For those outside of rave culture, the term itself is loaded with connotations of recreational drug use, surrounding substances MDMA, Ketamine, and LSD. While there is a lot more to raves than drug use, their origin is inextricably linked.
Raves began as small, underground parties in the 1980s in England. Popular venues included old warehouses, abandoned houses, and even outdoor parks. The parties featured electronic and house music and were targeted towards young adults and teenagers. They created an underground environment where people could dance the night away in an altered state of consciousness.
The scene itself was inspired by the dance party scene of the 1970s, from which it inherited a positive attitude towards party drugs. Initially, they were known as Acid House Parties. It was the media who rebranded them as raves in 1989.
While undeniably founded on groundbreaking electronic music and innovative DJs, it took more than that to build a lasting cultural scene. Generation X’s fondness for laser lights and eclectic fashion made the rave scene extremely popular.
How Raves Made it Into the Mainstream
By the 1990s, electronic and house music had spread internationally and were among the most popular genres in Europe. This sudden popularity brought raves to the attention of local authorities who would often shut them down due their illegal use of venues as well as the visible and prominent narcotic consumption by partygoers.
Politicians also responded with hostility towards the emerging party trend, particularly in the UK. Authorities spoke out against raves and began to fine promoters who held unauthorized parties. By the mid 1990s, the movement and music reached many cities around the world but still remained relatively small, at least in comparison to other music events. Their mainstream popularity peaked in the new millennium, with Electronic Dance Music or EDM.
Today, raves are most commonly known as all-night dance parties that can go on for many days. They are massive events with over attendee numbers ballooning into the thousands, and huge media exposure and coverage. Electronic music festivals like Ultra, Tomorrowland and Creamfields are among the most popular and well known festivals in the world.
Why are Raves so Connected to Psychedelics?
Raves were initially called Acid House Parties. The name says it all. These parties were named after the type of electronic music that was played and the fact that attendees were encouraged to use LSD, or the newly popularized ecstasy, in order to have a fully immersive musical experience.
The association between drug use and raves may be related to the kind of music that is played at them. Certain drugs seem to complement the sensations of the rave environment, and can stimulate multi-sensory psychedelic experiences with the beats of certain kinds of bass-heavy music.
While other party drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and DMT are prominent in rave culture, MDMA (ecstasy) is by far the most common. This may be because within the rave environment, the sensory effects of music and lights can be very synergistic with the drug. It can also reduce inhibitions and act as a sort of “party fuel” for all night dancing.
MDMA also enhances feelings of unity and closeness, which can create a bubble where bonding happens with strangers. In short, raves and psychedelic drugs have always been connected because of the synergy they create.
The Economics of Electronic Dance Music Festivals
Long gone are the days where raves and electronic music festivals were small events held at clandestine locations, with news of the location and time released just hours before the event to deter police surveillance. While some raves remain underground, mostly for nostalgic reasons, electronic music festivals nowadays can be massive events held in anything from concert halls to warehouses and huge outdoor legal venues. Oh, and they move millions of dollars every year.
The rise of the internet helped spread dance music at lightning speed. Social media also played a big role in spreading the popularity of DJs that were not necessarily getting radio airtime, but who could easily fill out large venues like Madison Square Garden.
Tickets for these events can go for up to $500, as big-name organizers and promoters now have to spend millions to get a top DJ to headline a festival. Since 2012, EDM has risen from a $4 billion market to a $7.4 billion one, making festivals extremely profitable.
While the festivals themselves are very different from the rave scene’s original form, one thing remains constant: the connection to MDMA.
The Economics and Future of MDMA
MDMA increases dancing impulses as well as providing surges of energy, making it a popular drug in rave and EDM culture. While MDMA remains illegal in most of the world, it is an insanely profitable aspect of raves and festivals, with some trafficking rings becoming million-dollar operations due to high demand.
MDMA was originally meant to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD, not to be sold and consumed at nightclubs. There’s now a push underway to take it back to its intended therapeutic setting. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been conducting experiments and trials on its use for treating PTSD. The first two phases of the trial have shown promising results, and, if the third one goes equally well, the drug could get FDA approval by 2021.
However, removing MDMA from the nightclubs and festivals is not realistic since it has been so tightly integrated to the raving experience. EDM and MDMA have co-created a culture and are now inextricably linked.