How Pasquale Rotella Built His Rave Empire
PHOTO BY ERIK KABIK
A June super-moon hangs over the Las Vegas Strip as the futuristic ECO-Star helicopter cruises above the world's greatest neon canyon. On board are The Girls Next Door veteran Holly Madison, who once dated Hugh Hefner; superstar DJ Afrojack, who once dated Paris Hilton; best-selling author James Frey, who once embarrassed Oprah Winfrey; and electronic dance music's most powerful man, Pasquale Rotella.
The pilot wants to impress the boss en route to Rotella's annual Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day, 115,000-attendee festival of lights and bass, so he asks if we should buzz the Stratosphere Hotel, the tallest observation tower in the United States. Soon we're floating by like the Jetsons, close enough to wave to the psychos trying out Stratosphere's vomit-inducing SkyJump ride. The pilot's next move is to take the chopper sideways, which produces a terrifying, weightless feeling, conjuring imaginary headlines of boldface names perishing. Maybe it's not a bad way to go: Rotella's hero, legendary stadium-rock promoter Bill Graham, perished in a postshow helicopter crash in 1991.
We survive this one, enjoying sublime Kaskade tracks in our headsets for the night's pièce de résistance: a low-flying, circular tour of the vast, 1,500-acre Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where EDC is about to peak for its third night.
Electric Daisy Carnival is the happiest place on Earth ... for adults. Below us are two Ferris wheels, a roller coaster, a mega slide, a Tilt-a-Whirl, Burning Man–style art gardens, clown-faced dance troupes on stilts, seven main music areas — including what organizers say is the largest festival stage in North America — and a lineup that includes more than 200 of the world's biggest DJs, including Avicii, Afrojack, Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Calvin Harris and Fatboy Slim. During EDC, the 20-minute drive from the Strip to the Speedway can take two hours. It's a massive, outdoor Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, a party dreamland come true.
Rotella's rise as rave master has been meteoric. Ten years ago, nearly half a dozen Southern California promoters were vying for the electronic dance music festival dollar, and Rotella's was just a face in that crowd. Today EDM is on an American high. Acts like Calvin Harris are getting radio play, Deadmau5 and Skrillex are performing at the Grammy Awards, and Avicii's "Levels" is heard in every other TV commercial.
And now there's just one EDM concert king from coast to coast: Rotella.
"If I had to pick one person at the top of the game, it would probably be him," says Gary Bongiovanni, president of concert-industry publication and data service Pollstar. "Pasquale really was a pioneer in helping to bring raves out of the warehouses."
But with Rotella's rise has come controversy.
The 39-year-old has been under indictment for more than a year, facing six counts of conspiracy, bribery and embezzlement. Together the charges could bring nearly 14 years behind bars, although a hearing to weigh arguments for dismissal is set for Sept. 18. Rotella remains free after posting bond, but he must ask for the court's permission to jet to his far-flung events.
Meanwhile, when a 15-year-old girl died after taking ecstasy at a 2010 event thrown by Rotella's company, Insomniac Events, some L.A. leaders seemed genuinely scandalized to learn that raves were happening on public property under their supervision. The combination of the death and the bribery accusations were enough to get EDC unceremoniously booted from its home at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
So what does a self-made man from a hardscrabble, Westside background do in circumstances like that?
He takes EDC to Nevada and, beginning in 2011, transforms his 160,000-person, two-day L.A. party into a three-day rave with twice as many clicks of the turnstiles at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He fends off mainstream concerns over drug use at his parties to take on the most mainstream of corporate partners, Live Nation, which this summer reportedly bought a 50 percent stake in Insomniac for a whopping $50 million.
He fights the criminal charges — welcoming a reporter into his helicopter at a time when many criminal defendants would be ducking. Importantly, Rotella beats a civil suit brought by the Coliseum, which includes allegations similar to those still pending in the criminal case. Last month, the court dismissed all civil claims against both Rotella and Insomniac Events.
He travels to New York and London. He lives large, even as he maintains that he has stayed true to his roots. Of the criminal charges, Rotella told a reporter last spring, "I don't lose sleep over it because I didn't do anything."
Oh, and he gets the girl: He and Holly Madison welcomed a baby girl, Rainbow Aurora Rotella, into the world on March 5.
Take that, Los Angeles.
Pasquale Rotella was a comer even when he was a "16-year-old with a fake ID, just going out to the undergrounds," Tef Foo, one of L.A.'s veteran rave promoters, recalls. Rotella says he went to his first rave in 1990 and never looked back.
Growing up as a relatively poor kid in bucolic Pacific Palisades, he was attracted to street life. His Italian immigrant parents were serial entrepreneurs: Dad was a construction worker, which came in handy when the couple opened its first eatery in Eagle Rock. Soon they had a deli, La Rotella, in Venice.
But the family struggled. They even lived in a youth hostel near the beach for a spell while Irene and Vincent Rotella "worked to get us back into the Palisades," their son recalls. Young Pasquale bussed tables and cleaned up at the Venice deli, but for the most part, he says, he was "unsupervised on the Venice boardwalk," break-dancing as an eighth grader, showing other kids "what's up" on the cardboard mats of Ocean Front Walk. He also joined a tagging crew.
He was part of a lost generation of street-smart white kids — including Venice's "Z-Boys" skate team and surfing's Strider Wasilewski — who grew up on the Westside when it still had some grit.
"I used to wear Dickies pants and white T-shirts and Raiders' Starter jackets," Rotella says. "My mom would give me a meatball in tinfoil for lunch. I wasn't a bad kid at all, but I just couldn't pretend I had a white picket fence. ... I was an outcast in the Palisades. The kids' parents didn't let them come to my house."
But his success today is a real contrast to some of his wealthier peers: "The families there were afraid of me, but a lot of their kids ended up getting into heroin."
When early rave music hit Los Angeles at the dawn of the '90s, it was an epiphany for Rotella. The sound captured the urban grit of electro music (his break-dancing soundtrack), featured street art in its visuals and adopted the neon smiley-face fashion of England's acid-house scene. The 1960s psychedelia of Bill Graham's Grateful Dead concerts and Tom Wolfe's literary accompaniment, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, were updated with new sounds and new drugs. Acts like Prodigy, Altern-8 and 2 Bad Mice mixed tough-guy breakbeats with futuristic synth sounds.
Rotella was all over it.
"It was happy music," he says. "And it had some hip-hop culture behind it."
While Rotella is today a multimillionaire, he still brings the swagger in a T-shirt, backpack and stiff-billed Edmonton Oilers baseball cap — all black. He has the cold gaze of someone who has some street experience. Which he does: As a teenager he ran with some tough Eastside party crews, joining one called Latin Pride. His wasn't Bill Graham's street-hustling, foster-kid Bronx childhood, but you can see the roots of his egalitarian, for-the-people stance.
"The one thing people didn't appreciate about Bill, and the one thing Pasquale admires, is [that they] care about the audience experience," Pollstar's Bongiovanni says. "Having worked with Bill in the early days, I understood his passion to make sure the hot dogs were fresh and the restrooms were clean. He was concerned with the environment he was putting audiences in."
More often than not, a young Rotella would end up at an underground party near downtown called La Casa, a venue in the 18th Street gang territory.
"I remember getting patted on my head at La Casa one night," he says, "and someone said, 'Shouldn't you be home by now, kid?' I would wear top hats, giant overalls and Dr. Martens, fill my backpack with lollipops, and go to the events and dance like crazy. It was the best time of my life."
In 1992, as an 18-year-old, Rotella opened the doors to his own party, Unity Groove. Reza Gerami, whose Go Ventures would later become Insomniac's chief competition, remembers Rotella as a teenager "handing out fliers in his little orange jacket with his sideburns and baggy rave jeans." Promoter Foo recalls partnering up early on for a party with Rotella — and Rotella putting his older sister on the cash register at the door.
Rotella was getting his start even as the underground rave scene looked to be winding down. By 1992, rave culture was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times but not for good reasons: In March three young men were found dead in a parked pickup truck, victims of nitrous oxide. Rave fliers were found in the vehicle.
Party crews and Eastside gangsters were starting to infiltrate the scene and, in Rotella's words, turn things "dark." By the last day of that year, when promoter Gary Richards brought the culture to new heights by hosting a rave for more than 17,000 people at Knott's Berry Farm, the bubble seemed to burst. The party was legendary, sure, but people crashed the gates as police in riot gear tried to stop the madness. Knott's would never again host a rave.
"The scene died," Rotella says. "Rave became a bad word."
But even as the Orange County white kids who kept the underground afloat slunk home, Rotella decided to dive in, hosting weekly $5 events. He called them Insomniac, and when 500 people started showing up, he raised the price to $7. It was 1993.
His parties were a hit, and Rotella learned an important lesson he carries with him today: It's all about the venue. A contact who worked in real estate would give him the keys to unused spaces, allowing Rotella to move Insomniac from week to week.
"I did some break-ins," too, he recalls. "I was arrested twice."
Police raided his parties countless times. But Insomniac quickly became one of the only true, positive-vibe raves in town, drawing 1,200 people a week. At its one-year anniversary in 1994, Insomniac brought 4,000 people downtown to the old Shark Club.
Daniel Wherrett, better known as DJ Dan, met Rotella and started spinning for him about that time. He says the promoter immediately struck him as unusually passionate about the stages, lighting and theatrics at his parties. Rotella would ask to come by Dan's studio to talk party planning in the middle of the week.
"He never stopped thinking that the next one could be bigger than the last show," Wherrett says. "He is genuinely into it."
At other parties, methamphetamine was taking over. Gangsters were invading wholesale. An event called Grape Ape 3 at Orange County's Wild Rivers theme park concluded with fights, guns displayed and a van set on fire. In 1994 the weekly party known as Sketchpad in Rampart Village was so meth-crazed that people ended up strewn on the floor passed out as the sun came up. "That was a nightmare scene," Rotella says, "everything I was against."
He saw his own lows. Someone he trusted swiped $3,000 in profits he had saved up, he says, to help his mom and dad pay rent.
But Rotella had found something positive in his life — rave's mix of music, street art and huggy feelings — and he wasn't about to let go. In February 1995, he organized a party billed as "Insomniac Presents Nocturnal Wonderland" in East L.A. It sold out, becoming Insomniac's signature, annual event.
Slowly, he was bringing raving back into fashion. Rotella helped organize Organic '96 in the San Bernardino Mountains, a before-its-time mix of Coachella-style crowds and European dance-music massives, featuring the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Orbital and The Orb. It was financially unsuccessful, he recalls, but still "sparked interest in people who thought EDM didn't exist anymore."
That same year he took Nocturnal Wonderland to a venue that would, in a few years' time, become the epicenter of American rock festivals — the Empire Polo Club in the Coachella Valley.
By 1997 artists like Moby and Prodigy were being billed as the Next Big Thing for a music industry looking to replace grunge. Raves from Rotella's Insomniac — as well as Go Ventures, B3 Cande and Fresh Produce — reached new heights by expanding to the National Orange Show fairgrounds in San Bernardino, the desert and the San Bernardino Mountains.
"I wasn't the only one doing raves anymore," Rotella says.
By the mid-aughts, electronic dance music wasn't just back, it was huge. Daft Punk's performance at Coachella in 2006 introduced a new generation of alt-minded hipsters to the edgier side of dance music, a side that would be reflected in the launch of the next year's HARD festival.
EDM fests were starting to take over the biggest venues the West Coast had to offer. Raving was now Bill Graham–level stadium rock.
That made Rotella a hot commodity.
He'd gotten his foot in the door almost a decade before at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Both the arena and the L.A. Coliseum are essentially owned jointly by the city, county and state. The Coliseum — which hosted its last NFL game in 1994 — was eager to get in on its sister venue's action.
"The Sports Arena was making money," Rotella says, "so the guy who ran it was, like, 'Can you do more of these?' "
That guy was Coliseum events manager Todd DeStefano, he said. DeStefano was a well-paid football fan who came to the sister venues in 1998. He quickly saw raves' economic potential and worked closely with the promoters to make them happen, beginning in his first year on the job.
By 2005, DeStefano, realizing millions could be made, wanted to do the parties four times a year. He tapped Gerami, who muscled in on Rotella's longtime Fourth of July Electric Daisy Carnival weekend with an event of his own at the Coliseum, called Independance. It flopped.
So two years later, Rotella says, DeStefano invited him to bring EDC to the Coliseum instead. The party drew 29,000 people in 2007. By 2009 it was rocking 120,000. Raves now were bringing in 28 percent of the taxpayer-owned venues' revenue.
That following year, EDC at the Coliseum was the national rave champion, drawing 160,000 people over two days and featuring the cream of electronic dance music at the biggest DJ stage America had ever seen. Other festivals, including Ultra in Miami, Electric Zoo in New York, Movement in Detroit and Love Festival (renamed LovEvolution) also had gotten big, but Rotella's EDC was king.
Electric Daisy Carnival was so massive that Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am jokingly complained that he couldn't get a decent set time for his DJ performance in 2010. So massive that chaos broke out as ravers gate-crashed to get to a lower level. So massive that there were more than 60 arrests, mostly for drug-related allegations, and 200-plus "medical emergencies," officials said.
The idea of a government-owned venue hosting such huge parties, with all the attendant risk of drug abuse, was always awkward. More than a few ecstasy-overdose deaths have taken place following Insomniac and Go Ventures events over the years, including a 20-year-old who died after a rave at the Sports Arena in 2007.
But the age of Sasha Rodriguez — 15 — shocked L.A.'s political establishment. The 2010 EDC, held at the Coliseum, had been designated for those 16 and older, but ID checks reportedly were lax. After sneaking in, Rodriguez took ecstasy and fell into a coma.
She died two days later.
The day after Rodriguez's death, L.A. County Supervisor and Coliseum Commission member Zev Yaroslavsky called for a "moratorium" on raves at the public venues. Then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also questioned the wisdom of holding the parties there. The whole rave program was about to be wiped off the Coliseum's calendar.
Rotella could have moved the party somewhere else. But that wasn't his way; he was a fighter, and determined to keep the events in L.A. Instead, as part of its response, Insomniac vowed to strictly enforce an 18-and-older policy with ID scanners — which struck many critics as too little, too late.
But to understand Rotella is to know that his festivals are playgrounds for the faithful, and the faithful often are kids like he once was, backpacks, baseball caps and all.
"For decades there were no piles of money in this," he says. "That's why people abandoned ship. The only people who kept the scene alive was other kids. I love them. I love my people."
Rotella hired a lobbyist, contributed to Councilman Bernard Parks' re-election campaign, and soon found an ally in the former LAPD chief and Coliseum Commission member, who argued that the parties were no different from sporting events or Hollywood Bowl concerts. He was making some headway.
Then the bomb dropped.
At a closed-door session of the Coliseum Commission on Feb. 2, 2011, then-commissioner David Israel revealed what he'd recently learned: Rotella and rival promoter Gerami had allegedly paid more than $1.8 million to DeStefano outside their Coliseum rent and concessions deals.
The raves lost all support and were shut out of the venues that year. Even worse, in March 2012, Rotella, Gerami, Coliseum events manager DeStefano and Coliseum general manager Patrick Lynch were indicted as part of a case that alleged corruption, bribery and embezzlement.
The charges are still pending.
The case against Rotella relies on emails and a 2008 contract, apparently drafted by DeStefano but never signed, that called for the promoters to hand over 10 percent of event proceeds to him in exchange for his work to minimize their costs at the venue.
Payments then allegedly were made directly to side companies controlled by DeStefano.
A civil suit filed by the Coliseum against the promoters alleged that they had deprived the public venues, including the Sports Arena, of cash from 37 raves organized there since 1998. But the suit was dismissed last month, with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green saying, "I just don't see the elements of a conspiracy."
Deputy district attorney Max Huntsman, who is prosecuting the criminal case, admits the promoters "had some good results" when the lawsuit was thrown out. But, he says, "The facts and the law are very different in our case.
"We have a piece of paper," Huntsman says, referring to the unsigned contract, "where they agreed to rent the Coliseum from an employee. That to me seems outrageous."
He says DeStefano "clearly discussed that he was working on their behalf to get terms they wanted. That seems like bribery to me."
As for Gerami, he has a conspiracy theory of his own: He thinks the corruption case and lawsuit were about ridding the venues of moneymaking events so USC would have an easier time taking over the Coliseum and Sports Arena, which it has since done. He likens the USC takeover to a backroom deal, with the people's property being handed to a wealthy private university for nothing. Profitable raves would have pointed to more market value for the venues and a better deal for the public, Gerami says.
"They just handed it over for free," he says of the Coliseum Commission. "They used me and Pasquale as a smoke screen for why."
The promoters' attorneys have argued that any money paid to DeStefano was for his event-consulting work on his own time, and for his help with their events' expansion to state-run parking lots that didn't belong to the Coliseum.
Their best defense may well be one of timing. The payments to DeStefano allegedly were in place for years before 2010's EDC controversy. It doesn't make sense that the promoters would need to bribe DeStefano "to continue to hold the events," as prosecutors allege, at the Coliseum or the Sports Arena before the controversy erupted, particularly since they were clearly a cash cow for the venues.
Prosecutor Huntsman, however, notes that ravers had died before 2010, even if those deaths were more under-the-radar than Rodriguez's shocking overdose, and says Gerami and Rotella needed DeStefano's support to keep their events out of the political line of fire.
Indeed, the manager lobbied his bosses, the Coliseum Commission, to keep the raves at the Coliseum and Sports Arena even after the teen's death. In an email to the promoters, DeStefano said he was "working the politics big-time behind the scenes."
If the judge grants Rotella's motion to dismiss next week, he's home free. Otherwise, the criminal case against him could take a year to wind its way through the court system.
The tough kid from the Palisades doesn't seem to be too worried.
He just married girlfriend Madison this week at Disneyland. A reported $50 million richer as a result of selling 50 percent of his company to Live Nation, Rotella has plans to move Insomniac's modern, black-walled offices from the east end of Melrose Avenue to Beverly Hills.
The nation's largest concert promoter is facing competition for the lucrative and growing EDM festival market and, as such, has been staking out turf with its checkbook.
With EDC now part of the Live Nation family, Rotella is officially in bed with Gary Richards' HARD events, which was purchased last year by the concert giant. (In February Richards tweeted to Rotella, "Wonder twin powers activate.")
The buying spree pits Live Nation, the corporate grandchild of Bill Graham Presents, against Robert Sillerman's SFX Entertainment, which has snapped up rave company "Disco" Donnie Presents and European festival promoter ID&T. (L.A.'s AEG Live also is an EDM player, with one-off DJ concerts and a little thing called the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.)
Pollstar's Bongiovanni says living with a publicly traded company could prove to be a challenge for an up-from-the-streets promoter like Rotella. "There's always pressure to make money when you're working for a public company," he says. "Before, it was just his wallet. Now he has other people to answer to."
In the introduction to rock promoter Bill Graham's posthumous autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, co-author Robert Greenfield writes of Graham, "Rock was never a business. It was an ongoing war in which he did battle each and every day with not only egotistical rock stars and their self-centered managers, agents and lawyers but also Hell's Angels and any city official who dared stand in his way."
For Rotella, like his hero, music events can mean going to war. That's clear in his fight with the Coliseum — but also in his relationship with rival promoter (and fellow defendant in the Coliseum kickback case) Reza Gerami.
In 1998, when Rotella first got hard-earned access to the Sports Arena, he thought he was on top. But then the Coliseum events manager also offered a date at the venue to Gerami. Never mind that Gerami had known Rotella since he was a teen raver; the way Rotella tells it, Gerami elbowed Insomniac out of the Arena.
Rotella retreated to the Inland Empire, where Insomniac found a home at the National Orange Show fairgrounds.
"I ended up owning the Orange Show and he ended up being the Sports Arena guy," Rotella says.
Three years later, the two kissed and made up and double-teamed for one almighty New Year's Eve's party, aptly named Together As One. And after Gerami allegedly flubbed his shot at the Coliseum in 2005 with Independance, Rotella was in prime shape to take over that venue for EDC.
Then, in 2011 Rotella pulled out of the partnership with Gerami that was responsible for the annual Together As One. Soon, it seemed, Gerami's Go Ventures was shut out of the market: unable to book top DJs, unable to get decent venues, unable to cash in on the corporate gold rush.
By 2012 Gerami's parties were essentially finished in L.A.
"Reza's demise was his own doing," Rotella says. "He wasn't able to find venues after the Sports Arena."
For his part, Gerami says, "I don't think it's personal, where he elbowed me out. Business is business, and competition is competition."
In recent years, Rotella has embarked on a steady takeover of L.A.'s EDM club scene, wringing its neck like a boa constrictor. The expansion includes one-off DJ concerts at the Hollywood Palladium, a partnership with SBE Entertainment Group's new super-club Create, and regular weekend bookings at downtown club Exchange Los Angeles. One promoter, who asked not to be identified for fear of invoking the wrath of EDM's king, reports that the only way he can book big-name DJs is with Rotella's blessing.
Another promoter, who also declined to be identified, says that Rotella reached out to metaphorically slap his hand for handing out a competitor's fliers at one of Insomniac's SoCal parties this summer. A no-no in '92 is still a no-no in the corporate world of festivals today. And Rotella is not afraid to be a micromanager.
"I don't like when people attack me," Rotella says. "I can be fierce."
He adds, "I don't like confrontation. But I am never going to stop what I'm doing when my life is on the line. I do have business sense. It's because of my upbringing. I wasn't given toys. I grew up with parents who had nothing and wanted to start businesses. I'm very strategic. I want to protect what I do."
Rotella denies any attempt to dominate the local market, saying he only does the local shows because they "just kind of fall into my lap." Underlings handle those bookings, Rotella says, while he focuses on EDC.
He describes his company's signature event as "fulfilling people's fantasies." To that end, he says the Live Nation deal won't change his events — he retains creative control. "I have some big things I want to accomplish. I'm not even close yet."
For Rotella, the party is the attraction. Always was. Forget the $250,000-per-gig superstar DJs and the same old lineups featuring Avicii, Afrojack and Tiesto on a permanent loop. At this year's EDC in Vegas, the stage was noticeably more concentrated, with DJs barely discernible inside the belly of Rotella's hallmark, a massive, "wide awake" night owl. (Insomniac's motto is "Wide Awake Since 1993," a nod to the drug-fueled, party-till-dawn raving of the early days.)
The ideal party for Rotella would be "10 percent music, 10 percent DJ names" — with a much bigger focus on the lighting, the costumed guests, the art. For him, it's about the whole experience, not just the names on the marquee: "I want to have the best theatrics and art and people coming for many reasons. The biggest thing is trying to get people to connect."
In Vegas for EDC, Rotella commands a motorcade of golf carts that shuttles his retinue from the helicopter landing area to his trailer next to the main stage. As the conga line reaches a gate, however, an assistant refuses security's command to slow down. One of the guards steps right in front of the first vehicle and is almost flattened.
"Do you know who we're with?" doesn't seem to cut it. The security guards, now aided by local police, grow suspicious and start searching people. James Frey's backpack gets a worse reaming than Oprah ever gave him, and even Madison's little clutch is not immune from the TSA treatment.
Rotella and Madison, who's dressed in a long, butterfly-print skirt, sit in back of the first cart, facing the rear. As the carts get the green light and begin to meander through the crowds, with a sweating bodyguard jogging on the ground behind the couple, ravers run up to say hi and take pictures. Rotella gets recognized 2-to-1 over Madison, the Playboy beauty, reality TV star and tabloid fave. The raver kids point and shout, "That's Pasquale!"
"That's the biggest success," Rotella says later. "I have the best, most loyal crowds in the world."
Later that night, Rotella meets up with his mom at his row of VIP tables. She's wearing a sparkling black top hat and oversized, heart-shaped sunglasses. As a way of greeting, she slaps a reporter's cheeks as only an Italian grandmother could.
At Rotella's VIP corral above the main stage, vodka flows and childhood friends who have never left his side enjoy the fruits of a bro's labor.
Rotella is a true believer that raves are a force for good, presenting a great equalizer in the form of the dance floor, even if he now observes the festivities like royalty, from a couple stories above.
"There are people," he says, for whom "the rave scene was good. I'm one of them."