Tracing the Peculiar History of the Modern-Day Techno Tourist (VICE)
The soft white glow of 9 AM daylight is streaming through the plastic windows of the smallest stage at Time Warp in Mannheim, Germany. Homegrown acts like Sasch BBC, Alle Farben, and Kölsch have been throwing down techno sets here for the past 11 hours, and Croatian star Petar Dundov is wrapping up the final half-hour of his live act, shooting staccato synths from a Drehbank MIDI controller at the few dozen festival-goers still vibing out in the half-empty tent.
A brunette in her mid-20s catches my eye with her tank top, which reads, "Einstein Was a Refugee." When I compliment her, she tells me she made the top earlier that day so she could wear it at the festival. Noticing her Australian accent, I ask her where she's from. "We are from Sydney," she says, gesturing to her boyfriend, who is wobbling precariously behind her with his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around her waist. "But we live in Dubai, and came to Berlin for a bender. So obviously we had to make the trip to Time Warp." She turns around and looks at her boyfriend with a laugh. "OK, he looks like he's going to die," she says. "I'm going to take him on a walk." They disappear into the sunshine.
Anna, an Australian who'd come to Time Warp after a Berlin bender. (Photo by the author)
The Australians—who didn't give me their names, so I'll call them Anna and Tom—are prime examples of the modern-day techno tourist. Unlike more conventional visitors, techno tourists aren't traveling to foreign cities for their dusty museums and mausoleums; instead, they're coming to party, with nightclubs, festivals, and other electronic music events as their destinations.
As one of the biggest and longest-running techno spectacles in the world, Time Warp in Mannheim is a prime gathering place for this particular strain of rave-chasing tourists, who have been making annual pilgrimages to the mid-sized city in Southwest Germany since the festival landed there for its second edition in 1995. (It was founded in 1994 in Ludwigshafen, a city across the Rhine river from Mannheim.)
Because it usually takes place in late-March or early April—this year's edition fell on Saturday, April 2—Time Warp is one of the main events kicking off the summer festival season. The 2016 lineup alone read like a who's who of the industry, with heavyweights like Nicole Moudaber, Nina Kraviz, Adam Beyer, Pan-Pot, Apollonia, Ricardo Villalobos, Carl Cox b2b Joseph Capriati, and countless others taking over six stages from 7:30 PM till 2 PM—with an equally celeb-packed private after-party at a local club running from 2 PM well into the evening.
The term "techno tourist" started gaining traction among academics and the media in the late-2000s, largely thanks to a book published in 2009 by German journalist Tobias Rapp called Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjetset. Rapp coined the phrase "EasyJet tourism" to describe how the increasing popularity of budget airlines in the late 90s and early 2000s helped create a new breed of weekend warrior attracted to Berlin's anarchic, post-Wall techno scene.
In an interview with Resident Advisor, Rapp pinpoints the moment, in 2004, when he realized that Berlin's nightlife demographic had irrevocably changed: "I was standing in the line of a club waiting to get in. I realized, 'Wow, all of these people around me speak different languages.' Nobody was speaking German. People from all over the world are standing in line to get in, and I'm the only German here."
Of course, the phenomenon of people crossing borders to attend raves is nothing new. As electronic music journalist and professor Luis-Manuel Garcia Garcia explained to THUMP over email, "techno tourism can be seen as an offshoot of a longer history of nightlife-focused tourism." According to Garcia, who has written repeatedly about this topic, kids like Anna and Tom are the contemporary version of ravers who trekked to Ibiza and Goa in the 70s and 80s to partake in countercultural dance music scenes. With one big difference: techno tourism has become big business in the intervening years, growing from a grassroots movement into a polished and corporatized global industry.
"These were relatively niche and informal tourism destinations that initially did not have a professionalized tourist infrastructure built around [them]," Garcia says, referring to how ravers in the 90s would often hop in cars, buses and trains to attend underground parties in nearby cities. "Very few of these events would qualify as a music festival in the way we understand them today."
Garcia and Rapp both point towards one factor that revolutionized the techno tourism industry between the 90s and today: the rise of cheap airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, which suddenly made traveling long distances for a sick party a feasible option for people with low budgets and lots of flexible time, like university students and young creative industry workers. According to Garcia, "[techno tourism] came into its own as an identifiable (and exploitable) segment of the tourism industry in the early 2000s," allowing people like Anna and Tom to go on their city-spanning benders.
Funnily enough, these tourists rarely identity as tourists at all, at least in the conventional sense. This is because, Garcia explains, the term has become associated with negative stereotypes—conjuring images of rude, culturally insensitive, and tasteless consumerists bound for Cancun or Mallorca. Therefore, "people will engage in patterns of travel that are clearly identifiable as a form of tourism, but will describe themselves with other terms that are have fewer negative connotations," such as "traveler" or "visitor," Garcia says.
His observation matched my experience chatting with people at Time Warp. Ranging from rave bros in matching emoji onesies to gurning hippie couples in their 50s, these attendees would eagerly tell me which city they'd traveled from—but unfailingly give me blank stares when I asked if they were tourists.
Regardless of how they label themselves, this new breed of techno tourists has had a significant impact on the cultural and economic fabric of Mannheim. When Time Warp landed in the city in 1995, Mannheim already had a small but vibrant electronic music scene, thanks in part to a legendary club called Milk!, which opened in 1990. According to Robin Ebinger—co-founder of Cosmopop, the promotions and production company behind Time Warp—Milk! was one of the country's most important incubators for breakbeat and jungle music, helping to establish the city as "the gateway in Germany for this kind of sound." Aside from Milk!, the city was also full of smaller parties, but Ebinger says many only saw one edition "because of a lack of structure and professionalism back then."
When the techno boom took over Germany in the early 90s—especially in Berlin, thanks to street parties like Love Parade and clubs like UFO and Tresor—"a lot of people tried to jump on the early techno wave," Ebinger continues. "Time Warp was one of only two events in the region that managed to unite the different scenes and musical styles back then, and create a meeting point for the scene."
Ebinger says that the festival has always attracted lots of visitors from abroad, and these days, the crowd is made up of 45 percent Germans and 55 percent foreigners, with the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands as the most popular European countries.Over the past two decades, Time Warp has grown from a local highlight to an international behemoth, with several editions in cities like Prague, Vienna, Milan, and Berlin. In 2014, the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with a multi-city tour, partnering with NYC production company TCE and South American power-player Martin Gontad to make its North American and Argentinian debuts respectively. (Dutch promoter ID&T became Time Warp's North American partner in 2015.)
But Mannheim has long been Time Warp's home base—specifically, a huge indoor hangar called Maimarkthalle that's hosted nearly every installment of the festival in Germany since 1995. Time Warp's two-decade-long tenure and the city's worldwide reputation as a destination for dance music fans are intimately linked. In 2007, when Mannheim marked its 400th anniversary, the festival was even selected to be an official part of the celebrations, helping to launch a new, seven-day electronic music and culture festival called Jetztmusik, which included free seminars with producers like Martin Buttrich, a rare live show by Underground Resistance, and a Milk! reunion party with the club's original DJs.
The festival's relationship with the city isn't always rosy; this year, many German media outlets, including our THUMP colleagues in Berlin, reported that local authorities searched an unprecedented number of ravers leaving the festival this year, resulting in a record number of drug seizures. But Ebinger insists that "we have very good relations with all officials and authorities in Mannheim. They appreciate our professionalism and work."
City mayor Dr. Peter Kurz echoed these warm sentiments when he told German music blog The Underground in 2014 that Time Warp "has been excellent publicity for... Mannheim," which was officially designated a "City of Music" by UNESCO the year before. (In contrast, Time Warp's New York edition has repeatedly run into problems with local officials; the festival was booted from its original venue in Brooklyn last year after protests from angry residents.)
Techno now seems woven into Mannheim's everyday culture, piping out of every car window whizzing by; during my early-morning cab ride to the festival, Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash" started playing over the radio, its unmistakable whispers of "ecstasy, ecstasy..." floating out of the speakers. The driver told me in broken English that all the locals like to go to the festival—he went twice in 2013-2014, and would go again this year, if he didn't have to work.
Taxi drivers are just one contingent of the city that enjoys a financial windfall when Time Warp rolls into town. In addition to bringing a degree of cultural cache, the festival is also a boon to the city's economy, with local hospitality, nightlife, and restaurant businesses all cashing in from its growing attendance numbers—attendance has ballooned from 2,000 in its first year to 18,000 in 2016, according to a Time Warp rep.
The festival's success has been the result of its ability to keep up with the increasingly professionalized dance music industry. Garcia posits that it was not until th end of the 2000s that the "longer historical path of large-scale, professionalized music festivals truly intersected with underground electronic music culture." The result, he says, has been that over the past five to six years, the existing techno-tourism industry has re-oriented itself towards massive dance music festivals. "The recent financial troubles of SFX"—which acquired Time Warp's North American partner ID&T in 2013—"raise some questions about how long this will last," he adds.
In addition to infusing local businesses with the financial rewards of techno tourism, festivals like Time Warp also have created a fertile market for entirely new enterprises. One such company is a boutique travel agency literally called The Techno Tourist. The NYC-based business was started by Mike LaGrotta and Sarah Belaidi, who build custom itineraries, book flights, and arrange accommodations for their raver clientele (which also includes DJs and members of the music industry), even offering services like private chefs and DJ equipment rentals.
LaGrotta and Belaidi are techno tourists themselves, and were inspired to start The Techno Tourist in 2011 after going to BPM Festival in Mexico. "We had an exceptional after-hours experience, which culminated with a session on our private rooftop," LaGrotta tells THUMP. "I looked around me at all of my friends having the time of their lives, and said to myself, 'this is amazing, why can't everyone experience this?' Immediately, I e-mailed my dad who is a lawyer, set up the company and started to formulate our strategy." One of their first customers, LaGrotta notes, was a New Yorker named David going to Time Warp in Mannheim, who they'd connected with online through a popular local nightclub message board.
Mirroring Garcia's theory that techno tourism today is an increasingly professionalized industry, LaGrotta says that the types of people who travel for dance music events has changed significantly since 2011, when they started the company: "The feel [back then] was raw and authentic, unlike most of what is offered today." While Garcia characterized the typical techno tourist in the early 2000s as university students and young creative industry workers, these days, LaGrotta says his clients skew towards an older demographic—generally aging from 30-55, and are professionals in their respective fields.
But even as it grows ever-more-corporate in its scope and crowd, Time Warp's organizers insist that the festival will never sell out, because its success thus far has been predicated on creating an intimate, familial atmosphere for both DJs and fans. "We are not just a company whose business model is to produce raves. Although Time Warp is very successful and has grown huge, we are still accepted and regard ourselves as an underground dance event," Ebinger insists.
While this might sound like a promoter's typical marketing-speak, it may also shed some light on how the festival has managed to turn some of electronic music's most elusive superstars, like Ricardo Villalobos and Laurent Garnier, into its staples. (Villalobos broke his 13-year boycott of the United States last year to play at Time Warp New York, as a favor to co-founder Steffan Charles. "He knows where I'm coming from—from the dancefloor," Charles told the New York Times.) It's also worth noting that Time Warp remains an independent company, while many of its competitors have been scooped up by SFX. Ultimately, the continued longevity of Time Warp—and the rapidly corporatizing festival industry as a whole—depends on its ability to give techno tourists what they haul themselves across the world in search of: a sense of belonging, of having arrived at home.