oblivion, Avicii might have been the first major artist to die in these fans’ lives.
Amid an era of school shootings and public massacres, it’s hard not to feel like teenage life is especially frightening. EDM took off among millennials after the economic collapse as pure escapism from calamity; it’s hard to see what comes along to escape all this.
There was certainly powerful music to be found at EDC. L.A.-based Kittens (the alias of Iranian American producer Lauren Abedini) played a suave and hard-swinging set of hip-hop and heavy bass. The Black Madonna took the rave teens to class with a rangy, uplifting set of house, disco and techno, spliced with a little pop insousciance.
She seemed to know how badly the fans needed this. “Don’t write off the kids just because … they’re growing up and they deserve a friend with good tunes a grade ahead,” she wrote on Twitter. “I was very touched by the kindness of the people we met this weekend.”
Behind the scenes, however, everyone from artists to venues to EDC’s promoters knew that the scene is in flux, and can’t outrun these recent tragedies.
“Tim was such a humble, kind and beautiful soul,” said Insomniac’s founder Pasquale Rotella, in a statement to The Times, after Avicii’s death. “He touched the lives of millions around the world and broke down barriers between genres like dance music and country. He helped our culture make an impact on the mainstream that will never be forgotten.”
Even backstage, artists are admitting that Avicii’s death was a wake-up call for how they handle the hundreds of late-night gigs, ever-present booze and drugs and the destabilizing loneliness of contemporary DJ life.
“Everyone thinks this is just a big party,” said Kayzo, the producer who will team with longtime friends Ookay, Yultron and Dotcom as the supergroup the Binches, who will close the festival on Sunday. (Dotcom, born Chris Comstock, is widely believed to be the producer behind the anonymous masked mega-star Marshmello.)
“I want to play the long game, and you can burn out so quickly. This is a job but amplified by 100 times. We’re doing shows in the same night on different continents. You’re so scared of getting passed up that when you take time for yourself, it feels like a sin. But that can take people’s lives.”
“I stopped drinking so much and have been eating vegetarian, and I can really feel the difference,” Yultron added. “When you’re hammered and trying to make a 7 a.m. flight, it really takes a toll on your body. A lot of DJs don’t surround themselves with the best people, and all that negative energy can get the best of you.”
All over the city, the owners of the resorts and mega-clubs that have driven the EDM boom into a year-round club ecosystem are optimistic that neither the Route 91 shootings nor changing youth tastes will cast too much doubt on the city’s music culture.
“The community of Las Vegas and our visitors really came together to support the city,” said Jason Strauss, partner in Tao Group, which runs Marquee, one of the largest and most popular EDM-driven clubs in the city. “I think people really wanted to be together, and music is something that can unite.”
“Based on business volumes, we believe that by and large the public feels that Las Vegas is a safe place to be,” added Fedor Banuchi, vice president of entertainment for the Cosmopolitan resort.
EDC, again sold out, remains a rite of passage for teens and twentysomethings, and the North Star on the touring circuit for nearly every major act in dance music. The twin tragedies of last year’s shooting and Avicii’s death didn’t dampen that enthusiasm (a shift to May from June also made a big difference in audience comfort, as temperatures were in the 80s at night rather than the frequent triple-digit spikes).
But perhaps recent events will lead fans, artists and promoters to remind everyone what they’re all doing there: to create a neon-streaked, bass-pumping, hands-up space where you don’t have to wave flags to reminded yourself you’re still strong.
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens