How The Hell Can Desert Hearts Maintain that Perfect Vibe?
Next year Desert Hearts will sell out the same day tickets are released. The music, venue, vibe and community are all just too good. For California’s fabulous House and Techno weirdos, Desert Hearts Spring Festival is the start of the season. It sure is cold at night in the Los Coyotes canyon but the the days are warm and lush. The vending is top of the line, and hell, even the soup is unique and transformative. Not only that, but the secret is out. With the Desert Hearts crew’s successful City Hearts Tour and stage takeovers from Symbiosis to Mysteryland, people know that the boys from San Diego (and by boys I most definitely include Papa Lee) have something everybody wants: a perfect vibe. So with everywhere cool from Berlin to Burning Man getting co-opted and diluted, how on Earth will a 4,000-person festival in Southern California guard its unique blend that everyone wants?
The Mythic Vibe
I first attended Desert Hearts in 2015, seduced by stories of a mythic vibe. I wasn’t even much of a House music fan at that time. After a raucous festival weekend culminating in a Sunday evening of ambling about eating cocoa beans dressed like a wizard I knew the place was pure magic. I wrote an article, “10 Ways Desert Hearts Got that Impeccable Vibe” about the mix of ingredients that I believed made the event so special. In fact those lessons have helped to guide my assessments of all festivals since then. No small feat.
In a short period of time, Desert Hearts has become a place where festival professionals come to party. Part of the vibe is about trust. When you know that you are safe, when women feel safe, when the venue isn’t skulked by law enforcement, you can really get loose. There’s a delicious silliness at Desert Hearts in part because there is a sweet sense of safety that #WeAreAllDesertHearts and we’re looking out for each other. The paradox is that a great vibe must feel inclusive, but an event with limited capacity will outgrow itself at some point.
Atish, who famously played Connect 4 while DJing this year’s event, observed that as communities scale, the vision that the founders originally fostered tends to get diluted or lost through the growth process. However, Desert Hearts is still his favorite party.
“After playing my seventh Desert Hearts, I find myself feeling that same togetherness, quirkiness, love, and support that I felt the first time I played for them in 2013,” he said. “They've held onto the core of what the festival is all about, which is commendable. One of these days I'd love to pick their brains on how they went about doing this, because surely there are some things that other communities (both inside and outside of dance music) can learn.”
I took Atish’s advice and picked co-founder Mikey Lion’s brain about how Desert Hearts plans to keep the the vibe moving forward.
The Supply and Demand Challenge
This year Desert Hearts added 800 people and sold out. Are you going to grow? Has the vibe changed with the extra capacity?
Mikey: We were worried that this one might be the breaking point as we’re getting more people but it ended up being the best yet! We’ve hit the perfect size. I don’t think that we’re going to go any bigger than where we are right now. Where we are going bigger is with City Hearts, which is way more accessible. The festival is a special thing out in the middle of nowhere. It’s our family reunion.
Do you and the other co-founders have a plan in place if you sell out on the first day next year and people can’t get tickets?
Mikey: “I was actually hoping that we would sell out on the first day this year but we only sold half the tickets. In fact, I’ve been 80% sure of that we’d sell out on the first day for the past three years! But if you’re there on the first day you’ll be able to get one. What would we do if our community can’t get tickets? We’ve thought a lot about that. We would be willing to do back to back weekends like Coachella. It’s not off the table.
The Cool Kid Challenge
Do you worry about Desert Hearts becoming a “see and be seen” event?
Mikey: I have see zero concern about that. Definitively zero. The people that go to Desert Hearts are the people that are really meant to go. They’ve been planning on it for a long time. When tickets sold out it the people that were actively searching for those tickets made it happen. The people who come are the people who want to be here the most.
The Charismatic Leader Challenge
Are you a charismatic leader?
Mikey: “Desert Hearts is our crew, it’s the community, it’s the record company, it’s the idea. Everything that Desert Hearts is is because of everyone. At the same time, the leadership sets the example and sets us apart. I’ve been the spokesperson and overall ambassador of the brand along with Lee Reynolds, so taking the lead on the way the movement is going is something I’ve always been passionate about. It wouldn’t be the same if any of the leaders left, like if Claude left DirtyBird. It would change the whole dynamic. Lee is the ultra charismatic character of the bunch. Marbs is the backbone and the soul. Porkchop is the wildcard and there’s that whole family dynamic. Kristoff is our hippie roots, without him there would never have been a Desert Hearts. We set an example by how we treat each other.
Are you concerned about burning out?
Mikey: That was the main reason for not doing the fall festival. [Editor's note: It remains to be seen whether there will be a Desrt Hearts Fall Festival in 2017.] We got into this because we were DJs and wanted a place to DJ out in the desert. We want to be making music all the time. Now we’re delegating so much to our community. One of the main things that Desert Hearts does particularly well is empowering all of the different crews to take charge of their own departments. Whether it be Red Artery (parking), Artist Hospitality, or the Trash Pirates, they all have their own culture that they bring to Desert Hearts which collectively creates the vibe.
The Impact Challenge
How relevant is a vibe that only affects 4,000 people? How are you spreading the gospel beyond sunny Southern California?
For this question Marbs offered an answer over email: “I guess our main goal is to keep tightening our communities in each region. The City Hearts project is allowing us to build foundations around the world where we can start to do the same thing as we did here. The goal is tighten each community wherever we go and to welcome the opportunities each community provides for us to become closer, stronger, and more creative. We believe in organic growth and taking opportunities as they come rather than force them and everything seems to be falling in its right place to continue to spread love through music and human connection.
Can the Desert Hearts Vibe Teach Other Festivals?
Mikey: The biggest, most vibed-out party of Symbiosis was when Desert Hearts took over. We want to be doing more festivals but we need to put the team in place. It’s all about putting the team together.
Mayan Hearts wasn’t a Desert Hearts party because we didn’t produce it. We want to relinquish control as much as we can but if it’s not in the hands of someone who’s been with us and knows the culture of Desert Hearts it won’t work.
In a perfect world what would Desert Hearts look like in five years?
Mikey: My ultimate goal is to get the music and label and vibe to the world house music scene. We have so much love to give. I always thought that we’d to keep the festival the same vibe. All that vibe. Our festival will always been our homecoming. It resets the vibe for the rest of the year. I would love to take over Europe and spread this vibe of love around the world.
Marbs: For our Southern California festival the goal is to keep it relatively the same size, but continue to empower the community that has grown with us to be more creative, sustainable, and community-oriented each and every year. Which goes along with our theory of it becoming more of a "Family Reunion" than "the next big festival."
We Are All Desert Hearts
At the end of the day, there is an intimacy at Desert Hearts found at no other festival. Perhaps it is the one vibe which emanates from the throbbing heart, the nutritious soup is prepared, or simply the kindness endemic to a desert family. Whatever the exact recipe, this intimacy makes us feel like we can really trust each other. We are all Desert Hearts because we are truly all one. Even in an era of increasing uncertainty, walls and boundaries, this little party at Los Coyotes continues to help us remember that we are all one family. It sounds like it’s going to stay that way.