On the website for Symbiosis Gathering, you too can build your own festival. You slide around percentages, allocating funds to cover everything from performers to waste management, until you spend 100% of the budget. Then you find out that you did it wrong.
Kevin KoChen, a co-producer and partner in the event, laughs when we tell him how much we struggled with their “SIMbiosis” game. In 2005, San Francisco-based KoChen was asked to do a workshop at the inaugural event. After that, he came on board as part of the team that makes the party happen. He had no experience in producing events, but took on various jobs that range from managing parking to to booking artists.
On September 17-20, the 2015 edition of the festival goes down at Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, near Modesto, with a lineup that features DJ/producer Nicolas Jaar, sister duo CocoRosie, Damian Lazarus and the Ancient Moons and many more. This will be their seventh festival, held over the course of the past 10 years.
Booking eclectic talent is a careful balancing act. When you play the SIMbiosis game, you might find out that you spent too much on the DJs and, while the househeads are happy, the ones who came to see live bands aren't. This year, KoChen is particularly excited for electronic duo Bob Moses, whose new album drops at the same time as the festival, as they will bring a live element into the house-oriented realm of the festival. “I think we really try to focus on bringing in people with instruments because I feel like that's something that's lost a lot in this new era of DJing and laptop production,” he says. He's also hyped about Shpongle featuring Raja Ram, who is renowned in the psychedelic trance world. “He played at the first Glastonbury Festival and now here he is 40-some years later playing a set at our event,” he says.
The diversity in the Symbiosis lineup comes from having access to people with deep knowledge in specific genres who can find the up-and-comers as well as established artists. “We have our resident experts in all these fields,” says KoChen. That's worked to the festival's advantage. In 2007, they booked Bassnectar, The Glitch Mob and Flying Lotus, all of whom went on to become well-established in their genres. They were early champions of dubstep in the U.S. as well; Skream, a U.K. pioneer of the genre, played the 2006 festival.
When it comes to music, trance is KoChen's thing and one element that, in his view, is often missing from festivals in the United States. In this respect, Symbiosis is influenced by international events like Boom Festival (Portugal), Universo Paralello (Brazil), O.Z.O.R.A. (Hungary) and Rainbow Serpent (Australia). “That specific type of music has an international appeal and so it brings a really eclectic group of people,” says KoChen. He notes the variety of languages he will hear spoken at psychedelic trance events in San Francisco; “I think that's very special.”
KoChen describes the building of Symbiosis as a “collaborative” process. His job title is technically Chief Marketing Officer — “only because I wanted something on my email signature,” he says — but the team takes on a lot of different challenges. There are four people who handle the bulk of the booking, but KoChen estimates that there are “10 or 12” other trusted folks who tip them off to artists and otherwise offer opinions on the shape of the lineup. “We're much more familial than we are corporate,” he says. “We just have a lot of conversations with people throughout the industry.”
The unconventional lineups have helped the festival develop without the corporate backing that other events might have. “We have a much smaller budget than a lot of other more mainstream, commercial festivals,” says KoChen. “However, I still feel like we have some of the best talent buyers and scouts in the business.”
But every Symbiosis is still a gamble, too. “We take a little bit of risks in bringing over people that don't have that big of a draw because the experience will be better,” he says. When done right, it's the kind of stuff that sticks with festival-goers long after the gathering. KoChen says that some have referred to Symbiosis lineups as akin to fine wine: “Years down the road, the lineups look so much better.”
This Sunday, Los Angeles will get a taste of Symbiosis with their festival pre-party in Malibu. The event, which already sold out, will take place on an old golf course in Malibu and will feature veteran German DJ D-Nox in his first Los Angeles gig, as well as Treavor Moontribe and Desert Dwellers.