Not Just a Phase: Why Ravers Never Really Retire
"I'll never retire," Joe Cole tells me via Twitter DM, just four days after attending the first weekend of Coachella and less than a week before jetting off to Desert Hearts.
Cole discovered raving in 2008 when he was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He felt he'd found something he was always searching for without even knowing he was looking.
"It was eye-opening that something like that existed," he remembers. "The community aspect, the people, the music, the vibes, everything felt like something I felt I had been looking for my entire life, without really being aware it existed."
So many of us echo these sentiments. Raving lives in a space neither here nor there, where reality blurs, people are praised for self-expression, and the norms of outside society fade away.
But not everyone has stamina like Cole.
Percito del Castillo was scared when he went to his first rave. A self-described "church boy," all he knew of dance music culture before his first show was what he had learned from a documentary aimed at exposing drug use within the community. His brother, however, was not quelled by del Castillo's fear and surprised him with tickets to a rave — Mega Buzz, in Oakland — in 1999.
"I would be praying in my room every night leading up to the event, hoping that the rave would get shut down," del Castillo remembers.
After he stepped in the doors, though, that all changed. He loved the music, was intrigued by the complex, colorful costumes worn by the Kandi Kids, and felt immediately welcomed and included. After Mega Buzz, he was hooked and began to attend raves every weekend — even getting more involved in the scene by handing out flyers and trying his hand behind the decks.
Percito del Castillo
In 2014, though, he says he lost energy for partying. Instead, he transitioned to growing his skills as a DJ.
"The older I got, I didn't have the energy to stay up as much," he says. "I just wanted to take my time. I would play when I got booked, which was maybe once or twice a month."
Sean MacMillan, a lapsed raver living in Canada, has a similar story, albeit with a different beginning.
MacMillan stumbled on raving by pure happenstance.
In the late 90s, he says, he was approached by an event organizer who gave him a few free tickets to an upcoming show.
"Next thing you know, there's this underground culture," he remembers. "It was overwhelming, but in a really good way."
Just like del Castillo, MacMillan couldn't get enough. He all but made raving his life for some time and even says he attended just about every major festival in North America. But, when he got into his 30's, he found himself slowing down on rave attendance.
"I peaked," he says. "As we get older, we start to have kids and we have more fiscal responsibilities. It gets easier to pass up on those big raves because they are very costly."
Revolution Images (Ryan Hepner)
However, despite being unable to keep up with their younger selves, del Castillo and MacMillan are still connected to their raving roots, just in new ways.
This isn't uncommon, says Beate Peter, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and dance music enthusiast who has been studying rave culture for over a decade.
According to Peter, the demographic she identifies in her research as "lapsed ravers" are typically anything but retired. Rather, the members of this group still attend raves and go out to clubs, just less frequently.
According to data from her 2019 study written and conducted in collaboration with Lisa Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, titled "One Foot in the Rave: Aging Ravers' Transitions to Adulthood," 68.9 percent of their sample group of older ravers (aged 35 - 61) still attended a nightclub at least once per year.
However, Peter and Williams found that as ravers get older — even if they don't change whether they rave — they often change how they rave.
"Most people who we interviewed still go clubbing, but not that often. And they're quite choosy about where they go because this has become a part of their lifestyle that they need to negotiate," she explains. "Babysitters and transport [become an issue], maybe they live out of the city somewhere. But the majority of people are still engaged, absolutely."
This certainly rings true for del Castillo, who says he is pickier about the shows he attends now that he's older. He's much more likely to be found at an underground or smaller event than at a massive, for instance, and he decides whether or not he'll venture out based largely on who's playing — be it a big-name favorite like Carl Cox or Paul van Dyk or an up-and-comer he'd like to check out.
And indeed, according to Peter and Williams' research, ravers tend to go out less frequently as they age. When their study participants were in their teens and twenties, nearly 85 percent went to raves or nightclubs weekly. However, as they grew older, this number dwindled to just above 2 percent.
Del Castillo says he's made other lifestyle changes, too. Simply put, when he raves now, he doesn't go nearly as hard as he once did.
"Before, I used to just go balls to the wall with the partying," he remembers. "But when I got older, I tried to conserve my energy because it's a long night."
And even Cole says that, over the years, he's changed how he raves, even though he'll never give up on it altogether.
Percito del Castillo
"I wouldn't say I've really slowed down much, but it definitely looks different," he says. "I'm not going to as many mid-week, smaller events, but I'm certainly going to bigger, broader events."
But while Cole stays connected to raving through raving, del Castillo and MacMillan have taken different approaches.
MacMillan has moved into the event organizer space, arranging several shows annually. He's also still a DJ, though he confesses that, for the majority of the time, his kids are his crowd.
"The turntables never get put away in my house," he says with a laugh.
Del Castillo, too, is still active behind the decks. He says he practices regularly and is even learning to produce. He also still listens to dance music religiously.
"I actually listened to techno before I got into raves, so it's been a part of my life for way more than half of it," he says. "I don't really listen to other genres or styles of music."
And despite their apparent love for dance music, del Castillo and MacMillan say their transition to semi-retirement was — despite some complicated feelings during the initial realization and transition — a fairly natural progression.
"I just got tired. I just got worn out," MacMillan says. "It was easy for me to step back and pass my knowledge on and pass the torch on to the younger generation."
Even knowing that they're past their raving prime, MacMillan and del Castillo agree that dance music made them into the people they are. So, in one way or another, it will always be with them.
Peter and Williams also touch on this in their research, albeit more scientifically. Though raving might be commonly regarded as a type of 'youth culture,' it is, in fact, anything but.
As Peter and Williams put it in their paper: "The persistence of raving can be understood as a lifestyle choice that facilitates the development of a maturing identity." That is, for most, raving isn't just a phase. It's an integral aspect of who we are, were, and will continue to be.