Pasquale Rotella began staging his electronic music dance parties almost two decades ago in Los Angeles, when the so-called raves were staged at empty warehouses in dicey neighborhoods.
Back then, raves were an underground phenomenon, known for rampant use of the drug ecstasy, a stimulant that kept the teen and twenty-something partygoers dancing all night – and getting into other trouble.
Since then, he has transformed the almost-spontaneous raves into well-planned weekend-long festivals that draw thousands of people to some of the best-known venues in Los Angeles. Rotella, the founder and chief executive of Hollywood’s Insomniac Inc., is the guy who brought raves mainstream.
But now, his signature event has left Los Angeles.
The death of an underage girl last summer at Insomniac’s biggest concert, Electric Daisy Carnival, along with other problems, resulted in questions over the event’s future at the L.A. Coliseum, dealing a serious setback to Rotella’s campaign to make the rave a regular feature of L.A.’s entertainment scene.
Electric Daisy Carnival, or EDC, will take place this month not at the Coliseum but in Las Vegas. He’s trying to put the best spin on things.
“There have been some extra challenges, but we’ve learned a lot,” he said of his last difficult year. “What we do this year will be a big improvement versus last year.”
The loss of the festival does have a wider impact. EDC did attract tourists to Los Angeles, even from around the world, and the Coliseum will likely lose money this year without the event.
Rotella hopes that eventually, his biggest event will return to its birthplace.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, I began my business here when I was in high school and Los Angeles remains my home,” he said when he announced the move to Las Vegas. “I would love nothing more than to have our events return to the Coliseum in the future.”
Insomniac organizes club parties, concerts and festivals year round. It also produces smaller EDC festivals in Orlando, Fla., Denver, Dallas and Puerto Rico. And the company still produces smaller raves in Southern California, plus parties at clubs and some concerts in L.A.
But the 20-person company is best known for EDC, a summer music festival that features star DJs, circus performers, carnival rides and art installations. This year will feature tall art installations that look like teepees.
The first EDC in 1997 at the Shrine Auditorium drew 5,000 people. Last year, the event at the L.A. Coliseum brought in 185,000 over two days. Rotella expects attendance to reach 100,000 people a day during this year’s festival from June 24 to 26 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Single-day tickets to the Vegas festival – which includes performances by DJs Tiesto and David Guetta – are already sold out but were offered for $75. A three-day pass was originally priced at $180 but was bumped up to $215 in the weeks leading up to the event. VIP tickets are priced even higher.
Those prices imply the event, which cost between $12 million and $15 million to produce, could generate revenue of more than $20 million from ticket sales alone.
Rotella said EDC isn’t just a concert experience. The other activities keep people up all night, enjoying the art, the circus acts and the environment.
“It’s important for us to have a unique, special experience,” he said. “People really get involved. That energy is why our events keep growing.”
But even as raves moved up from underground, drug use followed.
Over the event’s two days last year, about 118 people were arrested, mostly on charges of drug possession, and more than 220 medical cases, including overdoses, were reported. Up to 120 of them led to hospitalizations.
Then, Sasha Rodriguez, a 15-year-old from Atwater, who attended the festival, died of a suspected drug overdose. The event had an age requirement of 16, but some people later said no one checked identification.
After that, a number of doctors and city officials spoke out against the event and others like it where the use of the illegal hallucinogen MDMA, better known as ecstasy, is common.
After EDC, Insomniac released a statement calling the girl’s death a “tragic circumstance” and promised to review the event and its safety procedures. But Rotella stands by the safety of his events.
“The issues that arise in our events are no different than any other mass gathering,” he said. “There’s been focus on what we do where there hasn’t been focus on other music festivals.”
Insomniac has implemented a higher age limit of 18 and now uses ID scanners. The company has started providing free water and has designated an employee whose sole job is managing security; in the past, that responsibility was spread among several staff members.
Insomniac hires security from two separate companies for events and also pays for police officers and medical staff. Rotella estimates that there will be one police officer for every 500 people at EDC in Las Vegas plus 800 security staff.
Stephen Clayton, who runs Corona event production company Soundskilz Productions and also provides event consulting, said that organizers of big events need to keep everyone safe, as well as maintain the perception of safety even amid challenging situations.
“If you do it right,” he said, “you’ll have problems. But your guests won’t know you have problems.”
After last year’s EDC, the Coliseum placed a temporary ban on new contracts for raves; the ban was soon lifted. It was later revealed that one of the venue’s administrators, Todd DeStefano, was also working as a consultant for Insomniac. Coliseum Manager Patrick Lynch, who authorized the dual employment, resigned. The commission scheduled EDC for review in March.
Meanwhile, Insomniac also sustained backlash from another local venue. The L.A. Convention Center canceled an Insomniac concert following EDC, citing the problems at that event. Insomniac has since sued the Convention Center and the city alleging that the venue breached its contract. Rotella said Insomniac is working to settle the suit out of court.
Some Coliseum commissioners supported the return of the EDC, but others opposed it. Amid that uncertainty, Insomniac announced in February that it would move EDC to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this year.
But commission President David Israel told the Los Angeles Times in February that EDC generated about $800,000 for the commission. Without the event, the Coliseum could lose more than $320,000 for the fiscal year, which ends this month.
Rotella said he decided to take EDC away from Los Angeles because the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the best venue available.
“I’d been looking at Vegas for years and it’s the right time now,” he said.
DJ Mackovets, who has worked on the organization of major events, including the 2011 Senior Games in Houston, two Super Bowls and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, said it’s easier to host a large-scale event when the city is on board.
“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got all the people who will be impacted by the production of your event,” he said. “If you’re putting on an event of some significant scope, you need to have them at the table as part of the planning process.”
Rotella, the son of Italian immigrants, became interested in event promotion when he was a high school student attending raves as an electronic music fan. He staged his first event in 1992 and founded Insomniac the following year. At first, the company hosted weekly events, often at secret locations revealed on the day of the rave.
When he began to focus on large events in 1995, he initially had a hard time getting big venues to sign on.
“At the time, no one was producing events at legitimate venues like the L.A. Coliseum or the Sports Arena,” he said. “It was a challenge convincing them that the music genre was something that was popular and manageable.”
His big break came when he hosted the first EDC at the Shrine in 1997. That led to the Sports Arena and later the Coliseum for even bigger shows, which he likes to call festivals, not raves.
During his early days, Rotella funded Insomniac on his own, paying DJs and venues after he received money from ticket sales at the door. Today, Insomniac finances its events through ticket sales, event sponsorships and merchandise – such as T-shirts, water bottles and key chains.
Rotella would not disclose the company’s financials but said “things have been good” for the company and business has been growing every year.
“There are some events that do better than others,” he said. “There are some events that I don’t look at as a loss but as an investment. With new festival brands, the first year we might lose a substantial amount of money, but I have confidence that we’re building something there.”
EDC has become a boon to the local tourism industry, with people traveling from other cities, states and even countries to attend.
Insomniac commissioned a report from Beacon Economics to show the economic impact of EDC in Los Angeles. Beacon claimed last year’s festival generated nearly $42 million for the city through job creation, taxes and tourism revenue to hotels and restaurants.
Perhaps ironically, Rotella expects the upcoming Vegas EDC to be the largest event Insomniac has ever staged. He credits increasing attendance at his festivals to the rise in popularity of dance music.
“There are all kinds of people who are loving it and it’s beautiful to see,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have a loyal fan base.”
And even though he has an extended contract with the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he said he’s open to staging an additional EDC event back in L.A.
“We’re still based in Los Angeles,” he said, “and our main market is California.”