As Bill Graham was to rock, Pasquale Rotella is to dance music – a diehard promoter with staying power in a field overrun for years with quick-buck hustlers, many of whom aren't around anymore. Rotella is still here and more powerful than ever; in many ways, he is the godfather of live-event promotion in the North American DJ and electronic-music scene. On May 24-26, he takes another big step when his Los Angeles-based company, Insomniac Events, expands its Electric Daisy Carnival brand to the Midwest for the first time at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
For the last two decades, dance music was often considered an outlaw in the live-event arena. In 2000, the City of Chicago became notorious in the worldwide dance community for passing what became known as the "anti-rave" ordinance. It made property owners, promoters and DJs subject to $10,000 fines for being involved in an unlicensed dance party, and effectively sent the city's rave scene scurrying deep underground again. In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, which cracked down on parties associated with drug use and authorized funds to educate parents and kids on the dangers of Ecstasy, a drug associated with the dance scene.
Yet like blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll before it, dance music has survived the crackdowns to become a huge cultural and commercial force that has attracted some of the industry's most powerful investors and corporations. In the last year, the top North American concert promoter, Live Nation, bought electronic-dance music promoter Hard Events and Cream Holdings Limited, which produces dance-music events in the U.K. and Australia. In the last few months, Robert Sillerman's SFX Entertainment bought the North American division of Holland-based ID&T Entertainment, the world's largest dance music concert promoter, and then acquired two Miami companies, the Opium Group and Miami Marketing Group, which run eight nightclubs in that dance-music capital. In recent weeks, Live Nation and Rotella's Insomniac announced a partnership to expand the Electric Daisy Carnival overseas on July 20 to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. And Live Nation and Insomniac are now in talks to cement a longer-term partnership.
It's quite a turnaround for Rotella, who has been promoting shows since the early '90s and was struggling to stay afloat financially for nearly a decade. Now Insomniac produces about 250 music events a year for 2 million concertgoers. His central event, Electric Daisy Carnival, brings more than 300,000 revelers to Las Vegas annually.
With increased scale and success, Rotella has come under more intense media scrutiny. Since 2006, 14 people have died from overdoses or in drug-related incidents linked to concerts produced by Rotella and another Los Angeles-based rave promoter, Reza Gerami. Last year, Rotella was indicted with five others on embezzlement charges related to events at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He has pleaded not guilty.
In two interviews with the Tribune – one in March and another on May 7 – Rotella got defensive when his safety record is brought up, and asserted that dance music is wrongly singled out for scrutiny. "Are you a music writer? Why aren't you asking me about the music? It feels like I'm back 10 years ago talking to you about this. We're no Woodstock. We are the best event producers out there, especially when it comes to safety. We had to shake the days when there was no security. We've taken things to the level they're at. If you're dealing with country, rock 'n' roll, metal, jam bands, some of these events share the same problems, some have way worse problems than we do."
Rotella was a regular on the Los Angeles club scene before becoming a promoter, and he knows the music inside and out. The lineup for the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Chicagoland Speedway includes top-tier names such as David Guetta, Armin van Buuren, Avicii, Kaskade, Tiesto and Above & Beyond. Another trademark of Electric Daisy will be in evidence — art installations, carnival rides, circus and theatrical performers, and pyrotechnics.
Here are excerpts from Rotella's recent interviews with the Tribune:
Q: Why did you expand Electric Daisy to the Chicago area this year?
A: We started getting a lot of interest from Chicago on social media. When you hear people saying they can't afford to make the drive or flight to one of our events, we want to bring the experience to them. We had a choice of venues. We looked at Soldier Field, but we didn't feel it worked. It's a beautiful stadium but it didn't work for what we felt we needed. There was one other venue (Toyota Park in southwest suburban Bridgeview). Live Nation has also opened a live venue on the lakefront (the Charter One Pavilion) that I am very interested in. If we can work with them on a level that is one-off by one-off, I'm open to doing something there. At the speedway (Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet), we felt welcomed. The guys wanted the event. They were really interested in us coming there. There is so much open space, lots of grass, it's a blank canvas. There is room for growth and we can have camping there.
Q: How many people do you expect to attend?
A: We capped attendance at 25,000 to 30,000 a day. We have room for 100,000 a day. We know we have fans there (in the Chicago area). We don't know exactly how many. It's new territory for us. But we want to take baby steps to work out any kinks. We know we can manage 300,000 people over three day event, as we do in Las Vegas for Electric Daisy. The city (Joliet) supports us. There have never been all-dance music event in Chicago that have done 25,000, 30,000 people. You are hoping to do those numbers. The sales show we'll get there.
Q: Will Electric Daisy be an annual event in Joliet?
A: That is the idea. We have options for three additional years.
Q: How have you addressed safety concerns?
A: We exceed other mass gatherings in safety measures. Our event is not any different than any other rock festival. There are big events in this country, this world, whether it's a marathon or a rock festival, and they all have safety issues. People who think dance music is unique to these problems are not with the times, and are misinformed 100 percent.
Q: When you say you exceed other major events in safety measures, how so?
A: We are 18 and over. How many festivals are 18 and over? Not many. We give away free water. How many do that? Not many. In addition to security, we have a ground control group – friendly staff that are on the grounds engaging people, helping people in lots of ways, whether it's finding water or medical attention. Those are things that other (festival promoters) don't do. I encourage people who do rock festivals to check out our festivals, because they are the best in the world. You have put a lot of focus on this (safety issue). Please do your research. Dance music is the biggest music in the world. People from all walks of life dig it. You have a full industry. I am begging you to dive in. Please do your due diligence. There are a couple of bad seeds in every large event, but most people are great. When you have a festival with people from 18 to 35, some people will bring drugs in, but you can't bubblewrap people. There will be idiots, and they are not welcome. Country music festivals are way worse.
Q: How do you explain the widespread popularity of dance music in North America the last couple of years after decades of basically being underground music. What changed?
A: It's been (a) slow process. There have been a lot of crossover collaborations in different genres that have opened people's ears. For us as a company, doing events in (a mainstream venue such as) the Los Angeles Coliseum in the middle of LA, that was monumental. A lot of people don't hear the music until they get the live experience. Our numbers started jumping once they did that. It was an eye opener. Media started focusing on us — negative or positive, attention was drawn to it. We were doing events with 40,000 people in the middle of nowhere in the '90s, but in 2002 we were down to 7,000 people. We weren't using the LA Coliseum, the music was not on the radio. The Internet really helped the music and the scene and the culture grow. People were able to watch what we were doing in California and demand grew around the country.
Q: For a long time, the rave scene around the world had an outlaw appeal using nontraditional venues and avoiding mainstream attention. Do you think it has to outgrow that to survive?
A: It's not inherent to dance music's appeal. It's outgrowing it as we speak
Just like rock 'n' roll, jam bands, hip-hop, it has to go through its growing pains. This has been a longer process, but it didn't catch on as fast. Now it's happening. People love the music. I'm a product of the culture -- I don't go for the drugs, or to get addicted or hurt myself at shows. I went for the music, because I loved the dancing. It's different from other music. People face each other, they dance with each other. It's a spectacle, an event -- the outfits, the promotion of love one another, be with one another. It's positive. I built a business on it, people built clothing lines, people have musical careers. It's brought a lot of joy to people's lives.
Q: Live Nation and you are talking about a partnership. Where do you stand in the negotiations?
A: We've talked to them. I am co-promoting some shows with them right now. I'm doing (Electric Daisy Carnival in) London with them, using some of their venues, exploring a deeper relationship with them. But until I know it's great for the growth of my company and the experience of my fan base, I won't do a deal. If everything points toward it making sense for me and the betterment of the company, I would do it. I have talked to many people over the years, and received some crazy financial proposals. I'm open to it — anything to make my company better and healthier, I'll look at.
Q: Is consolidation a positive trend for the dance community?
A: Can people jumping into this industry to make a quick buck make bad events? Yes. Am I gonna sign up for that? No. Are people jumping into this industry pretending like they care? Yes. Will that turn ugly? Yes. I've been through this on a smaller scale in the late '90s, early 2000s, when people wanted to jump in. Lots of people can put on events to make money, but the core crowd that is there for the culture, the spirit of dance music, and the music fan, they can smell that stuff. There are gonna be people who jump into this and do things that aren't tasteful and don't feel right. Those events won't last very long. The only reason we've survived the ups and downs of the culture is because we've been there, and people trust us.
Q: You've been successful on your own. What benefit do you see to partnering with someone like Live Nation?
A: It has to be right before I make a deal, and I don't know when that is. I'm not retiring or looking for a cash-out. I've gotten offers for as much as $120 million for my company. I didn't take that offer. At one point we had 12 offers from different people that wanted to buy us. Sillerman was one of those. There is a list we had, we told 97 percent of those people we were definitely not interested -- one was the highest offer, $120 million. If I'm gonna partner with someone it's because they're a great partner, not because of the money. I'm always looking to make my events better. My infrastructure, there are only 20 of us, we're running on all cylinders 24-7. We don't have access to some venues. We don't have access to funds that we need to make investments. We have enough funds to operate event to event. We looked at different companies, and they have different benefits. What didn't make sense is the company that offered us a bunch of money. We're not done building the vision. But who has infrastructure, who can help us go global? Who can help us with the politics, doing things we can't do on our own? Do we have to have a long-term partnership? We just partnered with Live Nation on London. We could not have gotten Olympic Park in London without them. We've explored a deeper relationship with Live Nation. Discussions are good. We'll keep talking.
Electric Daisy Carnival
When: 5 p.m. May 24-26
Where: Chicagoland Speedway, 500 Speedway Blvd., Joliet, Ill.
Tickets: $89 single-day pass, three-day pass for $175, three-day camping pass $299; electricdaisycarnival.com
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM 91.5).