By Alec Figueroa and Lindsey Shay
Given its reputation as Southern California’s flagship summer festival, HARD Summer really dropped the ball this year. We've been faithful followers of HARD's vision since when we first attended the Gary Richards-founded company's events years ago. After first noticing changes in the way HARD was run in 2012, we needed a little reassurance that the event and community were moving in a positive direction.
This year’s HARD Summer plateaued what forward momentum the company was making, and sparked a flame of unfaithfulness in a formerly unbreakable bond. While we don't think our time with HARD has ended for good, we might have to embrace a bit of a healthy hiatus.
At least the lineup was really good. Oshi played Sunday at the Purple Stage, which was one of our favorite stages, delivering a performance with creative live mixing of extraordinarily unique music. I was looking forward to this set and wasn't disappointed whatsoever.
Lil Uzi Vert, another one of our must-see acts, jumped on right after -and that was crazy. We haven’t seen a crowd get so active in a while, which is probably a sign of the more hip-hop heavy audience HARD is attracting in recent years. Slushii’s performance debut came at the Green Stage, and it was definitely a killer set, especially when Skrillex came out and joined him during "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites." Ghastly followed his set up with a super bass-heavy and grimy house set, keeping the Green Stage very active on Saturday.
Anderson .Paak's set served as a late-afternoon cocktail of mixing and flexing refreshment. Reflected in the varied influences of Paak's performance itself, the HARDer stage transformed into a geographical and musical convergence of the five stages' most outstretched electronic roots, as .Paak was carried along by support from The Free Nationals and a growing crowd of fans both old and new. It was live HARD Fest at its best, in a way that was both nostalgic and inspiring.
Maybe it's the familial persona he brings to every stage, but Justin Martin certainly seemed at home at the Pink Stage on Saturday. As he later shared on social media, he greatly appreciated the opportunity to bounce from genre to genre with minimal metric warning.
And, happily, it was welcomed - by the sunset shufflers, techno heathen, '90s babies, and a couple of kandi kids as well. Martin is the everyman; come one come all.
With his growing back pocket of festival slots, I had feared that Mr. Carmack's sets could become stale amongst repeating crowds from the venues he frequents. But, apart from the audio shortcomings at this particular performance, it is simply not tiring hearing these massive cuts played out loud and live, especially when his quality catalogue of songs to select from grows at an enviable rate. By this point in the day, the crowd had proved their salt enough to truly contribute what it means to be in a Carmack crowd.
AC Slater played two sets on Sunday, ensuring that the sound of his Night Bass imprint was a dominant thread of the weekend. HeRobust took EDM to its extremes, bringing out some insane transitions and proving the virtue of his name. Baauer also brought crazy good, hard bass music. Major Lazer put on one hell of a performance with live percussion, dancers, and special guests like Ty Dolla $ign. It was a great way to close out the festival.
However, the biggest commonality of the lineup was its last-minute cancellations. Saturday headliner DJ Khaled cancelled, for instance. Frankly, we don’t know why they booked Khaled, since he launched his album on the East Coast the same weekend and only travels by bus - did they really think he would make it in time when they booked him?
Mura Masa cancelled, as did Desiigner. Boys Noize was delayed, but still went on. The saddest of all was the absence of Jackmaster, the preeminent don of the record label Numbers and London scene legend, a true producer’s DJ, who would have closed Sunday on the Pink Stage. In his stead, Ghastly made an encore performance.
On the bright side, the cancellations allowed some rising stars to shine. Manila Killa received a much-deserved festival slot, hopefully the first of many, as his Moving Castle collective must have been inundated with offers after that set.
A surprising amount of chatter online and around town tended to lean towards bedroom producers discovered on SoundCloud and made famous by niche L.A. party throwers like tastemakers Brownies & Lemonade. It almost appeared as though HARD found it vital to piggyback on the outside interests of the fringe electronic dance music markets. While this is altogether exciting for the underdog players in the game, it comes as a shock from a company with such an admirable history of being an influencer.
The acoustics this year were near their lowest, following some minor successes in recent seasons with the increasing presence of indoor stages. With only two outdoor tents to be found this summer, I found myself wandering endlessly through the crowd at each stage searching for an aural sweet spot that never manifested.
The highlight of audio ambiance arose from a brief stint in the Smirnoff House, hosting more intimate musical sessions with some of the lineup's more multi-dimensional acts. It's a little disheartening that my preferred area of the speedway had (likely) very little influence from the folks at HARD altogether, and leaves guests overall uninspired by the festival's vision as a whole.
Site and Safety:
Navigation easily overshadowed the lineup in terms of biggest disappointments during the weekend. While the speedway appeared initially dubious, it quickly changed from provoking to debilitating. The bleachers' entrances and exits were consistently shifting and rarely redemptive. Unfortunately, guests were rigidly shuffled from stage to stage instead of meandering freely between opportunistic sources of sound.
For some reason, the Green Stage was placed outside the speedway bleachers, meaning that to get to and from it, you had to cross through the bottleneck of the bleachers which sometimes attracted a line that lasted ten to twenty minutes. For waiting time to move within the festival after having already gotten in, that’s unacceptable.
We had a pretty smooth enter/exit process, but from what we’ve heard, exiting and exiting the venue were awful for many people. Last year was just as bad. The lines to get in on the second day were so long that festival staff offered free waters to waiting patrons as some had passed out from the heat.
On that note, how could you put no shade structures on a site this hot? We refuse to be less critical of the lack of health precautions made regarding common festival safety issues so readily remedied at so many other music events. Hard has plenty of experience catering to these kinds of commonplace issues, and the temperature increase from moving inland should've encouraged the team to take even greater precautions.
Most importantly, though, there were three deaths this year. That’s three more than there should have been. The festival itself may or may not be to blame, but they certainly could have done more to prevent these tragedies.
The Long and Short:
Good music won’t make up for treating your fans like a herd of molly-munching cattle from which you only desire to wring profits. At other festivals - even in previous editions of HARD Summer - we would see reaction to the situation on the ground (like how they decreased the price of water bottle from $5 to $2 last year). We don’t take pleasure in writing this, but we have to be honest: For a lot of us, HARD was our first festival, but also for a lot of us, this HARD will be our last.