Remember that time I wrote an article about the then in-utero concept of a major music festival in Florida other than Electric Daisy Carnival or Ultra? The time I predicted that having 30,000 college kids camp out next to a lake with the highest concentration of alligators in the entire state was a campy horror movie waiting to happen? Well, as it turns out, although some 60-odd people got busted for various offenses, most of them drug related, no one has reportedly been maimed by a hungry reptile. Which would have been an especially awkward occurrence had the hypothetical maiming taken place during Skrillex’s set. Can you imagine? (R-r-r-r-REPTILE. FATALITY! Oh wait but really guys where did Fred go because I just saw an alligator over there…)
While festivals—even big, established, grown-up festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo—are infamous for their organizational woes, often resulting in weekend-long disasters like food and water shortages, lack of transportation, and even the occasional drug-related death, Okeechobee somehow avoided such issues even in its first run, managing to please both critical tastemakers and festivalgoers alike.
How did they do it? The first key to their success had to be the cap they placed on attendance. 30,000 seems like a big number when you’re reading it off a page, but compared to existing music festivals currently on the circuit, it’s a pretty modest bar, and likely to keep things at a level one might describe as “manageable chaos.” As opposed to rival Florida attractions like Ultra, which at is zenith in 2012 hosted over 150,000 people, Okeechobee seems like the definitive lesser of two evils, and comparatively a breeze to keep under control. The same cap on attendance that gave the event its signature relaxed, inclusive vibe also serves to give the festival an aura of oxymoronic accessible exclusivity. As in, you don’t have to pay an obscene amount for a ticket—a three-day pass clocks in at around $280 for general admission, which is chump change compared to what you would shell out for other big-name events—but the vibe of the entire weekend remains communal, friendly, and non-judgmental in nature.
That was the other magic ingredient festival planners added to the mix to make Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival stand out from the crowd in the best possible way, the Chemical X, if you will, which complemented the dazzling lineup of acts like Mumford and Sons, Skrillex, and Kendrick Lamar chilling on the main stage. That element, kids, is what we like to call “keeping it local.” In case you haven’t noticed the explosion of micro and craft breweries, so-called “gastro-pubs,” and indie markets cropping up around the nation, keeping it local is, like Hansel, so hot right now. Like drinking out of Mason jars, owning “distressed” furniture, and replacing every fluorescent in your home with those Edison bulbs (don’t lie, you know what I’m talking about you sheep) patronizing local and small businesses, listening to local music, and generally associating yourself with the perpetuated persona of your given state is what all the cool kids are into these days, and Okeechobee proves that on a massive scale. Aside from hosting beloved local acts like Gainesville’s Hundred Waters, OMF also got the Floridian stamp of approval by offering both locals and sojourning travelers from around the U.S. a taste of the Sunshine State, offering famed Cigar City brews, various local food vendors, and crafts from local artisans. And let’s not forget the most Floridian demonstration of the entire festival—the location itself. Nestled amongst the palmettos and Spanish moss, OMF gave out of staters a 1950s-era postcard view of old growth Florida, complete with (manufactured) white-sand, lake-side beaches and (misleadingly) gorgeous weather.
Plans are already underway for next year’s event, which is sure to feature even more headliners, collaborative “PoWow” sets, and Elton John sunglasses. If you were a prior skeptic like myself, you might want to buy tickets and book hotels early next year, assuming camping isn’t your thing. Maybe Okeechobee’s wild success was a one-off. Maybe next year the heat and mosquitos and alligators and irate anhingas will descend. But maybe, just maybe, someone struck gold on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.