How throwing raves helps me grow
When someone asks what I do for fun, my most honest response is “throwing raves.” It typically gets an interesting reaction in the professional DC circles I run in at my day job! The word “rave” itself is a provocative term once used by our current president to associate “underground” dance music culture with criminality. Despite any social misconceptions, organizing legal house music events or “raves” is a large and joyful part of my life that has also led to significant personal growth.
Earlier this month, my partners Spencer and Manoj and I put on Canyon Vibration, a 600-person two night campout rave in a forested canyon two hours outside my hometown of Portland, Oregon. As someone who’s been involved in dance music culture for two decades and been going to raves since the age of 15 sheerly for the love of the music, the event was one of the proudest things I’ve ever been involved with. Over the weekend, a few attendees asked “how did you start doing this?”, which made me reflect on what this all has meant to me. I wrote this article to tell the story behind Occasion Vibration’s eight year journey in hopes it inspires others to do similar crazy things and to explore its contribution to my personal development.
When I got married eight years ago, I thought my wedding was my life’s one opportunity to throw a big dance party. It did not occur to me that it was possible to put on large scale dance parties without it being a full time job or life event. How would you convince a venue to let you do a show? What if you want a different sound and lighting system? How do you get your favorite DJ from overseas to play? How do people find out about your event and decide to come?
These were the questions Spencer Miles and I pondered together eight years ago during our lunch breaks prior to starting Occasion Vibration. We had gotten to know each other while working tech day jobs at the same office, discovering we had similar taste in music and that we were equally dissatisfied with Portland’s electronic music scene. One night while out at a music event we decided on a whim to go for it and buy professional DJ gear together with the intention of throwing our own events. I already had a mix series / podcast called “Occasion Vibration”, so we went with that name without overthinking it.
We threw our first party in December of 2014 for 40 people in a ballet practice studio. It was a humble beginning with painfully long stretches of empty dance floor. There were good moments, but we needed more people for a critical mass of dancers. We also needed to play the right music to maintain it and there wasn’t a cohesive musical flow in the night. Spencer questioned whether DJ’ing in public was really for him, but together we vowed to try again.
And try again we did, again and again for about 40 or so shows over the next eight years. Each event learning from our mistakes and making it slightly better than the last. We found another venue, Produce Row Cafe, which had just reopened and was looking for ways to get more people through the door. On their acoustically ideal patio, we figured out how to make a four point sound system we rented for $300 to sound as good as any other club sound system in town. Those who went told their friends, including the ones who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as house music fans. By the end of the year we found ourselves able to consistently get 150 people to a show with just local DJs on the bill. It was a lesson in persistence and finding scrappy ways to make great things happen.
Our trajectory changed in the fall when Spencer befriended Massimiliano Pagliara (“Massi”) at Panorama Bar, the house music room in the world infamous Berghain nightclub in Berlin. Spencer convinced Massi to come play our party on a patio for a friend’s rate. We had no idea if we’d make the money back, but we took a chance hard and promoted the hell out of the show. I remember being on the dance floor with Spencer during the intro song of Massi’s four hour set on the Produce Row patio. Tears welled up as the dream of showing our community one of our favorite artists anywhere in the world materialized in front of our eyes.
The audience of our party changed that day. It became broader, but it also increased their expectations on the level of performances at our events. We owe it to our community and ourselves to book the best and most musically aligned talent we could find for every show, not just our friends who support our events. DJ’ing is a joy that is fortunately easier to access than ever, but the consequence is there are so many who attend events and if you throw a good one everyone wants to play it. It’s required growth on my part to get better at setting expectations and boundaries around this.
Spencer and I also felt increased expectations on ourselves. We needed to become better DJs if we didn’t want to look like incompetent fools next to the Panorama Bar residents we were increasingly booking thanks to Massi’s introductions. By necessity we became more skilled at beat matching, level monitoring and track selection. It also forced us to dig deeper for new music as well as pursue edit making and production. At times our tastes diverged and we needed to get on the same page. To keep that fun, we did weekly back to back DJ sessions where we literally integrated our music collections and talked candidly about what we thought would “work” at a party. Music is a personal thing for people and it can feel weird to be told by someone whose taste you respect that they don’t care for what you’re playing, but getting to that level of candor is a growth experience that’s translated to other areas of my life. It also resulted in Spencer and I being able to seamlessly play “back to back” with each other, a tradition we enjoy to this day.
Relationships with venues continued to play an important role. We were already used to creating our own spaces and didn’t want to be just another night at a club we weren’t inspired by. We aspired to show people a whole new way to experience the music. After a year or so of throwing events we were proud of, a bit of luck fell into our lap. A couple approached us at our show right as doors opened and told us they loved our music and had no idea there was a house scene in Portland, then asked us if we wanted to throw an all night campout rave in their 170 acre hazelnut orchard in Newberg, Oregon. It took us about a tenth of a second to agree and out of nowhere, “Orchard Vibration” was born!
As we started to throw overnight campouts and 300–400 person all night warehouse events, new levels of risk and responsibility became apparent. We learned financial lessons when we lost a couple thousand dollars at our first massive event. Physical risk is a whole different category of stress, though. We’ve gotten reports of people acting inappropriately at our events, including people considered friends, and then had to figure out how to respond and proactively message to prevent such occurrences. There’s an expectation that we create as safe of a place as possible, but we had to figure out where our own lines were. It was there I learned the importance of ensuring the people you work with share your values, especially with staff you’ve hired to upload them (i.e. security).
Safety has been at the front of my mind since the first warehouse rave I attended in Portland at the age of 15. Someone died at that first event, seemingly from an ecstasy/MDMA related incident. At the time, I didn’t understand how that drug worked (I wasn’t that cool of a kid!) or how deeply that drug is embedded into dance music culture. I assumed they had “overdosed”. I now know that people die of under hydration or over hydration (flushing your electrolytes) related to taking ecstasy/MDMA, but I honestly don’t think many people who chose to take this substance understand that. Nor do many of them understand that there is potentially fentanyl in any powder drugs these days and you should always test if you’re going to use. Rather than policing our attendees for drugs, we take a “harm reduction” approach, which is proven to be the most effective way to mitigate these harms. We’re still working on the best way to communicate these risks to our community, but Dance Safe is an effective non-profit organization we look to for guidance in this area.
With all these risks of large events, why not stick to small ones? There’s certainly something to be said for the intimacy and simplicity of small events. However, large events have a special feeling to them when they go well and they provide the financial headroom to fund grander visions. Bigger artists. More artists. Separate rooms. Lasers. And even entire canyons. We met the property owner of Canyon Vibration at a small gathering in 2020, who was regularly hosting 2,000 person festivals on her family’s ranches before the pandemic. We lucked into the right timing and they were willing to take a chance on us as the world returned to in-person events.
Doing a festival (or “campout” as we prefer) on this scale brings in a host of considerations. By leading 600 people to Tygh Valley, Oregon, we essentially quadruple the town’s population for the weekend. There’s no way around the fact that it impacts the local community. For that reason, the event requires a “mass gathering permit”, which involves a 40-page plan outlining security, medical, traffic, sound volume, traffic, fire safety, food, sanitation and more. Even with years of experience throwing events under our belts, it was a daunting task for Spencer and I to handle in our free time on top of an already enormous production. We needed the help from a promoter who had done events on this scale and also shared our values, and that person was Manoj Matthew. With Manoj’s 30 years of experience throwing raves on our side, we were able to pull together that exhaustive mass gathering plan, vet it with the county planning department and present it to the county commissioners in person at the Wasco County courthouse. The county government’s pro-business outlook was encouragingly receptive to us and it went through without issue.
Between the infrastructure required by the county, staffing, top-notch sound, lighting and DJ talent, the costs of the event crept towards six figures. Fortunately, pre-sale ticket revenue paid for our expenses as they were incurred and we didn’t need to invest any of our own money in the event. We scrutinized every cost to lessen financial risk and did as much as possible ourselves to lower costs. We shared in the legal risk of the endeavor and, for that reason, sought legal counsel to advise on insurance, waivers and corporate structure to reduce our risk exposure. Perhaps the biggest risk we felt from any direction was around fire safety, so we instituted and communicated a “no flames of any kind” policy.
After months of weekly meetings and planning, we loaded a truck full of rental equipment to the site and arrived a day early for setup, a truly de-stressing pro move advocated for by Manoj. We set up two stages, the main stage and the downtempo tent, as well decorations led by our creative director Spencer Russell. Spencer brought a tie-dye aesthetic that was consistent across our flyer, merchandise, DJ booths, and even pillowcases in the downtempo tent. He also set up numerous projections around the site, including one a couple hundred yards long on the canyon walls, essentially recreating the logo designed by our friend Evan Geltosky. Seeing these professionals put their hearts into the aesthetic of the event was a lesson in what’s possible when you give talented people free reign to do their thing.
As ready as we tried to be as gates opened and guests started to arrive, things inevitably didn’t go to plan. Manoj and I were in constant communications on radios for the first 6–10 hours of the event putting out non-literal fires. Vendors were late, guests reported significant issues, staff wasn’t on the same page, etc. It’s stressful times like these when values and the bonds of partnership are tested, but when they hold up it develops an increased level of confidence in each other that allows for even deeper trust. Despite this being my first event I’d ever put on with Manoj, after that first night I knew I’d found a partner for years ahead. Lesson is to always pay attention to how people show up when the going gets tough.
Once things were in motion, the subsequent days of the event were easier to manage and I was able to focus on what was truly special about the event: the community. It took reminding by people unfamiliar with our events to remind me how different the vibe is from larger festivals. The crowd was not unfamiliar with each other and most had been coming to our events for years. The vast majority of attendees probably knew at least 10 people at the event, if not 30 people. The level of intimacy and familiarity results in responsible behavior, as evidenced by no significant incidents reported to us this year. Not having to police our attendees like children is truly what makes this sort of endeavor manageable for us. It’s a reminder to ourselves not to lose sight of this as we grow the event at a gradual pace.
There’s no denying to myself that a huge motivation of throwing events like these is an opportunity to DJ and leave a musical stamp on a unique environment you helped create. I booked myself to play the sunset slot on day two from 6pm-9pm. After opening with some weirder, dubbier tracks, I kicked up the energy to 130–135bpm as the sun set and the lasers engaged. I played several tracks I was into when I went to my first raves in high school 20 years ago that I had never found the right moment to play out before. The memories of hands in the air dance floor euphoria while playing 10+ of my own edits is something I will truly never forget. It was my favorite set I’d ever played and the high point of anything I’ve ever been involved with musically. (you can hear it below)
After 30 years of putting on events like these, Manoj doesn’t mince words about the effect an event like this can have on those involved. “It changes people” he told me as we sat together in peace after a day of tearing down the event. It made me think back on the countless people who have told me over the past eight years that they “found their people” through our Occasion Vibration events. Making friends as an adult in their 30s can be challenging. These sort of events that bring together kindred spirits through the mutual love of house music really do have an impact on people’s lives, especially coming out of a dark period of pandemic isolation. As someone coming out of a year dealing with divorce and terminal illness of a family member, the impact of the event was especially palpable to me this year.
As well as the event went, it’s not as though we didn’t make mistakes. Many are obvious to us, some are not. We proactively ask for feedback after an event like this and receive actionable insights like “an additional/healthier food truck option would be great” and “I’m disappointed there aren’t shirts that fit me”. Some of the feedback can be a little pointed and it can be frustrating to feel like people are upset with you without understanding the full picture. Responding to that feedback can be a lesson in removing your own ego and defensiveness to be open to someone else’s experience. It requires balance between hearing people out and sticking to the principles you know are important to the health of the community and event. A balance between listening to who you’re trying to serve while accepting that you’re never going to please everyone all the time.
It’s with these values and lessons that Spencer, Manoj and I intend to hold as we evolve Canyon Vibration and improve it year after year. The clarity we all had at the end of the weekend on how to do that makes me optimistic that organizing events like these will continue to be a positive force in our lives and those around us. I hope that others reading this who dream of doing something similar find this useful. The path we took is not for everyone and originated from a place of relative privilege, but some of what we’ve learned feels universally applicable. Spencer, Manoj and I are at a place where we’d love to pay it forward by talking through how to make your rave vision a reality, so hit us up if you’d like to chat!
Peter Marks is the co-founder and a resident DJ of Occasion Vibration and Canyon Vibration. When not throwing raves, Peter does political and government tech work professionally. He bridges these two interests in his podcast, Rhythm Nation, which airs on Portland’s KBOO radio station.