Dance music’s least likely purist, Pasquale Rotella, head of Insomniac Events and the brain’s behind this weekend’s Electric Daisy Carnival, has been making people dance for the last twenty years, throwing parties everywhere from L.A. warehouses to New York stadiums. Yesterday, we spent an hour talking about how that experience sets him apart from other promoters, and when the EDM bubble will inevitably burst.
Going back before Electric Daisy and Insomniac, when did you get involved with dance music both as a fan and as a promoter?
I got involved in dance music in ’91, and I just went with some friends to an underground party. That was the beginning for me. When walking through the doors, it felt like walking into another world. I pretty much went every weekend and during the week sometimes when special events would pop up to several underground parties.
What kind of music was this?
It was house and techno. It was all called techno and house. There was one room only at the time. Not my first events that I was going to, but a little bit later there were disco/funk rooms and rooms that had… they were called the funk rooms, but a lot of the music was the original tracks that De La Soul and old hip-hop acts would sample from. They would play the original tracks. There would also be some disco and funk that was mixed in there. That was kind of the fun little room that had these guys in it from L.A. Sean Perry would regularly DJ. I loved that room, but I was really into techno back then.
When did you start hosting and promoting?
My first event was in ’90 that I went to. The first event that I did was ’92. It was called the Unity Groove, and I had a DJ named Steve Lauria, and Sean Perry played for me. Then my first Insomnia was in ’93.
What differentiated Insomnia from those previous parties?
Well there really wasn’t much going on. The scene had died in early ’92. It started off as underground even before I was going out. In ’89. Then when I started going out in ’90 it was underground. Then late ’90, early ’90 it started being called raves. They pretty much died in early-to-mid ’92. When ’92 came around, all there was was after-pop hours. There was a dark vibe. There was a period in ’92 when there was more of a vibrant after-hours scene where it felt good. It felt like the one-off parties, the underground and the raves that were happening. They stopped being one-off and they turned into being these kind of weekly warehouse parties. But they also died and they turned into after-hours. They would start really late and there was this really dark vibe. People weren’t bringing that good energy that was there in the earlier years.
That is why I started Insomniac in October of ’93, because there was nothing going on. I was inspired by what was going on in the UK, and I was inspired by what used to happen in Los Angeles in the rave and underground scene. I missed it and I wanted somewhere to go for me and my friends, and that was my original reason for starting Insomniac. What I quickly found out was I wouldn’t be able to enjoy those events that I was producing like the events that I’m attending. In my mind, I thought I’d put it together then enjoy it like I would as an attendee. But it turned into me enjoying it a different way. I was doing them every Friday; I would find a few warehouse every week to organize Insomniac. It was pretty much like a one-off every week, and I did that for a whole year. And it was rare it was in the same place. The first one was in South Central, on Crenshaw and a warehouse.
How long until these events caught on?
Insomniac happened very quickly because I was the only one doing it. We’re talking about small amount of people. The first one had 300 people, and the second one probably would’ve had 400 if the cops hadn’t busted it. The third one, it was back to 300. By the end of that year, I was fluctuating between 800 and 1200 people every week. Those were hardcore fans. It was the buzz, and when I was doing 1200 people, there were a few times we were doing as many as 1500 people, that was like their religion. They were there every week. The only time I really got up to 1500 was actually when I would use the same place more than once. It kind of built up because people just got comfortable with it, I guess. But then we would move it then it would be 800 to 1000 people. It was really well known amongst those people. Maybe it was a community of 4, 000, 3,000 people that would have some come every time while some would sprout up here and there.
How do you get from this to 1997, with the first Electric Daisy Carnival?
It was really hard for me to keep finding new locations every week, and I was getting out of doing illegal warehouse parties because I had gotten in trouble a couple of times. And I was now 18 so I just wanted to avoid any problems that would suck in the long-term with these warehouse parties. I was excited to have my one-year anniversary and close it out on a good note. There was about 3000 at the one year, and I had announced it would be the last one. I wanted to do bigger numbers and have everyone come all at one time so I could afford to do more at the event and blow the production up. My first event was Nocturnal Wonderland, and that was in February of ’95 because Insomniac went from ’93 to ’94.
How did this go into Electric Daisy? What was behind that first one?
Electric Daisy wasn’t my largest event, even after doing it for 10 years. Nocturnal was my baby. I mean they were all my babies, but Nocturnal was the event I did in 2000 and had built up to have 40,000 people, which had never been done before anywhere in the country. I did that at the Empire Polo Fields where they did Coachella. So it’s funny how things change because that was the event that was the biggest, kind of like the way EDC is now with all the brands that we do. The reason why I did [EDC] was because there was a lack of EDM events. There wasn’t a lot of quality. I enjoyed what I did and I love producing events, and I had the opportunity to do more, and I had these ideas coming to me that I wanted to see come to life. So I did Electric Daisy, and I did it at the Shrine Auditorium. I had 5,000 people capacity and sold that out. Every time I would do an event that was a one-off that really translated well and that I enjoyed producing, I would make it annual. Nocturnal and EDC were my two annual festivals at that time. I did a few parties between Nocturnal and EDC. I did a party called Mad Tea Party. I did a party called Willy Wonka.
How did it happen that Electric Daisy surpassed Nocturnal Wonderland as the bigger festival?
I skipped a year of Nocturnal. That’s really why. Nocturnal still does 45,000 people but it was important that I was consistent with the fanbase. If you stop, you lose momentum. You lose the energy that’s built up to what EDC is. I’ve never stopped doing Electric Daisy where I had to stop doing Nocturnal at one point because I ran out of options. It was such a big event; I ran out of venue options. Where EDC – I could actually find a venue because it wasn’t big enough to have the same problems. I continued Nocturnal the year after. It still does really well. I think that also moving Electric Daisy to the Coliseum helped as well.
Did the two differ any way besides name and venue? Were you trying to achieve different things with each festival?
Yeah they both had different concepts. The concepts were important to Insomniac as well. The concepts are a huge part of what we do. It’s kind of like the difference between Ka and Love, the Cirque shows. They’re different shows. We encourage people to dress with the theme differently, and we bring in different props, and we bring in different attractions. The people sometimes shape a different energy.
Have you always tried to have a concept for your events or was that sort of an epiphany or something you’ve learned after throwing a lot of them?
No it’s always something. It’s always to build the fantasy. Keep creating an environment that’s different than every day life. Like stepping into a movie…it’s part of the fun.
That makes me think of your remarks almost a year ago about shifting your focus away from DJs at these festivals. Do you still feel that way? Is that still something you’re looking to do?
Yes. I mean, I’m not trying to shift; I’m trying to go back to the roots. We always cared who the DJ is because we wanted him to be good. But the DJ, he or she, is not someone we look to stand in front of and stare at. People misunderstand me when I say that. We don’t want to take anything away from your music. The music needs to be amazing and good, but it’s a dance event. This started recently. This wasn’t something that went on for decades. It’s always been about the event. When the events died, the music died back in the day. I think things are at a different place. When the scene had died in ’92, there was no outlet to listen to the music. You would listen to it at the events and you would get it at the events. People were facing one another, and it wasn’t like a guy-girl dance. People would dance forever. Actually people would praise the wall of speakers. There would be promotion of how big the speaker stack would be. Like “basement stacked with the biggest wall of sound you’ve ever seen.” Then people would come in and wouldn’t look for the DJ. They would actually run to the speaker stack. They would praise the music and the sounds that were coming out of the speakers. They would climb the speakers and stagedive off the speakers. It was like this tribal chaos vibe. It was fun; it wasn’t about having an idol. It was about being together and celebrating and putting a positive vibe. Even putting off an aggressive vibe but not moshing. Just like having fun versus waiting to be entertained.
I’m trying to keep that live. I’m not trying to take that away; I’m trying to keep it pure. Or keep it alive that raw energy. It’s memorable for me. I was a fan of DJs always. It wasn’t necessarily who made the song it was DJs. There were DJs who were big but never made a song in their life. Sometimes we would bring out people who produced tracks and have them DJ, but those would a lot of times fall short of what a DJ could do with mixing everyone’s songs because some producers couldn’t DJ. Most. It was about the mix. Now, you don’t really have to mix if you don’t want to. You don’t even know what’s going on up there. Some guys can DJ; some guys can’t. You don’t really need to. Now it’s really about celebrating the sounds.
When you think of the cult of personality that surrounds current superstar DJs, how much of that is due to their quality as artists versus whatever else, whether hype or marketing, or people’s need for stars?
I don’t know. I don’t care enough to even… I just care about the music that comes out of the speakers. Do they make their songs? Do they not make their songs? Do they have ghostwriters? Are they good looking? I don’t care. It’s about the experience. Listen, I respect people who do make great music and I’d rather have them than someone who doesn’t. It didn’t used to be about how much money you can get or how many girls you can get or how famous you are or if you become a superstar. It was really all for the love of music. Wanting to see the crowd bounce.
I’m not saying that there aren’t DJs or producers that want to see that now, but as the attention got more onto the superstar DJ thing thrown around… The Laws of Attraction, right? I believe in that. That kind of energy attracts a crowd and kind of person who searches for things that are beyond the music. I think we’re keeping it balanced with our shows. We get both. I’m proud of that, and I continue to push towards that. I want to have the best events in the world, and I think that it’s important to promote the different aspects of a gathering. Make sure that the music’s good, but they need to be visually pleasing as well. The production is important. The spirit of the people is important. Trying to promote positivity and all that is important. It’s so many different things that make an epic show.
You guys have grown so much in the last few years, do you see that growth continuing?
That’s my goal. When I say “grow” I want my events to be better. I constantly want to do innovative thins within the festivals. I want to keep creating unique experiences. I want to bring the experiences to people all over the world. I think that the possibilities are endless. The only thing that restrains me is what it costs to do everything I want to do. I keep chopping away at trying to figure it out. But absolutely there’s tons of growth.
Do you have outside investors in Insomniac who have come in?
When you’re up against other promotions companies that do have this outside capital and perhaps can afford something that you’re not able to, how does that affect what you’re doing? Or the events?
There’s a lot of people who are jumping in. I look around and I don’t see any one left. In the live side of the business, there’s some old school people left behind the scenes, but the producers of the events are all…. I look around and no one’s survived. There’s people who have jumped in recent years, throwing a lot of money around. I had to ask myself why these people are jumping in now. You have people coming in from Europe. You have Wall Street people. You have big concert companies. They definitely make the expenses go up because they’re treating it like rock and roll and hip-hop and country or whatever. DJ fees keep going up because that’s how you pull a crowd. You just book a DJ. You just book a big line-up.
They’ve had some really hard failures. There were some events that have gone up like We Love this City. They had a line-up that compared to our Nocturnal Wonderland or our Beyond Wonderland lineups. They didn’t do the numbers, even though they were in the middle of a big city and they had all the right DJs. So you see that happening, and it worries me because it gets oversaturated because you do have this new crowd that comes to the events. We have a lot of old-school people that have been supporting us for a decade plus. Those people are really our core. Then you have the supporters who are newer and are people we love as well and allow us to be able to do the extra production and all the stuff I told you I dream about doing.
I think you’re going to see a lot more events happen in 2014, and I don’t know what that’s going to do. I’ve decided to not worry about it and just keep my head down and focus on what we’re doing and keep the company innovative and just roll the dice. I know that our core fans will stay with us, and I feel that the new fans might go exploring, but they’ll come back because I do believe we have something really unique. We need to make a profit to survive but we don’t sacrifice the quality of an event to make an extra buck.
A lot of people are looking are looking at what’s happening in dance music right now and calling it a bubble. What do you make of that interpretation?
Are saying that it’s going to pop?
All this outside money is coming into dance music and all these outside investors want constant growth and expansion…
Oh, yeah, it’s going to pop. But this has happened already. Not on this scale. In 2000, the bubble popped. This happened. Not like hedge fund money, but rich daddy money has come into the scene. And like big concert money has come into the scene in ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98. Bigger, and bigger, and bigger. There was an explosion and then the bubble popped. I’m not going to act like the same thing is going to happen again, I have no idea, but the only people that survived were only the people who loved it because it didn’t really matter. They made it through because they were committed. They couldn’t do anything else in their lives. Unfortunately there were people like that that didn’t survive.
I wish that some of the healthy competitors I had were still around because they were good people. We were all friends. They loved what they did and it wasn’t about making a million dollars. It was about the quality of life. Listen, I want to do well in life. I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t want to do well. But it’s a great community and it was good competition. And it was fun. I’m still enjoying it. It’s different people that are involved, and they’re involved for different reasons. I’m not knocking those people. It’s okay. People want to do business. I get that. There’s things that change and I’m trying to keep the spirit alive. I think the people, the fans, who care enough to pay attention see that. We have something unique.
How much more growth or how much longer do you think until this bubble pops this time around?
I don’t know. I didn’t know when it was going to happen last time. There were signs of it, but there have been signs of it. I thought I’d seen signs of it yesterday. I don’t know. I just try to stay focused on what I’m doing because there are so many distractions that it can take me away from the core things I really care about. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve survived.
What are those signs that you’ve seen?
Just when I see the focus on the DJ. The newbie that is there to just be entertained by that DJ. Because the fantasy is going to go away. People already know what they’re doing up there is limited. Even if you have an amazing producer, he isn’t producing the song up there. He’s not making the song like a singer or guitar player would. He’s potentially just pushing play on a CD. People know that and even though they know that, they’re still being entertained because of everything that they’ve built up in their minds. The idol kind of thing. That’s not going to last, I don’t think. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think it’s that entertaining. If there’s a sniper in the crowd and he shot the DJ, the music would still play. If they’re not enjoying it, that scares me.
We have people who come to the show and run up to the barricades and they just wait. They’re missing out on a whole lot of fun. People can enjoy things in different ways, but people feed off each other’s energy. The energy that drew me in and opened my ears to dance music and opened a thousand people’s ears to dance music…. There were people I knew who never liked dance music but then they went to an event and they experienced the event, and then they were like, “I get it. Wow.” I believe that dance music is different in that way. Listen, if I’m wrong, I play it safe and try to satisfy… I don’t get just amazing DJs that can play all the great songs and do it better than I feel some of the producers can DJ. I try to satisfy those people as well. People think I call the headliners headliners because all of a sudden I’m going to have people they’ve never heard of. I try to bring up new guys and try to get the names that play over and over again.
Really, you know, that was one of the signs. Other things—witnessing people jumping in on what you’ve touched on. All the people jumping into it. The bubble bursting. You know, going to events and it being shitty.