You could say that Pasquale Rotella is America's answer to ID&T founder Duncan Stutterheim. In 1992, the same year that Duncan threw his first party in Zaandam, Netherlands, Pasquale organized his first illegal rave in Los Angeles. Just like ID&T, Rotella's Insomniac Events has grown into a dance empire in the last twenty years, organizing events for hundreds of thousands of people.
Yet there's an important difference between the two: ID&T is now part of SFX, and Insomniac is part of Live Nation - two competing music giants, both intent on world domination in the dance scene. During Amsterdam Dance Event a few weeks ago, we talked to Rotella about his role in LA's rave scene, his plans to bring Electric Daisy Carnival to Europe, and his book that will come out in May.
THUMP: When did you start organizing events in LA?
Pasquale Rotella: There was already a lively underground warehouse scene in LA in the late 80s. But when the riots happened in 1992, the police started shutting down all the illegal parties. Most of the promoters that remained were really shady. Sometimes they'd print flyers for fake parties, where you had to drive two hours to get there, only to find out that there was no party. The only parties that were still going were a few grisly afterparties where drugs like crystal meth entered the scene.
It had lost its shine. I missed the vibe of the old raves. But then I went to England and got really inspired. When I came back to LA, I threw my very first rave. My second rave, Insomniac, was exactly how I had pictured it. It was an illegal rave in a warehouse on the infamous Crenshaw Blvd. That was known as a really bad neighborhood, but the party was amazing. I decided to turn Insomniac into a weekly event, and after that it really took off. At first we'd have about 300 people there, but that quickly grew to 12,000 every week.
In the mid-90s, those parties had grown into a whole warehouse scene again. An ecosystem of parties, DJs and clubbers that was unique in the States. They did have clubs in the big cities on the east coast, but we were the only town that was doing raves. In 1999 we even had events with more than 40,000 visitors. Though we did make sure we had permits for that, because I'd already been arrested for breaking and entering twice by then. That was the crime they'd convict you for if you threw a party without a permit.
When did you start with Electric Daisy Carnival?
The first EDC was in 1997. My other event, Nocturnal Wonderland was still my biggest project at the time, but because we had to cancel that one year, EDC got even bigger. In 2008 we moved from San Bernardino to Downtown LA, where we got over 80,000 visitors. The funny thing was that national media outlets like Pollstar and Billboard and the average man on the street had no idea that this was a thing yet. But we knew that we were on the verge of something big happening.
And what is that like now?
I think everyone knows that something's happening now, but it's not like all those people know exactly what's going on. They may know artists like Avicii and Calvin Harris, but to them that is just pop music. Your average Joe still doesn't know what dance culture is all about, even though you can hear the music on the radio and on TV.
How do you teach the people that come to EDC about that culture?
I try to do that not by being preachy, but by reflecting those values in everything that we do. The fans always come first for us, which is why we call them headliners. In the concert scene, fans are treated like cattle. The result is that they walk into a room, and then just stand there waiting to be entertained. By calling our visitors headliners, I try to change the way they've been trained. Music is an important part of the experience, but not the only part. That's why art always plays a big role at our events too.
I'm curious as to what brought you here to the Amsterdam Dance Event. Why did you want to talk to the Dutch press?
I want people to know more about the American dance culture. And I want to start bringing our brands to Europe. We don't have any concrete plans yet, but we are considering our options. Last year we got an offer to throw a party in Amsterdam, but that was too soon and not enough people here know what EDC or Insomniac is yet. Besides, you already have so many cool events here. I don't want to do anything until there's a gap we can fill. We bring something that others aren't bringing yet, but we want to do that at the right moment.
Especially now that Amsterdam is becoming an SFX city, is the turf war that's going on in the States between Live Nation and SFX coming to Holland now?
I don't see it as a turf war. The brands that came to the US under the wings of SFX are very strong. They do their thing, and that doesn't affect what we do. But other parties have come to the States before, at one time from England: Creamfields, Godskitchen, Global Gathering, Ministry of Sound. One by one they all crossed the ocean, but they all went back shortly after.
Do you think that is what's going to happen now?
I don't know. Things are always changing. But I do know that it has been a difficult time. And I'm not talking specifically about SFX. There are a lot of parties that came over to America because they felt like the US finally got it. But I'm not that worried about it, because good events create more fans. There have been times where we were the only ones throwing big events, and to be honest those weren't the healthiest times for the scene. The culture is at its best when there's diversity and synergy between all the events. I'm more worried about parties that come over and organize bad events. Because then you get people who feel like they're being fucked over, and hurt themselves, and generate bad publicity for the scene. In the end we're all in the same boat.
In The Netherlands, a lot of people are worried that the diversity of our dance culture will be lost now that a lot of our biggest promoters have been taken over by SFX. What's your view on that?
That's not just happening in The Netherlands. Australia and a large part of America are also dealing with that. It's a realistic fear. I decided not to cut a deal with SFX, even though they offered me more money than I ever imagined; more money than they paid for all those other parties. But I politely declined their offer, because I saw it as a Wall Street play.
You did go into business with Live Nation. Can an organization like yours still function without the support of a dance mogul like Live Nation or SFX these days? Or are you forced to scale-up?
Let me say first and foremost that we have complete autonomy within Live Nation. I didn't sell the whole company. They are just our investors and support us financially. I'm very impressed by [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino. He is one of the reasons I decided to work with Live Nation. They are very passionate. If I'd gone into business with SFX, I feel like I might as well have just retired. But there are so many things I still want to do. I care too much about this scene. And in an ideal world I would have stayed completely independent.
But staying independent wasn't an option?
It wasn't an option because everyone was chasing us in the US. I got 12 different proposals and said no to them all, including SFX. They offered me between $120 and $150 million for my company. I talked to all of those companies, but felt the most comfortable with Live Nation. And that was the last party that I expected to work with. When I was young, Live Nation had a really bad reputation. It was pretty intimidating that these companies were buying up everything around me. And these were all companies with large pockets that were now becoming my competition. It took me two years to realize that I couldn't keep saying "no." I love this culture. That was a big reason why I chose Live Nation.
I actually have a book coming out in May. There's a lot more to this, that I can't say - a lot of really bad, negative things. The book will explain things that I think will really blow the minds of the people that really care about this culture. How SFX started, where Robert Sillerman got the idea from in the first place.
Where did Sillerman get the idea?
I can't tell you that yet, but he's already done this before. Live Nation is a product of Sillerman. There is so much that people don't know yet, and I'm still amazed that I was a small part of all those different parts. It's a story that people need to hear, also in The Netherlands. Because it is not just my story, but the story of everything that has happened. I'm just the messenger. But it's really crazy. I can't say too much about it yet, but James Frey from A Million Little Pieces is helping me write it. He's a terrific writer and I'm very happy that the book is coming out in May.
Have you got a title yet?
Yes, I'm 99% sure that the title is going to be Insomniac. I've also got a movie deal with Fox for when the book is done, but that's all still in the future.
Follow Pasquale Rotella on Twitter. Electric Daisy Carnival comes to Orlando this weekend.
Translated from Dutch by Lisette Van Eijk.