Electric Daisy Kingpin: The Man Who Turned Music Festivals Into Carnivals

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Pasquale Rotella's Insomniac Events helped popularize electronic dance music and transform the live-music industry with the help of Ferris wheels, light shows, and, oh yeah, DJs.

electric daisy carnival 615 apimages.jpg
Festival goers watch the fireworks show at the Electric Daisy Carnival, Monday, June 27, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

This past Saturday, 45,000 costume-wearing 18-and-up young adults descended on San Bernandino, Calif. for a festival featuring fully staffed haunted houses, 3D mazes, and performance artists crawling festival grounds dressed as sexy (?) bloodied rabbits and glowing angler fish—the largest Halloween celebration in Southern California.

Oh, also, music: Calvin Harris, who produced a chart-topping radio hit for Rihanna, and Martin Solveig, whose song "Hello" was used to entice you into buying some Trident gum, played along with a host of other electronic dance music (EDM) artists. But they weren't really the focus. At the bottom of each and every Escape From Wonderland banner (featuring a demonic Alice, bloody white apron, glowing pair of cat eyes, and a gnarled tree) "YOU" was listed as the "most important headliner of all."

"I don't want to say [these shows go] 'against'—that's the wrong word—but it is very different from what a traditional concert is," says Pasquale Rotella, the founder and chief executive of Insomniac Events, the company behind the Escape for Wonderland festival. "I think there are great bands, and we want the best bands and DJs and what have you, but it's not the only reason to go to a large gathering. There are beautiful people to meet, there is amazing art, there's production that is advancing constantly that makes these events so much more. Music isn't the only thing that is cool."

Music isn't the only thing that's cool: It's a both successful and curious philosophy for Rotella, whose company has grown to be one of the most influential promoters of music festivals in the world. Insomniac's Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) is the largest musical event in North America, growing from a 5,000-person Los Angeles rave in 1998 to a 320,000-person temporary city for its 2012 incarnation at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Insomniac has said that this year's extravaganza generated a record $207 million to the state of Nevada and created more than 2,000 jobs). His company's rise has accelerated along with—and contributed to—the boom in popularity for electronic dance in America over the past few years. But Insomniac's dozens of dance events across the world, like Escape From Wonderland, are also succeeding in spreading the Rotella gospel of music-comes-second across the industry.

"The DJ line-up is a percentage of making it 100 percent," Rotella says of his events. "But it's not like what a concert is. A concert is like 90 percent the act; that's one of the main reasons people are there. We're about the whole experience."

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Festivals are profitable business, one of the indisputable shining spots in the otherwise troubled music industry over the past decade. While the '90s gave birth to a number of major American music festivals, it's in the 2000s that their popularity skyrocketed to New York Times headline-making status. This past year, Coachella expanded its three-day gathering to two consecutive weekends and still managed to sell out within three hours. Lollapalooza celebrated its 21st anniversary in 2012—along with a record 100,000 ticket holders per day in Chicago's breezy lakefront Grant Park. That's way up from a 33,000 per day tally in 2005.

rotella and lawyer apimages.jpgRotella (right) with his lawyer in March 2012.
(AP/Insomniac Communications, Leah Lee)
The rise of the American music festival has seemingly synchronized up with the unprecedented level of public interest in dance music. Year after year, Coachella's Sahara tent, which houses electronic/dance acts, welcomes an ever-increasing max-capacity crowd spilling out its back. Last year, beatmaker Kaskade (the DJ named by Forbes as the highest-paid in the world) was slotted to play the same time as Radiohead—and still drew a huge audience. Lollapalooza expanded its dance stage, Perry's Place, in 2011 to a 15,000-capacity tent. That year, Skrillex enticed more than 15,000 to his set as A Perfect Circle and Bright Eyes performed not too far away. This year, Lollapalooza amplified Perry's Place to be an even larger open-air "area"—where Perry Farrell himself said an EDM fan can "dance amongst the trees."

It was Rotella's work over the past two decades that in large part laid the groundwork for this kind of explosion in both mega-festivals and in electronic dance. In 1993, a 19-year-old Rotella kicked off Insomniac Events with a Downtown Los Angeles warehouse party. The number of events he threw piled up from there. From the start, the emphasis was on expanding from what constituted the traditional idea of a concert or rave.

"[Rotella] had the money to be able to invest in this and build proper stages," says Ryan Raddon, a.k.a. Kaskade, who just recently sold out the Staples Center—where U2 and Lady Gaga play when in town—in Los Angeles. "'Cause I think before he came along, a lot of the guys were doing these shows and promoting parties, but people weren't putting the thought and the time into the production aspect of it. So, it's like you'd go there and you'd set up on a card table. It's like, man, I think we can do a little better than this."

That's not to say music wasn't on the agenda. "I think Insomniac's really smart because they understand the role of the music and how it relates to the people going to the show," Raddon says. "They've had a lot of stuff talking about 'the experience,' but early on, Pasquale was very involved and he knew the importance of booking the right musical acts to make sure that experience was what it should be."

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Vickie Chang is a senior editor for Buzz Media, based in Los Angeles. She has written for SpinVillage VoiceLA WeeklyOC WeeklySF Weekly, and others.

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