WILDWOOD – Electronic dance music festivals could be back on the Wildwood beach this summer. Even the thought makes many business owners want to draw a line in the sand.
If the discussion at the Wildwood Board of Commissioners meeting on Wednesday Jan. 27 is any indication, the latest proposal for 2016 faces more controversy.
“I’m not going to hurt the town,” said Mayor Ernie Troiano. “I’m not an EDM guy … but if I can bring people in this community and it’s not a problem, I’ll do that.”
In December, the organizer of the previous EDM beach festival, BeachGlow Concerts for Charity, sent a proposal for an electronic dance music, or EDM, festival to be held on July 8 and 9 to city officials.
The Wildwood Board of Commissioners has not exactly rejected the idea, but instead decided to look at other options as well. The three-member board unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday, Jan. 27, that would authorize a request for proposals for beach concerts for 2016.
Few details were available at the meeting about the proposal, or whether or not the concert would take place on the weekend proposed.
Jack Morey, co-owner of Morey’s Pier, expressed his concern on behalf of the business community during the commissioners meeting.
“I just don’t understand why we continue to look at risky events in peak season when the town is screaming with young families – I just don’t get it,” Morey said.
Underage Drinking, Drug Use, and Vulgarity
In 2014, the Wildwood Business Improvement District, Boardwalk Special Improvement District, Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Wildwood Hotel/Motel Association, and the Greater Wildwoods Tourism improvement and Development authority wrote a letter to Troiano expressing concern about the EDM concert held on the beaches.
The letter questioned the need for big concerts during the summer when families crowd the boardwalk and the city is already packed with visitors. The business leaders also suggested moving the concerts away from the beaches.
Those opposing the EDM festival since the 2014 event also took issue with alleged cursing, underage drinking, illicit drug use and lewd behavior during the concerts.
In 2013, The New York Times reported that between March and September, seven people had died at EDM concerts, in connection to the use of the synthetic drug known as ecstasy. Some who attend concerts take ecstasy pills or pure MDMA powder, which is often referred to as “Molly.”
Earlier that month, New York City shut down the Electric Zoo EDM Festival after two concert goers died in connection to drug use. In 2014, similar deaths occurred at an EDM concert in Las Vegas and Toronto.
“It’s not unusual for young kids to die at these events. I don’t think Wildwood needs to be in the business, I don’t think it should be in that business and I think it’s an act of desperation that is really, really, bad decision,” Morey said.
In 2015 Will Morey, president and CEO of Morey’s Pier, also wrote a letter to Troiano citing multiple police reports of underage drinking from the 2014 festival. Among them, one police officer reported assisting a, “highly intoxicated female minor,” who was “lying in her own feces.”
Commissioner Pete Byron said at the recent meeting the Wildwood police chief previously testified that reports of such behavior were exaggerated.
“If it was as bad as you alleged, which it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t even be sitting here right now,” Byron said.
He didn’t deny the swearing, though but said they would work to address it. The mayor noted that there would also be a “kill switch” on the microphone to cut off performers swearing.
“But I remember when they let the devil’s music into Wildwood – it was called rock ‘n’ roll. We look back now like it’s tame. But then it was the end of the world. How could you let this stuff into your town? I am not an EDM guy, this is not a 100 percent EDM concert,” Troiano said. “There’s going to be music other than EDM.”
BeachGlow wants to return
BeachGlow is mostly a family affair, according to Heather and Gerard Kunkle. The non-profit organization began after their then 16-year-old son, Dane, decided he wanted to combine his love of DJ-ing with charity.
Now in college, Dane still runs the operations of BeachGlow alongside of his parents. Dane, his family, and the organizations volunteers are completely unpaid.
In the past, BeachGlow has raised money for Haiti’s earthquake victims, breast cancer research, and for Hurricane Sandy survivors. Last year, they sponsored the Little Kids Rock program which helped provide musical programs to underserved schools in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
This year, they plan to sponsor the program again, Gerard said.
“[BeachGlow is] by youth, for youth, and using youthful music to get there. Which is today’s popular,” Gerard Kunkle said, adding that they hope to return to Wildwood.
“There was a time early on in discussions of those who opposed us [said] that we weren’t a charity … it was hurtful to have to go through that process of defending ourselves,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can come back to Wildwood … with a great event, great charitable cause and work with the community to bring great value to not only the festival but the city,”
The Kunkles say they’ve also worked to address previous concerns. Among them, they’ve added into their artist’s contract that swearing is prohibited and have enforced in.
“We’re a family business, we have really high morals, values, and standards – so it does hurt us when accusations that are untrue are made about us,” Heather Kunkle said.
Though they said they were embraced by Atlantic City, Wildwood also holds a special place in their heart.
During the 2014 concert, a hurricane hit the day before event, which meant BeachGlow set up during the storm. The Kunkles say Wildwood Public Works checked on them regularly and helped to drain water from the flooded beach.
“We went through a lot last year so for us to want to come back says something about how we feel about Wildwood,” Heather said. “We’re good people, the company and people who work for BeachGlow are phenomenal people. The only reason we’re doing this is to give back to charity and we’re trying to set the tone for the younger generation to do that as well. We’re getting smarter and better year after year we do this.”
Five years before the commissioners were elected; Byron said, Wildwood beaches were producing only roughly $8,000 a year. Comparatively, Ocean City generates more than $4 million from beach tags.
“We took a look at the opportunities the beaches might present,” Byron said, adding that revenue has gone up.
Over the years, Wildwood’s beaches had several concerts but nothing major until country singer Kenny Chesney drew a crowd of 30,000 people, in an event sponsored by American Express.
One of the benefits, Byron said, is that festivals then pay the city a fee as well as compensate for the services the city provides such as police and EMTs. The other, he said, involves drawing thousands to the city.
“Some of those people may want to make a few days of it, they want to eat, and when the event is over — they’ll go back onto the boardwalk or hopefully downtown,” Byron said.
He added that they’ve been in talks with other promoters about bringing other types of music – possibly country music – back to the beaches. He can’t disclose just what yet, he said.
Non-competes, or what Byron refers to as the “90 rule,” can make finding promoters or artists to play on the beaches difficult. When bigger artists play in Philadelphia or Atlantic City, often they are not permitted to play within 90 days or 90 miles of such venue.
Near both cities, Wildwood sometimes misses out.
“That’s what hurt us to a point. Having said that, we are looking at some big name acts. We’re keeping our fingers crossed but we’re really optimistic,” Byron said.
Byron said he and the commissioners felt that beach festivals and music would complement the entire town.
“Wildwood has an amazingly rich music history. All the big name people in the’40s and ’50s actually have played in Wildwood. We’re just continuing the legacy,” he said.
Though Byron hopes to preserves the city’s doo-wop roots, it’s been over 60 years since Billy Haley & His Comets played on Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re just bringing it to 2016,” he said.
Keith Forrest, a communication professor at Atlantic Cape Community College who teaches a course on popular music and radio history, said that the objections to EDM music are nothing new.
“At one time in our lives we’ve said to our parents and older generations, ‘You don’t get it,’” Forrest said. “You go back to Mozart and people were throwing themselves at him when he was playing the piano.”
Even the New York Times, he said, was among the first paper to describe Jazz music as leading to debauchery during the 1930s.
“Young people have been looking for ways to socialize for millennia. There’s nothing new there, it’s just the form changes,” Forrest said.
EDM not set in stone
In terms of EDM returning to the beaches, Byron said there’s no contract for 2016 – yet.
“If that [proposal] is accepted, any of the negatives that were attributed to that that were real – or sensationalized – will be addressed in the body of the contract,” Byron said.
Marry Bittner, city attorney, said that the contract is contingent upon the type of music and what the commissioners deem best.
“What has been decided for EDM is they found a location they think is best. For other types of music they might consider alternate locations. It depends on the proposal that’s received,” she said.
Though Morey said he felt better than two of the commissioners made a commitment to not place a EDM festival north of the Convention Center, he still believes the timing is bad.
“The community traditionally, all communities, they look for events in the shoulder season because that’s when the business is needed. That’s how the Baby Parade started, that’s how Miss America started – that’s how all these things that have become icon events started,” he said. “So I don’t buy any way shape or form that we have to let a promoter dictate to us when something has to be done. We can just say ‘no.’”
For now, the fate of EDM will go to a public bidding process. The next Wildwood Commissioners meeting is Wednesday Feb. 10 at 3:30 p.m.