Dance Music Industry Fights For Its Right

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Before riots broke out at 'Electric Daisy Carnival Experience' in L.A. on July 27, 2011, in Hollywood, CA. (Photo: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)
Chris Martins WRITTEN BY
Chris Martins

Rave festivals are doing massive business and causing massive headaches for the cities that host them. But undaunted promoters and artists have a plan to keep the dance revolution from being derailed again.

The image seemed piped into the streets of Los Angeles from San Francisco's Summer of Love. There he is, in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, a lone tousled and shirtless soldier for peace, tan shoulders and sinewy arm supporting a raised fist with two fingers sticking up like bunny ears. His back is to the camera, and the aperture is focused on the 30-odd LAPD riot-squad members staring him down. They're helmeted and armed. He's wearing neon bracelets.

The photo was taken in late July outside a movie premiere, an invite-only screening for Electric Daisy Carnival Experience, a documentary celebrating the titular dance festival. But when Chicago house DJ Kaskade went rogue and tweeted "BLOCK PARTY" with the theater's location, all hell broke loose. Several thousand mobbed to watch him spin from a flatbed truck. Cops followed. The street was shut down. Traffic snarled. Someone jumped on a police car. Beanbag rounds flew.

The story racked up headlines -- the latest clash in an otherwise figurative war between electronic dance culture and a mainstream that can't seem to decide whether it wants to embrace the beat. To wit, a less publicized headline from the next day: "American Idol runner-up blake lewis to host free rave in grand rapids."

Obviously, the word rave can be misleading. These are legal events, selling tens, if not hundreds of thousands of tickets at as much as $200 a pop. Miami has Ultra. New York has Electric Zoo. The Identity Festival tour hits 20 U.S. cities this summer. L.A. promoter Insomniac will host 12 such "massives" before the year is out, including five Electric Daisy Carnivals.

This year's flagship EDC took place in Las Vegas, racking up 230,000 attendees over three days in late June, featuring a mix of superstar DJs (Tiësto, David Guetta) and underground talent (Bassnectar, 12th Planet), plus an immersive atmosphere (carnival rides, performance artists, interactive art). Electric Daisy has become the front line for any discussion about the viability of dance music in America, but not just because it's huge. Vegas was a new setting. The festival had called Southern California home since 1997, but that ended with 2010's EDC Los Angeles.

"The city looked so bad -- everyone did," says L.A. promoter Daddy Kev, 37, who runs the left-field beat club Low End Theory. "The TV coverage, the newspapers...All of a sudden, anything even remotely related to electronic music had a black eye on it. I want to say permanently."

Reports from the 2010 event were bleak: 118 arrests. Approximately 120 hospital transports. YouTube clips of people tearing down fences and harassing security guards, of a young woman with her face bloodied after an apparent stampede. Worse, it happened on public property: At Memorial Coliseum (and the adjoining Sports Arena), two-time home to the Olympics. Then, Sasha Rodriguez, 15, who attended the 16-and-over event, later died in an area hospital of causes related to Ecstasy use. Raver madness.

"I don't know what happens in L.A., but what happens here stays here," says former Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, 72 (he stepped down due to term limits in July). There are two fundamental ways to read EDC's move: (1) as a perverse testament to the motto that Goodman paraphrased, or (2) as a guarantee that Insomniac wouldn't run into the same political wrangling that sank the L.A. fest and now threatens the city's standing as America's nexus of dance-music culture. Insomniac found a willing partner in the City of Second Chances. "We're not judgmental," says Goodman. "We don't tell people they're not welcome here, and we're prepared for events like this."

The death of a young person is tragic -- Rodriguez's passing raised questions about venue security, while the death of 19-year-old Andrew Graf at the Dallas EDC in June only intensified the scrutiny -- but at events of this size, it's not uncommon. A man OD'd at Coachella in 2008. A stampede at a world-music festival in Morocco killed 11 in 2009. Two deaths at this year's Bonnaroo brought the fest's overall casualty count to ten. All outdoor summer music events face similar challenges -- weather, overcrowding, overexcitement, drugs -- yet none have encountered the same ferocious hue and cry.

According to a Los Angeles Times report in June of last year, emergency-room doctors called for an end to the "government-encouraged drug fest," which they likened to a 2008 commuter-train collision that killed 25 passengers. One county supervisor called for a "rave moratorium" until safety issues were addressed, and the halt was approved amid a standing-room-only crowd of outraged community members. Councilman José Huizar's spokesman told the Times that his boss "hates these kinds of events and has done everything in his power to close them down." (He refused an interview request.) California assemblywoman Fiona Ma introduced legislation to ban any "public event at night that includes prerecorded music and lasts more than three-and-one-half hours." It was thankfully rejected for being too broad or, in layman's terms, too much of a DJ fuck-you.

But the city did nix Insomniac's subsequent Tiësto concert at the L.A. Convention Center, citing rampant Ecstasy use at EDC as "good cause" to breach contract. Insomniac filed a million-dollar suit in response (which placed the company's projected profit for the event at $436,250 and the trance star's fee at $250,000).

"This goes way back," says L.A. Councilman (and former police chief) Bernard Parks, 67, who sits on the Coliseum's governing commission. "Whenever new music emerges, there are always those with the power to make decisions who hold on to their values at the expense of others. I heard the same arguments 40 years ago when people talked about not allowing Pink Floyd to come to the Shrine Auditorium."

A study commissioned by Insomniac found that EDC L.A. 2010 generated almost $42 million in jobs, tax revenues, hotel booking, and general spending, giving it a "larger economic impact" than "X Games 16, the 2011 NBA All-Star Game, and the 2010 E3 Expo." Tickets were purchased from every state in the Union, according to Parks, who says events like Electric Daisy keep the city relevant. He sees the problems that emerged as an opportunity to evaluate and improve.

"Did we cancel the Dodgers season because Bryan Stow was beaten senseless?" he asks, referring to the notoriously brutal attack on a Giants fan at Dodger Stadium last March. "No, we came back with a plan."

There was one, for a moment, and it was uncharacteristically rational: The county board of supervisors voted to form a task force designed to "enhance rave safety," enlisting a team of members and consultants ranging from public-health and law-enforcement officials to URB ?editor Joshua Glazer. Their aim: risk management instead of prohibition. Their suggestions: Limit events to 18 and over, bring more doctors and security on board, distribute info about mitigating the effects of Ecstasy, and offer an amnesty box where kids could ditch their drugs, no questions asked.

"That's never happened before," says Le Sheng Liu, 31, a longtime raver and former chapter head of the nonprofit DanceSafe, which staffs "harm-reduction booths" at events and contributed to the L.A. inquiry. Liu's currently working on a documentary called After EDC. "To have a huge government body working intimately with the dance community...I mean, these people are normally demonized, treated as a threat."

Indeed, the history of rave culture plays out like an international Tom and Jerry routine. Typically, a local scene takes hold in various abandoned warehouses and forgotten fields. When these illegal parties are shut down, they move into clubs or evolve into festivals. When a reveler dies or fear over Ecstasy use reaches a fever pitch, legislation is proposed targeting future events and the people who throw them.

In 1994, a prohibitive British act passed, aimed at events that featured "the emission of a succession of repetitive beats." Toronto and Chicago both approved anti-rave laws in 2000. In 2002, then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware ?introduced the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (spelling out "RAVE," in case there was any question), which would've updated a 1970 law regarding crack houses ?so that dance promoters could be punished for attendees' drug use. In 2005, the Czech Republic's peaceable CzechTek fest was shut down by 1,000 riot police armed with tear gas, water cannons, and a tank -- simply over a permit issue.

Such hysteria has caused promoters and performers to shy away from even acknowledging the existence of Ecstasy. Still, the L.A. task force enlisted DJs such as Black Eyed Peas' ?Apl.De.Ap., Kaskade, and DJ/Dim Mak Records owner Steve Aoki to speak openly about MDMA safety in a public-service announcement -- viewable in Liu's film. Then, in February, the city became embroiled in a scandal regarding some $800,000 allegedly collected by Coliseum commissioner Todd DeStefano from Insomniac; support for the task force's approach faded.

"If there's a way to make these events safe, I'd be happy to talk about it," says commission member, potential mayoral candidate, and billionaire mall tycoon Rick Caruso, 52. "I don't think there is. We've stopped them at the Coliseum for now -- I hope permanently. I was glad to see the promoter moved onto Vegas."

In many ways, Vegas set a new standard. ?Insomniac enforced an 18-and-over cap, hired ER doctors, increased security, set up free water stations, and added "Ground Control," a volunteer staff of young people who monitored their peers in exchange for free tickets. Insomniac had spent an estimated $20 million on getting the event right, according to company owner Pasquale Rotella, which included what Insomniac senior advisor Phil Blaine calls "a couple million" on DJs and nonmusic entertainment. No one died and reviews were positive -- good news for the estimated 500,000 people who ?attend Insomniac's mega-raves annually.

"We kind of hold the torch for the whole dance community," says Rotella. "There's a lot of weight on our shoulders to have no problems -- even problems that are the norm. It's difficult; should we bubble-wrap every single person that comes to the show? But we're totally willing to deal with that, and we'll keep fighting to produce the best events we can."

Rotella got his start in the L.A. underground as a teen, cutting locks off downtown warehouses and devising complex flyering systems to divert authorities. There was a feeling that the thriving scene had peaked in 1993 with Rave America, which drew 40,000 to the Knott's Berry Farm theme park. In 2001, that event's organizer Gary Richards, a.k.a. Destructo, told spin that "back then, there were no parameters. Now everything's been done." Today he recognizes the value of acknowledging parameters.

"We were doing really cool shit, it just never caught on," says Richards, 40. While Rotella pushed on, Richards worked as a techno A&R rep for Rick Rubin's American label. In 2007, he returned to promotion, differentiating his HARD events by banning glow sticks, plush toys, and candy. Next year Richards will host a three-night party on a cruise liner called Holy Ship! "I realized you gotta make it into a proper festival, not a rave. Your days are numbered if you're not legit."

The persistence and growth of events like EDC suggest that, instead of a Trojan horse, dance-music fans and promoters have built a bona-fide war machine that neutralizes naysayers with blasts of rainbow love vibes. Which brings us back to that picturesque standoff in Hollywood. Ironically, members of law enforcement have been among the biggest supporters of legal massives, and the type of people who attend them.

"Compared to Raiders games or other concerts, they're a dream," says LAPD Commander Andrew Smith, 49, who oversaw the police presence at EDC 2010. "I've worked dozens of these events and I can't recall ever seeing a fistfight. These kids are really nice folks, and the music isn't stopping anytime soon. It's unfortunate that L.A. can't take advantage of that right now. Hopefully, that will turn around."

But three days after the Electric Daisy film-premiere incident, Regal and AMC theater chains announced they had dropped the EDC film, and suddenly it was opening on 50 screens, not 250. Among the many dance moves available to ?today's ravers, this one might be the most familiar: two steps forward, one step back. Repeat.

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