2016 was the inaugural edition of Florida's Okeechobe Music & Arts Festival, and like any festival just starting out, there were some growing pains. The festival organizers did their best to create a festival for everyone, with one of the most diverse lineups I've ever seen (the three headliners being Kendrick Lamar, Skrillex and Mumford and Sons) in Florida, a state that's plagued by an endless supply of EDM festivals. There was the good, the bad, and the magical. I'll begin by venting my grievances, just to get that out of the way.
The three main stages were much too close together leading to significant bleeding between stages (ie. Hall & Oates may as well have been playing along with Hundred Waters). There were also serious issues with sound mixing. Bands would play entire sets with an instrumental or vocal track totally muted (Grace Potter showed up but her voice never did).
There were also a host of inconveniences both minor and major that made the act of covering the festival an unnecessarily Herculean effort. There was virtually no cell phone reception. The box office was off site, and the shuttles they were running from the airports to the festival was unnecessarily obscured. By obscured, I mean they never told anyone where to go to catch it, leading to me splitting a $400 taxi from Orlando airport with some lovely people from Detroit and wasting $70 on a shuttle ticket (which I don't think they'll be refunding).
There were lots of volunteers onsite who did their job as best as they could, but it was also extraordinarily difficult to find actual staff members, making getting solid information nearly impossible. They also didn't print nearly enough programs and maps and ran out after the first day. People were going up to the information booth to get one and were offering to buy the program they had, but they couldn't give it away because it was literally the only one they had left! And for health reasons, it seemed like there were far too few water stations.
Nothing against Bassheads but Bassnectar was definitely the biggest draw, with other EDM acts like Skrillex, Gramatik, and Odesza following close behind. This led to crowds who basically sat at one stage the whole day to hold their spots for the big EDM artists...which created a weird vibe when the non EDM acts were playing.
This one doesn't apply to regular festival-goers, but trying to cover the festival could not have been made more difficult. My wristband stopped scanning after the first day, and they had no replacement media wristbands, which meant I couldn't take photos, get in touch with publicists to organize interviews, or have access to the press tent (which I couldn't find in the first place because there weren't enough maps).
It wasn't all doom and gloom though. There was plenty of ways to have a great time. The Aquachobee Beach stage was wonderful. Some of the best sets of the weekend were played on the intimate beachside stage (ie. Twiddle, Tom Morello, Big Wild, Spam All Stars). The weather was perfect and the location was beautiful, a perfect place to host a festival. The Chobeewobee Village tea lounge was a beautiful haven of couches, hammocks, and calm mood lighting. Encapsulated in a nest of palm trees, smaller acts had their opportunity to shine (shout out to the amazing Jay McAllister A.K.A. Beans On Toast) and people could congregate to connect in a peaceful setting or just take a nap. Funny story, while I was waiting for Beans On Toast to go on, a girl's hammock capsized, leaving her hanging like a monkey 5 five feet off the ground. I ran over to flip her back over and she thanked me and left. She came back five minutes later and asked if I happened to see a bag of mushrooms fall out of her bag when she flipped...sadly, I did not.
The food was great. I basically lived on Gouda Boys' 2,000 calorie Mac and Cheesesteaks and the awesome ice pop carts. Police presence was pretty lax. They tended to leave folks engaging in recreation...mood enhancers alone and only seemed to be focusing on those whose intention was to sell. Over the weekend I think I saw maybe one or two people who appeared to be 'in trouble.'
Overall, a fantastic group of people attended the festival and good vibes were a-plenty. On Thursday, I met Madison, a stripper from Key West who spends her time driving around in her VW van going to festivals. On Friday, I met Jay McAllister (Beans On Toast), an English drunken folk singer who I watched Bassnectar with while we marveled at how impressive and important EDM has become to this generation. On Saturday I met Cory, a grower from Colorado, in a cuddle puddle that had formed in an empty inflatable pool. Come Sunday, I had become close with the people I was camping with at Headcount, an organization that registered over 1,000 people to vote over the weekend! Okeechobee didn't have the douchiness of Coachella or the overwhelmingness of Bonnaroo, and capping the attendance at 35,000 was perfect.