Certain critics like to compare anything with burgeoning popularity to a bubble that is about to burst, like the housing market or '90s-era Internet real estate. Music festivals are not immune to this scrutiny, being more popular than ever these days. In 2014, Billions, one of the largest booking agencies in the country, pegged nearly 850 different festivals in North America alone, part of a ballooning industry worth billions.
Now some anticipate that popularity to explode in our face, but others would argue festivals aren't dying out—instead, they're evolving. While mega-corporate festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo try to cover every base by splattering every genre possible, mini-festivals are thriving by focusing on niche audiences and giving attendees more than just hazy, drug-addled memories to leave with. Some, like Lightning in a Bottle or Arizona's own (now on hiatus) Firefly Gathering, aim to be "transformational," advocating for community building and self-actualization on top of the "good vibes."
That's where Gem and Jam Festival comes in.
Gem and Jam is held in conjunction with the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, where you can see everything from ancient meteorites to ichthyosaur skeletons to loads and loads of turquoise. There will be live painting and trippy art galleries, dancers and, of course, the festival still offers the usual glut of pulsing, electronic marathons, but also this year includes workshops like "Sacred Plants for Lucid Consciousness" and "Gung Fu Tea Ceremony."
While some of this may sound like New Age, self-help bullshit, the point isn't whether you agree with the philosophy or not—it's about projecting some level of self-awareness and giving attendees more to chew on instead of just big name entertainment. It's about turning consumers into contributors.
Gem and Jam Festival's varied lineup—more than 55 acts across three stages over a three day weekend—often reflects the values of a festival that seems to be trying to be more than just a bunch of simultaneous concerts.
If there were a prototypical musician on the roster, it would be The Polish Ambassador (known to his mother as David Sugalski), an electro-funk musician/DJ who mixes his stems on the fly while wearing his trademark neon jumpsuit. The Oakland producer's 2014 album Pushing Through The Pavement, featuring guest appearances by Mr. Lif, Saqi and others, typifies the kind of conscious music Gem and Jam seems to be pushing for.
The Polish Ambassador, half Polish himself, has come a long way from when he first wrote Diplomatic Immunity, his debut album, almost a decade ago. At the time, he was a part-time university student living in Chicago in a $300 a month bedroom, where he ticked away the hours making nerdy synth pop, circuit bending kid's toys to make weird sounds, going to bars, trying to get with the ladies and, as he put it, "failing quite miserably." After working on the music for a Microsoft video game, Sugalski was able to pursue music full-time.
"Today, I live out on a farm in the Sierra Mountains, rarely drink alcohol, build lots of things with my hands and am creating lots of music with live musicians and recording sounds from my nearby environment," Sugalski says.
In 2014, TPA successfully crowdfunded the Permaculture Action Tour, hitting 33 cities between San Francisco and New York. Almost every show was followed by an "action day"—a community-led effort for community service. Some action days drew hundreds of people, others drew as little as fifty.
"We've built Earthships [houses with minimal reliance on public utilities], planted fruit trees at elementary schools, created regenerative landscapes for low income urban residents, created food forests, the list goes on and on. We've had about 50 action days around the country over the last year and half," Sugalski said via email. "A couple months ago in Denver about 1,000 people came out to throw down and help a homeless community relocate their entire garden to a new space, a garden that had been purchased by developers and was about to be overrun with heavy machinery."
A documentary, Pushing Through the Pavement: A Permaculture Action Story, was made about the 9,000-mile tour, which includes over forty interviews with experts in sustainability. Sugalski says he plans to continue practicing action days as he tours in 2016, but there is no word yet where there will be an action day after Gem and Jam.
"I'm super interested in harnessing the power of human energy to create positive change in some way. Thousands of people are attending music events and festivals al around the world. Why not co-create some beauty together before or after these events?" Sugalski said. "It feeds me in a big way, it's super rad to connect with fans in a meaningful way, and well, there's a receiving that can happen when you are in service."
Of course, The Polish Ambassador is only one of many artists at Gem and Jam, but a good portion of the other headliners share a similar philosophy. For example, so-called "enthnotronica" trio Beats Antique tour in an eco-bus that runs entirely on recycled vegetable oil. Nahko and Medicine for the People writes empowering folk songs about Mother Gaia, but also champions movements like Project Survival Media, a media network focused on surviving climate change, as well as Honor The Treaties, an organization dedicated to giving indigenous cultures a voice.
But to say that "transformative" philosophy is the core of Gem and Jam might be a stretch—at least for now. Currently, the core is the music and the event itself. You don't have to advocate anything if you don't want to and if your only concern is finding a festival to get fucked up at and dance all night, the festival provides that sort of fun, too—and there's nothing wrong with that.
Provided is the progressive funk of jam-band Lettuce, the psychedelic dub of Ott., the acid jazz of Mark Farina, and Michal Menert of Pretty Lights Music. Tycho will perform a DJ set (if you listened to, or better yet witnessed, his Black Sunrise DJ set at Burning Man 2014, you know this isn't to be missed). Likewise, Gem and Jam will even have late night shows soaring all the way until sunrise.
Now in it's tenth year, Gem and Jam is in a unique place. While its attitudes are shifting toward a smarter, futuristic mentality of education and sustainability, it's not preachy about it and doesn't shove it down your throat. Whether you interpret festivals to be a place where you can "find yourself," or party your ass off or hear triptastic jams to make your head explode or even learn a little bit about how you can consume less and enrich your community more, Gem and Jam has a little of all of it.