June 17, 2014
Pasquale Rotella has essentially gone from the underground to the Dance music mountaintop. From that music underground, Rotella created Insomniac, an EDM concert promotion firm that has established high-profile events such as the Electric Daisy Carnival and Nocturnal Wonderland. Live Nation has since become a partner in the company, which recently launched the Insomniac Records label. With the EDMbiz convention now in progress, Rotella offers his perspective on the still-growing scene.
What were you doing before you started Insomniac Events?
I was in high school, going to underground events. I didn't really ask myself what I wanted to do for a living; I just kind followed my passion. At first I didn't know if I actually believed I could do it, but eventually I got it in my head that I knew enough about it to try.
Once you started, how long did it take before you felt confident that you could succeed with this?
I took me a really long time; I was always feeling challenged. I wanted to learn so much, but then I reached a point where I felt I knew what I needed to know about the challenges within the business and the culture
What was the EDM scene like when you started in '93?
It was very different in that House and Techno were the only Dance genres we did. What's more, what Techno is now and what Techno was then are two different things. House hadn't evolved into all these subgenres of music; each of those that developed came out of the original House.
Some big-money players have come into the EDM concert arena such as Robert Sillerman's SFX and Live Nation. Insomiac tied in with Live Nation. Please explain what went into your decision to do that.
I first decided to do my own thing because I believed in staying independent; I didn't want to sacrifice my vision by partnering with anyone. That was my first reaction. Then things started getting so crazy with people throwing all this money around. It was going to be hard for me, as an independent, to survive. I was doing well when I was doing large events, but I was practically broke during the times when I wasn't. I was putting everything I made back into the company. I wouldn't call myself totally broke, but I was overworked and underpaid compared to what others were making.
With all the competitive battles coming our way, we started listening to the offers being presented to us, and we considered some of them. Even so, we said "no" for years -- until I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Rapino. He's a visionary; he's smart and he gets it. He wanted Live Nation to get into what we were doing, but he didn't want to change us. He's an inspiring individual who changed my whole mindset about everything, and that's why we went into business together.
HARD Events is also under the Live Nation banner. How do the two distinct Dance properties co-exit successfully?
Initially, we weren't really direct competitors. I've been friends with Gary Richards for a while, and his events weren't that competitive but if I did see potential conflicts, it would be in using Live Nation resources. We separately negotiated our deals and our brands are both under the Live Nation umbrella, but the difference is that HARD was bought out entirely by Live Nation, while Insomniac has partnered with Live Nation. In effect, we both co-own the HARD brand.
There are a growing number of EDM concerts and festivals now. How concerned are you that the business is nearing a saturation point in the number of events held each year - especially in EDM-centric markets such as Las Vegas, Miami and L.A.?
Yes, that's always a concern, but I feel like we have a very close, unique relationship with our fans and our bands. Our events are different enough that we can stand out and keep our audience. There are a lot of EDM events, but there are not a lot of Nocturnal Wonderlands and Electric Daisy Carnivals.
In your eyes, is EDM's popularity fairly similar nationwide, or are there pockets of great popularity and markets where it has yet to take off?
EDM is somewhat bigger in some markets than others, but I do believe it's pretty much everywhere. We do smaller events in certain markets and we really respect the people who have been doing their own EDM events there for a long time. We're not going into any market unless we have the right local partners and we're welcomed there.
This week is another EDMbiz convention. Is its purpose to help raise EDM's profile to the mainstream, or is it more of an in-house thing?
It's definitely not to raise the profile. We want the convention to provide the space for people to idea-share and to help them break into the industry. Today, there are so many different interests getting involved in Dance music. We want people to learn how to create Dance culture the right way. We provide a place where even I can learn new things. EDMbiz has become a great place to network and share ideas.
So what made you decide to start a label?
It has been a very natural extension for us, because we've had new DJ Discovery Project competitions at our festivals for years. We've been giving young producers the opportunity to play at our festivals, so after discovering all this great talent, the next natural step would be to help those people break through. Instead of just discovering rising talent, we want to work with them to achieve greater success.
Is getting this music on Top 40 or music mainstream radio a goal for Insomniac talent, or does EDM not need that kind of airplay to succeed and prosper?
We don't necessarily need that for our talent to be successful, but we want that kind of exposure and success. Obviously, there are different types of success in the music scene, and we always want to put out good music. Sometimes those albums won't have the right kind of music for Top 40, but it will still please the underground scene. At the same time, we definitely can have EDM on mainstream music radio -- such as Calvin Harris and Martin Garrix -- and we will continue to get more artists such exposure.
How do you plan on convincing radio that this music appeals to their target audiences, especially if the stations want to appeal to 25-34 listeners?
I believe some EDM artists already appeal to those listeners and have already succeeded on the top mainstream stations; see Calvin Harris and Aviicii, among others. The top radio stations are already playing Dance music.
Are you dealing with the challenge of overcoming the perception that EDM mainly appeals to 12-24s?
Look at the live side. All of our live events only admit people over 18. Other events in other markets may be different, but even then I would bet that the majority of the live EDM audience is not only over 21, but there's a large segment who are their 30s, and some concerts attract a good number of 40-somethings. The teen audience perception may have been prevalent five years ago, but now the crowds are definitely older than teenagers, more like 21-40. Obviously, when you put on a pair of fuzzy pants, you tend to look younger.
Some pundits believe the biggest obstacle to EDM's popularity is that it's almost totally rhythmic-based and somewhat faceless -- that it's difficult, if not impossible, to relate to the song's emotions or to the DJ. Agree?
All I can say to that is thank God for the Internet, because Dance music was not initially supported by a lot of major labels and major radio stations. PR firms or corporate companies weren't behind it, either. It changed, thanks to the Net and YouTube, which exposed people to EDM and built our audience.
I remember this big "problem" of EDM being faceless music, and that was definitely the case back then. Still, I didn't think it was a problem. I wanted EDM to be about the music and not about "the rock star." Maybe the masses need to praise the "star," but I didn't think EDM artists needed to be that way. It was faceless music because early on, the people who were DJ'ing weren't necessarily these larger-than-life characters or rock stars. I think that allowed Dance music to gain popularity. Then, once EDM became more popular, it has crossed over and now we have faces like Calvin Harris and, in his own way, deadmau5.
Personally, I believe that another good thing about the "faceless" music was that it made the events better. People who went to the events weren't standing there, waiting to be entertained. They got more involved with the music and made the whole thing an interactive party.
Bottom line #1: is EDM this millennium's Disco?
I'd say Disco and more. Dance music has been around a lot longer than Disco, and it was still going on when Disco died. There were tens of thousands of people going to Dance events in the late '90s, only no one was watching.
Bottom line #2: EDM is about the only music nowadays that kids can play that their parents won't stomach; music that really illustrated a generation gap. Agree?
That's hard for me to answer because I have friends in our business whose kids are DJ'ing and making Dance music. They're giving me their demos or music files. I feel there may be a gap between certain kinds of people, not necessarily an age or generation gap. There are parents who take their kids to Dance concerts and there are kids who don't like to listen to what their parents listen to. The thing is, nowadays with the Internet, everyone has access to the music, so it's very easy to become familiar with it no matter how old you are.
How popular can EDM be? Would you want it to be as popular as Country music or Top 40 currently are?
EDM and Dance isn't just one thing. Even if everybody liked an EDM DJ and his music was all over radio, it wouldn't matter because there'd always be hardcore fans who, for instance, only like drum & bass, or only cares about Trance. Some of these scenes are so different; you shouldn't even put them all in one basket. There are so many scenes, cultures and sounds under the Dance music umbrella; we know not all of it will blow up. Then there are hipsters who are so into Trance, drum & bass or the underground that they don't like "EDM" because it's getting too popular. But you'll find hardcore enthusiasts for almost every music genre.
Finally, what's the future of this music and your place in it with Insomniac, the concert promoter and the label?
If you're asking me how much I think we'll accomplish, I don't know. That's that for others to judge. I'm most proud staying on the roller coaster ride of this business, with all its ups and downs, where I can still feel part of the underground scene I joined a long time ago. I am still doing what I love, even thought here's not many people left from the original days. I'm very proud to still be surviving and doing what I love.