Nine Takeaways From Sustain-Release 2023

Takeaway one: Nightlife is service work. 

The evening before I began to organize these thoughts in writing, I received a "Credits" email from the S-R team. The email detailed every single person who labored to produce Sustain-Release 2023. Just for fun, I decided to count the names. 

There were about 240 people who worked in collaboration to build Sustain-Release 2023 . . . which leads me to— 

Takeaway two: In its ninth year, Sustain-Release was one of the most expertly produced music festivals I've ever attended. 

The music, the venue, the production, the lighting, the sound, the food, the lineups, the timing, the logistics. It's all dialed in, and even though S-R is technically a camping festival and I had to do some prep work to travel across the country to sleep (I did, in fact, get some sleep) in a tent for several nights, attending the festival was a remarkably smooth experience.

Takeaway three: Dubstep is the greatest music on the planet. OK, sure, hyperbole—yes, fine. But it is. 

And there was so much more dubstep at Sustain-Release 2023 than I expected, and it was beautiful. On Friday night, Succubass into Darwin was a particular highlight, but there were many other key dubstep moments—like Livwutang dropping Appleblim and Peverelist's "Circling" around six in the morning on Sunday, beckoning me like a siren from the Main stage toward the Grove.

Nevertheless, I know that many people feel about dubstep the way I feel about the 145bpm clowncore Eurodance that soundtracked the pool party, and that's fine, too. Balance in all things.  

Takeaway four: DJ Plead was absolutely the clear singular high point of the whole festival for me. 

Mind-bending polyrhythmic mathematical drum-science DJ wizardry, but less annoying and more groove-channeling than that description makes it sound. He dipped in and out of beatless, cerebral scenes into (what I assume are) some of his own productions, blending pan-Arab percussion and gqom-ish African rhythms through catechistic cross-time signature, cross-tempo mixing.

Takeaway five: The stark contrast between the Grove and the Main stages was a testament to how organizers tweak and iterate year over year.

This is my second year attending Sustain-Release, but my first where the Grove stage, the outdoor stage, hosted dance music. The Grove is raw (as hell, tbh—the downside is it can be challenging to dance at the Grove because of how treacherous the forest floor is for the crowd) and offers communion with nature, evoking a very particular feeling, something approaching the "true festival experience."

The Main stage, meanwhile, a converted basketball gym, feels like the Platonic expression of a warehouse rave. Blasted out with fog, illuminated by an astonishingly effective lighting array hung Damocles-style above the crowd on an axial-orbital truss (lol I just mean to say: the lights were so sick!!), and equipped with a springy pad on the floor, it was maybe one of the finest dancefloor environments I've ever experienced. 

Going back and forth between the two felt, at times, like being at two entirely different festivals. Despite occasional challenges getting between the stages (fuck those bridges, although they are charming), the setup this year really felt like the festival is making the most of its unique venue.

Takeaway six: The crowd is truly scene-y—and while that does make for some absurd incongruities with regard to the festival setting, it also means there is not a single unseasoned raver in the mix.

Yes, sometimes a quick scan of the Sustain-Release crowd feels like you're looking at some sort of Berlin-or-Brooklyn techno-cringe meme—and yes, some of the looks on display are hilariously OTT when you remember we're all partying at a kids' summer camp—but crucially, every single attendee is a professional who knows how to handle their shit.

The festival's ticketing process makes for a very "gatekeeper-esque" crowd, which is one of the main criticisms I hear about the festival at large. On one hand, it's true: If you want to attend the festival, you must know and be vouched for by somebody who has already attended. And frankly, purchasing a ticket before they immediately sell out is a pain in the ass.

But for me personally, the compromise is worth it. Dancing at Sustain-Release feels like being at a carefully organized warehouse party, not a big-room club or massive festival.  

Takeaway seven: The lighting at Sustain-Release is just incredible—so good that I came away with a new appreciation for club lighting as artistry unto itself and a new understanding of how lighting affects the overall rave experience.

Truthfully, I don't think I have ever experienced club lighting as effective, well-designed, or genuinely psychedelic as the lighting at Sustain-Release. The incredible array at the Main stage I already mentioned, but the Grove stage was just as good, with haze fog and vertical-horizontal lasers working in concert.

That the team builds all of this from scratch, in spaces not purpose-built for this kind of thing, just makes it all the more impressive. Phenomenal shit.

Takeaway eight: Aurora Halal's curation of the festival lineup is unmistakable and uncompromising, with a perennial focus on local talent. 

Each year, more than it hews to any particular sound or style, the Sustain-Release lineup feels, in a word, contemporary—a snapshot of what's happening in dance music right now. There's always a strong contingent of active and on-the-rise New York DJs, too. Both years I've attended, that means a good chunk of the lineup I'm not familiar with, and some of the music on offer isn't for me. But honestly, that's part of the draw. It means my horizons are expanded even if it doesn't always work out how I'd prefer, and it also means I'm surprised by unfamiliar artists. 

A double-edged sword: I wish there was better representation of broader American talent—like from the West Coast, let's say. But it's a New York festival and I respect the commitment to New York artists. 

This year, my surprise takeaway was Clarisa Kimskii, a DJ I had never heard before who closed the Main stage on Saturday-into-Sunday with pummeling wormhole techno—purist techno mostly isn't my bag these days, but her set was put together so well I stayed locked in till the very end. 

Takeaway nine: Yes, I saw the Sustain baby, and it seemed to be having a great time playing with its parents outside—but the presence of the baby points to larger decisions the festival will need to make about family accessibility for future iterations. 

I'm not interested in passing judgment on the parents' decision to bring their baby to the festival, nor am I interested in the memes or jokes about the baby. 

Nevertheless, this does seem like a fork-in-the-road moment. If babies and/or children are to be a presence at Sustain-Release, some tricky decisions will have to be made by the festival organizers about how they are accommodated. 

Anyway, the festival was sick. The music was excellent. I had a great time. My thanks go out to everyone who worked to produce this experience for myself and the other attendees.