As the dance world pushes further into the non-physical reality of the metaverse, electronic festivals continue to consolidate under corporate ownership and events experience a stop-start-stop comeback during the pandemic, current challenges for independent dance festivals are countless and existential.
But one of those long-running festivals holds a candle for a certain kind of bespoke, rooted spectacle unrelated to the company — an eclectic roster of music, plus programs like talks, workshops and yoga, and strong ties to the West Coast’s Sacred Transformational Festival scene.
The 14th annual Gem and Jam festival begins today (February 3) at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona. Extending through Sunday (February 6), the event derives the first half of its name from its overlap with the long-running Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil showcase, which attracts experts and enthusiasts in the field from across the country and beyond.
In fact, Gem and Jam started in 2005 as an afterparty for the Showcase, eventually grew out of the concert halls of Tucson, and in 2013 expanded into a full festival format. Early iterations of Gem and Jam were privately funded, and the event now operates with revenue generated from ticket sales. (After taking a year off in 2019, the event was one of the few festivals to take place in 2020 as it took place just weeks before the pandemic hit the United States)
As events cautiously return this season, around 6,000 people are expected to attend Gem and Jam this weekend, with the festival set to expand its footprint in the fairgrounds as crowds grow in coming years , as the organizers expect. And while it will be chilly this weekend in Tucson, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the mid-30s, Gem and Jam partner Josh Pollack says staging the event so early in the year gives him an advantage.
“Because we’re coinciding with the Gem Show, we’re kind of like the first festival of the year,” Pollack says. “We’ve been really lucky in that regard, because we don’t really have a lot of competition with other independent or bigger festivals.”
With a lineup including jamtronic veterans STS9, Dirtybird founder Claude VonStroke, live electronic fusion band Dirtwire, psytrance icons Shpongle, Swedish bass favorite Liquid Stranger and many other electronic and live bands non-traditional, the programming recalls the heady early days of California. The Lightning In a Bottle Festival and Symbiosis Festivals, as well as the dozens of smaller, more renegade gatherings that have taken place throughout the region.
Here, Pollack talks about it being an independent festival in 2022, the competition and crossover with bigger (and mainstream) shows, and how “the whole crystal and mineral coincides so much with the musical scene”.
Gem and Jam seems to be part of a festival tradition of truly rooted, bespoke events that tie directly into the underground electronic music culture of Southern California and the greater area. Do you think that’s fair to say?
I really do. We have definitely become one of the flagships of this scene, especially in the Southwest region. I think that’s really important, because we feel a really strong sense of support for the music, and we know that people will come out for it and people will support it as well. For some reason, the genre feels a bit underrepresented nationally. So to be able to do that and attract people from across the country, because these types of events don’t happen very frequently, is a really special thing.
Events like Coachella in Southern California and EDC in Las Vegas cast a wide net in terms of radius clauses, which really limit when and where artists in their lineups can play. With Tucson being quite close to those markets, how much of an issue are radius clauses when you’re putting your line together?
It’s definitely something we have to deal with, this year more than ever – because of some of these big promoters, like your Insomniacs, they’ll be booking artists for six to eight show deals over the next year, and all of these shows are going to be with this one promoter. So it’s hard for us to even access some of these acts that they have these multi-show deals with.
Some of the programming, at least with EDC and Coachella as well – our worlds are starting to intersect more, with the programming that they’re doing. From the beginning, we started from a very underground space and then built a little more towards the mainstream, while still retaining a lot of those important underground aesthetics. The bigger festivals start from a bigger audience and try to incorporate more underground stuff.
How does this growing crossover affect what you do?
It looks like this is going to happen more and more as our festival grows – some of the artists we are targeting are also playing some of these events. So yeah, it’s really hard [with radius clauses.] Booking the lineup this year, we’re so thrilled with how it came together, but it went through many iterations of who we wanted to target. You just have to hit roadblocks and have to rethink the whole thing.
What type of audience is a program like this aimed at?
We definitely have a lot of people who really love jam bands and live bands and the roots jam kind of music. But at least since I’ve been involved, we’ve wanted to bring in diverse groups of people who are into different styles of music and do it in a way that’s cohesive and kind of blends together – because we as organizers are in many different styles of music. We love jam bands and we love bluegrass, but we also love bass and house music.
How does this approach set you apart from other festivals?
These days you see a lot of festivals that are very genre specific, where there is one or a handful of genres and sounds. We really didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be a bit more eclectic and, at least for a boutique festival of our size, there aren’t many other festival options that really do that. We can be really creative in how we line up. But definitely the jamtronic cornerstone is an integral part of how we organize everything.
Is there a formal association between the festival and the Gem and Mineral Show itself?
In spirit only. The Tucson Gem Show is really large – it’s not really centralized in one place, so we’re technically our own gem show in the eyes of the Tucson Gem Show, because we have so many crystal and mineral vendors on site . We are one of hundreds of gemstone shows that take place in Tucson. So, although we don’t have any sort of partnership, we make sure that our dates coincide. But beyond that, it’s purely a kind of energetic relationship.