Ryan Kruger talks about Digital Dreams, WEMF and more

Ryan Kruger is a name that is synonymous with the electronic dance music scene in Toronto for the past 20+ years. He founded Destiny Events, one of the longest running independent event producers, and was the man behind the famous WEMF outdoor festival in Ontario. From the old warehouse raves back in the 1990s to today's big production EDM festivals, Ryan Kruger has seen it all. Today he is the Managing Director of Electronic Nation Canada, the dance music division of Live Nation Canada, and is responsible for organizing the upcoming Digital Dreams Music Festival. EDM Canada was happy to talk to Ryan Kruger about Digital Dreams in depth, WEMF, his personal taste in music, and much more. Enjoy: 

EDM Canada: What differences can fans expect between the 2013 and 2014 editions of
Digital Dreams?

Ryan Kruger: I think the biggest thing that people are going to notice is the way that we have layed out the site. The event itself is increasing in size from 50,000 to 80,000 people over the course of the weekend. To accommodate this increase in capacity we actually moved the main stage into the front parking lot along Lakeshore which increases the footprint of the entire festival. In addition, we are also adding an area on the south side that's closer to the lake. Overall, the layout will flow better and the stages will be further apart which will eliminate issues of sound bleed that sometimes cropped up in the past. Digital Dreams will also utilize the entire eastern part of Ontario Place that so will now connect everything from the Lakeshore to the lake itself. The next big thing people will notice is the fact we're going completely cashless. We are reincorporating the RFID technology that we tried out in the first year and we're taking it to the next level that will essentially allow people to somewhat leave their wallets at home. People will have an online account that can be access through their wristband RFID chip. With this account they can upload money, both in advance and at on-site at kiosks as well as through their phones. You'll be able to do pretty much anything on-site that requires a cash transaction via a flip of the wrist over a scanner. That includes all food and beverage, merchandise, vendors, and pretty much everything except for stuff outside of the venue like parking and transportation.

Will vendors still be accepting cash or will they go completely cashless this year?

Ryan Kruger: It will depend. Everything that we do including all of our own propriety food and beverage, ticket purchases, merchandise, etc, all of that will be cashless. There will be no option to pay cash. By doing this it will make the whole process much more efficient and and faster for the customer. We've seen this system being used in major festivals in both North America and around the world over the last 6-12 months and it really speeds up the interaction between the patron and whatever they want to do on site. You'll get faster service buying a beer, bottle of water, t-shirt, or whatever that it might be. We're just working on the final details with the independent vendors like a food trucks to see if they can go completely cashless, or a mix of both. But our goal is to go completely cashless site-wide.

How would people load up their RFID wristband with money?

Ryan Kruger: The wristband itself is simply a key to a lock. It has a unique pin code built within the RFID chip, and if you lose your RFID band, you're not losing your wallet per se. Your wallet is an online holding spot, almost like a bank account. And the key to access that is your wristband RFID chip. If you were to lose it or damage it, you'll simply go to a help desk and have the old one deactivated and get a new one. The way you'll load it is by going to a specific website that is built for the process of transferring funds and you can do that in advance directly from your bank account, interac, credit card, or you could go right to a kiosk set up at the site and put cash on it. So you don't actually need a bank account or credit card to actually use it.

Will this new system be safe?

Ryan Kruger: Absolutely. It's actually safer than having a wallet in your pocket because if you lose your wallet, it's gone and everything in it is gone. If for whatever reason you lose your wristband, and the actual amount of people that lose their wristband at an event is next to zero, you can immediately shut it off and get a new one. It's almost like cancelling the service from your phone, getting a new phone, and uploading your backed up information onto it. You haven't lost any information and there is actually no cost to having your wristband replaced if its lost or damaged. In addition, there is another big positive to the system in that it's not your typical old school system of buying some tokens for beer or food and you'll have 3-4 tokens left in your pocket when you leave and feel slightly ripped off. Our system goes both ways. When the festival is done and you haven't used up all of your funds on the wristband, we'll refund 100% of that money to you.


"The overall footprint of the entire site is probably 35% - 40% larger than last year."

How much bigger will the venue be as compared to the last edition of Digital Dreams?

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Ryan Kruger: The main stage area, where people will remember being in a parking lot along the east side of the island – that area is being moved to the front parking lot area and will approximately double in size. Some of the other areas on the ground will not change like Echo Beach. The House of Boom area is also very similar. We did however add a 4th stage this year which on Saturday is called “Fantasy Land” and it's trance related, and then on Sunday it will be the “Number 19 Social Experiment” which is deep house with the whole Art Department crew. The overall footprint of the entire site is probably 35% - 40% larger than last year.

The lineup is a lot more diverse this year with the incorporation of more trance and drum and bass acts, was a more diverse lineup a goal of the 2014 edition of Digital Dreams?

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Ryan Kruger: Absolutely. I've been involved in a number of different festivals over the years and most festivals undergo a growth and maturity level as they go on in years. The first year was to really establish a brand and get people used to going to what you've created and create a great experience that they want to go back to. The second year was to see if that idea was going to catch hold with the public and grow. It obviously did because we sold it out in advance. As we move forward we start expanding the offering of what the festival has and try to reach a diverse new audience. It's about giving people a rich and broad festival experience. This is a music festival and the focus should be in expanding the musical genres and styles that people can check out rather than simply going to the main stage all day and night. In our case we always had a very diverse lineup when it comes to separating a bass side, a more underground tech house side, and a mainstream EDM side but the addition this year of the 4th stage as well as a more diverse lineup on all the others should create a much more rounded musical experience.

In all of your years of organizing and promoting electronic dance music, did you ever envision that it will get this big?

Ryan Kruger: I think when we started this back in 1991 if I'm not mistaken, we couldn't understand why people wouldn't want to go to these type of events or listen to this type of music. It was completely different to the type of stuff that was out there, it didn't involve going to the bar and getting into a fight on Friday night and all of those type of things that went with the traditional night out in Toronto. As the scene grew, the waves took it up and then down in overall popularity but the goal was always the same and that's to reach out to as many people as possible and try to change people's attitudes. We want to introduce them to try something new; to something we love and hopefully they will love as well. The fact that it's grown so much? Yeah, I don't think anyone could have predicted it 5-10 years ago, or even two years ago, but I think it still has room to grow and our goal is to continue that growth.

In light of the banning of EDM events at Exhibition Place by the Toronto City Council, are you at all worried that one day the Provincial Government might do the same with The Flats @ M.C.A (Ontario Place)?

Ryan Kruger: In short no, I'm not worried about that. But there's a couple of things that I'd like to comment on your statement. One is that it wasn't the Toronto Council that voted on that, it was the Executive Committee of the Exhibition. It's a much smaller entity than Toronto Council. I'm quite confident that Toronto in its quest to become a music city and cultural hub on par musically with some places like Austin will not allow something like this to continue very long. I think when it actually does comes to a full Council debate and vote, which will probably happen sooner than later – I think we'll see this decision is quickly reversed. I think overall it was a decision that was made in haste and was made for the wrong reasons. I think when people take a step back and realize exactly what message their sending and what the message means in the bigger picture, it will be quickly reversed.

Do you think electronic dance music and our scene has an image problem with the general population?

Ryan Kruger: It's always been this way. I've been involved in this scene for a long time, almost 24 years now. I think you could probably go back and say anything youth related and different than the mainstream always had a bad image. Whether it was starting with Elvis Presley, to rap, and now dance music. If it's different and something that the generation ahead doesn't fully understand, then obviously “you have to think of the children and you gotta protect them”, “you have to save them”, and all of those cliches come about. I think most intelligent adults get it. You'll always have people with a political agenda or a belief system that doesn't agree with many facets of youth culture. I don't know if dance music is any different than anything that's come before it. The specifics might be slightly different, but I think the overall message is coming from very similar people with very similar views. Whether it's “all kids are going to hell for listening to Rock N Roll”, or “They're all going to die” because a big warehouse is going to burn down, or the various boogie men that existed over the past 50 years. At the end of the day, cooler heads usually prevail and I think people will realize that dance music is no different than any other type of music and it's basically the people involved you have to make sure are the right people.

Following Digital Dreams, what's next on the horizon for Electronic Nation Canada?

Ryan Kruger: If you've been following what we do it's obvious that we're focusing on much larger scale events, whether it was the Swedish House Mafia at Rogers Centre last year, the show we just did with Armin Van Buuren at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, or the Avicii event happening at the Rogers Centre, Digital Dreams, Brrrrrr!, etc. Our goal is to do large scale electronic music events, not necessarily just in Toronto but on a national scale. I think you're going to see more and more of those as time goes by.

Do you think there's still room in Canada for more electronic dance music festivals or is the market becoming saturated?

Ryan Kruger: I think if you said if Toronto was becoming saturated you may be right... You just have to look at the calendar to see that from May 1st until October 1st there is some sort of festival or festival-like event happening every single weekend. But if you look at Montreal or Vancouver or some other major markets in Canada the number of events is much less. even Vancouver. The answer would be no, Canada as a whole is not saturated but I think particular markets are.

Will Electronic Nation Canada ever consider creating another major festival in another part of Canada like in B.C?

Ryan Kruger: We already do with the Contact Music Festival at B.C Place in Vancouver on Boxing Day. We're always looking at opportunities across the country. The short answer is yes, we are looking to do bigger and better things, and we're looking at multiple markets to do them.

Will we ever see another WEMF?

Ryan Kruger: (Laughs) I wish I could give you an answer to that. I mean, it's obvious that it's something near and dear to my heart because it was the first festival that I ever created from scratch and did it for 17 years. So I have a personal love for it. In it's form as it was when it stopped, it has probably run its course. Playing music outside for 24 hours a day is difficult in most regions, especially in Ontario where you are never that far away from other people. At the same time you need to be close to major population centres. Does that mean it will never come back? No, I think it means that it will probably never come back in the way it was before. But if we see an opportunity in the future that is “WEMF-like”, whether it's called WEMF or not, I think there is potentially an opportunity to do something that involves getting out of the city and camping, and not just doing it downtown style where things are mainly focused now.

Can you name drop any of your favourites from your personal playlist?

Ryan Kruger: Without naming specific artists, me as a person when I listen to music I generally listen to tech-house, deep house, and stuff along those lines. I don't know if that simply the way it goes as you get older but I seem to find that demographically that's where I've ended up. That said, it's not like I don't listen to other styles of dance music. I came from sort of a trance background so I love that. Obviously I still throw drum and bass events under the Projek brand and still love a good Andy C set as much as the next person. So I think my electronic music tastes are diverse but if you walked into my office right now or any other day of the week, there's probably from tech house or deep house playing in the background.

With the full lineup poster now out – which act or acts are you personally most excited to see this year?

Ryan Kruger: I booked this festival from top to bottom myself and I didn't book things unless I personally felt it was a good fit for the festival and acts that I personally wanted to see. There's acts like Justice, Deep Dish, and others that haven't played Toronto necessarily that often. Then there's friends of mine like the Andy C's of the world and things like that I don't want to miss. I will be listening to something almost all the time throughout the weekend and I generally move around a lot so I'll typically listen to 15 minutes of one stage, then 15 minutes of another. It's surprising how many artists I get to hear over the course of the weekend. I'll be trying to listen to as many as possible.


"I can't speak of anyone else but if you book a festival purely on social media stats or current hits or something else that basically becomes a mathematical equation, you'll get a pretty generic product in the end."

Is Digital Dreams a reflection of the kinds of acts that you love on a personal basis?

Ryan Kruger: Absolutely. I can't speak of anyone else but if you book a festival purely on social media stats or current hits or something else that basically becomes a mathematical equation, you'll get a pretty generic product in the end. I'm not going to say that I sit in a room and tell everybody else what we're going to do because it's a very collaborative process between the people within Electronic Nation and the partners and promoters we have with Uniq, Capture, Destiny and Balance. But at the end of the day we feel that we booked a lineup that works well and that creates a flow throughout the day no matter which stage you're on. The fact that this is done as somewhat from a passion and a love of the music helps differentiate the festival from a lot of festivals out there that might feel somewhat the same as everybody else.

Any last comments about Digital Dreams?

Ryan Kruger: People are really going to enjoy what we've done this year. With the growth in not only our festival but the scene in general, it's allowed us to do a lot of things that would be left on the side in the past to make sure we hit budget and so forth. We are doing a lot of things on-site this year that are really going to make a lot of people happy and add to the enjoyment of the event that aren't specifically related to any artist. Obviously we try to put together the best lineup as possible but I think there's going to be a lot of things on-site, whether be decor or interaction based, or just the way we laid things out that will make this festival stand out in people's minds from this year moving forward.  

My thanks to Ryan Kruger for this interview. 

Tickets are still available for the Digital Dreams Music Festival (June 28th - 29th) in Toronto - click here for more ticket information.