Carnival Magnetism

How Pasquale Rotella’s endless quest for the perfect underground party vibe led to a wildly popular Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. And may soon find him searching underground again.

Pasquale Rotella arrives at the Cosmopolitan in black skinny jeans, black high-tops and a gray button-down shirt. He has a backpack slung over one shoulder and is so fresh-faced he looks like he should be waiting by a bus stop with milk money jangling in his pockets.

There’s a small crowd waiting for the 37-year-old Los Angeles native near the fourth-floor Cosmopolitan ballrooms to talk about the particulars of his new dance music confab, EDMbiz, taking place the first week of June, just before the main event: the Electric Daisy Carnival.

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Somehow, the entire conversation is focused on whether or not to pipe-and-drape parts of the convention area for privacy. It seems implausible, at best, that the Insomniac founder would be spending this much time talking about where to hang plain black curtains.

“We’re going to have lots of superstar DJs hanging out,” Insomniac consultant John Boyle says to a Cosmopolitan representative showing the space.

“What did you say?” Rotella interrupts.

“Superstar DJs?”

“Man, I hate when people say that,” Rotella laughs, but he’s not joking.

Insomniac’s mission is to create cut-from-whole-cloth festivals that encompass a hard-to-define vibe. While DJs are a big part of the formula, Rotella’s synergistic magic involves the right audience and art groove as much as who’s spinning. Whatever the combination, it’s working.

Two weeks before EDC, the three-day event had already sold out—110,000 tickets per day, at $215 for a three-day pass. That’s a new Insomniac record. Last year’s event drew 230,000 dayglow soldiers marching dutifully into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to wrap themselves in a cocoon of beats from dusk till dawn. None of this would have happened without electronic dance music exploding along pop and hip-hop vectors to reach critical mass in the United States over the last two years.

It was a moment of triumph for Insomniac, which over the last 20 years has gone from one tiny underground warehouse party to a brand standard in dance music that produces eight different festivals—including four locations for EDC this year—and several one-offs.

So what happens now that Rotella finds himself with the biggest festival brand in EDM at a time when the music is at the height of its popularity in America? He spends his time thinking about blowing it up.

“It’s killing me,” he says. “Everything falls to the wayside when you’re focused on just one thing. If you’re so infatuated with this one DJ, everything else disappears. So it concerns me. I’ve devoted my life to events that are unique and special and are about so much more than a concert.”

He talks about DJs as conductors, while the performance artists who roam festival grounds over the event’s three days are the show’s cast. He says maybe he’ll hide the men working the turntables behind curtains if too many people spend too much time passively staring at the stage, cellphones held high.

“We’re not that yet. We’re not a concert yet. We’re a hybrid. I’m actually OK with being a hybrid. I don’t mind people being totally stoked about seeing an act. I think that’s awesome. I just don’t want it to be only that, because at that point I’m going to lose my passion for this. At that point, why don’t I just go book a Dr. Dre tour? At that point, I’ll probably stop doing this.”

As he walks around the conference space, Rotella’s production people debate the merits of different configurations for the conference. He stops and pulls out his camera phone with a delighted, “Aw, check out this owl.” There’s a statue of the bird done in a mechanical steampunk style that makes it look like a glorified toy. Rotella has a thing for owls, someone in his retinue notes. It’s even part of the Insomniac DNA, with the night owl being a logical icon to go with the motto “Wide awake since ’93.”

This year Rotella is preparing for his first EDMbiz conference, where artists and executives from talent agencies, record labels, radio, dance-music websites and festivals (plus former Mayor Oscar Goodman) will gather to discuss the vagaries of the booty-shaking game in the three days before EDC. Rotella expects it to be the first important conference of its kind in the United States, dismissing Miami’s Winter Music Conference as lightly regarded.

When the discussion turns to capacity and fire codes and the lunch menu, Rotella is quick to defer to others. But as soon as the discussion turns to crowd flow, he’s fully engaged. He wants people to move a certain way. He wants the right tech and decorations and meeting space. He wants it to look like a swanky airport lounge or an upscale hotel lobby. He wants to subtly manipulate participants into interacting with each other.

He wants to set a vibe.

Everything Rotella considers, it seems, is through the lens of “vibe.” He may be Insomniac’s CEO, but really, he’s more like the company’s Minister of Feelings. Rotella wants everyone to feel at his festivals like he felt the first time he went to a warehouse rave.

Rotella leans back in a chair at the Cosmopolitan with one leg draped over the arm. He’s soft-spoken and laid-back to the point of being nearly bloodless. It isn’t until the conversation turns to the L.A. rave scene in the early ’90s that he gets excited. He jumps out of his chair to punctuate his stories with movement.

He says that, back then, every underground warehouse party had some kind of performance or art element. It might be a bank of televisions all tuned to static, or a man in a Speedo and goat horns running in place. One time, a 350-pound dude was painted all white, standing on a pedestal and eating burgers while video was projected onto his body.

Inspired by that anything-at-anytime atmosphere, Rotella began throwing his own parties in 1992 when he was just a teenager, doing what he could to bring skeptical friends into the scene. His first Insomniac event was a 300-person affair in a Crenshaw warehouse in ’92. His second event got busted by the cops.

The danger was part of the draw. Never knowing until Friday where the next party would be, or whether he’d have to break into a warehouse to throw it, lent an air of adventure to party promotion. Coupled with the fact that the young EDM scene wasn’t present elsewhere in the country, the combination of factors was a strong enough cocktail to convince Rotella to drop out of high school and pursue parties full time.

Dance music has always been a tough nut to crack in the U.S., though, and by 1995, it had fallen out of favor enough that for six months, Rotella stopped doing events altogether. He opened a restaurant with the help of his father. He was waiting tables and washing dishes and doing everything a part owner of a small operation would need to do to keep the business afloat. For the first time, he was making steady money. He was miserable.

So he came back and threw his second Nocturnal Wonderland, in 1996. It drew 6,000 people and didn’t get busted until 4 a.m. That counts as a win. By 2000, Nocturnal drew 40,000 and Electric Daisy had 35,000. But then L.A. started using crack-house laws to go after raves, and a year later, EDC was back down to 7,000.

“People were treated like shit,” Rotella says. “The police would come with dogs. They’d bark at people walking in. People would get harassed on the way in, parties would get busted. They’d scare promoters. It would be like walking into a jail.”

He was told that he was one of the promoters next in line in the crosshairs, but he managed to stay in the clear.

Legal trouble wouldn’t find him for another 10 years. By then, he’d battled back to doing a two-day total of 160,000 at 2010’s EDC, where in the wake of the death of 15-year-old attendee Sasha Rodriguez, Insomniac and Los Angeles officials couldn’t come to an agreement about the event returning for a 14th year at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Rotella packed up and brought the Carnival to Vegas. He signed a five-year deal to do the event at the Speedway and was met with surprisingly open arms by the city. While he said he’s open to doing another festival in L.A. at some point, he’s never moving EDC Vegas back to Southern California. The warm reception turns out to be a savvy move on Vegas’ part—according to a study (commissioned, it should be noted, by Insomniac) from Beacon Economics, last year’s fest was worth $136 million to the local economy.

Yet because of the investigation that started in the wake of Rodriguez’s death, it was revealed that Coliseum events manager Todd DeStefano was doing double duty working for the venue and consulting for both Insomniac and Go Ventures, another rave promoter. Both he and Coliseum general manager Patrick Lynch were charged in an elaborate kickback scheme in which Insomniac and Go allegedly paid off officials to help get their events approved and discounted at the facility. Rotella is facing charges of bribery, embezzlement and conspiracy that have him facing up to 13 years in prison.

“I’m taking it very seriously, of course, but I’m not missing a beat. There’s not much I can do about it. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve got confidence in my attorneys.”

As much as he’s looking toward Insomniac’s next evolutionary leap—creating more discrete identities for the brands, doing something with a permanent space—he’s still looking back to the ’90s. Rotella was looking at warehouse space months ago to bring back a true underground party. The EDC schedule kept him from doing it, but he plans to revisit the idea. He’ll DJ himself. “I’ve got nine crates of vinyl,” he says. “Nothing past ’93 or ’94, though.”

Everything he’s trying to do seems like a route back to those early years, where the DJs were no more important to the party than the people dancing. He speaks longingly about the positivity and the togetherness of that era—in a time where “raver” was a surefire way to label yourself as pitifully lame to a hip-hop-loving, cool-kids crowd.

Ultimately, he’s not worried about what will happen when, inevitably, the club crowds move on to the next sound and scene. He’s not worried about setting new attendance records every year. He’s not even worried about weekend warriors coming in and detracting from the hard-core fans. If he has to lower the attendance cap, he will. If he has to make people dress up in costumes in order to get through the gate, he’ll do it.

It’s a risk, to potentially alienate the same casual fans he hopes to convert to true believers by way of sheer sensory overload at the event. Or, likewise, to alienate the hard-core EDM-lovers by downplaying the DJs. But it’s not like he hasn’t done it before—Rotella says he still gets Tweets regularly from disappointed fans who want him to bring EDC back to L.A.

“There’s a bleed-out process, a cleansing that happens every five years. It’s popular now, but it won’t be tomorrow. And who will still be here doing it? It’s fine. It’s a cycle. It’s healthy. That’s why we’re strong. I’m not the smartest guy in the world; I’m just committed. And I love this.”

Insomniac Timeline

1993 Company founded by Rotella.
August 1995 Nocturnal Wonderland festival debuts.
April 1996 Audiotistic festival debuts.
March 1997 The first Electric Daisy Carnival festival is held at Shrine Expo Hall.
June 2007 EDC moves to L.A. Coliseum.
June 2008 EDC expands to Aurora, Colo.
June 2009 EDC launches its first two-day festival in L.A.
August 2009 EDC debuts in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
June 2010 EDC debuts in Dallas.
Sasha Rodriguez, 15, dies from complications due to a drug overdose after attending EDC festival in L.A.
July 2010 Insomniac implements 18+ age policy for all events.
August 2010 Insomniac sues the city of Los Angeles for $1 million after the cancelation of Tiësto performance.
December 2010 EDC receives “Best Festival 2010” from URB magazine.
May 2011 EDC debuts in Orlando, Fla.
June 2011 EDC moves its annual festival to Las Vegas and expands it to three days.
July 2011 Insomniac co-hosts Electric Forest festival in Rothbury, Mich.
Insomniac donates more than $75,000 to three Las Vegas charities.
Riot prevents viewing of Electric Carnival Daisy Experience film in Hollywood.
September 2011 Parents of Sasha Rodriguez sue Insomniac and L.A. Coliseum for daughter’s death.
October 2011 Escape From Wonderland festival makes its debut in L.A. at the NOS Events Center.
December 2011– January 2012 White Wonderland makes its debut at the Anaheim Convention Center for a two-day New Year’s Eve celebration.
March 2012 Insomniac partners with Rock the Vote to launch Spin the Vote, a program that provides voter registration and engagement at Insomniac events.
Rotella surrenders to authorities under allegations of financial crimes regarding EDC’s past dealings with the L.A. Coliseum.
Insomniac receives IDMA award for “Best Event Promoter.”
April 2012 Insomniac partners with Southern Nevada Red Cross and Phones 4 Charity for EDC Las Vegas.
May 2012 New York added to EDC’s list of destinations.
June 2012 Insomniac holds first EDMbiz conference in Las Vegas.

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