LECTURE: Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

December 20th, 2010 by acjohner

Transformational Festivals and The Industry of Experience

Lecture for Professionalism in Anthropology

AC Johner

Sections taken from Chapter Proposal for Graham St. John’s:

“CFP. Weekend Societies: Electronic Dance Music Festivals and Event-Cultures”

When we go to see a movie at a theater, we are paying for an experience.

We are taken to places in movies that we are not able to venture in the real world. Our field of vision becomes sweeping crane shots through the lenses of dozens of cameras capturing multiple angles of selective focus. We are drawn into the narrative of the characters, guided by the sonic engagement of millions of dollars worth of studio-engineered sound effects, and gripping choreographed videography swinging us all around the stage of players in the story. Through the amplification of sensory imput- with sound and picture technology- we forget the screen is even there separating the theater from the action.  A film not only mimics life, it amplifies it beyond the ordinary.

The film industry, sporting events, Broadway shows, fan conventions, health spas, and yoga retreats are all in a way similar. Emotional encounters are in demand. What is being marketed, requires active participation in an event that engineers an anticipated set of emotions.  It is this package of emotional experience which we are actually paying for when we buy tickets, entrance, or membership to one of these events.

Of the more thought-provoking industries of experience in our modern world are electronic music festivals. Akin to the experience of film, electronic music festivals celebrate immersion into an aural and visual playground of empathic pleasures. Through sonic entanglement and visceral chemical rapture, techno carnivals offer a unison of music, magic, humanness, and for some, a personal transformation.

Most of those who attend electronic music events will claim it’s more than just a party. Participants attest to experiences of ecstasy, communal and cosmic oneness, therapeutic healing, and spiritual awakening.

Many attendees will identify the events as sacred gatherings, the dancefloor as a hallowed ground, the music as extraterrestrial, and their personal stories of attending electronic events as a spiritual quest.

The electronic music culture is a modern day quest culture. Quest cultures find themselves both collectively and individually engaged with the task of seeking new rituals, religious structures, mythologies, and above all, new meaning.

In recent years, the popularity and growth of festivals within the electronic music community has aided in the expansion of the spiritual dynamics of the group.  Events like Burning Man, Symbiosis, Rainbow Serpent, Boom Festival, and Lightning in a Bottle, are centered around ritual, co-creation, community experience, and participatory art, thereby enabling the expansion of the event beyond the stage, music, and dancers.  Such events offer workshops, yoga, ceremony, installation art, and community bonding activities.

While electronic events engage individuals with what many participants consider a genuine spiritual experience, large portions of the culture have sought to further engage this dimension of the rave and convert it into a source of religious transformation.

The rising popularity of events deemed “transformational festivals,” such as California’s Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, and Wanderlust are expressing new commercial potentials of the “transformative experience” through pharmacological, sonic, luminescent, and event technology.  Offering such experiences at the cost of an event ticket, transformational festivals are a modern recalibration of Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous line “buy the ticket, take the ride.”

More than becoming just another new church, or organized religion, transformational festivals retain their image as a form of marketed entertainment.   Events are advertised, tickets are sold, and elaborate entertainment is erected.

The transformational festival arose out of rave culture’s high-tech pleasure playground of musical rapture, hyper-sensory stimulation, and group ecstasis.  While traditionally raves were known for marketing communal ecstasy as a form of entertainment, the transformation festival advertises itself as a life-altering experience, one that fulfills a deep spiritual need.  Is the transformation festival a commodification of spiritual experience, of deep love, communal ecstasy, and self-healing?  We traditionally think of a commodity as a good or service produced to be bought and sold.  In terms of the transformational festival, a “transformational experience” is the product on the market.  Is this a new amusement park of transcendent love and communitas?  Or is their emergence foreshadowing a loss of the sacred and the emergence of a new form of ticketed religion?

Throughout my years investigating the social movement of electronic music, and the rise of transformational festivals on the west coast of North America, I admittedly anticipated their crusade would congeal into a beautiful, counter-cultural movement and would bring about tremendous change in the rest of world.  I expected these small transformational events to soon include the general public, generating free events in impoverished urban areas, music parks in ghettos, and a strong organized army of activists in constant pursuit of transforming the ecology of our world for the better.   Of course I was young, hopeful, and full of idealisms.  The year 2012 had been prophesied by the more evangelical of the transformational community to mark the birth year of their emergence as a legitimized human movement of social and ecological change.  As the date came ever nearer, the parties got bigger and better, as well as their production value and the elaboration of the spectacle. As far as changing the world…well…everyone still seemed to be waiting.  As the 2012 due-date came and past, the culture had emerged into mainstream appeal as they had all anticipated, and right on schedule with the Mayan doomsday.  Yet, the armies of activists out to change the planet were too few to make a scene.  The culture transformed as expected, but into something that I had not anticipated all those years of research…a big business.

While Reality Sandwich author, James Orac, offers several distinguishing differences between the transformational festival culture and the counter culture of the 1960s, another major difference Orac does not mention, is that the movement of the 1960s had been rebelling against all forms of capitalism, commodification, and big business.  Everything back then was free; free love, free entry into Woodstock, free gatherings, free music.  Hippies were uprooting from the machinations of currency and the economy and creating free communes, free art, growing free food, and interested in generating free energy.  While the transformational festival culture began with the same liberated discourse of breaking away from the “system,” the culture has instead shifted its perspectives towards participating in the global economy, and mainstream world as a legitimized industry with market potentials that were sure to attract big investors.

The transformational culture is driven by an economy of elaborate hand-made festival clothing, high-priced art, lavish events priced for the posh, and luxurious spiritual retreats. The group is among the few that began trending gifting circles, social groups advertised for acceptance, healing, and rejuvenation through communal support.  Participation in gifting circles comes at a high dollar buy-in cost; you pay to play, and your membership and success in the circle is dependent upon your ability to recruit others to buy into the larger circle; akin to pyramid schemes however propagated as sacred therapy.  Like their “gifting circles,” the transformational festival culture requires an entry fee, not only for admittance into the event, but for participation in the larger community once the cost of lifestyle is added into the equation.

More than selling food, clothing, and musical entertainment- “transformation” is also on the market.  Transformational festivals advertise themselves as both the high-tech pleasure playgrounds of conventional electronic music events, as well as an amusement park of transcendent experiences filled with workshops, classes, ceremonies, chanting, and often a promoted ethic of community, openness, and sacred intention. Transformational festivals offer ticket buyers an “experience,” as indicated on their

Many websites such as Lightning in a Bottle’s, will host a category called “experience,” or “offerings,” under which one can find the events musical line up, a list of workshops and classes, speakers, or scheduled ceremonies.  The “experience” is defined as of  “Oneness,” “community,” “belonging,”  “ecology,” and “self-transformational.”

Below this heart felt invitation is a red button with the words BUY TICKETS inscribed in bold, with a bright red click-box behind it.

Of course this sort of marketing is not unfamiliar too us.  While it may be the first time we have seen it used in the marketing of entertainment, it seems to have first emerged in other spiritually oriented markets.  Kimberley Lau, author of New Age Capitalism defines the rise of the new age market as a response to an increased pursuit towards health and wellness.   The self-proclaimed spirituality of alternative health practices catalyzed the transformation of such practices into commodities, thereby giving rise to the new age market.  This market seems to have been on an upswing in recent years with the spread of yoga, raw-food dieting, and campaigns for “greening” everything.  Along in the same bracket, we find the emergence of these new age festivals which are growing in popularity among millennial and the next generation of youth.

The presence of spiritual language, value listing, and self-branded culture-production exposes more than an underlying intention to sell tickets and make a buck.  While we can argue that the direction of transformational festivals and other old or emerging new age markets are consequential to culture on a whole, we can just as easily explore the genuine interest in pursuing spiritual change and cultural revitalization which is also expressive in the market dynamics of these event.  In either perspective, positive or negative, a new industry is emerging and is meeting an existing demand.

While the websites, as well as the festival gates, require an individual to purchase a ticket in order to engage in the transformational “experience,” entry-tickets are not the only major cash/experience exchange happening at transformational festivals. Patrons purchase body-work, such as reiki and massage therapy. They pay for healing crystals, flower essences, and psychedelic substances.

The monetary exchange for substance induced altered states of consciousness is another exhibition of the cost of transformation.   Transformational festivals are psychedelic events.  While the word “psychedelic” is rarely advertised at these events, at least here in the United States, the festivals are inspired by, and engineered for drug experiences. The psychedelic ingredient is an implicit requirement of full immersive exposure to the “experience” of the transformational festival. Psychedelics, and empathogens like MDMA, play a significant role in creating the sense of euphoria, ecstatic bliss, unity, and empathy; catalogue offerings of the transformational festival. While directly producing emotional and psychological states, the substances themselves are purchased.

The exchange of hard currency for a drug which produces a psychological and emotional states exhibits a microcosm of how transformational culture has grown to perceive experience as a commodity. Individuals in the culture are already predisposed to this sort of market exchange in order to engender transformational states of consciousness.  The transformational culture is rooted in the material. Not only are their experiences of spirituality rooted in the physiology of trance and ecstasy, experiences are most often produced chemically with substances, vibration through speaker towers, visually with projectors and screens, and enhanced by lasers, LEDs, and sonic entanglement through electronic music mixed on a computer.  The culture produced at these events reverberates deeper and stranger ties with technology, often through a techno-mysticism. Perspective of the spiritual as an engineered production of ecstatic technologies develops an ethos within the community that is rooted in a direct form of spirituality, homogenized as a science of emotion.  The assemblage of “experience” is so push-button, and systematical that the “transformational” culture which grows up around these events perceives spiritual experience as an engineered man-made object.

Within the context of transformational festivals, the word transformational may often seem an uncanny replacement for the word spiritual. While we find ourselves caught in the landslide secular argument of being “spiritual but not religious,” the participants of this community are seeking a new way to express spirituality and spiritual experiences beyond the boundaries of religious discourse, while maintaining a sacred identity.

In our modern world, individuals are seeking spirituality for personal development as opposed to narratives of dogma, connection with omnipresent entities, second comings, prophets prophecies, soul-selling, and life-devoted religious traditions.

People are seeking the life-hack for spiritual growth.  They want enlightenment in a pill, or a simple technique they can squeeze in on their lunch hour.

In the book Holy Mavericks, Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere suggest that the success of any religious group depends upon the market dynamics of their individual economies, their ability to customize their image- as well as core teachings- in order to conform to the religious demands of society; conforming to a transforming culture, as opposed to transforming a conforming culture. The authors bring to light one significant aspect of organized religion that most fail to recognize- supply and demand.

Society needs salvation, a sense of solidarity in a higher purpose or function, a sense of feeling okay with the way things are, as well as the rhyme and reason of why.

It seems that today, the popular contention accepts spirituality as natural need and function, while religion is merely an optional carter- among many other delivery systems gaining popularity- ones that have do with the body, breath, brain chemistry, social communion, or sex as opposed to the traditional codex of a prescribed dogma. It is through these secondary and physiological outlets of the extraordinary that a new spiritual marketplace is growing within the United States.  If spirituality is a basic human need, why would it not also become a commodity along with our food, water, and basic utilities for survival?

Selling experience, and marketing spirituality is historically customary in the United States. Through secularism, and dilution of national identity, and an increasing interest in the self, have moved society further and further away from traditional forms of access to spiritual experience, and opening them towards new alternative methods less focused on dogma, belief, or rigorous practice.

A new form of spirituality is emerging today, one that is reoriented towards self-indulgence, self-admiration, productivity, the accumulation of profit, social success, and therapeutic healing. The concept of God is being internalized, sought as part of an individual’s make-up; endowing them with powers of self-creation, or control over success and social wealth.   All of this is yet packaged within creeds of amalgamation with larger systems of social, ecological, and cosmic ecologies. The self as seen as an intricate part of the fabric of the larger universe, with self-improvement and self-care perceived as sacred practices through a biological harmony of mental and body health.  Individuals are seeking classes, cleansing products, new diets, styles of living, and forms of identity, which are believed to confirm an embrace of the sacred.  The new spirituality of our capitalist society is one that is market-driven, and consumer oriented.










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