From Rothbury to Electric Forest - A Look Back

Five years ago, nearly thirty thousand strangers gathered in a small town in Michigan.  They called it a festival, but really it was a journey – a journey that has transcended space, time, money, and rebranding.  In spite of bankruptcy, new management, and even a new name, Madison House Has found a way to bottle the magic of its first two years as Rothbury, and re-open it for the beginning of their newest venture, Electric Forest.

Rothbury snuck into the scene casually, but with force. Bringing the love early, on February 13, 2008, the organizers released the official announcement along with a stacked lineup.  Festival veterans Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews were headlining alongside an eclectic blend of jam, funk, rap, folk, and electronic.  This wasn’t just a music festival though, music was only a highlight.  For the first time a festival was planning to make a difference in more than just someone’s summer plans.  Their purpose was to “harness the unique energy of the live music community into a durable social movement.”  Using an open forum setting called Think Tank, organizers wanted to address the issues of climate change and clean energy alternatives.  Adding to the environmental focus, steps were taken to create what would ideally be a zero-waste event.  Disposables were replaced with 100% compostables, recycling bins were in abundance, and there was an option upon purchase of the ticket to add $3 as a tribute to off-setting the carbon footprint.

The 4th of July “Party With a Purpose” was held at Double JJ Ranch.  Come July 3rd, attendees arrived in droves, descending on the small town of Rothbury, eager to be introduced to the unknown.  No one could have predicted the difference four days would make in the lives of so many people.  Fest-goers were greeted with the cleanest grounds at a festival to date, a blend of music that could entertain even the pickiest of listeners, and to top it off, a forest smack in the middle that can be described as nothing but magical. To add to the listeners’ excitement was a smattering of SCIde projects, the incarnations of the members of The String Cheese Incident.  The band was currently on hiatus, but EOTO, Emmitt-Nershi Band, and Kyle Hollingsworth Band were just the slice of Cheese the fans needed.

Unfortunately it seemed the magic was never to be repeated.  On July 18th, less than two weeks after Rothbury concluded, Double JJ Ranch was forced to file chapter 11 bankruptcy after a South Dakota bank presented them with a lawsuit for 18 million dollars.  Months of court dates and litigation suggested it would be impossible for promoters and booking agents to plan a festival of Rothbury’s magnitude again. However, come March the announcement for Rothbury 2009 was official!  Both AEG, the world’s second-largest live show promoter, and Madison House, the festival’s booking agency, had been able to strike a deal with the ranch’s federally appointed trustees, ensuring a second coming of the beloved festival.

Legal hurdles had apparently meant nothing to Rothbury’s team.  Not only did they pull off securing the location, but the lineup went above and beyond what anyone could have conceived.  Beloved jam band, The String Cheese Incident, who had been on hiatus since 2007, announced their triumphant return and only appearance for the year at Rothbury 2009.  If that wasn’t enough, ringing in America’s birthday on the main stage would be The Dead.  It would be their only summer date, and included all former members from one of the most iconic groups in our nation’s musical history, with Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers’ fame filling in for the late Jerry Garcia.  Closing out the weekend would be the one and only Bob Dylan.  It was obvious Rothbury was shooting for the stars, and landed among them. 

Although the festival had drawn close to 35,000 attendees, the promoters would not confirm a third installation after the sale of Double JJ Ranch to Progressive Resorts.  The following January, with heavy hearts, the official announcement was released.   Unwilling to hold a less-than-stellar event, Rothbury would be postponed for 2010.  The official announcement referenced problems with artist tour schedules, and local papers suggested that negative feedback from the community was also to blame.  However, the announcement made it clear their “efforts are certainly not coming to an end.”  The organizers were not giving up on the enchantment of the forest, and said of their supporters:

“To all who attended the first two years of ROTHBURY we thank you for the soul you gave the event.  Those times entered rarified air because of your energy.”

It was clear the connection between attendees and the minds behind Rothbury was both deep and passionate.  The disappointment was great, but short-lived.  By October of 2010 members of The String Cheese Incident let it slip that they were working on bringing a festival back to Rothbury and the Double JJ Ranch.  Valentine’s Day 2011 heralded the coming of Electric Forest Festival, with SCI posting “We’ve made our 4th of July plans – see you in the forest.”  The name was different, but with String Cheese at the helm, it ensured the magic would still be intact.  On February 28th the official website was up, and the announcement was made that June 30th would mark the beginning of a new chapter for the forest, with Insomniac Productions taking on AEG’s previous role.  The lineup, though it included three performances by the hosts themselves, became electric.  Amid the usual folk and jam such as Keller Williams and Galactic was a multitude of the top names in the electronic music community.  Long-time trance/house producer Tiesto, as well as dubstep legend Bassnectar, were headlining late-nights.  Joining them were Skrillex, Kaskade, 12th Planet, and a host of others from the genre, previously unknown to the usual Rothbury crowd.

The reaction was mixed.  Rothbury veterans had been pining for the chance to see their favorite jam bands in Sherwood again, and this lineup was not expected.  The outcry for their original love was emphatic, with a side of bitterness.  Promoters were worried the reception would not be what they hoped, but the magic was too great to keep people away.  Veterans and greenhorns flocked to the forest, hungry to have their hearts fed with the same divine energy that had carried them through the first two years.  Not surprisingly, Electric Forest was a major hit.  Sherwood Forest was still the pièce de résistance of any major festival on the circuit, and despite the slight change in the look of the lineup, the festival still held the same meaning for those who had experienced its first years.  Said one attendee of both Rothbury and Electric Forest, “The festival’s ability to mix EDM, jam, bluegrass and every other genre we’ve seen throughout the last three lineups is something we’ve not seen anywhere else.  And for them to do it seamlessly…it’s pretty impressive.”

There had never been a festival that drew in its fans seemingly on love alone.  Sure the music has much to do with it, and the forest is incredible.  Yet underlying all the aesthetic and auditory delights is a bond unmatched by even the longest-running events of its kind.  Paired with a production company like Insomniac, the level of fan interaction only heightened the intensity of the experience for its attendees.  There may never be another Rothbury, but Madison House beat all odds in its creation of Electric Forest.  For a group of 30,000 to harness the energy of only two years, and bring it back to a whole new festival is a feat beyond measure. 

If you have never attended these festivals, or have never witnessed the forest in all its glowing glory, it is easy to write off as perhaps gimmicky, and obviously musical taste will draw people to the fests that suit them.  However, if you let it, a festival can be more than just music.  One fan said of his experience at Electric Forest, “To be a part of it didn’t change me, but more so evolved me.  It helped me realize my own colors, what I stood for as a person, and what I cared about.”  If you aren’t convinced, just close your eyes.  Imagine standing in a crowd as the music envelops its listeners, the energy of anticipation for each new note growing, and the only way to excise the feeling is to dance like everyone is watching.  When your feet get moving you turn around and your family is all around you, Mother Nature standing firm in her grandeur as your scenery for the journey, and you are overcome with the knowledge that you are a part of something special.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of both Madison House and Insomniac, and in no small part to the fans themselves, Electric Forest has become the premiere electronic music festival in the Midwest.  Offering a lineup unmatched in originality, it also gives its attendees the chance at heightened interaction through costumed entertainers, relaxation in throngs of open hammocks, and stunning visuals only Insomniac could put together so flawlessly.  Continued greening efforts have kept the forest to high standards, still maintaining the cleanest grounds on the circuit, and an inherent focus on the environment.  As we prepare for the festival’s third season, it is important we remind each other why we do this.  Music aside, this is a community, a family that we may only see once a year, or perhaps only once in a lifetime.  Take care of each other, be kind to the earth, and practice the love you preach.  See you in the forest!

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