In run-up to Electric Daisy, what is the future of live dance music?
This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
Steve Goodgold, the dance-music czar at the booking agency Windish, remembers the moment when agents had to take notice of electronica. "When Electric Daisy first did 100,000 tickets, it was the shock heard around the world," he said Wednesday on the "Creating the Experience: The Ascendance of the Music Festival" panel at the EDMBiz conference in Las Vegas. "But electronic music had been a big touring business for a long time."
That fact -- that dance acts had become an efficient live moneymaker -- was the biggest story in live music, especially after the 2011 Electric Daisy's inaugural turn in Las Vegas, which drew around 250,000 people over three days. But the sudden popular attention raised questions about how that new interest would play out.
The panel Wednesday tried to answer that question -- is the future in self-contained, immersive festivals, or in introducing dance music into an existing live infrastructure?
"Creating the Experience" was perhaps the most anticipated panel of the conference, as it featured the usually-reticent-to-press Insomniac and Electric Daisy founder Pasquale Rotella. Hosted by Goldenvoice Senior Vice President Skip Paige, it also enjoyed the last-minute addition of Shelly Finkel, the promoter who set a record in 1973 for the largest concert in American history (the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., which pulled an estimated 600,000 people at $10 a ticket). Marian Goodell of Nevada's Burning Man event and Goodgold rounded it out, and they all seemed to agree that as long as it's done right, more venue options are always better for live dance music.
Rotella, in particular, admitted a certain frustration with the spatial infrastructure of Electric Daisy. "There are obstacles in our venues, they're not built for what we do. Stadiums are for sports, speedways are for racing. I want to build an adult Disneyland for what we do."
It sounds as if he's interested in hand-designing a venue for future Electric Daisys, on par with the Empire Polo Grounds and how it's an inseparable part of the identity of the annual Coachella festival in Indio, Calif. And for him, he said that the venue and atmosphere are just as (if not more) important than who he books as headliners. "I never wanted to be a concert promoter. I went to one concert, and it was like 'I got my ticket, found my seat, I'm waiting to be entertained.' It was boring. I'm trying to create a show."
Given that the rising rates for DJs are cutting into his production budget for art and visuals and design, Rotella was forthright that he'd be fine with de-prioritizing a huge lineup of A-listers. "Eventually, we're going to pull back on the lineup being so stacked. A lot of the big guys play the same tracks, and there are so many younger DJs that we're starting something called the Discovery Project to make it feel more like an underground party. We're going to be going in the opposite direction in the future."
Rotella -- an avowed Burning Man aficionado -- seemed in tune with Goodell about why people really come to festivals. "I have no manifest control over it," Goodell said of Burning Man. "It's really magical. With Burning Man, there are no 'acts.' You are the act." Her most powerful moments actually are low points that turn into impromptu high points -- "When the dust storms come, most people are afraid of them. But when they hit, you have the most intense experiences, like hiding in a tent that isn't yours and starting a conversation with a Bloody Mary."
One festival moment in particular, the Daft Punk 2006 Coachella set, was universally regarded as the standard bearer for what dance music can accomplish in a festival space. "That was life-changing for me," said Goodgold. Paige agreed that the French duo's pyramid stage raised the bar for everyone, and possibly jumped-started the live EDM ascendance today. "We built that tent for Madonna, and she phoned it in. Daft Punk used it all and blew us away. I talked to them afterwards and they said it was the best set they'd ever played."
Even Finkel, who as a music and boxing manager once handled Mike Tyson, admitted that the combination of immersion and professionalism in dance-fest culture today is clearly the future of the genre and the live scene. "I have the benefit of age, I've gone through a lot of what Pasquale is going through right now. People as creative as him will find ways to enhance the experience," he said. "When Coachella went to two weekends, I had to tip my hat to them, that was brilliant."
He also mentioned the new dance-centric SFX venture from Robert Sillerman, the promoter who oversaw the corralling of an international network of venues and promoters that became Live Nation. The venture is working to acquire a network of regional dance promoters to streamline and corporatize the byzantine and often ad-hoc network of touring electronica. "We'll be able to tell agents, 'We'll book you a 30-date tour, but we'll expect some allegiance from you. That other guy won't be there next month. I've seen it.' "
The panel turned a bit flinty in the Q&A period, when an audience member addressed what he called "The elephant in the room" -- Rotella's arrest in connection with a corruption scandal involving the L.A. Coliseum. The Coliseum was the site of Electric Daisy until a teenager's 2010 drug death prompted outcry from city leaders and the fest's move to Vegas. Rotella bristled, then brushed off the question -- "I don't think that way. I don't want to lose time thinking about that. What I want to do is go forward."
The rest of the panel leaped to his defense, with Goodell imploring that "anyone who takes mind-altering substances at a festival, including alcohol, does it for their own reasons. At bigger festivals, human interaction gives you a pretty great high."
Paige was the most outspoken, citing Goldenvoice's own history at the margins of the '80s L.A. hard-core scene. "When Goldenvoice began, we did it because no other promoter would book punk acts. Dancing is not a crime... What I see are cities and counties that are desperate for taxes and fees, and if they want to stimulate the economy, they should be encouraging us."
The panelists had valid defenses of the experience and ultimate aims of Electric Daisy, but no one specifically addressed or defended Rotella's alleged role in the Coliseum case. Rotella has fervently denied all wrongdoing, but it shows how the exploding market for electroncia festivals in America has its own growing pains to deal with.
[For the record, 11:25 a.m., June 8: the title of this post has been changed.]
-- August Brown, from Las Vegas
Photo: Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on June 24, 2011. Photo: Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times