Pasquale Rotella is not an easy man to get a hold of, and for good reason. Insomniac Events, the small company he founded back in 1993, has swelled to a multimillion dollar juggernaut of an organization currently responsible for, on average, 12 major festival-styled events per year in over a dozen cities, including Puerto Rico, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Orlando and Los Angeles. And that’s just the big stuff. Include monthly club nights and one-off’s and you’re looking at hundreds of events. By the time 2011 comes to a close, Insomniac will have entertained over half a million music fans.
That’s not what we’re passionate about. That’s not what makes the Insomniac attendee’s experience great. Our whole team, mentally and physically, has been pretty drained by the stigmas that the media has been focusing on...
Rotella is, as they say, putting in work.
Back in May, industry pundit and preeminent op-ed blogger Bob Lefsetz wrote a piece highlighting the ten most powerful entities in music. He listed Rotella at #5, three down from the legendary Irving Azoff and one ahead of Interscope/Geffen/A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine. The namecheck tickled Rotella, but it was a clear and very public indicator of just how far the 37-year old promoter has come, and just how large his company’s influence is, especially at a time when 120BPM electro provides the DNA for half the songs on the Billboard Top 10.
“Me and Pasquale are old friends, since we were 15 years old in junior high school,” says the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am. “We were going to raves in the ’90s and he has made EDC into a phenomenon. I am proud of his passion dedication for dance music.”
Of all Insomniac’s marquee brands—SoCal institutions like Nocturnal Wonderland, Audiotistic and Bassrush—the Electric Daisy Carnival has undoubtedly become their biggest and most infamous. The numbers are staggering. 2010’s controversy-laden EDC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—whose biggest headline was the highly publicized, Ecstasy-related death of 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez—took in 180,000 attendees over a two-day period. This year’s three-day installment, relocated to Las Vegas due to added complications with the Coliseum Commission, hosted 230,000. For reference, Coachella 2011 listed attendance numbers well below 90,000 for the three-day show. The mainstreaming of the Dance Music Festival (née “rave”) has ushered electronica back through the halls of obscurity yet again, and brought out a heaping helping of classic rave hysteria to go along with it.
“With the attention that dance music has gotten—that we’ve gotten, actually—there comes a lot of politicking, accompanied by a lot of stress,” says Rotella of the past 15 months. “That’s not what we’re passionate about. That’s not what makes the Insomniac attendee’s experience great. Our whole team, mentally and physically, has been pretty drained by the stigmas that the media has been focusing on. Being under attack doesn’t let the creative energy and the planning be something that is focused and enjoyable.”
I’m not really a confrontational person, but I’m not going to say, ‘This can’t happen.’ I’m just not going to give up.
Rotella is headstrong for sure, but like any good businessman, he’s adept at diplomacy. But every man has a breaking point. On July 29th, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece in the wake of a near-riot in Hollywood during Insomniac’s screening of their EDC documentary. The article noted that “controversy and conflict seem to follow the company like a bad smell,” and otherwise implied that Insomniac was now persona non grata in Los Angeles. On August 22nd, in an exemplary bit of quid pro quo, the Times posted an opinion piece written by Rotella titled “Don’t Trample The Electric Daisy.” In it, he argued that “the same scrutiny has not been applied to individuals engaging in illegal behavior or to other festivals and mass gatherings that endure similar issues.” It's not the first time Rotella has taken the gloves off. Last year, Insomniac slapped the city of Los Angeles with a $1,015,180 lawsuit over the city’s cancelation of Tiësto’s October 30th performance at the Los Angeles Convention Center. That’s Tiësto, the same DJ who performed at the opening of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And yes, that’s the Los Angeles Convention Center; the same place that hosts the Exxxotica Expo in the summer and ADULTCON in the winter. Look ’em up, just not at work.
“I felt like, ‘Enough is enough!’,” says Rotella of his editorial. “I was very happy when it came out, and it was great to get positive feedback from so many people, several whom you wouldn’t expect.”
Pasquale Rotella grew up in Glendale, California as a first-generation American born to Italian parents with ferocious work ethics. The family owned Rotella’s, a restaurant in Venice Beach, CA, where a young Pasquale swept floors and soaked up as much business savvy as he could glean. As a teenager, he spent his time breakdancing on the Venice boardwalk and hanging out with a more dubious crowd than his parents would probably have preferred.
In 1991, he attended his first underground party at La Casa in downtown LA with Seth Binzer (aka Shifty Shellshock). The music, the people, the vivid decor, the completely outlandish yet disarmingly communal spirit; it all had an immediate impact on Rotella. The boardwalk contingent didn’t dress that way, and they certainly didn’t act that way. It was a move out of his social comfort zone, for sure, but it stuck. Before heading out to his second party, he stuffed 1,000 lollipops into a backpack for the express purpose of handing them out to as many people as he could. These days, whenever possible, he’ll join his street team to pass out fliers for forthcoming events. Maintaining that grassroots connection to his clientele is of utmost importance, and while he’s most definitely a public figure, he isn’t an instantly recognizable face. It doesn’t happen frequently, but this last bit tends to come in handy at large business meetings when people don’t have the most favorable things to say. It’s easy to lay low and observe.
During one of our interviews, I ask Rotella whether or not he’s the kind of person that doesn’t take no for an answer, Insomniac’s Director of Communications, also on the line with us, lets out a small chuckle. He says yes. I ask when that’s gotten him into trouble.
“My whole life,” he laughs. “I’m not really a confrontational person, but I’m not going to say, ‘This can’t happen.’ I’m just not going to give up. We’re not gonna do an event if it’s not right.”
At some point you have to say, ‘Where does self-responsibility come in?’...we can’t bubble wrap every attendee.
Patience is a virtue that took time to cultivate. EDC Vegas proved fruitful, but some of Rotella’s last-minute scrambles have had less than stellar outcomes. When a local venue for 1999’s Nocturnal Wonderland fell through, Rotella set his sights on the Pechanya Indian Reservation in Anza, Califoria. Infighting within the tribe as to whose land the event would be held on—and thus, who would be compensated—reached a fever pitch. In the end, the payment was shared among the residents, but not before one of them unloaded a shotgun at Rotellas’s feet during a particularly touchy meeting. Needless to say, negotiations nowadays are much less cantankerous and venues are a bit easier to come by, but that doesn’t mean things can’t manifest themselves at the 11th hour. Once the venue was solidified, EDC Vegas was executed in a mere ten days.
The party’s success poses an interesting question for Insomniac: what happens to EDC Los Angeles? The President and VP of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway were more than impressed with the event, and have reportedly made plans to attend Nocturnal Wonderland in LA later this month. Further, donating $75,000 from EDC ticket sales—breaking off $25k each to the Clark County School-Community Partnership Program, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and the Las Vegas Injured Police Officer’s Fund—has further endeared him to the Vegas community. Still, LA remains the focus.
“I don’t have to be in LA. I want to be in LA. LA needs this,” he says. “This is our home. We’ve been doing it for too long to walk away.”
But the road is only going to get tougher. Back in January, in advance of their Beyond Wonderland party at the N.O.S. Events Center in San Bernardino, Insomniac announced a ban on LED lights, gloves and toys at all their events until further notice. They had even gone so far as to form the “Get Up and Dance Crew,” a proactive party patrol intent on keeping e-puddlers and other loiterers from taking up space on crowded dancefloors and by critical exit paths. It was a diplomatic if not somewhat naive solution to a valid concern, but it was ineffective. Their statement included the following paragraph:
“Although there are many who use these lights as an art form, the image that it creates when groups of music fans are sitting or lying on the floor gazing at the designs reflects poorly and sends a false message of what the electronic dance music scene is about.”
As expected, the ban was met with a firestorm of criticism and quips from attendees, especially considering that glowsticks and “other glowing/illuminated clothing and jewelry” were still permitted. The ban and it’s subsequent messaging represent, in a nutshell, the slippery slope Rotella, Insomniac and dance music as a whole will be climbing for the foreseeable future. The pink elephant in the room: the inextricable link between dance music and drugs. I ask Rotella if he thinks dance music culture will ever shake the stigma. He pauses before answering.
We’re fighting everyone’s fight, which we’re fine with, and we’ve learned a lot. I feel like it’s made us stronger. We’ve never given up. We won’t give up.
“I believe that it will,” he says. “Not only do I believe that it will, I think that festivals in general are going to become the norm. The nightclub is pretty normal, right? It’s part of American culture for someone that’s young and wants to go out.”
For the first time, I don’t believe him, but I know he believes himself. He has to. He’s got too much blood, sweat, tears and money invested in Insomniac to think otherwise. But he’s also too smart to marginalize comedian Ron White’s timeless bit of insight into the human condition: “You can’t fix stupid. Stupid is forever.”
“We took all the media through the security processes before we opened doors (for EDC),” says Rotella. “They went through the pat-down, we turned on the carnival rides, we showed them where the free water stations and medical facilities were. At some point you have to say, ‘Where does self-responsibility come in?’ Listen, if we do something at one of our shows that doesn’t ensure people’s safety, then that’s something to talk about. But if someone wants to come and do something, you know...we can’t bubble wrap every attendee. We can’t have one security guard per one person.”
Just before filing this story, the parents of Sasha Rodriguez filed a lawsuit against both the Coliseum Commission and Insomniac, citing negligence and seeking damages for “personal injury and wrongful death.” Meanwhile, up in San Francisco, assemblywoman Fiona Ma’s long-brewing Raves Safety Act is now one step closer to becoming law in California.
Community is dance music’s largest non-musical cornerstone. Always has been. It’s one of the tenants that attracted Rotella to the scene in the first place. Community helped build Insomniac, but in its most irresponsible form, community is what’s contributed to their misfortune. For every seasoned raver who trades in their 5-HTP for glucosamine and chondroitin, there’s a laissez-faire 21-year old with a VIP wristband and a bullet full of blow. For every ten law-abiding ticket holders, there’s one gatecrasher that wants a better view. Still, nothing is going to stop Rotella from pushing forward in Los Angeles, the city he grew up in. For him, there’s no question. Insomniac deserves to be here.
“It’s been a long road, and the focus has been on us, regardless of whether other event producers have had the same issues,” he says. “We’re fighting everyone’s fight, which we’re fine with, and we’ve learned a lot. I feel like it’s made us stronger. We’ve never given up. We won’t give up.”