How Gary Richards Built His HARD Music Festival Empire One Party at a Time
HARD's Gary Richards
[Update: After this article was published, Gary Richards confirmed that he will be parting ways with Live Nation following this year's HARD Summer festival. Live Nation will retain ownership of HARD Events.]
Gary Richards thought he was having a heart attack. It was the opening seconds of 2008 and his HARD New Year's Eve dance party had devolved into chaos. Nothing had gone according to plan. A van parked in a fire lane had delayed the event's start. The festival was both overbooked and short one stage, so he was scrambling to rearrange set times. The outdoor street party, in downtown L.A.'s Arts District, had a capacity of 10,000 but had sold only about 2,000 tickets. Another 2,000 or more had crashed the event, taking advantage of inadequate security.
"It was a shit show," remembers Richards' wife, Anne, who was working in the ticket booth with her stepmother while her brother and father attempted to wrangle the overwhelmed, six-person security team. "People were climbing over the fence. People were screaming at me: 'We didn't know this was outside! We want our money back!' I didn't know what to do. I was like, 'I just work here.'"
"It was insanity," Richards admits. The founder and CEO of HARD Events is now one of America's most successful festival producers — but on Dec. 31, 2007, he hadn't thrown an event in 15 years. "I had no idea what I was doing."
The final straw came at the stroke of midnight. It was to be the party's big reveal: After electroclash star Peaches did the countdown, French duo Justice would appear inside a giant cross at the back of the stage to ring in 2008 with a set of dirty, distorted electro-house. There was just one problem: Someone had forgotten to put any DJ equipment in the cross.
When Peaches announced Justice, the Frenchmen wisely ducked out of sight. Richards found himself standing inside the cross alone, with more than 4,000 frustrated revelers staring up at him. That's when he lost it.
"My heart started beating so fucking fast, I thought I was gonna die," he remembers. "I couldn't even think about the mess that was happening. I had to just go sit down and breathe."
Once he got his pulse rate under control, he went to the ticket booth to find his wife. "I'm done," he told her. "Fuck this." This, his first party under the name HARD, had been his last-ditch effort to see if he could still make a living in the music business, and it had failed.
Just then, a friend ran up and grabbed his shoulder. "Do you see what's going on out there?" he said. "C'mere!"
Richards' face still lights up at the memory of what he saw next. "Justice was on the stage, the cross was going, and there were like 5,000 people crushing it, all in leather jackets." In what had moments ago been a disaster, he now saw his future. "I knew I had something really special," he says. "I just had to learn how to run the event better."
HARD Summer's first event flyer in 2007
Courtesy HARD Summer
By most measures, HARD has been a raging success. Its flagship festival, HARD Summer, has grown from 10,000 attendees (in 2008, when it was held at the Shrine) to 146,000 last year at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. It has been instrumental in launching the careers of artists whose names are synonymous with EDM, including Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Deadmau5 and Dillon Francis, as well as in popularizing entire genres — electro-house, trap, G-house, future bass — that have broken down barriers between EDM, hip-hop, rock and pop music.
Richards' forward-thinking curatorial instincts have made him one of the industry's most respected promoters — and one of its most financially successful, especially since HARD was bought by Live Nation in 2012 for an undisclosed but undoubtedly ample sum.
"Gary managed to break boundaries," says Pedro "Busy P" Winter, the founder of Justice's French label, Ed Banger Records. He was a DJ on the lineup at that first HARD. "[He] knew that DJs will become festival headliners with the proper light and stage show."
But for Richards, the "run the event better" part of the equation has often been a struggle. HARD Summer, in particular, has been a nomadic festival with a checkered history, plagued by safety and security issues, sometimes with deadly results.
In HARD Summer's only year at the Forum, in 2009, authorities shut it down after some attendees began leaping from the venue's balcony seating to get onto the main floor, which had reached capacity early. (Remarkably, no one was seriously injured.) Richards and then-partner Bill Silva were forced to issue full refunds to 18,000 attendees. "It was a seven-figure loss," Richards says.
Over the past three years, six HARD Summer attendees have died from drug overdoses, including three last year: a man and two women, all from "acute MDMA toxicity," according to the San Bernardino County coroner's office. MDMA is the chemical name for molly or ecstasy, a popular rave drug.
The deaths have prompted criticism aimed not just at HARD but at raves and electronic dance music events in general. In a scathing series of L.A. Times articles in 2015, several area ER doctors called for a ban on all raves, especially on government-owned property. (HARD Summer took place at three different state- and county-owned venues from 2010 to 2015.) "The idea of our local government working with the promoters and generating revenue from these events is grotesque," one doctor told the Times .
After two HARD Summer attendees died at the Pomona Fairplex in 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a new mass-gathering ordinance based on recommendations from an "Electronic Music Festival Task Force," requiring a "threat assessment" for any event with more than 10,000 attendees. Since the ordinance was passed, no events featuring EDM have taken place at any county-owned venues.
The new ordinance "does not single out any individual promoters," according to L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, in a written statement provided to L.A. Weekly. But any threat assessment for mass gatherings "considers a list of factors such as prior events held at the venue, and prior events held by the promoter" — and at this point, HARD Summer's track record is not good.
This year marks HARD Summer's 10th anniversary, and Richards has pulled out all the stops with a lineup that includes DJ Snake, Bassnectar, Rae Sremmurd, Migos, the Skrillex/Boys Noize collaboration Dog Blood and a return appearance by HARD's original headliners, Justice. To close out the festival, Snoop Dogg will do a one-time-only performance of his classic debut album, Doggystyle, in its entirety. (Despite often being described as a rave or EDM festival, HARD has always featured plenty of hip-hop, with past headliners including Odd Future, A$AP Mob and Ice Cube.)
But stellar lineups alone may not be enough to ensure HARD's survival. With increased scrutiny from the media, health and safety officials, and his bosses at Live Nation, Richards — a veteran of the early L.A. rave scene, who still organizes and promotes his events with some of that old-school, renegade attitude — needs to prove that his events can go off smoothly, safely and without a death toll.
Gary Richards, aka Destructo
In his office at Live Nation's Beverly Hills headquarters, Richards, looking skater-chic in a black hoodie and chunky glasses, adjusts the framed HARD posters that cover an interior wall. "These things are all ..." he mutters, trying to line up crooked corners. "Maybe we had like a little earthquake or something?"
At 46, he still has a shock of jet-black hair, and three decades in California haven't rubbed the sharp edges off his decidedly East Coast, no-bullshit demeanor. Even in his early days, throwing raves in warehouses, he was always the dealmaker, the businessman, "the hustler in the purple velvet cap," as rock journalist Legs McNeil described him in an infamous 1991 article about the early SoCal rave scene for Details magazine. (Later in the same article, Richards casually mentions throwing on his Armani suit before going to meet a prospective venue owner.)
"Most people who do what I do, I've always found — and the reason why dance music, I think, for so long was always so underground — was because everyone partied their brains out," Richards says matter-of-factly. "There were no business people."
He insists his festivals are safe and, when asked about the deaths associated with them, struggles to keep a tinge of frustration out of his voice. "At the end of the day, you're trying to keep out a Tic Tac," he says, referring to the size of the average hit of ecstasy. "So no matter how many millions of dollars we throw at it, somebody's going to put something into their body that we can't control. We're not gonna get every Tic Tac. It comes down to personal responsibility, and there's really not much more as a promoter that we can do."
"Gary goes out of his way to give us whatever resources we need to make it the safest possible event," says Dr. Jeff Grange, an emergency medicine specialist based at Loma Linda University Medical Center, who serves as HARD's lead medical coordinator. "Unfortunately, there have been some overdoses with unfortunate outcomes. But the medical care has been there, for sure."
Even though he can sometimes sound understandably exasperated with his own attendees, Richards says he's "more charged up than ever" to continue producing HARD Summer, his annual Holy Ship! party cruise and other events. He was born on New Year's Eve and seems keenly aware that his birthdate is all too appropriate for a man who has made dance music his life's work.
"Not to sound corny or anything," he says, "but I feel like my calling in life is to give people a good time."
He's a child of the music business. His father, Barry "Reazar" Richards, worked in radio as a DJ and program director, first in the D.C. area, where Gary was born, and later in New Orleans, for "urban" station WAIL 105, spinning Rick James, The Gap Band and Teena Marie. Sometimes Barry would take Gary and his older brother Steve to promotional nights at the local clubs. "I remember when I was like 10 years old, watching my dad onstage," Richards says. "One of the contests they had was a 'Superfreak' contest, 'cause Rick James' 'Superfreak' was the hot record. And whatever girl got the freakiest, they won $105."
The family moved to Los Angeles just as Gary was starting high school. He went to his first rave in 1990, while attending Cal State Northridge, and was instantly hooked. "It was called Nectar. I remember they gave you these little buttons that had a daisy on it." The next day, he went down to Street Sounds on Melrose and bought a stack of techno 12-inches: 808 State, Moby, Joey Beltram, The KLF. "I was like, 'OK, this is my thing.' My dad and my brother, they didn't get it. 'Cause they liked radio and songs. They thought I was losing my mind."
The first event he hosted, thrown with a couple of friends at a tiny nightclub in Santa Monica, was a 6 a.m. after-hours called the Sermon. To promote it, "We dressed up like priests. We would go to the warehouse on Saturday night and be like, 'Come to the Sermon.' And people were like, 'What's with these guys?'"
They didn't have a DJ, so Richards began spinning his collection of techno records, calling himself Destructo because "my goal was to play super heavy techno. Really noisy. It sounded like saws. To keep people awake." He still DJs and produces under the name Destructo to this day.
Soon Richards and his crew were throwing their own warehouse parties, which they called Midnight Mass, to continue the priestly theme. Then they teamed up with another promoter, Stephen Hauptfuhr, aka Mr. Kool-Aid, to put on their first big rave. It would take place at a water park in Redondo Beach and be called Mickey's Holy Water Adventure. Flyers were printed, sound systems rented, map points set. Then, less than a week before the party, a rival promoter sent the water park owner a copy of the flyer, which featured a zonked-out Mickey Mouse with a hit of acid on his tongue.
In his Details article, Legs McNeil chronicled what happened next. "You guys think you're pulling the wool over my eyes!" the owner of Monsoon Lagoon fumed at Richards and his Midnight Mass partner, an old D.C. friend who called himself "Loveman." "But I'm from the Twin Cities, Minnesota. We know what Mickey Mouse means in Minneapolis!!!"
Undeterred, Richards set out to find a new location — which, because of the party's theme, had to be a water park. "I didn't know Kool-Aid from Adam," he says. "He went crazy on me. I was like, 'Calm down. I'll figure this out.'"
HARD Summer 2011 at Los Angeles State Historic Park
In a move that seemingly foreshadowed his first HARD party, Richards turned a near-disaster into a triumph. He found a bigger water park, Wild Rivers in Irvine, and shrewdly made its remoteness a selling point. "Kool-Aid was like, 'Who the fuck's gonna drive to Irvine? They're gonna kill us!' So I said, 'Well, why don't we have them get off like halfway, and we'll give them gas to keep going?'"
Richards even hired a DJ to play at the gas station. The ploy was so successful that soon other promoters began advertising "virgin locations" far outside the city, with multiple map points that gave each rave the feeling of a treasure hunt. "That really opened the door to people driving far to go to a place," Richards says. "Before, people would just go downtown to a warehouse."
Richards and Hauptfuhr would collaborate on several other parties, including the first two Electric Daisy Carnivals, before Insomniac's Pasquale Rotella began using the name in a move that's still a source of tension (and, recently, litigation) between the rival promoters. But by the end of 1992, Richards was already getting burned out.
"I was getting sick of doing the events," he says. "It was turning into a place for young kids to get wasted. It was turning into something else that I wasn't interested in."
An escape hatch appeared in the form of an unlikely attendee at his parties: Rick Rubin, then already famous as the co-founder of Def Jam Records and for his production work with such artists as Slayer, Run-D.M.C. and Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Rick was like, 'I wanna hire someone to do A&R and sign electronic artists. Do you know of anyone?' And I was like, 'I'll do it.'"
"The early rave scene reminded me of the early days of hip-hop. Similar free energy," Rubin says via email, explaining his interest in Richards' parties and their eventual partnership. "I saw Gary's love for the music and his understanding of the business. ... His enthusiasm was infectious."
Richards decided to go out with a bang. With help from some connections at Power 106 FM, where he had once interned, he was able to book Knott's Berry Farm for a massive party on New Year's Eve of 1992 — his 22nd birthday. In a move meant to irk his rival promoters, he called it Rave America. "Like, fuck you guys, it's not underground anymore. The McDonald's commercial has techno music on it now. And I'm out. I already had run my course."
Rave America was a success on both counts: It sold out the 18,000-capacity amusement park, and it got under the skin of other rave promoters like Rotella, who called Richards' farewell blowout "one of the demises of the scene" in Michaelangelo Matos' 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. It also featured Richards' penchant for chaos: According to Hauptfuhr, who helped organize the event, at least another 5,000 ravers crashed the party, at one point knocking down a barricade and storming the main entrance.
"It was huge; it was ridiculous," says Hauptfuhr, who works today as a private chef and still occasionally DJs under the name Kool-Aid. "At the time it was the largest rave in America, by far."
In his new role as Rubin's "techno boy," Richards signed a slew of dance-music acts, including Sven Väth, Messiah and Lords of Acid. But executive reshuffling at their parent company, Warner Bros., put the venture on ice after just a few years. "We were ahead of the curve on electronic dance music," Rubin says.
Richards, left, and his brother Steve, fourth from left, with Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller
Courtesy Gary Richards
Richards spent the next decade trying to get the U.S. record industry to embrace electronic music — first at A&M, then at Interscope, then with a new company called Riffage that collapsed in the dot-com bubble and nearly took him down with it. Even before that, his efforts at A&M and Interscope often wound up in limbo. Everyone knew there was money to be made in dance music, and that Richards' tastes were good. But no one quite seemed sure how to market this strange stuff that didn't use conventional instruments, song structures or, oftentimes, even vocals.
"They were always like, 'You got good ears,'" Richards remembers, "'but sign some shit like your brother's.'"
His brother Steve, three years older, had also gone into the music business, doing A&R for Epic Records, then starting his own management company, No Name Music, in 1998. It was peak nu-metal and Steve's roster was the envy of the industry: Slipknot, Hatebreed, Mudvayne. Then he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
"I was just like, fuck the techno label," says Richards, who was trying to rebuild his own 1500 Records after the Riffage.com debacle. "Fuck everything I'm doing. I'm gonna go and help my brother."
For the next several years, "I was in metal hell or heaven or whatever you want to call it. We had like eight acts on Ozzfest."
He met his wife, Anne, a model, in 2003; they were married the following year. Unfortunately, by then his brother had died. He was 36.
"It's such a shame that Steve never saw what Gary's become," Anne says. "Because he was the older brother who was so hard on Gary. And Gary was the little brother who always sought his big brother's approval."
On a Thursday night at Sound, a Hollywood nightclub famous for its shark-shaped disco ball, Gary Richards steps into the DJ booth, brandishing his headphones and a bottle of Don Julio tequila the size of a canoe paddle. He's celebrating the release of his latest Destructo EP, Renegade, his deepest foray yet into G-house, which sounds like one of his HARD lineups distilled down into a single genre — electronic dance music with the vocals and attitude of hip-hop. The six-song EP features guest appearances by Too $hort, Ty Dolla $ign and Freddie Gibbs, among others. None of them are present tonight, but Richards' frequent production collaborator Wax Motif is, and later jumps on the decks with him — as does Mija, the highly touted Skrillex protege.
It's tempting to assume that any festival promoter who books himself at all his own events lacks the skills to succeed on his own merits. But at Sound, Richards is a deft hand at the mixer, nimbly segueing between his own tracks and other dirty, funky cuts that have the crowd bouncing. Throughout his career's many twists and turns, he never stopped DJing, and it shows.
Gary Richards with hip-hop artist Ty Dolla $ign
Courtesy Gary Richards
Boys Noize, a German DJ/producer whose label released Destructo's first single, "Technology," in 2012, specifically recalls one of the first times he heard Richards DJ, on Holy Ship! "He surprised me with an old-school techno set, playing all these rare, early-'90s rave records: Joey Beltram, Laurent Garnier, jackin' stuff. I was like, 'Man, you really know what's up!'"
Richards tries to avoid using the HARD name to ram Destructo's music down people's throats. He's never the headliner, just another name on the poster in one of the smaller fonts. But he's clearly aware that his dual status as both promoter and DJ makes him unique among major festival producers and, on some level, adds to HARD's mystique as a more "artist-driven" alternative to flashier competitors like Insomniac.
As both a booker and a DJ, he says, he's "always trying to find new and interesting music and continuing to keep it fresh. I think it has really kept me going and kept my head in the game all this time."
He's also not above using his role as a DJ at his own festival to have a little fun at Insomniac's expense. When Mija tweeted that she couldn't play HARD this year due to "rave/promoter politics," Richards responded by inviting her and anyone else "blocked from playing HARD Summer [to] come & jump on my set." While neither Richards nor Mija mentioned Insomniac specifically, the company is widely known to employ a radius clause that, since 2015, has prevented most artists booked at EDC Las Vegas from also playing HARD Summer. (Insomniac's founder, Pasquale Rotella, could not be reached for comment.)
"My goal is to have a party on the stage for my set," Richards says. "I just want people to know that I'm a pro-artist promoter and I would never block people from advancing their careers."
RIchards denies ever using radius clauses — and for now, he remains the one who gets to make those decisions. But Live Nation may be taking a more active role in running its HARD subsidiary.
Earlier this month, it was announced that HARD Summer 2017 would not be returning to the Speedway in Fontana, as previously planned, but relocating to Glen Helen Amphitheater and Regional Park in San Bernardino — the festival's fifth home in as many years. Richards confirms that the latest move came at the behest of Live Nation, which owns Glen Helen (formerly called San Manuel Amphitheater) and has used it since 2013 as the site for Nocturnal Wonderland, an autumn festival put on by its other EDM division, Insomniac.
"They were just like, 'We think it's a better fit.' I'm just following their lead on that," he says. "I think more than anything, it's a Live Nation–operated facility and they just wanted to move it over there, so I wasn't going to complain."
On its surface, the move could be good news for HARD Summer attendees. Instead of the sun-baked asphalt of a racetrack, attendees will get the grass and trees of a 1,340-acre park and a Live Nation–operated venue with a proven track record (though not an unblemished one — a 22-year-old man died from a drug overdose after attending Nocturnal Wonderland there in 2013) of hosting EDM festivals.
But Richards, whose days of touting "virgin locations" are long behind him, is the first to admit that every time he has to move to a new venue, it's a challenge. "If I'd been in the same place for 10 years, it would be fucking perfect."
With a half-smile, he adds, "They don't call it HARD for nothing."
HARD Summer | Glen Helen Amphitheater & Regional Park | 2555 Glen Helen Pkwy., San Bernardino | Sat.-Sun., Aug. 5-6, 12 p.m. | $109-$309 | 18+ | hardfest.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.