10 Highlights From a Conversation with Pasquale Rotella, Founder of Insomniac Events

Pasquale Rotella, the founder of Insomniac Events, stops in for a chat with DJ Bo Pericic at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and shares his thoughts on the future of dance music. - by Rex Feng
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Pasquale Rotella, the founder of Insomniac Events, stops in for a chat with DJ Bo Pericic at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and shares his thoughts on the future of dance music. - by Rex Feng
Pasquale Rotella

Midway through the interview, Pasquale Rotella takes a moment and apologizes for using the word “passion” so much. It’s true that he’s said it maybe twenty times already, in addressing topics as far-ranging as how to be successful in the music business, the qualities that set a great DJ or producer apart, and what will come to define the future of the dance music scene. He apologizes, but there is just no substitute. After 23 years in the game, what Mr. Rotella has learned is that passion is the answer to everything.

DJ Bo Pericic, half of EDM duo Bo & Peri and adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hosted Mr. Rotella for an in-depth interview and Q&A earlier this month, co-sponsored by the NYU Production Lab. Over the course of an hour and a half, Pericic and Rotella discussed some of the key issues and debates surrounding electronic dance music today, drawing on Rotella’s unparalleled experiences taking Insomniac Events from it's Los Angeles underground roots in 1993 to the worldwide events promotion juggernaut that it is today. In addition to his unique take on EDM’s state of affairs, Rotella also offered candid insights on navigating the path to success in the music industry and what fans can expect from Insomniac in the future.

Here are ten things we learned from Pasquale Rotella about life under the electric sky.

1. He’s still doing the same thing he did from the very beginning

Though the budgets have gotten bigger and so have the crowds, Rotella truly believes that the heart of Insomniac hasn't wandered far from where it was born, at the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central L.A. in 1993. “My first party had 300 people, and I charged five bucks,” he said. “I was happy.” Over the years and as the events have grown, Rotella attributes his company's ability to scale successfully to an unwavering focus on curating a complete experience for their attendees, or “Headliners.” As he puts it, Insomniac is “in the happiness business” and Rotella firmly believes that this goes beyond the “rock and roll” appeal of having thousands of fans pay to see a top-tier artist play music. It's important to Insomniac to stay true to the inclusive, immersive party experience that has been their trademark since day one.

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2. The fans come first

By now, stories of Rotella wandering the festival grounds and mixing it up with fans are legion. True to form, Rotella considers his attendees' enjoyment and safety above all else, saying that he “appreciates people too much to compromise.” He cited Insomniac's pioneering Ground Control movement, an organized staff that walks the grounds at events to engage with attendees, facilitate a safe environment and make sure people are having a good time. A self-admitted social media laggard, Rotella now uses Instagram and Twitter as a direct line to his massive Headliner base, fielding questions and soliciting feedback on how to improve Insomniac's events.

3. Be able to say no

Addressing the postponement of EDC Japan, Rotella alluded to the meticulous vetting process that Insomniac uses in selecting venues. Although the company had a great space lined up in Tokyo with support from city government, Insomniac envisioned more for the event and opted to wait rather than to compromise. Rotella also touched on his caginess around corporate sponsorship of Insomniac festivals. Though the additional resources would be welcome, Rotella sets a high bar for sponsors adding to the festival experience rather than just paying to throw their banner on a stage. He shouted out 7-Up's involvement in EDC Vegas in 2015, where the soft drink giant curated their own mini-stage showcasing up-and- coming talent. An ironic co-sign, considering the Insomniac frontman said he doesn't even drink soda!

4. One tip for aspiring event promoters

Rotella says “put your blinders on.” If he had to start all over again, the last thing Rotella would do is try to emulate or one-up somebody else. He believes that there are plenty of folks out there ready for a fresh take on a party experience or the cultivation of a niche music scene. Even if someone can only get a few dozen or a few hundred people out at first, Rotella believes that a promoter's laser focus on their own brand is what will make the event stand out.

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5. Two tips for aspiring producers

“Don't force it.” Rotella points to the recent trend of producers shoehorning live instrumentation into their tracks. While he believes this is driven by the appreciation of artists that excel at live instrumentation – using Keys N Krates and Galantis as prime examples – Rotella says “there's nothing wrong with analog” and to focus on the beats. The second tip: “don't do it just to do it.” Rotella steers up-and- coming artists away from following trends and encourages them to make music that they can put their hearts into. He points to the meteoric rise of Jauz and Marshmello as examples of artists that have found success in cultivating their own unique sound.

6. He wants to see more female representation in EDM

In response to an audience question on male-dominated artistry in the electronic music scene, Rotella expressed support for more female DJs gracing the stages of Insomniac's festivals and beyond. He is a vocal fan of Alison Wonderland, who is set to play Insomniac's EDC New York in May. Rotella referred to Insomniac's Discovery Project as an excellent way for emerging female artists to connect with the promoter and have an opportunity to play a main stage set at one of their festivals.

7. His favorite DJ or up and coming genre

Though it “changes from week to week,” Rotella currently has remix maestro Chris Lake on heavy rotation. Dreamstate, Insomniac's trance-focused promotion, is one of the company's fastest-growing brands while Rotella himself believes that breakbeats are overdue for the spotlight. He admits to working on an as-yet- unnamed breaks-focused party, perhaps lending weight to a recent groundswell of support for the genre thanks to everyone from bass heavies Jauz & Eptic and Barely Alive, to industry prognosticator deadmau5, to UK warehouse mainstays Bicep and their it's-everywhere remix of Isaac Tichauer's “Higher Level.”

8. Has the bubble burst? 

Addressing some of the high-profile festival delays and cancellations that have dominated headlines of late, including some of Insomniac's own, Rotella doesn't believe that there has been a bubble in the electronic music scene, much less that one has burst. Rotella acknowledged that electronic music events have become moneymakers in a way that they have never been before, and that this will inevitably attract industry players that are primarily motivated by profit. He takes the view that these interests – which he characterizes as “Wall Street” - will come and go, but the stalwarts will remain those who are motivated by a passion for the music, for the experience, and for pushing the scene forward.

9. What’s next for Insomniac? 

Rotella revealed that Insomniac has some exciting and innovative things in the works, including a shift in their festival line-ups to allow DJs to play significantly longer sets in order to allow the artists more creative freedom and foster a hybridized club and festival experience. The company is also investing heavily in it's Factory 93 Warehouse Series, which harkens back to Insomniac's roots and is driven by what Rotella calls a “nostalgia for graffiti, art and music vibrating the walls.” While Rotella is intrigued by and appreciative of the recent explosion in musician-forward label showcase events (Mad Decent Block Party, Dirty Bird BBQ), Insomniac is opting to stay in it's wheelhouse by refining and expanding it's weekend-format festival range. In fact, Insomniac made the difficult decision to cancel Beyond Wonderland NorCal and EDC Puerto Rico this year in order to reinvest in the rest of their festival portfolio and pursue more opportunities internationally. Rotella believes that East Asia and India will be the next major growth markets.

10. Passion above all

From humble underground roots to throwing parties with 100,000 of his closest friends, Rotella can't say enough about passion. It is the glue that has held his company together and the one defining characteristic that Rotella has seen time and again carry people to success and keep them there, whether they are Insomniac employees, event promoters, DJs, producers, or any other individual under the electric sky. Rotella remembers the many years when he and his crew were doing exactly what they are doing now, but without a dollar to show for it. He doesn't want to forget, because passion was crucial to keeping the show going then, and it's crucial now. The Q&A was running overtime, Bo Pericic was sweating, hands were still up in the air, and Rotella's PR crew was motioning that they had places to be. He cracked a smile, and just kept taking questions. Pasquale Rotella is passionate about what he does, right down to the last word.

by Rex Feng