Coalchella, a Minecraft music festival, subverted exclusive festival culture and welcomed everyone to rave.
On September 23, 2018, all of Twitter got confused by a trending event almost no one had heard of. Well, except 55 SoundCloud producers and the millions of people their Twitter clout could reach.
Four months earlier one of the organizers, Max Schramp (Sleepycatt), had thrown a music festival in Minecraft for his birthday. “I played Minecraft a lot as a kid,” Max said, “which is why I thought it would be funny to start inviting people to my ‘21st birthday party in Minecraft.’ The joke got a bit carried away, and I decided to actually have my birthday party in Minecraft and turn it into an interactive online show, and invited a bunch of my friends to record DJ sets to play.”
It wasn’t the first time people had gathered online to rave. Yoku, who was instrumental in organizing the more recent Coalchella, fondly remembered Tinychat DJ sets five years before, where Yoku says a handful of people on webcams would awkwardly watch one person DJing. And in 2013, the EDM label Monstercat threw a charity Minecraft music festival, the first known music festival in the game, but according to Coalchella organizers that event wasn’t very accessible. Umru Rothenberg (umru), who helped organize both Max’s Minecraft Birthday Party and Coalchella, said, laughing, “We weren’t the first, but we’re the best.”
Organizers of both the birthday party and Coalchella put in countless hours building venues within Minecraft and prepping music sets to create an immersive festival experience. Max recalled what made his birthday party/music festival so fun: “My favorite moment of the event was William Crooks’ set in my virtual mansion. That was at the peak of the event, and it honestly felt like I was at a house party, with people jumping everywhere while Willy’s set blasted through my speakers. For a game as unrealistic as Minecraft, there was a surprising amount of immersion.”
Coalchella planners took the Minecraft builds to the next level. Valentine said, “This has transformed into a gloriously different experience than we ever thought it would. There’s automated visuals, all sorts of coding that we did for it.”
In addition to their efforts on the in-game experience as well as their music sets, the Coalchella organizers raised awareness of the event on Twitter. When Chandler Riggs (eclipse) tweeted about it, even The Walking Dead got in on the promotion. Organizer Ben Stevens (Nebita) said, “Every mention of the event by a famous person got it out into a larger range than we had expected. Every time that happened, we anticipated a couple thousand more people.” Anticipation built even more when organizers shared this stunning teaser featuring the voice of “the biggest music nerd” Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop:
Their efforts were wildly successful. So successful that the server couldn’t handle the crowd.
we may have done too much promo
— hunter (@hunter_hhhh) September 23, 2018
But the organizers worked swiftly to accommodate the large numbers of eager participants: 2,602 Minecraft players, over 3,500 Discord members, and 27,000 audio streamers to be exact. Umru credited the Hypixel team, who “literally saved our event while it was running by relatively smoothly transferring it over to their own much-more-established servers that made it possible for more of the audience to join the game and actually enjoy the experience.”
audio stream is working now !! unfortunately we were set back an hour so,,
+ THE NEW SET TIMES ARE BELOW + pic.twitter.com/DGVmED71YB
— underscores (@itsunderscores) September 23, 2018
Some notable moments from Coalchella, Max said, were “when the snow started falling during the Mariah Carey ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ and Carly Rae Jepsen mashup.” One of the most surprising incidents, Umru added, was “Diplo tweeting about the event and messaging me to join the game. I had to explain to him how to buy and play Minecraft and it’s funny that he was there for a bit but there was so much going on with the server being overloaded by players that not a lot of people noticed or realized he was there.”
While Coalchella was an incredibly fun and unifying experience for people participating online, for Max the camaraderie extended into his loft. “I actually invited all of my friends over to my loft in Brooklyn and we blasted the sets all night long, so being surrounded by my friends inside and outside of the game was amazing.”
setting everything up for coalchella live in brooklyn pic.twitter.com/ahs6d6bbJx
— frax (@fraxiommusic) September 23, 2018
Umru was in Brooklyn with that group, and he said it was one of his favorite memories of Coalchella. “Nebita, fraxiom, and gupi literally took a bus from Boston to New York to play Minecraft with me, Sleepycatt, Low Poly, motti, underscores, Elena Fortune, Michael Mason, and ABSRDST. It was a super stressful time because of how much there was for me to do during the event to try and keep things moving smoothly, but it was so great to have everyone around in person, and I know this happened in a couple spots across the country too.”
Robin Boehlen (NotActuallyRobin) agreed that building relationships was the most meaningful aspect of coordinating Coalchella. “Honestly the best part of helping with Coalchella was just getting to spend time with my friends! It was a lot of work from a lot of people, but it was all worth it. I’ve met lots of great people through helping organize these events.”
Ben felt the same way. “Being able to be a part of the team behind the scenes was the best part. It’s a really gratifying feeling knowing that something this big is happening because of you, even if you only contributed a few things.” He said that connection extended beyond the event organizers as well. “I follow a lot of people on Twitter from a lot of different communities, and it blew my mind when I saw all of the different communities tweeting about the event.”
Producer Michael Mason said connecting with people around the world was a highlight of the event for him, too. “We’ve got people playing sets from all over the place, but we’re all in group chats together with people we might not normally talk to, and it’s just so frickin’ cool.”
When asked if he thinks gaming-centric music festivals will keep growing, Robin said, “There’s such a huge overlap between people who make music and people who’re active online that really, there’s no limit to how large these events can get!”
Yoku said it was pretty clear that online music festivals were only going to grow. “I think that’s what we realized quickly, with how well the initial posts did, how much reach and draw we have just from friends… It seems silly, but it also makes a ton of sense. The cool thing about booking URL events is that you can book anyone [producers] anywhere. I think it’ll grow, not just in Minecraft, but with URL sets in general. It’s so accessible because it’s free, it’s all ages, and it’s online.”
The only cost of participating in a Minecraft music festival is the price of a Minecraft account, and Umru joked, “Anyone who doesn’t have Minecraft is lying about not having Minecraft to try and sound cool.” But even if you do have to spring for an account, it may be worth it when you consider the immersive nature of the virtual venue. “Minecraft adds another layer to the URL show,” Yoku said. “The thing you miss out on with URL shows is there’s no physical space to it, but in Minecraft, everyone’s there, we have speakers and visuals. The whole live experience is basically there, except it’s in Minecraft.”
On organizing more online music festivals, Max said, “It’s important for us and our future events that we stick to our core values of creating an online, accessible space showcasing both our friends and other artists we respect. There have already been spinoff festivals from Coalchella, which is exciting!” He added, “Shoutout to everyone who helped out! Yoku, Umru, Robin, Andrew, Ben, Val, Ian, Eden, Angel, and especially the Hypixel team were essential to pulling this off.” Umru said, “I want to add a huge thank-you to Yoku, who just happened to be in a call when me and Sleepycatt were discussing starting the event and volunteered so much of their time to making it a reality.”
Get your torches ready for the next Minecraft music festival, because it looks like this growing community is already building on what they’ve started.