Sunday’s Los Angeles Times published an unflinching account of how companies like Insomniac Inc. produce events with insufficient security where concertgoers die. The accompanying towergraphic showing names, photos and profiles of fourteen of those who passed away – ranging in ages from 15 to 37 – was harrowing. If you’ve been to a music festival you could see your younger sister, your best friend or yourself in those faces. And unless you’re Insomniac owner Pasquale Rotella, you would have been moved when reading it. Instead, Rotella’s response to the report and companion tribute was a “call to action” posted slyly on his Instagram. In it, Insomniac accused the Times of “twisting facts” and sensationalizing while asking artists (and implicitly their fans) to contact the Times reporters and “voice their perspective.” With all-but-confirmed rumors about several large companies interested in buying Insomniac Events from Rotella (to the tune of eight figures), it is clearly in his own interest to protect his brand regardless of the facts. As someone who has attended events promoted by Insomniac and their frequent collaborators Go Ventures in both a personal and professional capacity over the last decade, I can offer my perspective. I’ll even agree with Rotella that the Times gets it wrong in their depiction of Insomniac’s events: it’s way worse.
My first behind-the-scenes look at a large festival came in 2005 at an event Insomniac produced with Go Ventures at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Insufficient security and an inefficient entry system allowed hundreds of concertgoers to rush a twelve-foot tall chain-link fence. The fence fell, and the crowd bombarded the entryway, without being stopped or penalized. It was kind of like that scene in Argo, where the protesters overtook the American Embassy in Tehran. It was what you picture when you hear about people being trampled to death on Black Friday. Thankfully nobody was trampled – as far as I know. How such a breach of protocol and safety could occur in the first place stunned me, and still does.
In 2008 I was at the Coliseum again for the Electric Daisy Carnival when I noticed similar security failures inside the venue. While the event was supposed to be age-regulated, based on the attendees I talked to, it wasn’t. Even the 21 and up area was so loosely patrolled, teenagers were streaming through a hole in a fence meant to partition it off. It was like they had come to a party at the cool mom’s house (“if you’re going to drink I’d rather have you do it in the house”).
In 2012, I went to the second day of the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. Although I entered with VIP access behind the stage, there was no check of credentials. Anyone could have rolled up in a town car or a bus (or pretended to) and walked directly onto the festival grounds as apparently, some people did. The pandemonium that followed can be read about in my report of that night:
“On night two, desert winds brought the festival to a halt, turning the grounds into a Hunger Games-like scenario, with thousands of colorfully dressed kids corralled onto the bleachers in silence while misinformation blared on the speakers (‘We’re working on getting the sound up and running’). Any remaining goodwill from industry people vanished as Insomniac’s artist transport team left the scene well before all artists (and their entourages) had secured a way home from the event. That’s to say nothing of the tens of thousands of fans, tricked into waiting for the return of the rave that never was, presumably left to fight to the death in the arena.”
The publication I wrote for at that time declined to publish my account, saying it was “a little too honest,” citing the working relationships with Insomniac and its affiliates.
Yesterday, one DJ who sometimes headlines Insomniac’s festivals responded to their “call to action.” On his blog, Kaskade wrote an enthusiastic statement of support for the festival scene and dance music as a genre. I have a great deal of respect for Kaskade, as an artist and as a person. I’ve interviewed him many times over the years and think he represents some of the best of what American dance music has to offer. However, I strongly disagree with his interpretation of this situation and quite frankly, it puzzles me. (His piece doesn’t mention Insomniac by name and saves his declarations of love to Rotella for Twitter.)
Kaskade wrote that we should take “every precaution and security measure” to reduce the possibility of overdose or injury. He’s right. But Insomniac doesn’t do that. Their events are wildly and unpredictably dangerous. They have a track record of death and injury. They are so poorly organized that even the most salient of vice squads wouldn’t be able to stop an amateur drug dealer from infiltrating and distributing unknown quantities of unknown substances. As we have tragically seen before, should someone too young take too much at the Electric Daisy Carnival, help will not be readily available.
One of the more shameful aspects of Rotella’s own self-defense has been his continued insistence that people (the Times, the City of Los Angeles) are on an anti-EDM witch-hunt, and that his festivals are a scapegoat for people out to destroy a sub-culture. This not only smacks of delusional paranoia, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps when it was on the periphery of society, dance music was misunderstood and a much-maligned step-child of the live music industry. But DJ music is now mainstream. And as the Times points out, dance music festivals are big business. Given that Rotella is currently rumored to be entertaining offers from Live Nation and SFX to purchase his company he must know how big of a lie it is that the criticism of his work has anything to do with genre. Is there drug use at other festivals? Sure. Is there ecstasy use at festivals that feature other genres of music? Yes. Is Insomniac the only dance music festival promoter? Hardly. But it has been a well-kept industry secret that the deficiencies in security and safety at Insomniac Events are greater than those at any other festival in North America by far.
The truth is, we deserve better. As fans of dance music, we deserve an event with top-level artists, untarnished by a promoter’s greed and neglect. We deserve festivals that aren’t ignorant of security but are empowered and at peace in knowing that everybody – fan, DJ, hot dog vendor – is valuable and valued and is entitled to medical attention in the rare instance of an emergency.
I have no personal vendetta or axe to grind with Rotella himself. In fact, I have some admiration for his transformational weight loss and his skill at cultivating a personality cult. But I have more admiration for the parents, families, and friends of those who have died at his events. They have kept the memories of their loved ones alive and persevered in their demands for safer conditions and better treatment by festival promoters. I’m not blaming Insomniac for their deaths, but I know for a fact that more could have been done to stop them.
In his callousness, Rotella has perverted the discussion around those who have lost their lives at his events by making it about his business. In his arrogance, Rotella has treated the investigations of the LA Times like opinion pieces, and has sought to manipulate his own personal fanbase in a mobilized attack on facts and reason under the banner of an EDM hero he wishes he was and is pretending to be.
This music, this scene has been a part of my life and who I am since I was 13 years old. Whether in my headphones or in a dark and sweaty nightclub or on a field under the stars, it means more to me than I can express. My only goal in writing this is to make sure that the 13 year olds of today can look back when they’re my age and say the same thing… and not die at a rave before then. My only regret is that I haven’t spoken up sooner.
Zel McCarthy is the editor of SoundBleed. You can follow him at @ZelMcCarthy.