At first glance, everything about HARD Day of the Dead looked great — from the fantastic, glistening sun that reflected off the concrete to the overly enthusiastic crowd. But there was a different, measured aura in the air, which stood in stark contrast to the manic, carefree vibe that filled the same parking lot ahead of HARD Summer back in August.
Instead, as attendees headed into the Fairplex, they were greeted by an informational security video, then ushered through a series of three checkpoints, each more intense than the last. It’s one thing to make an event secure, but it’s another to treat the entrance to a festival like a trip to an airport. Taking off your shoes to go to a festival feels more than a little ridiculous.
In the wake of two deaths earlier this year at HARD Summer, L.A. County has effectively taken what was once a great dance-music event and neutered it. The watered-down version of HARD Day of the Dead lacked the spirit and the soul of HARD Summer. It's not clear whether any of the measures enacted — reduced capacity, a 21-plus age limit, fewer stages, earlier shutdown times, increased security and police presence — actually made the event any safer or more secure. The only thing it definitely did was lead to more arrests (300-plus) and an all-around sense of buzzkill — especially before 5 p.m., when thousands of festivalgoers were still stuck in security lines and missing early sets by great DJs like Troyboi and Felix da Housecat.
Initially, the reduced capacity seemed like a good thing. Cutting it from 65,000 to 40,000 made it easy to navigate from stage and stage and to feel semi-comfortable inside the Fairplex's warehouselike indoor spaces, which at HARD Summer had sometimes become dangerously hot and overcrowded. But that ease of movement came at the expense of the high-energy atmosphere that made HARD events wildly popular in the first place. (Some media outlets have reported that actual attendance was as low as 20,000, which might also explain the low energy.)
One of the coolest attributes of HARD Summer — and last year's HARD Day of the Dead — was that it used the Fairplex to its fullest, with two massive outdoor stages. This year, Day of the Dead kept everything on five indoor stages. The best sets were still explosive, but they lacked the firepower that Jack Ü, Porter Robinson and Dillon Francis had outdoors back in August.
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Like HARD Summer, HARD Day of the Dead had a more diverse lineup than most other so-called EDM festivals, especially with regards to hip-hop. In addition to Deadmau5 and Skrillex, rappers Future and Juicy J were on the bill, and HARD honcho Destructo brought out Problem and Ty Dolla $ign during his set. Despite this, restricting younger fans’ access to the event made it feel more exclusionary than any other major festival on the fall calendar.
Leaving the venue toward the end of the night, the smell of weed smoke was everywhere, proving that even with the most draconian security measures, people will always find a way around them. Instead of grandstanding with increased security and police, if L.A. County worked with HARD organizers to come up with more viable long-term fixes, the Fairplex could be a safe place for large-scale dance-music events to continue to flourish. Instead, it felt like HARD's last, desperate Hail Mary pass before the clock runs out on EDM festivals in Los Angeles.