10 Ways Desert Hearts Got That Impeccable Vibe

Article by: Eamon Armstrong|@EamonArmstrong

Thu April 16, 2015 | 10:45 AM

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

The single stage feels like a beating heart, glowing and thumping for 72 hours non-stop. It casts shimmering lights into the trees and radiates energy into the night air. “One Stage, One Vibe, One Love” is printed on my wristband. This singularity of focus goes far beyond the dance floor and permeates the entire festival grounds.

For those who’ve spent significant time in California’s alternative festival scene, much of the recipe feels familiar. There is a sacred space that offers yoga and talks; vendors hawk fancy clothing; visionary artists live-paint; neighbors cavort in cozy campsites; everyone wiggles on the dance floor to banging beats. However there’s a special quality in this particular 3,000 person event, something poignant and subtle and properly magical. It’s something in the vibe, which is safe and friendly, yet wild and free. We’re all having an exceptional time and there’s no feeling of danger or judgment. The attendees look fabulous and express themselves with righteous dance moves but there is no dividing sense of popularity or coolness. As a first-time guest in this scene I instantly understand what they mean when they say, “We are all Desert Hearts.”

How did a small Southern California festival create something that feels so effortless, and yet achieves such a cohesive feeling of family? What social technologies and strategies were used and how can these ideas be harnessed by other festivals? Even those cooking up the vibe seemed a bit baffled by the precise recipe that made Desert Hearts so savory. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to unravel its secrets. 

1. Size Matters, Embrace Intimacy

Desert Hearts 2015 Juliana Bernstein 1

Photo by Juliana Bernstein

“We will never have two stages. We don’t want people to be tapped into different vibes. We want to focus it all on one aspect and have everyone on that same wavelength.” - Co-founder Mikey Lion

When producers are focused primarily on expansion and profit, an event can grow too quickly and feel crowded – leaving attendees both overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time. A boutique festival is an alternative that provides attendees the opportunity to connect to the music, to the environment and, most of all, to each other.

Desert Hearts isn’t interested in massive expansion of ticket sales through increased capacity, so the event’s publicity is centered around curation rather than counting impressions. Max Frieser of Infamous PR feels that while spreading the message of “House, Techno, and Love” to many people is important, passing these ideas to the right people is what’s necessary to match what Desert Hearts is all about.

Keeping the gathering small is helpful in creating safety and camaraderie. “The Deserts Hearts vibe is so special because of its remoteness and intimacy,” says Spencer Samson, the proprietor of burritos and smoothies at Mozy Cafe. Because the grounds don’t feel cramped, attendees aren’t suffocated and they are able to be more curious and are willing to share themselves with one another. A smaller festival means that you see the same person over and over and can turn a fun interaction into a meaningful relationship.

2. Have A Unifying Creation Myth

First Desert Hearts

The First Desert Hearts in 2012. Photo by Co-Founder Lee Reynolds

“The third function of a mythological order is to validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of rights and wrongs, proprieties or improprieties, on which your particular social unit depends for its existence.” - Joseph Campbell

To create a naturally close-knit group with similar values, it helps to have a dynamic creation myth. At the first Desert Hearts there were three different tribes: Mikey Lion’s crew, Lee Reynolds’s crew and Kristoff Consciousness’s crew who was a 10 year Moon Tribe veteran. Everything was running smoothly, until the generator broke, and they were forced to spend the first night huddled around a fire in the cold. Their only option was to survive and bond. In Mikey’s eyes, the fiasco was a blessing. “Our very first sunrise was a supreme sense of victory and we felt like we were all in this together because we made it through the night in the Mojave Desert,” he remembers. “Holy shit we are a family!”

Since that time the crew has always related to their community as a family. Retelling the story helps them craft the culture and enforce the group’s shared values. The story was then told to the world in an excellent article by Jemayel Khäwåja of Thump.

3. Build An Online Community With Love and Strategic Targeting

Desert Hearts Facebook

From Desert Hearts Facebook Page. Photo by Wobsarazzi

“We Are All Desert Hearts”

The entire branding and community-building aspect of Desert Hearts was accomplished via Facebook. They didn’t have an email list, they just created a public event and invited all of their closest friends. Instead of framing themselves as a promotion company, they just started talking to people as if they were family. They came up with the line “We are all Desert Hearts,” which inspired everyone to get on board with the groups ethos from the very beginning.

As the festival grew, Facebook marketing allowed the Desert Hearts crew to fine-tune its targeting to speak directly to the type of festival-goer they thought would resonate with the event’s mission. Desert Hearts targeted people in San Diego, LA and San Francisco who liked house music and who’d been to Lightning in a Bottle or Burning Man . Their target audience was already familiar with Burning Man and had a working understanding of party principles like Leave No Trace and Radical Inclusion.

Desert Hearts also relies on the support of a secret Facebook group. Mikey calls the group “the most insane party pros in San Diego. If we’re going to throw a party and we post there, I know we’ll have at least 200 party starters who are going to create an unbelievable vibe.”

4. Inspire Your Press

Desert Hearts 2015 Galen Oakes 1

Desert Hearts Spring Festival 2014. Photo by Galen Oakes

“When journalists experience the passion behind the movement, they inevitably become not only spokespeople but members of our family.” - Max Frieser

When Max Frieser is at his computer pitching all day he sees a clear distinction between publicists and writers – but out there with Desert Hearts everyone is equal. There is no media wristband or press area. There is no cell service or wi-fi which means no one is busy sharing Desert Hearts with the world. Instead, everyone experiences it together.

“I am right next to all the journalists grooving until the the sun comes up,” says Max. “That’s what makes this event different than any other, and that’s why I have become so deeply enthralled with its message and members.”

5. Honor the Land

Desert Hearts 2015 Conner Coughenour 1

Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. Photo by Conner Coughenour

“On a whole level of their own, we want to give a tremendous thank you to the entire Los Coyotes Band of Indians and their amazing Tribal Police for allowing us to gather on their sacred land. You've put a lot of trust in our community and we can't even begin to describe how grateful we are for allowing us to come together and jointly create magic on your land. As we continue to grow we promise your community will grow right alongside us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts takes place on the beautiful Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. Producers often throw celebrations on reservation land because they don’t need permits or the involvement of traditional law enforcement. The tribal police officer was friendly and welcoming, which enhanced a feeling of safety. “He has been amazing to work with and has our back one hundred percent,” says Mikey.

The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians are one of the poorest tribes in California, suffering from generational poverty exacerbated by their remoteness. Desert Hearts is conscious about supporting and employing their hosts. “If our community can grow, we want their community to grow with us all the way,” Mikey says. The producers have also set up a fund for a youth sports program from their environmental impact fee.

6. Invest in Your Artists

Desert Hearts 2015 Juliana Bernstein 3

Piece by Caro. Photo by Juliana Bernstein

“My job is to become an energy and imagination extractor for the community and myself, and report on a canvas with paint.” - Artist Matt Milano

Part of the magic of festivals is the presence of inspiring art. Watching a piece come to life before your eyes utilizing the vibrant setting can be a transformational experience in itself. Mountain, one of the curators of the DreamScape Collective, sees other festivals taking advantage of artists. In other environments, he’s observed meager support, no pay and far too high of a gallery commission to make financial sense for participating artists.

“What we’re trying to do with Dreamscape Collective via Desert Hearts is set the standard,” he says. “Co-creation is key.” His partner Darcie Odom adds, “These artists and volunteers for DreamScape are quickly becoming family.”

A similar process was replicated with out groups throughout the festival with careful artistic curation and support for vendors, holistic healers and performers.

7. Curate Risk

Desert Hearts 2015 Juliana Bernstein 2

Photo by Juliana Bernstein

“I’m willing to give up a little bit of safety in order to have a more authentic experience.” - Joseph Pred, founder of Burning Man’s Department of Emergency Services.

In order for attendees to enjoy and express themselves, risk must be curated to eliminate real danger but allow festival-goers the freedom to have thrilling experiences. This involves comprehensive emergency services and a culture of people looking out for each other.

RGX Medical provides medical services to 30 festivals around the world. “It is always a beautiful experience to work an event like Desert Hearts,” says RGX Medical psychological crisis specialist Erica Siegal, “where there is a very low incident rate of medical emergencies and the community is mindful of everyone's safety and really takes care of each other." Everyone is looking out for one another at Desert Hearts, and it shows in the way people are able to express themselves and connect with each other.

A serious concern in the festival scene and society at large is the issue of women’s safety. I personally noticed a refreshing lack of creepiness in the gathering. Mikey explains why he thinks this is so: “The vibe is of such pure attention, that it breeds out people who don’t get it. The intention is so good. There have been a few instances but there has never been a sexual assault or something of that nature. It all comes from the heart.”

8. Capture the Magic With Dreamy Photography

Desert Hearts 2014 Galen Oakes   013

Desert Hearts Spring Festival 2014. Photo by Galen Oakes

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” - Ansel Adams

Desert Hearts happens twice a year and Galen Oakes has shot six of them consecutively. When he first attended he was blown away by the festival’s tiny size, curation and attention to detail. He went by himself and at the end of the weekend he had 30 new friends. He noticed that a certain personality came through in all of his shots.

Galen’s photography has helped to grow Desert Hearts because it encapsulated a singular feeling. All the attendees and their friends saw beautiful photos of each other having an amazing time – and are thus inspired to bring magic of their own to the next Desert Hearts.

“When those images go out they inspire people to seek the same feeling when they attend,” Galen says. “The photos help them continue to live in the spirit of Desert Hearts and in fact helps their memories form.” In this way, capturing the magic early on helped to preserve it.

9. Ditch Your Ego and Get Fabulous

Desert Hearts 2015 Conner Coughenour 2

Photo by Conner Coughenour

Desert Hearts 2015 Locz Ilens

Photo by LOCZIlens

“Treasure Kitty was wearing these fully bedazzled shoulder pads. It was the funniest shit I’ve ever seen. Wow, that is fabulous, you are so creative and amazing and you’re pulling this off right now. We want people to get as freaky and weird as they possibly can. The fun aspect of being yourself to the fullest degree.” - Mikey Lion

Inclusivity is key to creating an incredible vibe. And if you want everyone to feel included you have to ditch your own ego. It might be tempting to let success go to your head and form a cohort of cool kids, but this is a sure way to lose your scenes openness.

“I don’t even worry about the whole ego thing because our crew is so grateful to have the opportunity to share this love and this magic,” says Mikey. “We aren’t worried but we do stay conscious. If we do develop an ego it will take away from the vibe.”

“Desert Hearts embraces and exemplifies what it means to truly be an inclusive festival,” says Mountain. “There's no hierarchy, no different colored wristbands, no VIP. We're all equal, we are family.”

As the festival has steadily grown, being inclusive and maintaining the right vibe has required a focused process of acculturation. This means there is a good ratio of engaged veterans able to encourage and assimilate curious newbies. The veterans are open and invested in welcoming newcomers and showing them the ropes. This process also happens before and after the festival in Desert Hearts’ online community.

10. Embrace the Vibe

Deart Hearts 2015 Roy Huerta 1

Desert Hearts by Roy Huerta

“Vibe: A distinctive emotional atmosphere; sensed intuitively.” - Urban Dictionary

When we attend a festival, we seek social interactions where we can let go of fear and bond with each other. These connections feel good because they transcend the illusion of separateness that fuels our insecurity and mistrust. If we feel safe and supported we are able to bring our best selves to the table and create a positive feedback loop. This is what we in the festival world call “the vibe.”

“You know when you hug someone and they are on that level and they have an open heart and you can feel that full-blown energy of your bodies?” Mikey asked, “That’s what we’re trying to do with the festival.”

In this environment, we are able to surrender to the moment and enjoy free, spontaneous play. We all tune in to one vibration, we drop our boundaries and thrive. “Vibe is extremely important to us because we want as many people as possible to tap into this consciousness,” Mikey explains.

Desert Hearts is a Model, Not a Solution

Desert Hearts 2 Year Anniversary Festival Video by James Earl Joint

This is an endorsement of Desert Hearts, but there is a much bigger opportunity here than to add something to a festival bucket list. In fact, as the event’s popularity grows and it is kept intentionally small, it may become more difficult to get tickets.

Instead, consider the example of Desert Hearts to be a call to action. Let's utilize these technologies and apply them to our own theme camps and party crews to brew our own micro-festivals. Let's honor our own special vibes and the creators in our tribes, and build something precious for our communities.