'Disco' Donnie Estopinal Buys Back His Legendary Dance Company: 'I Got My Name Back'

Disco Donnie
Kaitlin Culucundis-Parry

Disco Donnie

Disco Donnie is finally getting his name back.

“When I first met Bob [Sillerman] he told me the first SFX did so well that he let one of the promoters have their name back,” says longtime dance music promoter and pioneer “Disco” Donnie Estopinal. After launching the publicly traded dance music company SFX Entertainment with Sillerman and Shelly Finkel in 2012, and it eventually falling into bankruptcy in 2015, that idea of regaining ownership over the company he founded 26 years ago suddenly felt much more realistic. And earlier this month it became a reality when he closed the purchase of Disco Donnie Presents from LiveStyle, the company that rose out of the ashes of the SFX's bankruptcy.

When Estopinal first started out, unlike today, the dance scene in New Orleans was still an underground music movement and he was throwing parties in a bare bones loft space before moving his events to an old meat locker. He didn't carry insurance or permits and told the locker owner he operated a sound company and the music coming out of the locker at night was just DJs testing out its equipment in front of test audiences. Four months into the meat locker gig, Estopinal was caught but thankfully he was only months away from going legit. In 1997, Estopinal began booking acts like Frankie Bones, Paul Oakenfold and The Crystal Method and grew Disco Donnie Presents into a pioneering dance promotional powerhouse, staging 1,000 events in 2019 and moving more than 1 million tickets.

Looking to finally take a little money off the table after 18 years of grinding as an indie promoter, Estopinal met Sillerman and began discussing a consolidation for the dance music industry. The plan for SFX Entertainment -- informally called SFX ii -- was to follow the playbook of Sillerman's first SFX, which sold to Clear Channel in 2000 for $4.4 billion and was spun off into what is today Live Nation.

Things didn't go as planned for the second time around. Three years after Sillerman appeared on the cover of Billboard in 2012 to detail his “$1 billion plan to conquer the world of dance music,” executives at SFX II filed for bankruptcy and more than a dozen lawsuits were filed. Estopinal and the other promoters bought in the rollup continued to throw parties as SFX worked its way through the courts was taken over by senior creditors and renamed LiveStyle. Sillerman was forced out and after four years or battling old investors, the promoters whose companies he bought and federal regulators, lost his battle with cancer and passed away in November at 71.

In December, LiveStyle was exploring the sale of several assets, including React Presents, the Chicago dance promotion company whose partners Jeffery Callahan and Lucas King sold to SFX in 2013 and later filed suit against Sillerman, ultimately forcing him into bankruptcy. Estopinal met with LiveStyle chairman Andrew Axelrod to discuss securing first right of refusal to buy back his company. "His response was, ‘Sure, do you want to buy React as well?’” Estopinal says. Ultimately LiveXLive bought React and Estopinal says, “I concentrated on my base and trying to protect my people and the stuff that I had.”

After four months of negotiation, Estopinal was able to close the sale and now holds full ownership of his company, his events and most importantly his name.

“That’s what I always wanted, and it’s funny because when you tell people you’re buying a company right now, you don’t exactly get the most positive reactions,” Estopinal says, addressing the obvious obstacle facing all concert promoters -- the global shutdown of all concerts and mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nobody's really said ‘congratulations’ or ‘great job.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, are you sure?’ Or, ‘Okay, well, I support whatever decision you make.’ I understand people are worried about it, but I had to do what I had to do,” Estopinal explains. “I went through everything, including the bankruptcy and had to swallow my pride a bunch of times and weather some crazy shit in the music world.”

That includes being raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2000 at the State Palace Theater after months of undercover surveillance. Convinced that drugs were being sold at his shows, agents pried open speakers looking for contraband but found nothing. Five months later, federal authorities try a different tactic -- charging him with violations of a "crack house" law for staging events where drugs were allegedly sold and used.

Facing a 20-year prison sentence and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, Estopinal and the manager of the State Palace Theater enter “not guilty” pleas. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed to defend Estopinal and in March 2000 all the charges were dropped. But Estopinal would still face federal scrutiny two years later with the passage of the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE Act bill, championed by then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. (Estopinal says Biden’s daughter used to attend the shows he threw at Café Brazil in New Orleans when she was a student Tulane University.) The RAVE Act created more fear of the electronic music scene and made venue managers weary about the genre, but the growing popularity of electronic music could not be ignored.

Estopinal was also an early partner of Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella and in 1999 partnered with Rotella on Nocturnal Wonderland in Los Angeles, where so many people showed up that riot police used tear gas to disperse a crowd outside the gates. (At the end of the night, 8,000 people got into the event, with nearly double that stuck outside.) The two continued working together and in 2008, Rotella and Estopinal made it official by forming partnership and launching marque events, including Electric Forest and EDC Orlando. The two split in 2013 and later Rotella sued Estopinal over a disagreement about ownership of Electric Daisy Carnival outside of California. Estopinal countersued and according to court documents, the two sides eventually settled.

“A lot these guys in the big markets want to kill the other guy and I just don't really have that mentality,” says Estopinal, who now resides in Puerto Rico with his wife -- a veterinary ophthalmologist he first met in Louisiana. Estopinal says he’s been working on learning Spanish for the last decade but add “my hard drive is kind of full right now.” Sometimes his kids translate for him, but most of the time “they speak Spanish when they want to make fun of me to their mom.”

Estopinal said he is still working out the details of how he is going to get Disco Donnie Presents up and running and said a lot depends on when government officials allow concerts and events to resume.

“We’re all going to have to work through this and right now no knows when things will go back to normal,” Estopinal says. “But I think we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape what the concert industry is going to look like in the future. I’m excited to be a part of that and do it as Disco Donnie, with the company I started, under my name and my own terms.”

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