Pasquale Rotella is on his way to Burning Man via a tiny plane, which he loathes.
"I'd rather pack up an RV and drive 15 hours and wait another seven hours in line," he says with a laugh. That was how he used to travel the first 14 times he visited the festival. It was just him and a bike on the Playa, as festival regulars call the large sandy expanse of the dried lake bed. Now, as the chief executive of a multimillion-dollar EDM festival franchise, he has his tiny plane to jet him there.
But the Insomniac Events founder, who began his career in semi-legal warehouse raves as a teenager, still has the soul of a Burner. And next year, he's bringing it to his wildest event, Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.
EDC's just-announced changes include new dates, new stages, and most notably – lodging. Attendees can rent RVs or park their own on campsites of various designs. Readymade communities will offer dazzling art installations to massage services to Eighties aerobics classes (more on that later). Opening ceremonies will usher in myriad forms of dance music from trap, trance, techno, bass, house, bounce and beyond. Who will show up? If last year's surprise drop-ins are any indication – Drake, Diplo, Bryan Cranston – Rotella is telling the truth when he says he has literally no idea.
EDC's new hippyish accoutrements are, in Rotella's view, about returning to rave culture's roots: connection, collaboration and art. But they are also, potentially, a way to relax the festival's hyperactive one-night-only milieu. In 2017 and in 2011, one attendee each year died from MDMA overdoses at EDC. Particularly in a post-Ghost Ship society, Rotella is sensitive that, as one of the more visible public proponents of rave and DIY culture, eyeballs are on him to prove why rave culture is worth protecting.
Burning Man is over 30 years old now, and it hasn't lost its cachet. What did the organizers get right?
What they have done is absolutely nothing – and that's what so brilliant about it. I think about where raves started – as transformational, experiential festivals – and rave culture fueled festival culture in America. I think that Burning Man is inspired by that. It's organized by the people that attend. The organizers just provide an open space, filled with ravers – old school, new school ravers. People go all out. It's like having 50,000 production managers. An event by the people for the people. Those are the same roots of EDC. Music is just one piece. The dress, installations, black light ballrooms underground, yoga areas, old moon tribes – whatever it is – it's all become part rave culture.
How do you see next year's EDC changes – lodging, opening ceremony, day activities – altering the tone of the festival?
Well, it's not like Burning Man in that the lodging is all right there. There is an RV there for you, glamping options as well. But I think camping can bring likeminded people together in amazing ways. You have time to talk. There's not this rush. There's time to meditate and connect. As gratifying as it is listening to the show, now you can get a massage during a set or take a yoga class. I want people to be able to go to a temporary city where communities have been formed. Granted, we're not going to camp everybody – it's limited to a percentage of people.
Speaking of lodging though, I have to bring up the Fyre Festival disaster. What red flags struck you, as an event organizer.
Well, for one thing, the distance didn't make a lot of sense. And, to be clear, this won't be our first rodeo. We have a few other events that offer campsite lodging. We're more just giving you space, making it easier for people to camp out if they choose to do that.
Last year's EDC, Drake came out unexpectedly. You've had Justin Bieber in the past. Do you see mainstream acts becoming more of an EDC cornerstone?
We've always done pop crossover. Last year we had John Legend, Drake, Miguel, G-Eazy, Rae Sremmurd come out. It keeps the "you had to be there" spirit alive.
But everything gets old at some point, right? That's the problem rock and pop music festivals have now. The rosters feel the same.
We've really been blessed because when iconic individuals show up and you see them up there [onstage] making art together – that's impactful. We had Alison Wonderland, Jauz and Diplo do back to back sets at once. And like, Drake showing up [with Metro Boomin] was a huge moment at the festival last year. It's cool because we're a dance music festival – and the biggest act in the world shows up. No one promoted or talked about it. I knew a little bit beforehand only because I had to help coordinate his travel, but that was really it.
Do you feel EDC has grown out of anything in particular?
It's more like, I always want to change things from year-to-year. I'm constantly over anything we just did. If I'm bored, then how the hell is anyone else going to enjoy this? We're still putting a lot of this together. But for example, me and someone in the office were thinking about what a soundtrack would be for rave aerobics? Like, Night at the Roxbury [laughs] – funny, cheesy hits we could play between sets. Maybe it's a call to action for people to dress in Eighties gear from 2 to 3 p.m.
Not long after the last time we spoke, the warehouse fire at Oakland DIY space Ghost Ship occurred. Now DIY communities across the country feel threatened. You got your start organizing semi-legal raves. What's your argument for protecting DIY?
I think that it's really important for artists to be able to express themselves, gather and have creative spaces. This happens a lot in kind of run down warehouse districts. But over time, I've seen those places become beautiful destinations and whole neighborhoods turn around because of these artists are the first ones there. There's been a lot of pushback on warehouse parties being able to get permitted since that situation had happened, and things have been more difficult.
I know that we need to make things safe. That's number one priority, always. But some people, some cities, some government officials, some politicians, think that just saying no is the answer. I don't think that's the right way to handle it at all. It just makes things more underground, more dangerous. There have been situations where people are scared. They don't want a tragedy like what happened in the Bay to happen again. That makes total sense. But by not helping create those safe environments, you're just driving people further away into potentially more dangerous situations.
The other factor is that the people organizing DIY events are often just kids. They don't have financial help or legal instruction, or necessarily realize the hazards involved. How do you reflect on coming up through that kind of scene?
I came from the warehouse scene, at first as a fan. I was going to warehouses every weekend. Then, when I first started producing events, I absolutely used warehouses and open fields and non-traditional locations for events. When I look back, to think about what can make things better, rather than shutting them down or making it impossible to get permits, helping young people accomplish their visions and helping them accomplish their goals would have made those events a lot safer.
I'd never been to the venue up there in the Bay, but I very easily could have shown up to that party in the past, back in the early days. I've thought about that. I've been in scenarios that sounded similar, and it was scary. I don't think there's anyone – whether they're into going to underground parties or an artist that wants to be around a bunch of artists – wants to be in a dangerous situation like that. I'm not aware of anything – even from the early days when there were a lot more warehouse parties around the United States – as tragic as the situation in the Bay.
"Dance music is about pushing things forward."
What you're saying seems similar to the arguments for legalizing marijuana.
I want every single person that comes to one of my events to be safe. Being able to educate people, being able to communicate with them about anything without worrying about politics, is something that I think would be good.
It's not a music thing. In some areas, music and illegal substances might go hand in hand. But in other areas, no, not at all. It's mind blowing how different it is. The problems of the society, the city, that you take on [when you have an event] it's pretty amazing. I've learned so much from traveling. We do EDC in Mexico City. You'd think Mexico would have problems, there's no problems there. Self-harm isn't a problem unless people have too many beers. But it's really different, depending on where you are in the world.
Dance music has surged in mainstream popularity in recent years. Can you pinpoint an artist or moment that helped it crossover for this generation?
Black Eyed Peas, I feel like, really helped dance music cross over way-back-when. People forget because there's so many collaborations these days, but that was really one of the most impactful and first collabs that really helped dance music cross over in a big way. And [one of my] childhood friends was Will.i.am. Will.i.am actually hadn't been going to dance music events – we used to go to underground parties in high school – but I remember bringing him back into the scene to check out EDC and he connected with David Guetta there for the first time.
In the last few years, Insomniac launched a label, a management team and a platform for artist discovery. You've already got a successful, global EDM festival brand. Why the move to control those less-lucrative pipelines?
It was us being a part of [artists'] careers [long term]. Artists like Slander went from the EDC dance floor and now they're playing our stages. That's a great feeling. It's not just about booking them once or twice, it's about helping them fulfill their dreams and help them really accomplish their goals.
What artist has Insomniac taken to the next level in your opinion?
People like Bonnie X Clyde were out there [before us], but now they're on people's radars. Now they're playing our biggest stages. That's where our platform comes into play. We can take someone from their bedroom to playing a stage with 30,000 people on it, overnight. We won't do it before they're ready. But we definitely want to use our platform in that way. Bonnie X Clyde – we're really excited about.
Does money give Insomniac more freedom to take big chances on unknown artists in ways other festivals can't?
Well, it's not the money that makes it possible for us to take the chances – it's the culture. Dance music is about pushing things forward. Even for everyone in the office, there's 150 of us at the Insomniac HQ and we get bored if we don't change things up. And that's no different for people that are on the dance floor. Building an event around a concept that's never been done before, that's exciting – that's not risky. It's about doing something different. Exposing fans to new music is necessary. Otherwise it gets boring.