Photo by David Le

The Atlanta Motor Speedway has been the home to the Imagine Music Festival for the past couple of years. The generous space is a refreshing change from the crowds of Music Midtown the week before. The Imagine Music Festival was themed “An Aquatic Fairytale” and featured three days of talented artists. Imagine is most properly characterized as a mid-sized EDM festival — not quite as large as the greats of the genre like Ultra or Tomorroworld. Imagine’s unique size sets it apart as a niche festival that still holds the epic feel of a large-scale festival without the lines and unnavigable crowds.

This past weekend, Imagine featured 70+ artists on five stages, of which four were open on day one of the festival. Each stage was equipped with its own complete decorations and 3D backdrop. The visuals are perhaps as crucial as the music itself for an EDM festival, and Imagine delivered. The main stage was mesmerizing — crosshatched lasers vibrated in the air space above the heads of the crowd as optical illusions backed the artists and reflected the pace and mood of the set.

The view for the concertgoers was much more complex in comparison to hip-hop festivals. At peak sets, dancers came out in levitating orbs while acrobats performed alongside them. Meanwhile, bursts of fire adorned the sides of the stage — so close to the audience members that it might have singed their hair.

There was never a cold minute at Imagine. Smaller stages held viewers’ attention as they moved among the bigger stages — the two largest stages were separated by a row of food trucks. There were a variety of choices all in the range of $8 and up. A full meal cost attendees around $20, and for a festival as long as Imagine, food is an important consideration. 50+ vendor shops filled up the rest of the tarmac. The EDM culture at Imagine is defined and is full of tradition; the shops, the people and the dress all reflect a singular coherent vibe.

Varied installations throughout the speedway caught the eyes of passerby. A geodesic pyramid pulsed different colors while a metal orb rotated open to expose an untamed flame. Decorated wooden canvases featured art made by many of the concertgoers themselves — the people who helped to create the festival are some of the most adamant in enriching the EDM culture and community. The sense of ritual is developed and the positive attitude is infectious.

This year’s lineup was rumored to be the best Imagine has ever seen. Atlanta was fortunate enough to see some EDM greats — Armin Van Buren, RL Grime, Kaskade and more. Each day of the festival had a collection of artists that complemented each other’s style well. As the weekend progressed, the names on stage got bigger and the sets used more lyrics and hit songs.

By nighttime, each set became a cyclical process between building up to the next drop to the rapid lights and roaring fire that accompanied it. The crowd energy nearing peak sets like Bass Nectar and Galantis was unmatched. In terms of a cost analysis for the viewer, an EDM festival like Imagine undoubtedly has the highest return on investment. The price of the ticket is comparable to Music Midtown or a ticket to an arena concert like Taylor Swift or Aubrey and the Three Amigos, but these options do not have the same effects, production, stages, or vendors that Imagine does.

After speaking to some veteran EDMers, it was clear that Imagine’s size in comparison to larger festivals was a nice sweet spot. At Imagine, viewers could easily navigate crowds and likely reach close to the front center of a stage at about any time during an artist’s set. The open space and lounging audience added a laid-back feel to it all. No one was obligated to stick around and hear an artist finish — a restrictive environment would contradict the unique character of Imagine.

Logistically, Imagine can improve the intake of cars and the handling of traffic for both parking and entrance for campers. In the past, Imagine has received criticism about the lack of water stations for concert goers.

This year, Imagine failed to hold up the same concern they showed at last year’s festival. Long lines and warm water were both reasons to skip the refill stations. The VIP section promises a selective viewing experience, but the section scales the left quadrant of the audience at the two largest stages at Imagine. The upgrade is underwhelming and not worth the increase in price. In contrast, the camping pass is the entry to the actual all-night-long party with a silent disco ending at 7 a.m. to wrap up the eventful weekend Monday morning.

The reluctance to commit to an EDM concert is a dilemma that seems to be common among a lot of listeners who are on the fence about the genre. Imagine is a perfect mid-size festival that satisfies the serious listener and the amateur alike.

The experience is not reliant on a listener’s familiarity with certain songs or artists — EDM’s inclusivity gears Imagine to increase in size and success year after year. Imagine is the largest privately run EDM festival — for it to operate at its scale and move artists to the US for a weekend is quite a feat.