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The music festival that wants to know your deepest secrets
Arkadia is a truly unique event. That's a problem.
Burning Man has long been accused of facilitating cult worship. You’ll certainly find varying levels of cult-like activity on the fringes of the Playa, from wannabe gurus pontificating on the nature of existence while tripping on LSD to billionaire camps surrounded by paid bodyguards.
This is indicative of cult worship inside of an open-source structure. Make no mistake: Burning Man is a business, and it has developed quite a monetization model. There might be cults of worship in the upper echelon. Yet I can buy a ticket, or enter a lottery to buy a ticket, and offer up nothing more than than my credit card number and email address.
The same holds for Coachella and the dozens of other music festivals around the world that have achieved cult-like status, as well as the thousands of smaller iterations that crave such adoration. In reality, the Burning Man Project is a large nonprofit that pulled in $46M in total revenue in 2019, whereas the AEG Presents-owned Coachella raked in $114M in 2017—and AEG is definitely a for-profit company.
Like Burning Man, buying a ticket for any music festival is pretty straightforward: credit card number, email, phone number. On occasion, producers will try to mine additional data, perhaps to sell you an alcohol wristband and cycle you through a drip campaign to purchase more swag. This model has persisted in my 30 years of attending, performing at, and producing hundreds of music festivals and shows. Festivals were, for a time of my life, my life, and they’ve all been iterations on a theme.
Then I discovered Arkadia.
What are you really buying (into)?
At first sight, Arkadia looks like any other Burning Man Afterburn: the low-rent Android Jones graphic; Lightning in a Bottle-style yoga offerings; a line-up filled with quality DJs, producers, and songwriters you’ll often find on the Playa: The Glitch Mob, Desert Dwellers, Random Rab, Dirtwire, Emancipator.
Dig a little deeper and find the festival is being held beside Wyoming’s Snake River in the sleepy town of Alpine (pop: 828). Scroll a little further to find the first
red pink flag.
Apply for tickets?
Is this post-capitalism or hyper-capitalism? Capitalism on
Scarcity and privilege are well-known marketing techniques—so much so they’ve become a bit like internet ads. Your eyes gloss over them, numbed to the persistence of their reality. That’s the danger of the status quo: you become blind to manipulation because you’ve grown accustomed to everyone trying to manipulate you.
First I’m told that real people are writing the words on the application I have to fill out in order to
be roped into an organizational pipeline attend a musical festival. I’m instructed to be big, wild, and honest when spending $1,111 on a concert before I shell out for lodging, airfare, sustenance, whatever spiritual tchotchkes will be on sale when I arrive.
I’m warned that the organizers are going to hug me.
I’m instructed not to be safe.
This actually fits into the ethos of the producer behind Arkadia, Fit For Service (FFS), whose leader, Aubrey Marcus, has advocated for “dangerous freedom.” Eschew safety; embrace sovereignty—that’s been the driving mission of the many tentacles spreading out from the Onnit founder’s platforms since the beginning of the pandemic.
There’s also a clear through line connecting the featured speakers that FFS has assembled, one that champions individual liberty over collective sheepishness:
Matias de Stefano, a self-proclaimed channeler who reads Akashic Records (a kind of supposed ethereal journal of everything ever), which is a term coopted from Sanskrit by theosophists and later made famous by anthroposophy founder, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s Waldorf schools are rooted in pseudoscientific ideas—which he called “spiritual science”—as well as white nationalism and fascism. (Waldorf schools have also been criticized for being notoriously anti-vax, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Charles Eisenstein, a philosopher whose essay, “Mob Morality and the Unvaxxed,” linked vaccine protocols to Nazi Germany while promoting the work of anti-vaxxers like Peter McCullough, Sayer Ji, and Joseph Mercola. Eisenstein’s publisher, North Atlantic Books, vowed to donate proceeds from his four books to charitable organizations that they believe he harmed in this essay.
Zach Bush, a hospice & palliative medicine specialist who espouses pseudoscientific ideas about autism and terrain theory. Because he doesn’t believe germs cause disease, he’s become a darling on the anti-vax circuit. His rambling sermons seamlessly blend COVID disinformation and flights of fancy about bodily sovereignty, which he then monetizes at his clinic by selling unproven treatments such as hydration respiration, phase angle measurement, and emotion code.
Aubrey Marcus, who has platformed noted anti-vaxxers on his podcast and created a supplement kingdom with Onnit, which he sold to international conglomerate Unilever in 2021 for a likely nine-figure price tag. Marcus appears to be focusing his energy on FFS after the sale, as well as his Onnit gym and Black Swan Yoga, both located in Austin.
A theme emerges when you jigsaw the Venn diagram of these speakers: bodily sovereignty, a vague notion of “freedom,” questioning the “narrative,” and anti-vax rhetoric, which will all likely be on display in Wyoming.
Show up for a concert, find yourself in a revival tent.
Thing is, the organizers will already know why you’re attending the festivities, which makes Arkadia truly unique.
Applying for what?
Back to the application. I’m offered a postscript.
In order to “apply,” I’m roped into the marketing downline of a “full temple reset” ($4,444) and a “league of queens” ($3,333)—and, I suppose, all future FFS events. Ok, not surprising: I can’t get off of Ticketmaster’s damn email list no matter what I click. But concert producers and ticketing agents don’t ask me about my “intentions.” They just want my money.
They do sometimes desire my Instagram handle. This information is one of the few non-required fields on the FFS application, though I’m told that the organization likes to “follow, share and tag our members!” I’ve worked content marketing for enough companies to know that fielding social media info is usually done to identify key influencers (see: Fyre Festival) or find beautiful people (see: Coachella), but sure.
After giving up the basics and preferred pronouns—laughable, given Marcus’s close relationship with anti-trans “comedian,” JP Sears—I’m confronted with a series of questions that are, in fact, required.
What makes you uncomfortable?
How do you manage your emotions?
What is your ultimate dream?
How do you want to better yourself?
How do you deal with and resolve conflict?
These questions read eerily close to those used by organizations like the MLM cult, NXIVM, whose ringleader, Keith Raniere, reportedly leveraged collateral from prospective members to keep them tethered—and quiet. This technique isn’t unique to Raniere; it’s a classic blueprint for inviting and then confining members inside of an inner circle.
I’d expect to answer such questions when searching for a psychotherapist. I could also imagine filling out this form if I was specifically joining FFS.
But to attend a music festival? I’ve performed with and remixed some of the artists in this line-up. Do they really know what they’ve been booked for? And are they okay with their image and art being used so that FFS can mine such intimate data from their fans?
Arcadia was home to the Greek god, Pan—the deity responsible for wild nature, music, and an intimate relationship with nymphs. His mythology appears to have evolved from earlier pastoral deities, making Arcadia a natural home, given its reputation for harmonious wilderness. Geographic seclusion lends Arcadia a certain autonomy of imagination: a haven where humans can freely frolic with nature, free from the evil machinations of medical and governmental interference.
What better place to reconnect with the “trillions of viruses” present in the soil and atmosphere, as Zach Bush frames it: a wild, untamed and unvaccinated gathering on the banks of Snake River in the idyllic haven of Alpine. Wyoming also happens to be one of the least vaccinated states in the nation (only Alabama ranks lower) because “we don’t like being told what to do.”
Who knows what dangerous freedom attendees will find themselves in while receiving free hugs from people who’ve catalogued your deepest dreams, your ambition for self-realization, your conflict resolution skills?
Returning to the wild seems to be a calling card for conspiritualists, who bounce marketing collateral for unproven supplements, contrarian podcasts, and vague spiritual services from satellites straight to the computer that never leaves your hand.
On that device you’ll find the “required second part of the application” within an hour of submitting the first—to attend a music festival. FFS will have vetted your financials: did you check off the box stating that you “absolutely!” have the resources to attend, or that you do “but…” or that you “don’t yet” have the money? (This is a great example of a dark pattern, another common marketing technique that we're often numbed by.)
FFS will also have confirmed that you’re cool with having “clearing conversations” because “your essence may intentionally or unintentionally affect another member in a way that needs healing.” They want to know that you’ll take “radical responsibility” for yourself and be willing to “have difficult conversations,” even, perhaps, while The Glitch Mob is dropping the set you showed up for on the banks of Snake River.
For an “experience” so loaded with symbolism, let’s conclude with the flier that might inspire your journey in the first place.
My wife asked why a woman would be tattooed across her nipples, the very place that gives and sustains life—and if you watch the promo video, you’ll know the opportunity to return to the “innocence of the child” is what you’re really purchasing when schlepping to Wyoming. The baby, coddled by a large-breasted woman with a jukebox head and whatever faux tribal symbolism the quasi-eagle with roach clip earrings is supposed to represent, searching for empty nourishment.
My wife isn’t disturbed by the image, just amused. She’s watched men leave their mark everywhere her entire life, as have most women I know. And what better way to market this tribute to the wild polyamorous god, Pan, busy scarifying the latest victim of his trysts on the banks of Snake River to help you finally achieve the freedom and sovereignty you’ve been chasing your entire life—if you can afford the price of entry.