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In Its First Year, Counterpoint Festival Fuses Energy, Fresh Beats

Outside Atlanta, thousands raved nonstop for three days to the sounds that, despite continually having their musical validity called into question, push forward with ingenuity and a growing fan base.

Raging to the distinctive beat of electronic dance music is: Enthusiasm. Energy. Eccentricities. Elation.

Bundle the E’s up under a tent, on a field, or atop a hill; stir in a hodgepodge of mind-alteration, skimpy costumes, mud, rain, and pretty lights; grab a handful of talented painters who, in just a couple days, can whip together a wall-size masterpiece of imagination and mysticism; eat something; drink something; watch; question; sleep; dream; and when it’s all over, reflect on your three-day journey through Georgia’s newest music and camping festival. 

Located a half hour southwest of Atlanta on a forest-encircled farm near the banks of the Chattahoochee River, Counterpoint’s freshman year featured the headlining likes of Pretty Lights, Skrillex, Bassnectar, Big Gigantic and Steve Angello. Branching a little off the electronic theme, veteran Big Boi from Outkast and the up-and-coming indie band Polica were there, too. In all, about six dozen names performed under two giant tents and two side-by-side stages.

It was at the same site, and started by the same creators, of 2007’s Echo Project festival, which, in spite of performances by the Flaming Lips, Common, the Killers, the Avett Brothers, Phil Lesh and more, didn’t return for a second year. The simple reason: a lower-than-expected attendance of about 15,000.

Counterpoint organizers planned to have up to 20,000 throughout the three days; in comparison, that's almost half the crowd that ventured into Music Midtown in the heart of Atlanta the week before. There’s no word yet of an official Counterpoint headcount or a possible return in 2013, but the event was packed and was billed as the “first annual.” 

What could be considered the only setback from this year—a heavy mid-afternoon rain on Friday—sent the lot scrambling to their cars and campsites as security, under fear of lightning, evacuated the grounds. Some hung around under festival tents, and a couple brave souls stripped down to their skivvies and galloped gleefully through the downpour and mud. M83’s show was canceled because of equipment damage caused by the storm, as were a couple others. 

Passionate conservationists would rejoice in that it was a fairly litter-free festival, and beside each trash bag was recycling collection. Food and other vendors were aplenty, and ten or so live artists put together giant murals that got at least a second look from all who walked by.

Emerging from the music at festivals like Counterpoint is a much-asked question, or rather, a debate: Does playing pre-recorded tracks, created on Macs with beat-making programs and synthesizers, count as live music, or for that matter, music at all? Are the mouse-clicking creators of bass and wah-wah-wah-wah sounds actual musicians? Such has resulted in a longtime hesitancy toward the style in the U.S.

"While electronic dance music has long been a commercial force in Europe, the United States notoriously has been resistant to its charms," the New York Times wrote late last year. "In the late ’90s many in the music media hyped an imminent 'electronica' invasion from Britain, but it mostly failed to take root despite modest successes for acts like the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim."

There’s no questioning the spectacle during the shows. The artful patterns playing on screens behind the acts are mesmerizing, as are the laser lights dancing through the machine-generated fog and into the night’s sky. The get-ups worn by the mostly college crowd would be better suited for a Halloween party than the classroom, movies, and especially church. Mother dearest probably wouldn’t approve of their little girl hopping on the trend of what has established itself as festival fashion—skin-tight, neon “shorts” and bikini tops or sports bras, accented by big furry boots, angel wings, elaborate headdresses, and everything else far out there….man. The huge mass is still jumping at the end of the third day and still drawing from a seemingly endless supply of glow sticks to toss in the air during songs. 

Most disregarded Counterpoint's rule of “No drugs or drug paraphernalia,” which is as loose as your common “No jaywalking” or “No littering” laws. It quickly became obvious that molly and pot were floating as rampant as water. Perhaps it’s in these drugs that we can find a potential answer to our afore-proposed questions. As low-cultured as it might sound, the cool kids like to roll through glowy things and fun noises while under the influence of this and that. So maybe, considering the beat-makers as musicians, and the beats as music, gives the shindig a little more culture and makes it a little more definable than just glowy things and fun noises. 

Of course, there’s quite a different, more esteemed perspective: Not everyone has the tech skills, gained through countless days of practice, to create crisp electronic compositions, nor does everyone have the musical ear to make them flow. Not everyone has the determination to play years of small, unpaid shows on the slight chance of grabbing gradually bigger billing. Not everyone has the stage presence or spark to keep thousands dancing for hours.

Beyond the artist, not everyone has the funding or drive to organize festivities that lure such big names in. Not everyone has the equipment or the knowhow to rig up massive concert stages, speakers, and sound equipment. Not everyone can intertwine it all together, creating a mind-blowing experience found nowhere else.

Skills, initiative, and putting the effort into surviving the natural selection of mainstream music—that’s what Counterpoint is. Presenting that many partiers with so much for three days straight can’t be done by everyone. Going against the grain and, in the face of musical scrutiny, having the abilities to join in on a pioneering wave of electronic art and sound can’t be done by everyone.

So in the traditional sense, no, Bassnectar and crew aren’t musicians. But really, when has the constantly evolving craft known as rock ‘n’ roll and its mutations ever been about following tradition? With that, I will say I'm looking forward to the second annual electronic dance music and art and food and recycling and pretty lights Counterpoint festival.

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