The All Play No Fun Economy

How did we end up teetering between euphoria and exhaustion?

Jessikah Díaz

Despite harsh conditions, which included massive traffic jams, concert-goers at Woodstock later emphasized the weekend’s spirit of “sharing” and “community.” Getty Images / Owen Franken-Corbis

In the winter of 2012, the Swedish house musician Avicii checked into NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in agonizing pain from what proved to be his pancreas. It was Super Bowl weekend, and he was appearing in a commercial for Bud Light Platinum, a new variety of low-calorie beer. He hushed a nurse so that he could watch the ad during the game. It opened with a man in a pressed shirt looking miserable as a voiceover intoned, “They say a man’s work is never done. They say you can’t mix business with pleasure.” Then came a cut to a sprawling, blue-lit office, where the twenty-two-year-old DJ danced behind his turntables and people partied, grabbing beers from an ice bucket atop a filing cabinet. The voiceover continued: “It’s a good thing they don’t work here.”

Within two weeks, Avicii checked out of the hospital and went back to work. His decision to head back on the road was emblematic. As Måns Mosesson recounts in Tim: The Official Biography of Avicii (2021), the DJ had worked more than six hundred shows in two years. He played major festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Ultra, events that typically attract hundreds of thousands of people. As his fame grew, he kept up this punishing schedule, repeatedly returning to the hospital—for his pancreas at first, and then for his gallbladder, and then for his appendix, which burst. In the process, he became addicted to opioids, initially prescribed for his chronic pancreatitis. The media made much of his addiction, invoking stereotypes of hard-partying artists, but the irony was that Avicii was not high on MDMA or other festival drugs taken for pleasure; he used opiates so he could numb his pain, so he could work.

In 2016, Avicii finally retired from performing live and began meditating, sometimes for hours a day, in an attempt to overcome the anxieties and insecurities wrought by a life in the limelight. But it was not enough. Two years after he retired and shortly before heading back on the festival circuit, he took his own life at the age of twenty-eight. Shortly before his death, he looked back fondly on the moments his body forced him into care: “Those days in hospital were the most anxiety and stress-free days I can remember the past six years, those were my true vacations.” Somehow, what had started off as a dream—playing music at festivals for a living—had become crushing, and ultimately self-destructive, labor. Avicii was simultaneously selling and suffering from a culture of production and play. Tim unpacks these incongruities vividly: the biography offers not only a glimpse at the man behind the DJ but shows how every part of our global capitalist culture has people teetering between euphoria and exhaustion—even at festivals.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Festivals offer an escapist vision meant to remove us from the realities of modern life: a high-heat electric pastoral with a DJ and a synth instead of a shepherd and a lyre. Reproducing mass ecstasy is key, even when that means pretending everyone involved in its making isn’t exhausted by the effort required to stage that fantasy; the bizarrely built ecosystem of dopamine, nostalgia, and kitsch is set up to conceal the nuts and bolts of its production. As someone who goes to festivals, I understand the draw of them. I once described the experience as hyper-aural-kinesis, but it’s ironic being that technical when there’s vomit on the floor. “Purging” is one word for the feeling; “liberating” is a nicer one. What it really feels like is weightlessly swaying in a sweaty mass of people who can hear nothing but one song on its loudest setting. When it’s not completely horrifying, it’s total bliss. Those weekends coerce me into regeneration: I stay for two nights maximum, or I risk losing all my money, sleep, and sense of time. Festivals are a fantasy. Mastering fantasy is their job.

Festivals offer an escapist vision meant to remove us from the realities of modern life.

But the line is thin and hard to hold. At a festival, even for the participants, it’s easy to slide from rapture to fatigue, to notice the veil slipping off imagination and exposing its gears: neon-spoked Ferris wheels, aerial silk acrobatics, pyrotechnics, holograms, thousands of LED lights. I don’t go to festivals to think about labor and energy; I’m there to forget how much of mine I’ve spent in the past year. Yet increasingly it is hard to do that. The work-related pressures driving swarms of people to weekend events are the same pressures demanding entertainers and organizers to relentlessly reproduce that desire into reality. “The problem with this gospel [of work],” writes the critic Derek Thompson, “is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.” Festivals promise to revive the exhausting and isolating effects of labor with their frenzy, but their frenetic state winds up mirroring capitalism’s alienating framework.

The festivals I’m talking about are large-scale music and art events, where tens of thousands of people are in attendance for at least three days. According to Nielsen Music, as many as thirty-two million people attend at least one festival every year, and on average they travel more than nine hundred miles to be there. Some will car-camp; many will bring a Bellagio-sized tent big enough for all their friends. Those who prefer more refined spaces will book hotel accommodations—and then gripe about missing the after-parties. Everyone brings water and food and enough liquor to fill a lake. However commercialized they have become, these festivals still purport to hold onto their long-standing ethos as a community celebration, a place where work gives way to allied abandon.

And yet, what’s remarkable about festivals is how much they’ve changed since the iconic summer of Woodstock in 1969. Woodstock took place over three days on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and was conceived of as a profit-making venture. When the organizers couldn’t afford to get their fences and ticket booths up in time, it became a “free concert” for young political progressives whose ideas were buoyed by the music of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane. Woodstock was, at first glance, a mess—many who attended the festival experienced horrific traffic jams, food shortages, and bad drug trips. But little of that seemed to matter to the people who were there. Two weeks after the event, attendees interviewed in a New York Times article emphasized Woodstock’s culture of “sharing” and “community.” The article described the festival-goers as something beyond well behaved and oblivious to their own discomfort—they appeared to be “at peace with themselves, almost to the point of ecstasy.”

If a genuine spirit of collective feeling was Woodstock’s ethos, festivals took a more commercial turn in the early 1980s with the launch of the US Festival in San Bernardino, California. Conceived as a reaction to the “Me”-centric 1970s, the event was the brainchild of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who dubbed it “Woodstock West.” Over the course of two festivals in 1982 and 1983, US Festival drew more than one million people to the Inland Empire, where they ­­­could not only watch musical performances by bands such as Van Halen, Stevie Nicks, The Clash, and Ozzy Osbourne but also visit a Career Expo to check out the latest robots and computers. When festival attendees weren’t playing the computer keys to the beat of “Iron Man,” they chatted with university reps about ways to chart their own paths toward tech. Wozniak’s vision for the festival fit what he saw as an ’80s theme—“unity, people working together”—meaning human connections forged with the help of technology. The US Festival featured ambitious attempts to thaw Cold War tensions with rock and roll and tech: attendees could participate in a panel about the Cold War and behold the U.S.-Soviet Space Bridge, a two-way satellite beaming live to a Moscow TV station (“To Russia with US,” read the program) and, in doing so, communally join what the panel moderator called a new “global nervous system” enabled by technology.

The collapse of labor and leisure has allowed work to become something we do all the time and are expected to enjoy.

Tech is so ubiquitous now that many of us may have forgotten that linking it up with the counterculture was once a goal and not a given. At the time, anti-industry bands like The Clash suffered a backlash from disappointed fans. The band called a press conference in Los Angeles so that it could explain why it was “selling out,” as its fans complained, for $500,000 (to “inject social realism into the scene”). What seemed ill matched at first—punk, money, and technology—was a straightforward display of the emerging tech industry and a counterculture newly locked into its orbit, the two shifting the axis of American culture thereon. The Church of Scientology called the festival “a multimillion dollar music computer extravaganza,” a clumsy phrase that nevertheless captured the ways that wealth, commodity, and spectacle would come to dominate our lives and strain their coherence. Soon, this pressing desire for a media that connects cultures (despite politics) became a central tool for the globalized economy.

Around the same time, another music event offered up a fresh vision of what a festival could be. Built on a barter system, Burning Man, which began in 1986 with a handful of people on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, was supposed to be anti-capitalist and anti-work. “Burning Man is not a festival!” declares its website. “It’s a city wherein almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who are active participants in the experience.” The 2010 documentary Encountering Burning Man, directed by Jean-Simon Chartier, offers a glimpse of what these principles look like in practice: a “Camp Makin’ Bacon” tent serves up eighty pounds of pork, a drink stand turns oranges into freshly squeezed juice. One man tells Chartier that while no one at Burning Man thinks of it as a “moneyless utopia,” the “gift ethos” transforms commodities and “instills them with new meaning.” But along the way, especially after the dot-com boom of the late ’90s, Burning Man changed. Now it is a playground for the rich, a place where companies like Google take the festival’s countercultural ethos of community and turn it into a framework for postindustrial information work. “Peer production” and “vocational ecstasy,” says scholar and critic Fred Turner, are just two ways that Burning Man’s bohemian idealism becomes a cultural blueprint for workplace production and, reciprocally, an enchanting offer for prospective employees disillusioned by straitlaced corporations.

This evolution, or devolution,
is even more clear and straightforward with Coachella, which began in 1999 in Indio, California as a spring music festival featuring indie and alternative artists. Over the years, it has transformed into an amusement park where influencers go to sell their product—themselves. Dressed in crocheted sets and leather fringe, they pose casually for the cameras, holding drinks with their labels turned perfectly toward the lens or reclining under a YouTube banner. In 2022, the first Coachella since the arrival of COVID-19, festival-goers began expressing weariness with Coachella and the priority it puts on work. Speaking to Buzzfeed News, fashion writer Mandy Lee said, “I’m a little fatigued. It used to feel more aspirational. . . . It feels faker now, like it’s more commercialized.”

A hairstylist prepares an influencer for the 2017 “Desert Jam” party at Coachella, presented by Lucky and Nylon. The festival has turned into an amusement park where “influencers go to sell their products—themselves.” Getty Images / Lilly Lawrence

Even as festivals have become more like work, workplaces—especially start-ups in or adjacent to the tech space—are invoking festival-like play as a force capable of trapping their workers at work for ever longer hours. A recent Wall Street Journal article notes that TikTok’s lack of work-life boundaries stands in stark opposition to the platform’s image of “goof-offs, dance-offs, and good-natured pranks.” Their motto, “It’s always day one”—borrowed from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—rubs out the work of yesterday to stress the tasks of tomorrow. Before them, another start-up company, WeWork, epitomized the attitude with its own reworked proverb, “Thank God It’s Monday.”

Starting in 2008, WeWork created distinctly modern co-working spaces equipped with kitchens, kombucha bars, and parties. At its apogee, WeWork leased 528 offices in 111 cities across 29 countries and, excepting Uber, was the most highly valued private company in the world. Jed Rothstein’s 2021 documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn presses on the company’s hyper-exhaustive culture of overspending, overpromising, and overpartying; as the film reveals, even as WeWork was promising those who leased its offices a culture of work driven by meaning and fun, it was placing ever greater demands on its workers. At the helm of WeWork was Adam Neumann, an Israeli-American born on a kibbutz, and his wife Rebekah Paltrow Neumann; it was Adam who said that the company’s goal was less to provide workspaces for those in the new gig economy than “to elevate the world’s consciousness,” evoking the communal spirit that undergirded early festival culture.

In 2012, Adam Neumann launched WeWork’s annual Summer Camp, a mandatory employee event in the form of a seventy-two-hour rager during which the company rented out a lakeside camp in upstate New York and stocked it with wakeboarding, dodgeball, archery, and Ashton Kutcher (an early supporter). One night, while giving a speech on the value of teamwork (the “We” in WeWork), Adam turned to the crowd and shouted, “We were very worried that we couldn’t do [this] better than last year!” He grinned. “And I said: What if we do one more day, do twice as many people, five times as much alcohol? Then we could do this again!”

Why twice as many people might require five times the alcohol is a math problem I’d rather not attempt. But even with Adam’s promise to his employees—of more people and more play—the later years of WeWork look bleak, the employees’ energy more milked than maximized. In one clip from the film, hundreds of people at Summer Camp sit in the mud wearing turquoise wristbands as Rebekah encourages them to hold hands and embrace their unity. Meanwhile, a former lawyer for the company explains that the bracelets are GPS trackers meant to ensure that employees attend all eight hours of the company’s presentations. As the camera scans the crowd, I think about how exhausted they all seem. Their eyes gloss over as Adam makes energetic but incoherent speeches about the importance of teamwork and “We.”

The Neumanns’ wily but intoxicating joie de vivre is captured in the 2022 Apple TV+ show WeCrashed, a retelling of the couple’s eventual ouster and WeWork’s eventual devaluation as it tried to go public. Adam Neumann, played with panache by Jared Leto, describes the company’s target workers as millennials who “don’t just want to make a living; they want to make a life.” In episode three, Rebekah (Anne Hathaway) finds herself in deep shit with the group after giving a speech at Summer Camp in which she extols the women “who help men manifest their calling.” The line ignites a classic social media dumpster fire, and a tense PR conference is called on the campgrounds. “You’ve pissed off the millennials,” says one business partner to Rebekah. “We need them,” underscores another. “They work eighty hours a week for free beer and T-shirts.”

In WeCrashed, the husband-and-wife founders of WeWork (Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto) require their employees to attend a music festival–style summer camp. Courtesy AppleTV+

Put WeWork and Coachella together, and the desire to make work our life’s “calling” looks less like a claim specifically offered to credulous millennials and more like a sweeping cultural shift that has led to the subsuming of work into play and play into work. Fueling an empire with beer and best friends sounds great. But the collapse of labor and leisure has allowed work to become something we do all the time and are expected to enjoy. The promise of liberation is an illusion: your work is capable of changing the world, so why would you stop, or draw boundaries? If the new workplace model of WeWork was supposed to be about merging life and work, making work more enjoyable and less capitalist and tedious, in practice it means that work is colonizing our lives. Our life and our play have both become more work-like, rather than more vibrant and creative. WeCrashed vividly dramatizes the ways that companies sell their employees on the idea that work is “communal” and also “a life”—in exchange, of course, for extracting more labor from them. A company’s promise, that “we” can make work a “life,” is a check that workers can’t cash.

But what are
the alternatives? How do we stop working all the time? The “work can be fun” line is dangerous because it asks us to forget that work is labor. But the alternatives, bland and sober, also feel grim. In the last episode of WeCrashed, Adam’s manic spending forces him to resign from the company. A new interim CEO, Cameron Lautner, a composite character of Benchmark Capital reps consistently infuriated by Adam’s playfulness and conviction that everything will work out, gathers WeWork’s employees, rightly disappointed with the realities behind the Neumanns’ promises. Somehow they gave everything to WeWork and still lost more. Somehow they built a multi-billion-dollar company and walked away in debt. Their stock options disappeared when the company didn’t IPO. Some of them had planned their lives around that money. Looking down upon them from the top of a staircase, Lautner tries to rally his workers by reminding them what their jobs actually entail:

It’s about time that we got really honest about what we actually do here. We’re not here to “raise the world’s consciousness.” That’s not how capitalism works. We’re here to earn value for our investors, and we’re going to do that by providing high-quality shared workspaces at a competitive price.

And what are you going to get in return? A fair wage and real profit sharing.

Adam says, “Do what you love,” is that right? “Do what you love—the money? oh, it will follow.” No sir, excuse me. It’s hard work, that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? It’s hard fucking work.

Adam’s promise of a blended space for production and play was a false vision of escapist revolution, a smokescreen he sold his employees, who put their labor on the line for a job with “value” and ended up, like Avicii, simultaneously selling and suffering from a culture where production and play were perniciously mixed in ways that served productivity more than community.

Since long before Woodstock, people have craved collective experiences to generate meaning in their personal lives. But now, many want their work to be a source of that change. They want to feel more impactful, more connected, more fulfilled. The problem is that meaningful work has become synonymous with the elegantly articulated visions of billion-dollar companies, who insist that our work will matter if it makes climate-correcting cars, or democratized shopping experiences, or communal co-working spaces—but whose bottom line ultimately depends on grinding out profits, not changing the world. Four days before he died, Avicii told his therapist, “I’ve got to help the world, I need to serve a purpose.”

Our lives have always been pressurized by work. But the places where we once sought respite are now precisely those where work looks ever more acute, ever more inescapable. I want my connections with others to be wired through a circuit less totalizing and fragile. I want to work for a fair wage. And sometimes in spring, I want to be out in the California desert, dancing to Avicii.

Jessikah Díaz is a PhD candidate in English at Yale University.
Originally published:
July 15, 2024


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