From Harvard to EDC
Imagine you’re a music major at Harvard University, and as you approach graduation, you’re offered the opportunity to apply for a post-graduate “meaningful travel” grant. What would you do? Go study the history of steel drums in Trinidad and Tobago? Learn to play traditional sitar in India? Maybe present a paper at the International Society for Music Education conference in Glasgow? For recent Harvard grad Sam Pottash, the answer was simple: attend the EDMbiz Conference in Las Vegas to network and connect his budding interest in electronic music with his academic expertise.
Of course, convincing a department full of Harvard professors—ones who specialize in 17th-century French court music or Ethiopian bards—to send you to Vegas seems like a daunting task, but Sam held strong to his belief that electronic music is the future and somehow convinced the faculty to send him on his way. To make his epic tale even more awe-inspiring, while Sam was taking full advantage of the panels and experiences that EDMbiz had to offer, he caught the attention of the Insomniac marketing department—who, upon hearing his story, arranged for him to attend EDC with full VIP access.
Stunned, in shock, and overjoyed, Sam called his parents to let them know his change of plans. After rebooking his return flight and extending his stay, Sam embarked on a life-changing experience that only EDCLV can offer.
“Before Vegas and EDC, I used to think DJ sets always had an element of staleness. But I saw some of the best shows of my life at EDC, which is not what I could say for the DJ sets I saw in Boston during school.”
Tell us how you ended up at Harvard as a music major. What attracted you to a degree in music—compared to, say, finance?
There was no chance I’d end up in finance (laughs). I love songwriting, every part of it. Harvard is an amazing all-around educational environment, so I just wanted to go for that. When I declared music as a major, it was because I felt that the department had a lot to offer me in terms of concrete music theory, which I had only intuited before. My original interest was in theater music, but my favorite classes were in composition, music theory, and electroacoustic music.
Why Harvard, and not a one-year program in music production?
Unfortunately, I didn’t know my career choice at the time. My high school didn’t have a lot of musician types, and I was the “smart kid,” so I went to Harvard. I always liked the pop and dance music I got exposed to growing up. Piano lessons bored me, but I kept playing piano every day, just writing bits of ideas—sometimes a song. I wish I could go back and give that kid Ableton. Did it exist? I used to obsess over the weird settings and layering of sounds you could do on electronic keyboards, but I didn’t really connect to how those were used in songs. I heard my first techno song at Output in Brooklyn at NYC Pride last year and then immediately started becoming obsessed with dance music sounds—specifically with the timbre, as the classicists say. Filters, reverb, all that fascinated me, all of which I had learned about in electroacoustic music class at Harvard.
It seems like a natural bridge to this travel grant you applied for. Give us the details and how you convinced your stuffy old professors to send you to Vegas!
I told the truth, to be honest. I think all kinds of [musicians] need to look to dance music, because full control of timbre in the service of songwriting is the future. Electronic production is really the only way to have full—and I mean totally full—control of your sounds. I did not mention that I wanted to hang out in Vegas with my friends, but I assume they knew. I asked to be funded for EDMbiz and not EDC, so they knew I was serious, but they might have given me it! Thankfully, the “stuffy professors” are very supportive of their students’ academic interests, and it was a “conference” that is genuinely an academic interest of mine, that I’m passionate about.
“I heard my first techno song at Output in Brooklyn at NYC Pride last year and then immediately started becoming obsessed with dance music sounds.”
So here it is, two weeks after you graduate, and you touch down in Sin City for EDMbiz. What was that experience like?
So fun. My first conference, and there’s an open bar? I can’t pick a favorite event. The best part was just how passionate and kind everyone in the industry there was. While Harvard can feel pre-professional—or worse, pre-six-figures at times—it really felt like everyone was there for the music.
Of course, fate intervened, and you ended up extending your trip and attending EDC on the VIP tip. Tell us how that went down.
Alana Bly—my Dad’s friend and business partner, who also lives in Philly—was there with her app Social Ladder, which works with a bunch of big music festivals. She had told members of the Insomniac marketing team about the Harvard fellowship, and they were so—I don’t know, elated/confused/impressed—that they offered me VIP access to EDC right there. Of course, I freaked out. Shocked, I wandered off to a distant sofa at Caesars, called my mom, and changed my flight. A childhood friend joined me from L.A., and I had one of the best weekends of my life.
Had you ever attended EDC or a similar festival before?
I have never been anywhere like EDC—nothing close. I had no idea the scope of the event. It really is a carnival, and it’s enormous. I was lucky enough to go with festival veteran Tucker Gumber (aka the Festival Guy) the first day, and he showed me around for my first big lap. My mouth was open in awe the entire time.
I remember sitting at the same table as Martin Garrix in the Marquee SkyDeck. That was insane. There were other moments like that, but the real highlight was totally the music. The last day, I just parked at kineticFIELD and saw four favorites in a row—Hermitude, WhatSoNot, RL Grime, and Marshmello—a dream lineup. I really liked those ritual moments, where everything seemed to shut down and a voiceover came on that eventually gave way to music with all the fireworks. It was good to breathe in between dancing and remind yourself of the principles behind the brand.
“Thankfully, the ‘stuffy professors’ are very supportive of their students’ academic interests, and it was a ‘conference’ that is genuinely an academic interest of mine, that I’m passionate about.”
Now that it’s all said and done—what’s the one lesson you walk away from the experience with?
Before Vegas and EDC, I used to think DJ sets always had an element of staleness, because the magic of live music is seeing the emotion in someone’s face and body language unite with that of the sound through the conduit of their physical playing. But I saw some of the best shows of my life at EDC, which is not what I could say for the DJ sets I saw in Boston during school.
What do you think the difference was?
The environment, the visuals, the pure energy of a dedicated and focused crowd. The synchronized visuals were SO good that they elevated the experience to rival the best shows I’ve ever seen. That was a very welcome surprise because the sound output, what you’re hearing, is just as good. Even better, it accomplished it completely in its own way, because half the time, I wasn’t watching the person DJing; I was just listening or watching the visuals.
How do you see yourself incorporating this experience into your professional life in the future?
I write electronic pop music and am developing a new project at the moment that should start releasing in the coming months. At school, I was doing a lot of things—including improv comedy, comedy writing, arts mentorship, and theater music. My biggest projects were head writing a news satire show. Now I’m putting it all into my own music. With that in mind, what happened in Vegas is certainly not staying in it. The shows, friends, knowledge, and fun I gathered will be with me for a long time. Thanks, Insomniac!
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