Electric Daisy Conflict: Inside the Bitter Legal Battle Between the EDM Biz's Biggest Rivals

Clash of the dance titans: The twin towers of EDM — Gary Richards and Pasquale Rotella — have been rivals for years. Now, a legal battle over the electric daisy Carnival brings a new low.
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Clash of the dance titans: The twin towers of EDM — Gary Richards and Pasquale Rotella — have been rivals for years. Now, a legal battle over the electric daisy Carnival brings a new low.

The twin titans of EDM -- Gary Richards and Pasquale Rotella -- have been rivals for years. Now, a legal battle over the Electric Daisy Carnival brings a new low.

When dance-music promoter Hard Events revealed the lineup for its annual ­Hard Summer music festival on April 22, the tastemaking event was unusually light on DJs, giving crossover acts like The Weeknd and The Chemical Brothers top billing. Many saw it as a statement: founder Gary Richards ­distancing himself from his larger, rave-inclined rival, Pasquale Rotella, CEO of Insomniac Events and host of the competing Electric Daisy Carnival. Hard Summer's promotional trailer left little doubt about that notion.

The video opens with Dillon Francis, Mija and Chromeo ­pretending to be a band rehearsing in a garage. "Gary told me I need to play a real instrument to perform at Hard Summer," quips Francis, before Richards interjects, "Because Hard Summer's not a rave, it's a music festival."

Richards, 44, the music ­purist, and Rotella, 40, the carnival king, have butted heads for years, mostly in a philosophical battle over which direction the U.S. EDM industry, now worth an estimated $2 billion, should be steered. Richards' events draw the cool kids with highly curated upcoming talent, while Rotella's focus on the rave experience: ferris wheels, body painting and dazzling stages longer than a football field. These differences aren't new, but sources say the tension between the execs -- whose companies are both owned by Live Nation -- is at an all-time high.

The latest salvo came on April 20, when Richards issued a trademark suit to cancel Rotella's use of the Electric Daisy Carnival name, which Richards founded circa 1991. Under Rotella's leadership, the festival has expanded to two major annual weekend-long events -- Las Vegas and New York -- with the ­former selling more than 400,000 tickets before the lineup is even announced. Attorneys familiar with the filing say that it doesn't seem Richards wants to kill EDC -- he'd have to go to federal court to do that -- but to extract payment.

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"The EDC mark is one of the most well-known brands in music," says John Ingram, a lawyer with Stone Meyer Genow Smelkinson and Binder in Beverly Hills. "If Insomniac were forced to license the mark, it wouldn't come cheap." Richards and Rotella have been competitors since the early 1990s, when both were rising promoters in Southern California's burgeoning rave scene. Back then, Richards and his business partner at the time, Dr. Kool-Aid (real name: Stephen Enos), were throwing "Magical Mickey" events like Haunted Mansion and Electric Daisy Carnival, many of which Rotella attended. When Richards became disillusioned with the circuit, he bowed out to work at Rick Rubin's Def American label. But Rotella pressed on, ­throwing parties as Insomniac Events, and, at some point, ­allegedly receiving verbal ­permission from Richards to use the EDC name. (Enos has filed suits over the name in the past, which ­apparently were ­settled out of court.) When Richards re-entered the ­festival business with Hard in 2007, he went after more hip-hop- and rock-­influenced DJs, like Steve Aoki and Justice, while Rotella ­cornered house and trance.

Along the way, Rotella became known as the tender-hearted ambassador of the 21st century rave movement -- dubbing fans the "headliners" and ­encouraging ­freedom of expression at his ­festivals. But behind the scenes, he's considered a bulldozer.

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"Pasquale is truly ­passionate about the scene," says "Disco" Donnie Estopinal, the Puerto Rico-based promoter who was partners with Rotella before an acrimonious split in 2012. "But when it comes to business, he wants to compete. That's what drives him."

By contrast, "Gary's just a music guy who wants to do his events," says an insider. "He doesn't want to kill anybody."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two nearly joined forces twice in recent years: Richards proposed a 50/50 partnership with Rotella before he launched Hard in 2007 but was rebuffed, and Rotella tells Billboard he lobbied for ownership of Hard during his negotiations with Live Nation. "I'm guessing [Richards] is ­having a difficult time adjusting to that," says Rotella, "which makes me feel like [the petition] is being done out of spite. It's sad." (Attorneys note that Richards had to file by April 20 or he would have lost his right to petition.)

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In recent years, competition between the two companies for acts has become cutthroat, and there have been absurd stories about ­artist bribes, torn-down ­posters and even strict ­booking ­ultimatums: "If you play one ­[company's festival], you can't play the other," says one agent, a claim that was supported by other sources.

Live Nation's stance on the rivalry is unclear (both Richards and a Live Nation rep declined to comment for this article). Given that Rotella sold half of Insomniac for an estimated $50 million in 2013 -- probably substantially more than Richards got when he sold 100 percent of Hard for an undisclosed amount in 2012 -- Richards may feel he sold himself short. During the past two years, both companies have expanded their portfolios, but Hard's popularity has swelled thanks to the Holy Ship cruise, which now sails twice a year, and Hard Summer, which doubled in size to 80,000 attendees in 2014.

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And in fact, the gap between the two festivals may be closing: For EDC New York this Memorial Day weekend, Insomniac booked usual suspects like Tiesto and Afrojack but also hip-hop act Flosstradamus and experimental deep house producer Ten Walls. "Judging by what Insomniac is booking this year," says one agent, "they're shooting for more diverse lineups, less rave-y. As an agent, you have to choose."

There's a limit to how much competition is good for ­business, says Estopinal. "These ­rivalries have been going on for decades," he says. "But the level it's at in EDM right now, we're all ­wondering how long before it begins to hurt the scene."

This story originally appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard


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