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Gratitude Migration organizers talk building a transformational festival on the East Coast

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grat·i·tude

ˈɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/

noun

1. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Dance music purists have long set off on an expedition in search of an experience more wholesome than the traditional music festival. This deeply personal journey arguably spawned the transformational festival movement – one that champions principles such as community-building, personal growth, social responsibility, healthy living, sustainability and creative expression, to name a few. A movement that, at its best, molds us into better, stronger, kinder and more mindful humans.

Further Future, Lightning In A Bottle, Shambhala, Symbiosis Gathering and Burning Man best epitomize the concept of the transformational festival: an experiment in temporary community that challenges attendees to free themselves from reality and shed their skin to become one with their inner self and their fellow community members. There is no place on earth more inviting and accepting than the transformational festival, and there is something to be said about its ascension into widespread recognition as one of the more “life-altering” experiences of the decade.

Enter Gratitude Migration.

“…We’re trying to make a major impact on society at large through individual and collective transformative and awakening experiences,” Drew Meeks, Gratitude Migration co-founder and Head of Content, explains from his Brooklyn office over Skype. “We want to bring people into environments where they can experience new possibilities within themselves and have peak experiences that stay with them long after the festival is done.”

gratitude migration

Photo courtesy of No Fear of Missing Out

Now in its second year, Gratitude Migration has entered the fray as the East Coast’s newest – and one of the few – transformational festivals. Though abundant on the West Coast in states like California and Nevada, this breed of events hadn’t quite made its way across the country until the inaugural Migration, which transpired in July 2015 at Keansburg, New Jersey’s hELLO Beach.

“We’re almost creating a new model of the music festival, Rishe Groner, Marketing and Communications Director of Gratitude, proudly states. “We know that this is very common on the West Coast, but this is really something unique to the East Coast and it’s something unique as far as how can we build festivals in a way that makes people feel safe. We want people to walk into this saying, ‘I’m entering into this experience that’s going to transform me and make me a better person and give me gratitude for those that I’m with.’ So really changing the mindset from the ‘me’ and ‘What can I get out of this?’ to ‘What can I bring to this?'”

It’s this emphasis on the ‘you’ and ‘us’ that Gratitude Migration capitalizes on – a stark contrast from world-renowned festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, which refers to its fans as “headliners.” The obvious shift from ‘me’ to ‘us’ is native to a gathering like Gratitude Migration, as it’s founded upon the ideas of liberating the self and learning to think of others first and foremost. That, and “…cultivating this large gathering of amazing, creative people and putting them somewhere where they can thrive in nature,” or so co-founder and Head of Production Avi Werde tells us.

Festival impresarios Drew and Avi produced the first-ever Gratitude Migration in an effort to foster a more organic and back-to-the-basics experience for their following, though Gratitude itself began six years ago in the form of large-scale warehouse events and day-into-night parties in Brooklyn. Drew, who first attended Burning Man in the late 90s, is rooted in interactive media and experiential design, and found his footing in event production nearly a decade ago. It wasn’t until 2013 that Avi entered the picture as Gratitude’s Head of Production, which eventually led to the novel idea of “tak[ing] this incredible little creative community out of the warehouses and onto the beach.” The pair’s aim, they say, is to make a major mark on the festival world.

“Migration started in 2014 as a small event in upstate New York, probably about 150 people or so,” Avi states. “Similar in concept to what Gratitude Migration is but in a much smaller scale. It was actually really focused more on community building and creating environments for collaboration. The idea was pitched to Drew since I had worked with him on Gratitude: ‘Hey, you know, I have the production experience and you have this amazing crowd and crew and creative culture so let’s partner to create something that’s not found elsewhere on the East Coast.’ When Drew and I partnered in 2015 on the first Gratitude Migration, [it] was really solidifying that deal and I think that this year, now that we know we have a really awesome crowd that is truly interested in this experiential environment, we are continuously elevating our production and our content to keep up with them and make sure we are providing what they need. So it was a flow and a merge of these two worlds that created Gratitude Migration.”

gratitude migration 2

Photo courtesy of No Fear of Missing Out

Not quite a music festival in the current parlance, the Gratitude Migration experience is bolstered by its rich host of musical offerings that define the team’s aural philosophy. From homegrown talent like The Scumfrog and Eli Escobar, to heralded producers including All Day I Dream affiliate Öona Dahl and the Desert Hearts crew, it’s clear that Avi and Drew executed a greater sense of direction and purpose when curating this year’s roster.

“This year in particular, we took a more intentional direction with our musical curation,” Drew says. “The goal was to reflect a great diversity of sounds and artists. We’ve got underground Brooklyn techno, afrobeat, reggae, bass music, disco and especially a lot of different iterations of house music. Our goal is to take people on a journey that is very global in influence. We don’t stick to one cookie-cutter style of music but the thing that ties them all together is the quality but also the globally inflected and worldly aspects. Many of our headliners fall into the category of house music and bass music but they have a lot of global influences coming into play. In that respect, we’re extending beyond just New York musical culture culture and creating a lineup that is global in nature.”

In addition to music, daily activities like yoga, sound healing, art installations, live performances, workshops and Gratitude’s speaker series, School of Dreams, help tie together the multi-day affair. Cited as “a place where you can come open your heart and try new things that you’ve never experienced,” festival-goers will have the rare chance to collectively integrate, share and learn. Eight theme camps – a handful of which will be hosted by highly regarded New York collectives including ebb + flow, Might Get Weird, Rinsed and Junxion – will also have the autonomy to curate content and create daytime activities tailored to their individual interests. Drew divulges:

“[Programming] brings people back into the present moment and helps awaken their senses so that they can have a richer, more authentic, more connected experience on the dance floor and experience the art. So we want to be not just a place where people can hear great music but where they can go deeper and connect in a more profound way with each other and the whole festival experience.”

But when it comes to Drew, Avi and Rishe’s aspirations, the trio is hopeful that patrons will embrace mindfulness: from considering what they consume and how it affects others around them, to acting responsibly and always asking first — ultimately, to feel empowered to make a positive impact in the world; to show gratitude.

“We really want to nurture the idea that we’re all creative beings and we want people to come away inspired in their own creativity and realize that there’s a community where their own creativity can be nurtured and amplified,” Drew continues. “We want to be a platform for people who come to the event to be inspired, participate, and to start working on their own creative projects and experiences and artworks and performances and have that continue to fold back into future events.”

Tickets to Gratitude Migration are still available here.

Read the full interview below:

Dancing Astronaut: Tell me a little about yourselves.

Drew: I got interested in this culture and community living in San Francisco back in the 90s and early 2000s. I started going to Burning Man in the late 90s. Got into that community and moved to New York about 11 years ago. Got involved in the community here and some of the major theme camps, Kostume Kult and Disorient, helping them put on events. And then I really got started kind of going deeper into event production with Gratitude NYC, which was an unofficial Burning Man community gathering. It started in 2010, so about 6 years ago now, and that sort of became an underground phenomenon – an event beloved by the community, incorporating multiple stages of electronic music, live bands, aerial performances, fire performances, immersive video projections. So I did that for five years and that’s how I came to know Avi. He got involved as Head of Production in 2013 and then we had the idea to essentially broaden our horizons and to take this incredible little creative community out of the warehouses and onto the beach. Professionally, I’ve come out of interactive media and an experiential design agency, so this has been a passion project all these years. But we’re taking it into a much higher degree of professionalism and aiming to make a major mark on the festival world.

DA: How would you define Gratitude Migration?

Avi: It’s basically just migrating the creative communities that are regional to NY – so Brooklyn, Manhattan, Philadelphia, DC, Delaware, CT – and just migrating them into a really beautiful environment and taking them away from these indoor experiences. So it’s just cultivating this large gathering of amazing, creative people and putting them somewhere where they can thrive in nature.

Drew: I agree with all that, but I’d take it a step further and say that with Gratitude Migration we’re trying to make a major impact on society at large through individual and collective transformative and awakening experiences. So bringing people into environments where they can experience new possibilities within themselves and have peak experiences that stay with them long after the festival is done. And we’ve already seen this happen from last year – new creative collaborations and lifelong friendships forming. Many of which have spawned into new events and new collectives that are creating amazing content and experiences year-round, and then also coming back and becoming a part of our programming at our festival.

DA: Was last year the first-ever Gratitude?

Drew: Last year was the first-ever Gratitude Migration but as we said there were five years of Gratitude – large-scale warehouse events, day-into-night events in Brooklyn.

Avi: Migration started in 2014 as a small event in upstate New York, probably about 150 people or so. Similar in concept to what Gratitude Migration is but in a much smaller scale. It was actually really focused more on community building and creating environments for collaboration. The idea was pitched to Drew since I had worked with him on Gratitude: “Hey, you know, I have the production experience and you have this amazing crowd and crew and creative culture so let’s partner to create something that’s not found elsewhere on the East Coast.” So my first year was like the proofing model to like, “Okay we can do this, there are people interested and we know that it works.” When Drew and I partnered in 2015 on the first Gratitude Migration, [it] was really solidifying that deal and I think that this year, now that we know we have a really awesome crowd that is truly interested in this experiential environment, that we are continuously elevating our production and our content to keep up with them and make sure we are providing what they need. So it was a flow and a merge of these two worlds that created Gratitude Migration.

DA: What was successful about Gratitude Migration 2015?

Avi: The #1 thing was the attendee response. After the event, if you look at our Facebook event page from 2015, every time I look at it, I get that feeling in my heart like “I can’t believe that I was really a part of making this happen.” Everyone thought it was so genuine. The production was there, the content was there, the experience was there. People formed really great friendships and started new collaborations. It was just so close and so far from what they’re used to that they just let go and experienced it and felt free and connected and awakened by the experience. 

Drew: I think the #1 feedback we got from participants was the vibe. The community that the crowd we have cultivated and attracted was coming in with such a positive, open attitude and people felt free to express themselves. It felt different from most festival experiences where you really have to watch your back at every turn. We created a really safe and super positive vibe through the intention of the event and also through the environment. It was secure and it really felt like a large, extended family.

DA: How did you stumble upon Keansburg, NJ as your official destination?

Drew: That was a connection that I had made several years ago through the Burning Man organization. There’s a couple – New York event producers – that moved down there a few years back and they’re the ones that saw the potential down there. They’d been pitching to the local borough leadership for several years to essentially turn this beautiful beach into a creative mecca for large-scale cultural events. The way I’d heard about it was I was invited by the local Burning Man regional reps in NY to produce an official Burning Man decompression event down there. There hadn’t been one since 2009, which is the reason Gratitude started, to fill that void. So they approached me to produce that, but it didn’t end up happening because it was scheduled during the post-Sandy beach restoration but I had remembered the site and the connections that I had made when it was in the planning phase. I went back and they were very receptive to our event. It’s not Burning Man; it’s its own thing. It has some things in common but it’s kind of a gentler version and much more palatable. So when we approached them, there was a little bit of skepticism, but we had the mayor on our side and they ended up becoming very enthusiastic supporters. The local leadership sees what a great benefit it is to have a creative community coming from all other states into their town, bringing economic benefits as well as really just positive appreciation. Our crowd explored the town, spent money, and was very friendly. They’ve embraced us, which is very gratifying.

DA: What is your strategy for musical curation, and how do you decide who gets invited to perform at Gratitude?

Drew: This year in particular, we took a more intentional direction with our musical curation. The goal was to reflect a great diversity of sounds and artists. We’ve got underground Brooklyn techno, afrobeat, reggae, bass music, disco and especially a lot of different iterations of house music. Our goal is to take people on a journey that is very global in influence. We don’t stick to one cookie-cutter style of music but the thing that ties them all together is the quality but also the globally inflected and worldly aspects. Many of our headliners fall into the category of house music and bass music but they have a lot of global influences coming into play. In that respect, we’re extending beyond just New York musical culture culture and creating a lineup that is global in nature.

DA: Why do you believe yoga & wellness and other daily activities are important, and how do they shape the Gratitude Migration experience?

Rishe: Gratitude Migration really goes beyond what a typical music festival might be and turns it into something that reaches a point of transformation for everybody. A place where you can come open your heart and try new things that you’ve never experienced. So what’s happening here, particularly being so close to the city and so far from Burning Man, we’re bringing this microcosm of a festival environment into the heart of it and giving people the chance to try something that they’ve never felt comfortable trying. We’re going to offer yoga, sound healing, different workshops around things like essential oils and how to use herbal remedies, a speaker series and actual healers. Festivals, the way they integrate with the actual festival experience, is giving people a chance to chill out. To integrate. To go from the stage to a place where you can relax and be serene and be yourself. It’s also a place where a lot of connections are made and you can meet new people and start to open yourself up to new experiences that you might not spend your day-to-day focusing on. And it’s a chance to have a taste of all these different things. There’s so much richness in our community, so along with the art installations and DJs, we’re also going to have local people teaching yoga, dance, energy healing. They’re all going to be present sharing that with the community. So it’s all about giving people a space to take time out from what’s going on elsewhere, and to really integrate and open themselves up even further beyond what they’re doing with the music and the grand activities.

Drew: [Programming] brings people back into the present moment and helps awaken their senses so that they can have a richer, more authentic, more connected experience on the dance floor and experience the art. So we want to be not just a place where people can hear great music but where they can go deeper and connect in a more profound way with each other and the whole festival experience.

DA: It seems that Gratitude Migration mirrors Burning Man in many ways; for example, you invite Theme Camps and a multitude of art installations. But what makes Gratitude unique from Burning Man?

Drew: At Burning Man , there’s no centralized programming. They provide a city – an empty canvas – infrastructure and then all of the content and programming is provided by theme camps. We’re the hybrid between a Burning Man and a more traditional festival, so we do have centralized programming, two main stages, a live music environment. So we’re curating content but we’re also curating collectives and theme camps and villages to provide additional content. It’s less of a random experience of whoever shows up and whatever they decide to do. This is more carefully curated.

DA: What do you hope that attendees will take away from this year’s event, and how will it differ from last year’s?

Avi: I think “growth” is a good filler there. We’re not trying to – and this is a key for us as we’ve spoken about this internally a lot in our meetings – now that we’ve had one good year, we’re not trying to get “bigger and better.” We’re really trying to build off of what we created last year and what the community created last year. For us to have the same kind of response would align with the success we’d like to achieve this year and of course, having more people walk away with more collaborations, experiences, friends, you know, more rejuvenation. And walking away from this feeling like “Yes, this was extremely worth it” for them and their time and that they’d like to continue this experience not just by our events but also contributing to other community members regionally. Kind of just growing this amazing community, I think, is one successful way of looking at what we can do this year.

Drew: Consistent with our theme, which is realization of dreams. Our theme is “Summer Dream” and we hope people come away with an awakened sense of possibilities within themselves and in society, that they’re experiencing a different way of being than their everyday world. So, basically, anything that can be imagined can be made real. And that’s the guiding principle behind our workshop programming and speaker series; they’re centered around having a more fulfilling life and creating the world of our dreams.

Rishe: When it comes to creating and manifesting that world of our dreams, one thing we take from this festival that makes it unique is its location. We’re located on the beach and we have the NY skyline within our view for the entire weekend. Normally what happens when you enter a festival environment, you feel very separated and disjointed from your daily working life, and the deeper you go into the experience, the more you open your heart and your mind to these things, and it becomes harder to understand, “How am I going to take that back with me when I’m sitting in the office on Monday morning?” It becomes almost scary to think, “I’ve had this incredible experience, I’ve connected with new people, I’ve done new things, but now I have to go back and deal with [life].” What happens at Gratitude Migration is we’re facing the monster every minute of the entire weekend. We have the city skyline in front of us, we’re very close to the city, but we have the water – that beach of endless possibilities stretching in front of us, really changing the vibe and helping us feel calm and grounded and integrated as we go through the weekend. Our real goal is to help people feel and understand that just as you’re experiencing this throughout the weekend, you can experience this in your daily life too. You can take these teachings and in small ways, integrate them into everything you do throughout the day and throughout the year.

DA: In what way do you think that Leave No Trace really does help forge a sense of community?

Avi: I think the key word here is “awareness.” And then, you know, just putting it into practice. For us, we’re not just about LNT. It’s important for us, but we’re also about leaving things better than they were and we’ve put in a lot of initiatives this year to work on eco-consciousness and sustainability and responsible farming. We’re really trying to push the mindset of what we’re doing to be conscious about where things come from, where they go, what kind of effect they have, what can we do that in our own way and lives can make a small difference and collectively make a larger difference. We won’t have any cups, plates or utensils this year; everything will be reusable. We’re also making sure that we won’t have any plastics or glass on the beach. We’ll have recycling and compost stations throughout the festival with people who care about these initiatives and will educate people when they come in and then create art out of it. So in addition to leaving a trace, we’re also embracing leaving a positive trace and we’ve gotten to the point where we want to add that as a new principle to what we’re providing. There are the 10 Principles that Burning man represents and there’s 11 Principles of Gratitude that were brought in at the Figment Festival and now we want to introduce this third principle, which is Sustainability, to really put the spotlight on the things we could be doing to make the world a better place in our own life and for everyone else.

Drew: To echo Avi’s point about awareness, a lot of people are given the opportunity to realize that they can make a difference in the world through their choices and that it’s not a sacrifice, but a way of enhancing your way of life. When we have that awareness and recognition shared by a large community of people that are having a shared experience, this brings people together naturally. We are taking these important steps in the direction of sustainability but we’re doing it in a way where it makes people feel empowered, not held back. We’re not telling people they can’t do this and they can’t do that, we’re showing them that there’s a better way and we’re giving people an opportunity to feel better and more empowered to make a positive impact in the world.

DA: Do you have any big plans for next year? What do you hope to achieve in the coming years as Gratitude Migration continues to grow?

Avi: Our overall vision is to take this creative movement, grow it larger each year, and start bringing these to other environments that we can migrate with and cultivate a larger global community not just in New Jersey and regionally, but also in other serene areas, although those locations have not yet been said.

Drew: We want to engage our community on a year-round basis. There’s the summer festival that people look forward to each year that becomes a part of their calendar and as Avi alluded to, there’s a possibility of doing other events in new locations throughout the year. But most importantly, helping people keep that spirit and all the great benefits they get from being a part of Gratitude Migration, alive and engaged on a year-round basis. An emphasis, moving forward, is that people can carry forward all the great benefits of their experience and the connections they made. We’re going to support a continuation of that throughout the year.

Avi: One of our core principles is safety first. Making sure the environment is safe, we have proper security and medical and health, and all that good stuff. Code of conduct. People being mindful of what they consume and how that affects others around them in terms of how they act. Responsibility of who you’re acting with, asking first and overall being appreciative and grateful for the experience that’s happening. Definitely gratitude.

Rishe: We’re almost creating a new model of the music festival. We know that this is very common on the west coast, but this is really something unique to the east coast and it’s something unique as far as how can we build festivals in a way that makes people feel safe. We want people to walk into this saying, “I’m entering into this experience that’s going to transform me and make me a better person and give me gratitude for those that I’m with.” So really changing the mindset from the “me” and “What can I get out of this?” to “What can I bring to this?”

Avi: We’re also bringing in a family element. We allow families to come in with children up to the age of 9, we have family camping and programming that we put in place so that people can feel like it’s not just for a certain type of scene. Beyond that, it’s 21+, so, it’s a very mature and respectful environment.

Drew: We really want to nurture the idea that we’re all creative beings and we want people to come away inspired in their own creativity and realize that there’s a community where their own creativity can be nurtured and amplified. We want to be a platform for people who come to the event to be inspired, participate, and to start working on their own creative projects and experiences and artworks and performances and have that continue to fold back into future events.

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