September 15, 2015
Pasquale Rotella was raised on the streets of Pacific Palisades and the boardwalk of Venice, turned on to the underground rave scene when he was 16 and started his own rave parties in 1993 under the Insomniac banner. Today, Insomniac holds some of the largest and best-known EDM events in the world and is part of the Live Nation family. What's more, Rotella has launched his own label in conjunction with Interscope Records, which plans to get into gear in the very near future. Here, he details his road to success and the business ahead.
Insomniac celebrated the 20th anniversary of Nocturnal Wonderland over Labor Day weekend. How are you doing and how has this event changed over the last 20 years?
I'm doing well, thank you. It's exciting, It's been a long time and It's sort of a miracle that we're still here. You don't really see many festivals that stick around this long from back in the day and I'm very grateful.
Definitely the level of production at the shows has changed. The crowds have changed. The attire that the fans wear has changed. Something that is great about Nocturnal is that some of its roots are still in there. A camp of people, I think it's up to 60, who went to the first Nocturnal, gathered in camp to celebrate the 20th anniversary with us.
The diversity of the music is still there. The music changes, the people change the styles change and the quality of production has changed. Those are the main things that have changed.
Over the years your events have grown to incredible size. EDC Vegas does 125,000 people a day or more. When you first started doing all of this, did you ever envision these events you put together would generate this type of attendance?
I definitely envisioned crowds of people coming. One of the filmstrips that would go through my mind before I even did my first event was looking out into a sea of smiling faces. I couldn't see where that crowd of people ended in my head. I never thought of a number; I never thought 140,000 people, but I did feel that in time if I kept on delivering great experiences, the crowds would grow and people would get more and more into it and that was definitely always the goal.
I never knew that it would be this big, I never thought of the numbers being in the hundreds of thousands, but I did see people getting into it over time because how could they not. I personally enjoy it so much. I enjoy the culture; I enjoy the music and the festival so much I felt like it was a no-brainer.
Insomniac Events is responsible for, on average, 12 major festival-styled events per year in over a dozen cities, including Puerto Rico, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. And that's just the big stuff. Include the monthly club nights and one-offs and your looking at hundreds of events. How do you find the time and how do you manage to make that all work?
I am fortunate enough to have an amazing team. I have lots of ideas and lots of things that I want to accomplish, but my team has allowed me to be able to do things that I dreamt of and something that I've had success doing is in the hiring process I search for people who are from the culture that used to be an event producer or were involved in the culture one way or another. Even if they were just an attendee, they get it more so than if you hired someone who didn't live the music experience in the past. That's really helped me and made it possible.
Earlier this year you announced EDC Brazil, which is EDC's first foray into South America, you also do events in international territories such as London and Mexico. Insomniac is in many international territories, how does the global festival scene compare to the one in the U.S.?
It's very different. The crowds are different; depending on where you are or where you go, the energy level is different. How hard the crowd dances is drastically different in certain markets.
My heart is definitely in Southern California and the West Coast. I consider EDC Las Vegas very, very kind of attached to Southern California market because there are so many people that come from So Cal to Las Vegas for EDC, but there are beautiful things about different markets. There is a different spirit in different areas and that makes it interesting and some markets need EDC more than other markets. It's really exciting to go into markets that have a void for what EDC is.
How do you compete with other concert and festival promoters for top-notch talent; is there something that separates you from others?
It's not just playing a concert; there are a lot of events out there, there are a lot of producers out there that are doing great events, but there is something unique about what we do, because we come from the bottom up versus the top down. We've been doing this for so long and it's our passion. We offer experiences that artists want to be a part of. The people producing our events, the people behind our events, are the same people who are on the dance floor. There's a synergy there that I believe is attractive to artists.
Art and design is a huge part of. It's not just about the music; it's about art, costumes and community. What have been some of the new and exciting elements of art and design that you have added this year?
We recently added a new stage called the Funk House. We love dance music of all kinds and we've been bringing back Disco and Funk and some classic really old Hip-Hop, the Sugarhill Gang and stuff like that. That's been really fun to bring into the mix. We also have been building these designs that have never been seen before, so when you walk into a show you feel like you might have come to Nocturnal or EDC for the past five years or 10 years, but you've never been to this EDC because it's a whole new world. So that's always exciting. The art installations are always different and the booking team has done a great job of putting on new talent to mix things up a bit.
Fan experience must be very important to you. You recently held a special call to discuss health, safety and sober raving at Insomniac festivals. What are some of the goals that Insomniac Director of Health and Safety Maren Steiner and you are looking to accomplish when it comes to your festival attendees?
I'm always looking for ways to educate and our team is always looking for ways to educate, Maren especially, on health and safety measures. It's important to let people know that we are there for them, that if they are ever seeing something that doesn't feel right, they should let us know. We want the safest events in the world and we are always pushing things forward as best we can to do that. We try to get creative with it; that was just another outlet to get that message and communication out there.
About five years ago you created EDM Biz, which is a conference type event that takes place in Las Vegas around the same time as EDC. What made you decide to put together an EDM Biz?
In Europe there is a good conference that I attend, but I feel like there really wasn't a great place in the U.S. where people and entrepreneurs could go to learn about the business, and where all the industry leaders would gather to idea-share. We really want to add value to the industry by bringing the conference to Las Vegas during EDC week. It's about inspiring others, idea sharing, and networking -- and people do big deals there. Even I announced my partnership with Live Nation at EDM Biz. It's a great place to get all those things accomplished and it's been great and it is growing every year. I love it.
Within the last year, you started a label partnership with Interscope to work Insomniac Records; how's that going?
It's actually good timing to ask that. Things were a little slow at the beginning, but I couldn't be any more excited about the partnership because they are great. My mother recently got sick and passed. I was really involved with the label and I got a little sidetracked. Of course I put all of my attention towards my mother and what was happening with her, but recently I had a meeting and there is going to be a lot of movement with the label coming up here and I'm re-energized and excited about it. Not that I ever wasn't excited, but it was kind of on hold for a minute. We had some great artists like Arty and Hook N Sling that are on the label but we had so many others that we had discovered and some established ones that we were also in talks with. Now we're jumping back into it and I'm excited about it and can't wait to get to it. All systems go on that right now. It's an exciting time for the label.
As a label owner and a festival/event promoter, does radio play make a difference for you when deciding who you are going to book at one of your events or who you might look to sign and put out on the label? Do streaming services such as Spotify YouTube and Soundcloud make a big difference?
No it hasn't actually. It has not made a big difference. We look at everything and we definitely look at those outlets, but there are so many different ways we figure out who we are going to book. The two most important is what the headliners, we call the fans the headliners, what they are reaching out to us about, what they are buzzing about and we have our ear to street constantly to kind of get the response and the reaction from them and who they are feeling and also the music.
Sometimes songs are on the radio because they are catchy, but not necessarily the right fit for what we are doing. Even within dance music, we currently are focusing on what's new and buzzing and we're trying to definitely represent all genres of music, so that's also important that we cover all different styles. There are styles of music that we feature at our festivals that don't ever get any radio play, let alone heavy rotation. Some don't even get played at all.
Genres like Drum N Bass, or Hard Style, stuff like that, but I guess with the podcasts all genres are covered. You have people out there pushing it themselves. There are a lot of different ways that we figure it out.
With all the ways that one can become a DJ today? How do you go about choosing the unproven ones to give them a chance to prove themselves on one of your stages?
That was difficult for a long time and it's the reason why we actually created something called the Discovery Project, which gives bedroom producers and DJs the opportunity to turn in a mix or a song that they have made and we have a team here that will listen to and do the A&R and listen to the music. We have discovered some great artists that way and put them on the Festival. We've actually taken them right from their bedroom to the Festival and that is something that didn't exist before. It took a lot more for someone to find that opportunity and that's why we created that outlet and that's how we discovered some new talent.
How do you determine when an artist goes from being on the new stage or a side stage to being a main stage headliner?
The fans. You see it happening in real time. We'll hear from fans saying positive things or we'll hear things from the fans like did you go to the Bass pod and see that the stage was overflowing. Things like that, or we also do it to change things up as we didn't want this big room sound coming from the Kinetic Field stage, which is the largest stage at EDC, or Labyrinth at Nocturnal. We said let's shake things up a little. It also comes from our gut and often buzz from within the office. For a while there was a heavy rotation of the same guys, so we get creative with it. So you know creativity, the audience reaction and how much they are buzzing about the artist and sometimes it will just be the music style that they play that they'll get moved to another stage because it almost like a composer orchestrating the band to take people on a musical journey. If there is a sunrise set or sunset set available, maybe someone who is deeper that would be perfect for creating a moment there. So those would be the reasons.
You are heavily involved with various charities and charitable donations on an ongoing basis, what keeps fueling your philanthropy? Is there one charity that is nearer or dearer to your heart?
Any charity that supports children is dear to my heart. That's something that I would hope most people would have a soft spot in their hearts for and this was even before having a child, so that's the most important thing to me.
Second the art; there are so many struggling artists out there, anything that supports the arts is something that I like to support as well and I do it because we can and anyone that can should be helping people in the world. It was not difficult for me to make the decision to add a dollar per ticket to give to charity and it's something that feels good.
The first time I was able to give, I remember walking in the door at a Boys and Girls Club and these kids made signs saying thank you, and they were doing dance routines for me and the other people who were there. You saw where the money went and we were hooked as a company. That's something we'll never stop doing.
What's the future hold for Insomniac?
To keep striving to create the perfect experience and to keep growing and spread what we do around the world. We believe that there is a lot of positive things that come out of people getting together and listening to music and dancing and gathering and that love comes from that and that freedom comes from that and you know human connection and we want to do as much of that as we can and we want to perfect it so that it is even better than it is now on a customer service level and on an experience level.