Last weekend, approximately 30,000 patrons per day took over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for Sunset Music Festival, leaving behind the bitter-sweet memories of a weekend packed full of music and dancing.
When Sunset’s lineup was released, I was a little disappointed to see that there were a lot of repeat artists. However, I think I was a little quick to judge, because once I got into the festival, I was reminded of why I always have so much fun at SMF: carefully crafted stages that cater to different styles of music. SMF is by no means the only festival that does this; they just seem to do a particularly good job of balancing the stages with great headlining artists for specific styles of music. On both days, the main stage naturally attracted the more popular and mainstream styles of dance music, artists that are more likely to be played on the radio. Over the weekend, the main stage had performances including 3LAU, Hardwell, Galantis, Borgeous, Jack U, The Chainsmokers, Cash Cash, Jauz, Marshmello, and others. Regardless of your tastes in music, it’s healthy to see big names like this at a festival like Sunset. The big names attract a large crowd and allow promoters to make the entire event a much bigger spectacle. There’s a trickle-down effect, so that when patrons pay to see big names at a festival, the other stages that showcase less-popular, but still immensely talented artists, benefit. Speaking for my own personal preferences, this is something that I love to see. Even though I don’t spend much time at the main stage, I still appreciate the presence, because that means I can spend my days and nights dancing and marveling at the side stages.
Day One of the Eclipse Stage targeted the trance crowd with artists like Pierce Fulton, Andrew Bayer, Ilan Bluestone, Tritonal, Ferry Corsten, and Seven Lions. It’s always a pleasure to see veterans like Ferry Corsten. He put on a spectacular show, and his decades of experience as a DJ and producer were evident with the way he captivated the Eclipse Stage.
Day One of the Horizon Stage targeted House and Techno fans with artists like Rezz, Shaun Frank, J.Phlip, Mija, Justin Martin, and Claude VonStroke. I was not previously familiar with Rezz (shame on me), but she was the first artist I caught a glimpse of at the Horizon Stage. It’s been a while since I walked onto a dance floor and been completely caught off guard with the music, but Rezz did just that, in the best way possible. Rezz’s take on music feels a little dark. She blends different genres together, with the core element of her music seeming to be bass. Transitioning between dubstep-ish and bass-heavy house music with thumping beats, Rezz throws down tracks that sound like they come from an earlier, less pop-influenced time of dance music. Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, and with releases on deadmau5’s label, mau5trap, Rezz showed her support for a fellow Canadian producer by throwing in some older deadmau5 tracks like Right This Second and Raise Your Weapon; the nostalgia in me was giddy with joy.
As Rezz’s set came to a close, Shaun Frank took the stage and put down some more upbeat tracks with his signature wobbly house sound. The Tampa Bay area is no stranger to Shaun Frank, as he performed last summer at Shephard’s in Clearwater. It was nice seeing him back in the area in front of a larger crowd. After Shaun Frank, J.Phlip took over with some alien-sounding house music, which was followed by another female DJ, Mija. Mija had a great performance at SMF last year, so it was cool to see her progression as an artist, with her set being scheduled for later in the evening this year. It’s refreshing to see artists like Rezz, J.Phlip, and Mija, three females that have a fresh take on dance music, commanding the stage for a good period of time. I took a short break from the Horizon Stage to catch some other artists, but made sure to get back for Claude VonStroke. I had high expectations for this veteran, and I was not let down. His mastery of the DJ decks was evident as he closed out the Horizon Stage.
Day Two of the Eclipse Stage showcased bass-heavy artists like Team EZY, Party Favor, Funtcase, Bro Safari, Snails, Zomboy, and Borgore. Team EZY played a nice blend of Hip-Hop and electronic music. I really appreciated that at an early slot like 3PM, he played music that was upbeat enough to get the crowd dancing, but not so heavy that it wore the crowd out early in the day, a trait that other opening artists could take notes from. He fills the opening set appropriately, but with his technical skills, it’s clear that he is destined for bigger sets as his music gains in popularity.
Day Two of the Horizon Stage had a mix of Bass music early in the day with House music later in the night. Louis the Child, like Team EZY, injects a bit of Hip-Hop into their productions and sets. Throwing in some old-school Kid Cudi was a pleasant surprise. After Louis the Child, Jai Wolf took the stage and graced the dance floor with his cerebral sound. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, Jai Wolf transitioned into more appropriately rowdy music.
After Jai Wolf, I made my way to main stage to catch a little bit of Anna Lunoe and Marshmello. Anna Lunoe was the fourth and final female artist to perform at SMF, and like the three that came before her, she did a stellar job. With the sun low in the sky, she played suitably groovy music to close out her set. Marshmello was up next. Although he produces some great music and can play a fun show, his set seemed far too similar to another Tampa set that he played at the Amp in Ybor in December 2015.
Back at the Horizon Stage, Lane 8 was playing his signature feel-good tunes that seem to cross between Progressive Trance and House. As he played “Midnight” with the sun beaming through the partly-covered Horizon Stage, I couldn’t help grinning ear to ear, knowing that the song was just getting me primed for the sun to go down and the music to kick it up a notch. Thomas Jack took the stage next and boy did he put on a show! Thomas Jack knows how to read a crowd and smoothly mix together a nice blend of Tropical House and House music, sure to get your feet moving. His complementary light setup is one that sets the mood through subtlety. Sam Feldt came up next, closing out the night at the Horizon Stage. Although his transitions are a little less subtle than that of Thomas Jack, he has a ton of fun with the crowd. He also brought along his live saxophone player, Justin Ward, which was a pleasant surprise as the sounds of the sax closed the night.
Unfortunately, SMF was not fun-filled for everyone. Tampa police said they made 25 felony arrests and 8 misdemeanor arrests. Additionally, 57 people were hospitalized, and two tragically passed away. 21-year-old Katie Bermudez of Kissimmee and 22-year-old Alex Haynes of Melbourne were both hospitalized, but ultimately perished. Toxicology reports have not been released yet, but heat was undoubtedly a contributing factor, as temperatures reached 93°F, with no relief from any rain this year. It’s always unfortunate to hear about deaths like these. An event like this should serve as an opportunity to educate patrons and improve the experience in the future. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn hopes that this spells the end for Sunset Music Festival, but ending Sunset Music Festival is a seemingly simple solution for a complex problem. It may be the politically expedient thing to do, but it’s not any kind of long-term solution that would do anything to end drug-related injuries or deaths, and ultimately results in events going underground, where rules and regulations do not apply.
Tragedies like this should act as a reminder that the best way to address drug-related deaths are through education and promoting safety and harm-reduction. Unfortunately, the 2003 RAVE Act makes it very difficult for promoters and venues to educate the public, out of fear that they would be punished harshly. Due to the language of the law, promoters fear being prosecuted if their venue appears to condone drug use by providing cool-down rooms, free water, glowsticks, drug testing, or other amenities that are sometimes associated with drug use. Oftentimes, drug-related deaths at large events like SMF are a result of patrons unknowingly buying and using adulterated drugs, a problem that could easily be mitigated by allowing on-site drug testing. On-site drug testing should not be seen as condoning or encouraging drug use, but instead, it is a realistic attitude that encourages patrons to be as safe as possible. The majority of Americans believe that the most effect approach to sex education is to realize that adolescents are going to have sex, so the best way to address the issue is to ensure that they are properly educated and have the tools so that they do it in the safest way possible. Why would we not take this same approach with drug use?
Sunset Music Festival goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of its patrons; they were not negligent in this regard. At check-in, there is police presence, drug-sniffing dogs, and TSA-style searches. Once inside the festival, there are EMS, police, and security patrolling the venue. Additionally, free water is provided throughout the venue, as are cool-down areas. Ryan Raddon, AKA EDM superstar Kaskade said it best: “Clearly, if the US Government hasn’t come up with the magic bullet to quell the problem of drugs in this country, it is not reasonable to expect an event promoter to pull this kind of trick out of his hat either.” Banning EDM events is a short-sighted solution that does a disservice to the public. If we truly want to address drug use in the US and the world, the most effective approach is a realistic one that understands that drug use is a social problem, not a criminal one, which calls for social solutions, like prevention, harm reduction, safety, and education.
The promoters running SMF care about its patrons and the local community. I am confident that if they work with local law enforcement, EMS, and politicians, they can come together to create a solution that allows Sunset Music Festival to continue to spread the joy of music in the area, while also maximizing safety and preventing issues in the future.