written by Ariana Assaf
More than pretty much anything, I love being able to talk about my favorite music festivals. Lucky for me, my work at Festival Squad allows me to salivate over lineup announcements, aftermovie releases, and surprise guests almost constantly. And though I am no stranger to the EDC empire headed by LA event company Insomniac, prior to this year’s festival season I had yet to experience EDC firsthand.
All that changed last month at EDC New York, where I worked as a Ground Control team member. Ground Control is a subset of the Insomniac organization whose focus is on keeping attendees “happy, healthy, and hydrated” by providing free water and patrolling the grounds to ensure the general health and well-being of all patrons. I was fortunate enough to meet Ground Control founder Laura Newton, and talk to her about how she came up with the idea that has played such an important role in shaping the Insomniac event experience.
The first Ground Control team assembled at Beyond Wonderland in 2011. When explaining the factors that led her to pursue the idea, Laura focused mainly on her upbringing. “My parents and my brother work in the medical field directly, so I grew up with that…wanting to help people in terms of their well being. There’s so many different routes to take to help somebody,” she said, citing high school personality tests that suggested she’d be a good fit for social work, “but this is the path that I fell in to in order to make that happen for me. This is just my way of giving back to the community. It’s how I was raised. Going to parties and concerts when I was younger, I was always on the lookout even before we started this Ground Control concept.”
That community really took shape at her very first festival. Laura attended folk/jam band fest Strawberry Music Festival when she was 16: “It’s this super hippie dippie awesome crowd of people in tie dye…just a bunch of retired Dead Heads, you know? Imagine banjos and people dancing with no shoes on and long paisley dresses. I was totally in heaven. Everyone would say “Happy Strawberry!” when you walked by, it was bliss. I’ve never been so happy in my life, and I thought at the time that that was just inherent Strawberry.”
She realized upon attending her first Insomniac event that that culture of positivity and happiness extended into other musical cultures. “It was at EDC LA 2010 that I suddenly fully understood the concept of the festival community, and that it transcends cultures and different types of music…it’s just a common love for live events, and it’s incredible. It was kind of uncanny timing because of events that occurred at EDCA LA 2010.”
The events she’s referring revolve around the unfortunate death of a young girl who over-ingested MDMA, resulting in severe overheating and dehydration, heart attack, and ultimately death.
“It was tragic. Something terrible happened, and it sparked a movement and feelings in a lot of people. I honestly think that even if EDC LA 2010 had gone perfectly, Insomniac would have come to the Ground Control concept very soon anyway, just because of how popular the shows and the festivals were becoming. It’s important to have that extra customer service support regardless, but I think I came in to the scene and got to know the right people at the perfect time.”
Laura first pitched the Ground Control concept with a lifelong friend and her father Bryan Meckelborg, a friend of Insomniac’s Production Director, Bear. Bryan and Bear then helped her pitch the idea to Insomniac’s founder and CEO Pasquale Rotella, who “loved the idea right away. He totally picked it up and wanted to meet me in person, so I went out to Audiotistic 2010 about a month after EDC LA. I hung around command post, talked to different agencies, did my homework, we waited a few months and launched a team for the first time at Beyond 2011.”
A delicate balance has emerged between being strict about the use of illegal substances, and putting safety first when drug-related incidents do occur. Especially when such use becomes a serious health hazard, Insomniac focuses on providing aid rather than doling out punishment. “Due to the RAVE Act we’re unfortunately really limited in the harm reduction practices that we can offer, but we’re moving in the right direction. At entrances we have MDMA alert flyers posted, letting people know that we have a zero tolerance policy, but we’re also trying to raise awareness about how dangerous illegal substances are, and that they’re not tolerated inside the event. We absolutely do not recommend that people ingest because of how dangerous they are.”
As safety measures at large events become increasingly scrutinized by both active participants in and observers of the scene—especially those catering to the electronic music crowd—Ground Control stands as a strong force in helping to keep the party going in the safest and best way possible, with Laura as the ultimate caretaker at its helm. “When you first bring in a large group of individuals in uniform, people don’t really know what to think of them, regardless of how friendly and welcoming they are to attendees. It took some time for people to really trust us. The concept that we have to try and fight is that if you give someone help, they’re going to get in trouble. It took a while for people to trust that what we say is true, and that we really are there for their well being and with the best intentions. The biggest challenge that we have is letting people know who we are, getting that word out.”
Thanks to Laura, every person at every Insomniac event has access to judgment- and cost-free on site medical care. Though it’s taken some getting used to, she’s working hard with other Insomniac staff and Ground Control team members to spread the word. Those heading to EDC Las Vegas this weekend (and anyone planning to attend one of Insomniac’s many stellar events in the future) are encouraged to turn to Ground Controllers, identifiable by purple shirts with wings on the back, for assistance or information.
“We really raise awareness that it’s important to help your fellow ravers, your brothers and sisters, and let people know that just because someone is a stranger, it’s still OK to lend a helping hand,” she said. “Self responsibility is important too, staying hydrated and being prepared. Especially EDC Vegas, you don’t want to go to that event unprepared. We put the message out there, and the more team members who have worked with us and share those messages, the better off we are.”