These days, American festival culture can seldom be discussed without mentioning the name Pasquale Rotella. As CEO and founder of Insomniac, the company behind a surplus of festival brands including Electric Daisy Carnival and Wonderland, Rotella and his like-minded army have sewn the dance-music festival into the fabric of American culture—and it hasn’t gone unnoticed overseas, either.
With EDC’s European debut set to take London later this year, along with talk of further global expansion, Rotella’s consistent balance of positive and negative press has made him a key player in what many have dubbed the “great EDM arms race,” making him one of the more sought-after industry players to give underground raves a solid business plan to date. Beatport News caught up with the American entrepreneur to talk expansion, skepticism, and surviving the industry gold rush.
It seems fair to say that we live among a generation infatuated with festival culture. Has the global awakening surprised you?
I see a lot of development and enthusiasm. Everyone and their mom is coming to these events and trying to make them successful. There are a lot of new people dropping in on it. I find myself scratching my head, asking where these people have been in years that have passed, but then I put my head down and focus on what we have now and how great and positive that is for dance music and festival culture alike.
Word is that your inauguration to club land came from both the American and British club scenes. How did these respective scenes influence your decision to pursue live dance music as a business?
In ’91, I started going to a lot of underground parties in LA, and for me, that was a life-changing culture shock. But around that same time, the culture really lulled over here in the States, so my attention turned simultaneously to what was going on in the UK. I finally went out there to check out what was happening in London at the time—and what the Brits were doing in terms of clubbing and music—and it blew my mind. It was a mixture of that excitement and enthusiasm alongside the spirit and positivity of the LA underground scene that drove me to start my own company. At the time, the scene was very much about the after-hours crowds to start. My mission was simple: I wanted to breath some life into it and bring these big one-off events to the forefront of the culture.
What do you feel changed to allow events such as your own to take the spotlight in such a prominent manner?
I think this is all now possible because of people putting in work for so many years. In some cases, promoters have been working hard for two decades. Of course, the developments of the music itself have been crucial. The events themselves became better organized; guys like me were suddenly getting better venues. I say “suddenly” because it felt like it happened quickly, but it was a very gradual process in reality. The shows definitely doubled in attendance very quickly, but we took a long time to get to the tens of thousands of people—let alone hundreds. People don’t recognize that it has always been a positive movement because they weren’t in it or paying attention, but there we large events even back in ’99 and 2000 for tens of thousands of people. Now it is just a known fact that the festival scene is alive and kicking.
What was your initial vision for EDC, and has the concept changed for the festival over the years?
EDC has been a huge and meaningful success for all involved. We have always been coming up with innovative ideas to make it a bigger and better festival experience. To start, we were more about pulling off the party and having it in these unique locations. Now the production is at a whole new level and the art is a huge part of the overall experience. The concept is the same but the level of what we are doing is very different. Our shows used to cost $150,000, which against the $35 million-plus costs of EDC Vegas seems crazy. At the end of the day, it’s about getting together with like-minded people, dancing, and getting away from everyday troubles. I feel like it is a great escape from day-to-day negativity. People band together for this one huge, meaningful event and have the time of their lives.
The UK has responded warmly to the announcement of EDC’s European debut in London this summer. Were you at all nervous to bring the concept overseas for the first time?
EDC London is a very meaningful landmark for me. I didn’t know how people would respond and I was really excited about how the on-sale day went. I really appreciate being able to come to London and doing an event there to that sort of response, because it’s a city that inspired me—it is a big part of why Insomniac exists. To do that full circle and be accepted is incredible.
Whilst your festivals have gone from strength to strength, there have been some hammerings along the way from the mainstream press and government alike. How do you feel about the underlying skepticism some parties have brought to the equation?
I feel like it is getting better and better and the reason for that is people are becoming more educated by the events. Dance music has gone through what jazz, rock, and hip-hop went through in the past, except we had a much longer journey. We have events all over the US now and other international ones planned, and the response is good in terms of authorities and government officials. There is always going to be resistance and challenges, but at least we are having intelligent conversations now. Before we would just get shut out. We still have some markets stuck with that stigma of the warehouse party days and what was happening in dance music back then, but not as often.
Do you see the current model for the US festival market as being a sustainable one?
It will come down to people choosing their favorites and sticking to them. A lot of new people are jumping into the industry, many of which missed the fostering of the culture in the US. It’s a little bit scary to think of it all in the wrong hands. I don’t think that everyone is going to do well; there just isn’t room for the amount of people jumping into it. We have very loyal fans that have stuck with us, but I am not sure everyone can hope for the same.
To your mind, how do you look to up the ante from here onwards given the tremendous footsteps your company and industry alike has made to date?
I am looking to perfect the experience at our festivals and events. There is a lot of room for improvement. The way technology is advancing and the way America has warmed up to it allows for so many opportunities we were never sure would be possible. There are so many things that I haven’t been able to do in the past due to financial restrictions or geographical constraints, but those have opened wide up now.
Given the extent of your professional journey, what do you consider to have proven the biggest hurdle within your career?
Survival alone has been a challenge. The past 15 years have had many ups and downs. At one point it was paying my personal bills and continuing to do what I loved. Then there was the surge of promoters in ’98 and ’99 who started from scratch and just couldn’t survive. That was scary, especially with local government coming down on you at a time when just persuading people to come to shows was a challenge in its own right. That felt like it lasted for almost a decade. Then of course there was the politics of the underground and the shady people that emerged alongside that scene before there was a legitimate business behind the music. To have made it through all that feels good. There are still challenges today, but it was a lot harder back then.
Money certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue where festival culture and financial suitors are concerned. How do you feel about the surge of investors now out to take their piece of the pie?
I think it’s okay that people want to get involved financially. It is okay to enter as a businessman and invest in legitimate business ventures, but I don’t think it’s okay to make money by not coming through with a proper experience for people. If the sound, venue, or safety of an event lacks because you are saving money and cutting corners, there is a problem! For people who want to jump into the business, that’s okay, but they should respect the people that built the scene and ensure it is all politically correct. The nature of this culture is to respect each other and be united. People are seeing dollar signs and just want to make money quickly without regard for this as a people business. That is a conflict and that really turns my stomach. You can’t object to people who genuinely want to invest or grow with this, but there is a right way and wrong way to do it. There can be no compromise of quality and experience for the fans.
With so much ground covered, where are you looking to go from here with your respective festival brands?
We are looking to do a lot more overseas for 2014. Not too much, but we are definitely going for some new markets. We are in talks with a lot of key international players, as we like to work with people who know what they are doing and those that have fostered these respective markets. It is now a case of formally picking where we want to expand. We have certainly received a lot of interest from Asia and South America. We aren’t 100% sure where we are going yet, but I am excited to make some more international moves next year.