Freaknight 2015: An Interesting Experiment Gone Wrong
FREAKNIGHT: Seattle’s annual descent from normality into a world of freaky beats, friendly fiends, and top notch production. Hosted for the past few years at the WaMu Theater in Seattle, the sinister circus made a move to the Tacoma Dome after events at last year’s Freaknight led to the death of one attendee and a cancellation of its 2nd day. As a result, a lot of scrutiny and uncertainty surrounded this year’s festivities. Could USC really replicate the superb quality of past Freaknights at a new venue an hour south of Seattle, or would it fall flat? After checking Facebook and other forums for post-event discussion, you see one of two feelings: total success or total failure.
A lot went well this year, but a lot did not. Was Freaknight a complete failure? No. But was it as roaring of a success as the promoters for USC would like you to believe? No. It falls in more of the category of an A+ attempt at an inferior venue with a D+ in stage placement and sound quality. The musical acts were on point and the production of the decorations was top notch (as is expected from USC), but certain logistical decisions led to the event feeling less like a sweet treat and more like a sugar free candy bar.
What went right
Having getting to know a lot of the team members at USC Events over the past few years, I can say without a doubt that the effort put into Freaknight from USC’s side was nothing short of superb. There was a lot to overcome from how last year’s event ended, and the odds were definitely stacked against them. Moving the event from its home at WaMu to the Tacoma Dome was not an easy call. The general consensus of the Tacoma Dome is that the venue is bad. Not terrible, but not good either. The acoustics of the venue are sub-par to other music venues in Washington and the distance from Seattle is not ideal for the majority of attendees. Security & staff for the Tacoma Dome has always lacked compared to WaMu (granted WaMu has a longer history with USC and has worked through a lot of the issues that Tacoma Dome suffered at this year’s Freaknight). These issues from the venue itself put USC Events behind right from the start, but for all the venue’s faults, USC did a good job putting a bandage over the wound to at least make it less apparent to those in attendance. The interior of Tacoma Dome was exquisitely decorated to fit the usual Freaknight vibes of years past, and honestly, when in the main room it did not feel like you were in the Tacoma Dome. The main stage design was on point (we will get to the other two later), and all of the outlandish costumes from both the attendees and performers really added to the atmosphere of a twisted circus. There were plenty of water stations, food vendors, security staff willing to help, and of course the Conscious Crew always on the lookout for those in need. (Seriously, Conscious Crew members, you are the real MVP’s of all USC events. Keep doing what you do.)
Music-wise, the stacked line up did not disappoint. Countless world class artists graced the stages both nights supplied a great soundtrack to the freakish environment. A few poor booking choices in my opinion (looking at you Carnage), but overall the lineup was fantastic. Whether you wanted thumping 4/4 beats from Claude VonStroke, dirty bass lines from Troyboi, or haunting vocals from Nero, there was something for everybody. Each stage had a unique feel and there were minimal set conflicts for most people, freeing people to catch everyone they wanted and not feel like they were running around all night.
Additionally, Freaknight came equipped with rides and carnival games to keep you entertained between sets when catching your breath from dancing to all the great music. While there were some downsides to the rides being outside in wet October weather after being inside a warm sweaty environment, but this was expected given the venue change. Large tents did their best to protect attendees from the elements, and while I did not partake in any of the rides, I do like the inclusion of them for those who just want to cool down and take a load off their feet for a little while. Yes it would be nice if they were inside like previous years, but the Tacoma Dome just can’t accommodate that like WaMu can.
What Went Wrong
The two primary complaints were concerning line & entry issues and sound bleed from stage to stage. Regarding the line, both nights saw lines longer than a one hour wait with peak times on night two reaching two hours. As I was fortunate to attend as press I did not have to deal with the lines and instead entered through the VIP entrance (which was simple and quick). GA was definitely another story. Long lines, cold weather, handsy security guards, and more all compounded to one lackluster entry process. Apparently there were multiple entrances, but the bulk of attendees funneled through one main massive line. This type of situation has happened before, both at past Freaknights and at Paradiso at The Gorge. In all fairness to USC, those issues were usually resolved by the next event held at those locations. I feel this is exactly what happened. This was USC’s first attempt at throwing anything of this scale at Tacoma Dome. Naturally some issues were bound to arise, but if there is one thing that USC is good at, it is listening to the community and making meaningful changes in the future. Unfortunately, it is hard to make changes from day 1 to day 2 of the festival, so a lot of issues that were there day 1 were there day 2 as well. I saw identical posts and complains from both nights, which is never a good sign.
A second issue that has been apparent from past events held at Tacoma Dome (Above & Beyond’s “We Are All That We Need” tour as an example) was the bar situation. Now this obviously didn’t affect the under 21+ crowd (for the most part), but the resounding thought of Tacoma Dome and bar area is long lines; slow, long lines. Freaknight was no exception, but after attending a few events at Tacoma Dome now, that really rests on Tacoma Dome moreso than USC. I was fortunate enough to get there early enough before the lines were as colossal as they were towards the end of the night, but after that first time through the bar area, it was significantly less appealing to wait half hour or more for $10 drinks (2 drink maximum per time per person each time you got in line). Even though all of the bars were easily in earshot of the stages they were servicing, it’s just not a good experience to be standing in line waiting for booze with music blaring and wanting to dance. While bar issues are not a mood killer overall, there is something to the fact that the reviews of Tacoma Dome’s bar situations have been consistently poor, and I would have hoped USC had done more to alleviate some of the concerns. Maybe they did, but it was not apparent night of the event.
One other small issue for me was the theming of the bass stage (and non mainstage USC stages in general). It has been basically copy and paste from one event to the next. The past 3 years the bass stage at Freaknight has been the Bass Asylum with the general look and feel being the same. While it can be seen as slightly nit picky to complain about stage design, for those who have been going from year to year, we have seen the Big Top and Midway stages all get changes from year to year (even though they reuse certain elements), but the Bass Asylum stage has been very consistent. I understand reusing set pieces for the stage helps cut down on costs, but using the exact same set-up from year to year is starting to get old. You might say that because it is called the Bass Asylum stage means it has to be the same each year. You would be wrong. Take USC’s Paradiso as an example. Each year all 3 stages has changed in style, and while the bass stage has been called The Wreckage for the past two years, the look and feel of it has changed from one year to the next. Why can’t this be implemented to Freaknight?
But the biggest issue in my book was the fact that the two stages housed in the main room of Tacoma Dome (Twisted Big Top & Midway Madness) were bleeding sound from one stage to another on a scale unlike anything I have experienced from a USC event in the past 5 years. To say it was bad would be an understatement. Standing next to the sound and lighting pit located roughly halfway back from the front of either stage, one could clearly hear music coming from the other stage. While the issue was not constant, aka when a stage was blasting hard hitting bass at full volume, it would drown out the other stage. Anytime a slower section or build in a song would happen, the sound bleed would return. Those toward the front of either stage had minimal issues with hearing music from the adjacent stage, but even all the way up, multiple sources confirm that there was still sound bleed. Most noticeably for me was during Nero and Deadmau5. Both of these artists use rises and falls in their music to create progression and movement throughout their sets. This all sounds wonderful until the 4/4 drum kicks of Midway Madness would blare through the lulls in Nero’s and especially Deadmau5’s sets, creating a muddied acoustic experience that entirely ruined the vibe of the main stage for a lot of people who weren’t packed like sardines into the front few rows of either stage.
I’m a lot disappointed. Sound was shit. Sound techs were shit. Crowd was spot on. You deserve better really. https://t.co/3ki5YDLJya
— deadmau5 (@deadmau5) October 31, 2015
[Even Deadmau5 chimed in on the sound issues at Freaknight 2015, as did Claude VonStroke]
The effect was only worsened when earplugs were taken out, and I’m sorry, but if the audio quality is so terrible that the already highly recommended earplugs are an absolute necessity to not hear sound from another stage, then there is something fundamentally wrong with your event set up. Paradiso has issues with sound bleed on a much smaller and more acceptable level (bass stage being able to be heard from the main stage right most lawn and such), but what happened between the two stages at Freaknight was unacceptable by most people’s standards. It was so bad that even Deadmau5 chimed in saying that the “sound was shit” and Claude Von Stroke (who was on during the end of Nero and during Deadmau5) favoriting a tweet of mine complaining about the sound shows that the artists felt the same way about the way sound was being mitigated at the event. The only thing separating the Midway stage from Big Top was a blanket wall hung from the ceiling, but taking one look toward the back of the main room would show you at least one spot where the blanket wall was not covering leaving room for the American house artist’s funky beats to just blast right on through to the main stage. Taking a quick walk to the Midway stage, one found a similar issue happening to those trying to enjoy Claud. Nero and Deadmau5’s tracks could easily be heard by the sound booth and further up into the crowd. What surprised me the most is that at WaMu, the use of a blanket to separate two stages in the main room is common, and generally works to eliminate the sound from either stage unless right up against the blanket wall. Obviously Tacoma Dome can not handle two stages going at the same time in that one enclosed area, and this speaks into my overall feel of the event and how it simply is not right for the Tacoma Dome in its current fashion.
Additional Logistical Issues:
Now that was have uncovered the main issues that the actual event had during its run, let’s talk about the fact that this was a 2 day event at the Tacoma Dome. From chatting with people who have been to a lot of USC events and were disappointed with this iteration of the festival, a common theme rises to the surface; people don’t want to rave at the Tacoma Dome. While people in Tacoma might say it is a selfish thing to say as they have to travel to Seattle to attend all other USC events outside Paradiso, the fact of the matter is that the majority of people who are attending these events are from the greater Seattle area. Also, from an acoustic standpoint, Tacoma Dome’s open-air, high ceiling bubble does not do kind things to music. When people found out the event would not be at WaMu and would in fact be at Tacoma Dome, the response was swift. Now personally, I dont mind the drive down to Tacoma. Coming from LA, a half hour to hour and a half drive is not the worst thing in the world. An inconvenient, yes, but deal breaker no. However, this feeling wears off after one trip to the Dome. Add a second day of travel through notoriously shitty Seattle / Tacoma traffic and the hassle really becomes a pain. Why not buy a hotel then? Good question, because there are few hotels close to the venue. Secondly, it will add another $100 per day to the cost of going to an event that had ticket prices (without fees) at $204 at the box office. That is more than Paradiso, for which you get a true destination to go to, better weather, and better vibes. Tacoma just does not have the appeal that Paradiso has, and in order to attend it the effort is significantly higher.
On the flip side though, having the event further away from the city reduces the amount of people attending just to drink, do drugs, and get fucked up by making it harder to attend thus making the people who want that setting look for something closer to home. I can’t say that this isn’t a good thing, but at the same time, the extra effort really doesn’t help those who want to simply escape and hear world class music. The further away deterrent really only seems worth it for one day, not two. If Freaknight was instead a one night only event, the drive would be worth it or even a hotel, but two nights and it really seems more hassle than it’s worth.
But here’s the kicker. I have heard from a few sources that WaMu simply won’t allow 2 day festivals at its location any more. Take Safe In Sound Festival. It happened 2 weeks before Freaknight, featured all electronic music artists, and had the feel of any single day rave that USC has thrown minus the top notch decorations. The event was not heavily publicised by USC as they wanted to funnel people looking for an event towards their own Freaknight Festival, but the fact of the matter is that Safe In Sound sold out and Freaknight did not. This should show the organizers of USC that a 2 days in Tacoma is less appealing than a single day in Seattle. If Freaknight was to revert to the classic single day format, included 3 stages, a diverse yet refined lineup, and the event being held in Seattle at WaMu, I guarantee that the event would sell out. I can only assume USC lost money on Freaknight this year. I would be curious if a single day sold out event at WaMu would earn them more money than a 2 day underselling event at Tacoma Dome.
Freaknight 2015 was a valiant attempt by USC Events to recapture the glory of past WaMu Freaknights at the Tacoma Dome…but one that was not successful. The event felt like magnificence squeezed into a bad venue. If USC were to change the format back to a single day festival, but still at the Tacoma Dome, the event probably would be a much greater success. But then at that point why not just hold it in Seattle at the Wamu Theater? I think this was a good experiment that shows that people do not want to rave at the Tacoma Dome, or at least only for stand alone shows such as Above & Beyond, that have such a dedicated fan base anyway.
While Freaknight was not a failure, there seemed to be a lot more hassle involved with this year’s iteration compared to previous years. I know many people who had a really great time at Freaknight; I know a lot who didn’t. This is to be expected at events such as this; not everyone will have an equal experience. However, with the added distance, cost per ticket, hotel or other accommodations costs, inferior venue, inferior stage arrangement, rides out in the cold, terrible bar arrangements, and a few other issues the option of one day at WaMu compared to two at Tacoma seems like a fair trade. I don’t think I have appreciated WaMu as much as I ever have since Freaknight, and could not be more excited for a return to WaMu for this year’s Resolution (the NYE event). I just hope USC takes a long hard look at this year’s Freaknight and really makes a hard, but in my opinion correct, choice about where next year’s event will be held.
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