The Insomniac headquarters, located at a busy intersection in Beverly Hills, is eerily quiet. The dimly lit offices embody that combination of professional trappings and laid-back decor common to cutting-edge companies, where the employees are unassuming but what they create is immense.
Spread out over three floors, the rows upon rows of workstations hardly look like a rave command post. But the murals painted on many walls and posters from numerous events suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the only boisterous person here this afternoon is the boss himself, Pasquale Rotella. Once he is extracted from one of the many offices that line the hallways, he brings the noise and with it, an alluring type of controlled chaos. Even with a strong, streamlined team of experts in their fields to whom responsibilities are delegated, so many people demand Rotella's attention, so many meetings require his presence, so many decisions need his signoff.
This morning's news of Avicii's death knocked the global dance community sideways, and Rotella is definitely reeling from the shock.
Even as this tragic event underscores his mood, Rotella has Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas just a few weeks away. EDC Japan is taking place the week before Vegas and EDC China is two weeks before Japan. In about 36 hours, Rotella will be on his way to Asia, with his wife, Holly Madison, former Playmate, reality television star and mother to his two children, 5-year-old daughter Rainbow and 19-month-old son Forest, in tow.
Rotella's corner office doesn't have a desk, but it does have a closet full of toys for Rainbow and Forest plus an outdoor eating area for them. He spends four nights a week at home with his family in Las Vegas but there are times, like this week, when he can't make it back and they come to him. His office also has an extra-long L-shaped sectional sofa and a round glass would-be dining table with four comfortable chairs. It has a DJ coffin with both turntables and CDJs. A tall, all-glass double-door display case is filled with Sofubi and Kaiju Japanese vinyl toys. Beat-up skate decks with mind-altering illustrations from the '80s onwards line different walls. These aren't just for show; Rotella, born in Glendale and raised in the neighborhoods of Venice Beach and Pacific Palisades, is a bona fide surfer and skater.
All available vertical spaces in Rotella's office are covered with framed bright pop art. A slightly smaller frame showcases his first L.A. Weekly cover story, from 2013, when he was under indictment for multiple charges, including conspiracy, bribery and embezzlement — all of them long since dismissed. A floor-to-ceiling bookcase is choking with art and design books. Among these are the collectible, custom-created boxes in which EDC entry bracelets, along with branded pins and keychains and a letter from Rotella, are delivered to attendees, or “headliners,” as Insomniac refers to them.
Then there is the August 1991 framed issue of the original American hip-hop and electronic music magazine, URB, with a picture of a teenage Rotella, wearing a polka dot top hat and big overalls, blowing a whistle. This same whistle now hangs on the inside of his office closet door. He is, without a doubt, one of the biggest power players in electronic dance music, as his many Billboard plaques indicate, but at his core, he is still that teenage raver.
“Remember No-Doze? Land of Oz? Christmas in July? Hardcorefest with Altern-8, one of my favorite bands? Grape Ape at the water park? How the Ravers Stole Christmas?” he says. It's 10 p.m. on a Friday and the sound of the Insomniac cleaning crew's vacuums almost drown him out. Rotella is shuffling through flyers for very early '90s Los Angeles raves; his excitement is palpable, without a touch of nostalgia, and he can't stop grinning, his eyes shining as he reads off the names: “Davin the Mad Hatter, still a good friend of mine, Rocky Raccoon, Babalu, DJ Dan, Doc Martin, Ron D. Core. What do you know about that?”
Rotella has bins and bins of these flyers, in immaculate condition. Thankfully he has retired his baggy pants and oversized hoodies, replacing them with better-fitting, dark-colored items with a professional look. And his 43-year-old self is tidily groomed, with his gray-streaked beard precisely trimmed and his neat haircut unmoving. He still runs with the same friends he grew up with, who are all creatives; he now finds excuses to hire them in order to be able to spend more time with them. And he speaks Italian, something else he's holding onto from his younger years, as that was the language in which he would converse with his famed late mother, festival fixture “Mama Irene.”
Mama Irene has been gone for two years — and Rotella's energy takes a dip when her name comes up — but she would be sure to approve of his new, enhanced EDC Las Vegas this year. Taking place an entire month earlier than its customary third weekend in June, this year EDC is happening the weekend of May 18, and many of Rotella's ideas can be realized with the projected cooler weather, including an earlier start to the festival; a better shuttle system and partner; and, hopefully, less traffic getting in and out of the grounds without the heat dictating people's movement. And then there is Camp EDC, which is really various levels of glamping with air-conditioned ShiftPod 2 blackout tents with USB outlets, available with or without bedding and other creature comforts. Alternatively, there is the RV option, for which EDC will provide water and power.
“I'm going to be camping myself, in an RV,” Rotella says. “The Mesa, which is what we're calling our center camp, is going to have three tent structures, two pools, an activities area. We're going to have yoga with Marques Wyatt, rave aerobics and inspirational speakers. There will be art installations and great food. It will be covered with the best AstroTurf you can get, and you can just relax and chill and recharge, or connect with others.
“And we have these beauty bars where you can get ready. Power outlets because we don't want the whole grid to pop with 5,000 blow dryers at one time. Previous years, we didn't want to rely on people bringing RVs with updated, good air conditioners that don't go out. That's a health risk I was never willing to take. I can't allow people to put themselves in jeopardy, let alone us not having everything set up properly. It's just not an option.”
It's this kind of attention to detail that makes Insomniac's events a cut above other festivals. And with so many new features this time around, each comes with its own set of unique hurdles. For example, goat yoga at Camp EDC can't be held in the afternoon, as the goats can't be transported through the Mesa at that time, so the practice must be moved to the morning.
“Insomniac has a unique focus that centers around the audience,” says Leizer Guss, director of electronic events for Latin America's biggest promoter, OCESA/CIE, who have been Insomniac's partners for EDC Mexico for the last five years. “The EDC Mexico audiences buy tickets without knowing who is playing, which makes them valuable to us and makes EDC one of the strongest brands we manage. It's hard to book because the audience wants so many things and they are very vocal about it. But they're special because regardless of who is playing, they're going to have a good time because it's not about the artists, it's about the experience.”
“Everything is as important as everything else,” Rotella reaffirms. “Sometimes the impression is that the music is somehow an afterthought at an Insomniac event. It's everything, but it's part of the experience. In order to enjoy amazing music, you have to have the best artists, you have to have new acts, you have to have a fantastic sound system for them to play on, the logistics of getting into the event have to be worked out, safety, production, a decent venue. Music is a lot more enjoyable when everything is on point.
“In our culture, whether it's an underground event or a big festival, it's been ingrained that on the dance floor, you are your best self,” he continues. “When I went to those early parties, everyone was so nice, and I was nice when I left. I was nice that whole week. Then it wears off and you go to another party and get recharged. I never heard the music like I did after I went to my first parties. People need more than one sense to be touched in order to get it, and that's OK. I like touching as many of people's senses as I can. But I also like being old-school, like our Factory 93 parties at a minimal warehouse.”
Walking around the Insomniac offices are many of the nice people from Rotella's early party experiences: Steve Levy, who threw one of Los Angeles' first proper raves, Truth, and later established the dance music label Moonshine Music; Bunny, the blond dreadlocked character who fronts one of the first homegrown rave acts, Rabbit in the Moon; Meelo Solis, who was a competitor of Rotella's many years back throwing massives of his own; and Rick Klotz, the founder of the legendary streetwear company Freshjive, who is the designer behind Insomniac's merchandise.
“He's not just a guy whose clothes I used to wear,” Rotella says of Klotz, “he's a guy that inspired me as a kid, that I looked up to then, and that I look up to and inspires me now. We have a lot of entrepreneurs here that have built their own brands before Insomniac and are now all here working together, making something happen. To be surrounded by these people is really something I have to pinch myself about on a daily basis.”
Rotella gave HARD the same platform when he took ownership of that brand, and all of Live Nation's other wholly owned domestic electronic dance music brands, as part of the partnership deal he made with the mega events company in 2013. Each of these brands continues to run its events with the same entities at the forefront and with Insomniac's infrastructure at its back. That is, until September 2017 when HARD's figurehead, Gary Richards, moved on from the brand to become the president of the new electronic dance music events company LiveStyle North America. Richards' former right-hand woman, Meagan DesChenes runs HARD out of Insomniac's offices.
“The success of any of our brands helps supports us and pay for underground genres that aren't as popular but that we love,” says Rotella, a die-hard drum 'n' bass fan who continues to support that sound despite its diminishing returns. “Those genres are not only not my money makers, they're my money suckers. If I would just pick the profitable things, I could be less busy, relax a bit and do better financially. But we were doing this for free forever. I'm a fan and I love pushing things that aren't popular. Doing the same stuff over and over again is boring. It's about doing stuff that's innovative. That's what I really enjoy.”
“The first gig we did for [Rotella] was in the mid-'90s in a small bar in Los Angeles,” recalls drum 'n' bass legend Optical, a particular favorite of the Insomniac drum 'n' bass die-hards. “There were maybe 50 people there and half of them asked for their money back because they hated our music. But he kept booking us and then there were 500 people, then 1,000, then 2,000, then EDC with tens of thousands at the Bassrush stage, a level I could never have possibly imagined.”
Where it has ended up is with EDC Vegas pulling in crowds of 400,000-plus over the course of its three days, and often selling out ahead of announcing its lineup. Insomniac's last published economic impact report notes more than $1.3 billion brought in for the city of Las Vegas from 2011 to 2015.
Still, there is a strong backlash against electronic dance music, with many articles speculating about its demise, when really what is happening is what always happens with dance music: It shifts and morphs and survives with a slightly different beat pattern. What stays the same is electronic dance music's perceived association with drugs and its fallout.
In 2010, Insomniac was the center of controversy after a 15-year-old girl died after taking ecstasy at the 14th annual EDC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The company settled with the victim's family before the case went to court.
“If something goes wrong at a dance music event versus a multigenre event, it's like when something happens to a celebrity versus something happening to a non-celebrity — you hear about it in one case but not the other,” Rotella says. “There is a misconception that these problems are limited to dance music festivals. There isn't as much of a stigma if something happens at, say, country music festivals — which are probably the rowdiest.
“Dance music has been around a long time, and it was underground for way longer than any other genre that started in the underground. There was a community there that was built around the music, but people couldn't understand it because the music wasn't good enough to them, so it must be about the drugs. We've made some huge strides, but we do events all over and there are some places that react like Los Angeles used to over 10 years ago. Any mass gathering with people between the ages of 18 and 40, the events might have different images but the problems are the same, they're just not publicized.”
Rotella knows what he's talking about: He is not just a festival thrower but also a festivalgoer. He makes the rounds worldwide as a regular at Burning Man, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Tomorrowland and Time Warp, with numerous other events on his to-go list.
“What I like about [Rotella] is that he walks around, he goes into the crowd,” says Cindy Canelo, a longtime headliner at Insomniac's various festivals and events. “I would be scared of everyone knowing me, but I have so many friends that have pictures with him.”
“EDC wouldn't exist without all the people,” Rotella declares. “The scene way back in Los Angeles, the awesome parties, EDC comes from that. Promoters like to think you're separating them all and it's about them. I was going for the music and for the people and I was loving all the parties. The parties got bigger. The culture changed. Not everybody is always happy with the changes.
“But I was mentored by older ravers who helped me understand way more than what I understood on my own. I like that perspective. It is a good thing to stick around and be a guide in a way that preserves the core values.”