“Transformational” Music Festivals Are Becoming a Year-Round Lifestyle

Meet the people who’ve turned Lightning in a Bottle and other fests into a career

Alexandra Lovinit greets every customer at Mark’s Bar with a smile. Even when that customer is wary about paying $6 for a cup of herb-infused coffee.

“It has 21 adaptogenic herbs in it,” she explains brightly.

“What does that mean?” her bleary-eyed customer asks.

“It’s waking me up,” I chime in, sipping my own cup of the muddled brew.

Alexandra offers a more detailed explanation. “It means it has all these herbs that are good for your vitality, your immune system, your energy and”—she pauses to count the customer’s money and thanks her for putting a dollar in the tip jar. “But yeah, it’s got roses, maca, cacao, goji berry, ashwagandha—”

“Right on!” says the customer, now seemingly satisfied with her purchase.

Alexandra’s boyfriend, Sunshine, hands the customer her “Cacao Bliss” coffee. He’s wearing a unicorn onesie, which seems like a weird choice for 10:30 a.m. until you remember that Mark’s Bar is part of the Unicorn Palace, which is part of Lightning in a Bottle, a transformational festival held on a lake in central California and at which unicorn onesies are only slightly less common than flower crowns are at Coachella.

lightning in a bottle marks bar
Alexandra Lovinit manning Mark’s Bar

Andy Hermann

Once relegated to the outermost edges of the live music industry, transformational festivals are now a vital part of it—especially in California, where a dozen or more such events crowd the calendar. In addition to music, they typically feature yoga and meditation classes, TED Talk-style lectures, vegan and raw food vendors, and interactive art. Their roots can be traced to Burning Man, rave culture, Rainbow Gatherings, and the Grateful Dead, but they’ve evolved from those anti-consumerist roots. The biggest ones, like Lightning in a Bottle (LIB for short), are well-organized, professionally run events with massive stages, big-name headliners and VIP glamping packages that can cost upwards of $1,500.

Transformational festivals have become so successful that bigger festivals now crib from them. As Tucker Gumber, a festival consultant and author of the book The FestivalGoer’s Guide, points out, even Coachella has yoga classes.

So what makes a festival “transformational”? Gumber says having some kind of educational component is key (things like workshops and guest lectures, where you can “take time out of your day to upgrade yourself”), but more than that, it’s about the attendees themselves and the attitude they bring to the event. “I love transformational festivals because the people that go to them have already taken this step to understanding that we’re all a part of something,” he explains.

lightning in a bottle 2018 dj stage

Juliana Bernstein

As the transformational circuit has grown, it’s become a year-round lifestyle for many attendees—and even, for some, an occupation. Alexandra Lovinit and her crew at the Unicorn Palace—who besides selling coffee and elixirs also host DJs, comedians and burlesque dancers on a small stage—are a good example. They’ve been doing their thing at Lightning in a Bottle for three years and last year added another transformational festival, Symbiosis, to their itinerary. “But we didn’t do a full bar,” Alexandra says. Why not? “It was on a pontoon.”

Unicorn Palace’s founder, Mark Highlove, markets his herbal elixirs under the name Highlove Vitality. Besides being an herbalist, he’s also a professional clown. Alexandra met him at another transformational festival in Mexico, where he and two cohorts were doing a “ball puppet show,” with googly eyes on their testicles. “So I met Mark’s balls before him.”

The Unicorn Palace is a relative newcomer to Lightning in a Bottle, which has been existed in some form since at least 2004. Eve Bradford and Isis Indriya joined the LIB family six years ago, when they began programming educational events for the festival. They’re now in charge of what’s called the “Compass Peninsula,” a sprawling, centralized swath of the festival grounds encompassing eight stages and workshop spaces, presenting everything from cooking demonstrations to blacksmithing classes to lectures with titles like “Psychedelic State of the Union” and “Dismantling White Supremacy.”

“We carry a third of the festival,” says Indriya, sitting next to Bradford on wooden bleachers near a massive fire pit that gets ignited each evening in a “Sunset Gratitudes” ceremony. “It’s education, the ceremonies and rituals, and music and interactive environments.” 

“We are really hoping to engage people on subject matter that they might not have come to the festival thinking they were interested in, but they kind of wind up getting pulled into,” Bradford adds.

Between LIB and Symbiosis, where they also do education, ceremonies, and “interactive environments,” it’s a full-time job. When I ask how they got into it, Indriya replies, “We’re both nerds.”

“Serious nerds,” Bradford agrees.

Martin Dragonfly at LIB 2018

Martin Dragonfly’s career also revolves around the transformational festival circuit. In addition to DJing (his Facebook page describes his sound as “trans-global whomp”) and running sound systems, he books and manages LIB’s yoga and movement classes, which take place in two tents from 8:30 a.m. until midnight every day of the festival. He does similar work for Symbiosis, Beloved Festival in Oregon, and Envision, a transformational festival held in a Costa Rican rainforest.

For LIB, he books instructors from as far away as Berlin and Chicago. They teach everything from to kundalini to deep house yoga to “acroyoga,” a combination of yoga and acrobatics taught by a Venice-based yogi named Andrew Sealy with over 100,000 Instagram followers. “We’re looking for people who can effectively present to a large crowd,” Martin says. “The largest class today was almost 800 people.” He leads and DJs a two-hour “ecstatic dance” class, which he describes as “an emotionally and physically full spectrum movement experience.”

Martin has been attending transformational festivals for 20 years—long before the term “transformational festival” existed. His first ones, Earthdance and Harmony Festival, were a fraction the size of LIB. “It’s been really amazing because it started off as a bit of a niche audience,” he says of the scene’s recent growth. “But the concept of the expansion of consciousness and mindfulness, which is the essence of these festivals, has made its way into the mainstream, more so than ever before.” 

reid godshaw light painting lightning in a bottle
One of Reid Godshaw’s light paintings

Courtesy Reid Godshaw

Photographer Reid Godshaw, who claims to have attended more than 90 festivals over the past six years, agrees. Godshaw makes what he calls “light paintings”—time-lapse portrait photos in which he has people hold a pose while he waves LED lights around them, creating streaks and trails of color that seem to radiate out from the subjects’ bodies. He gets so much corporate and wedding work through his website, Harmonic Light, that he can afford to do his transformational festival portraits—8,000 a year, by his count—for free.

Not everyone I talk to at LIB likes the term “transformational festival”—for some, it’s too corny, too reductive, too hippie-dippie. But Godshaw “whole-heartedly” approves of it. “I see people being transformed [here] left and right,” he says. “There’s no way in my mind anyone can convince me that there’s isn’t transformation going on every minute at this festival.”

As he works his magic on a delighted couple at LIB, twirling his lights across their rapt faces, it’s hard to disagree with him.

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