Dance

Party's Back On: Why Major Dance Festival Promoters Are Returning to Los Angeles

After fleeing Los Angeles at the height of the EDM boom, dance music festivals are back in a new way.

While Los Angeles isn’t necessarily famous for its skyline, the city’s downtown cluster of skyscrapers has been the backdrop for many festivals at the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Nestled between two freeways, an industrial park, the L.A. River and the Metro Gold Line, the park itself is a simple design: fields of grass bisected by paved walkways, adorned by oak trees and furnished with benches and picnic tables. Even before completing a three-year-long renovation in 2017, it was coveted by event promoters who filled its vast space with thematic stages and booming music several times a year. Its central location and proximity to public transportation made it a nearly ideal location for festivals, from Hard Events’ Day of the Dead and Hard Summer to FYF and spectacles such as Swedish House Mafia’s Masquerade Motel.

“Out of all the venues we’ve ever done our shows at -- and we’ve done our shows at a lot of different venues -- it’s definitely my favorite,” says Meagan DesChenes, director of Hard Events.

Hard held festivals at the State Historic Park for three years, between 2010 and 2013, when dance music was exploding in the States and Los Angeles was emerging as a key scene hub. The company’s ever-increasing audiences (its last event, Day of the Dead in November 2013, hosted approximately 70,000 people across two days) outgrew the venue, causing it to relocate outside city limits during the Historic Park’s renovation because, as DesChenes notes, few local venues could hold that many people.

It wasn’t the first electronic or electronic-adjacent festival to leave the city, nor was it the last, as Downtown L.A. would soon become a dance-massive desert. But years later, these same promoters are back in a new way that reflects the scene’s evolution since EDM’s heyday.

Last November’s Day of the Dead was one of three major dance music festivals held in the downtown area over four consecutive weekends. It followed the house-and techno-focused Secret Project, produced by Hard’s Live Nation-owned parent company, Insomniac Events and All My Friends, created by original Hard founder Gary Richards for Live Nation competitor LiveStyle and launched in 2018.

Warehouse parties, massives and raves have been an integral part of Southern California's dance music culture since the early ‘90s. As EDM fervor swept the nation at the turn of 2010, dance festivals became a rite of passage and an indoctrinating experience into DJ fandom. In SoCal, established and then-independent event promoters such as Pasquale Rotella’s Insomniac Events, Dave Dean’s Giant, Reza Gerami’s Go Ventures and Richards’ Hard Events were pillars of the local scene, having shepherded ravers from illegal undergrounds into proper venues.

As the culture grew, so, too, did festivals in both size and influence. Promoters who had previously organized events for crowds of a few hundred were suddenly selling thousands of advance tickets. What promoters lacked in organizational structure, they made up for in zeal to capitalize on the new wave of EDM popularity. While the city of Los Angeles was generally receptive to hosting events in spaces such as the State Historic Park, off-season sports venues or on shut-down city streets, promoters found themselves ill-prepared to manage the logistical hurdles of their rapidly growing crowds.

Hard Events’ second annual Hard Summer festival in August 2009 was almost its last. Held at The Forum, an indoor arena known to host sold-out shows by Madonna, U2 and Prince, Hard sold out the venue with advertised headliners Underworld and Chromeo. They never got to perform. Early in the night, hundreds of people rushed the already crowded venue and police shut the event down by 11 p.m. Richards told the L.A. Times he faced a “seven-figure” loss from the event — the kind of failure that can end a promoter’s career.

When Hard Summer returned the following year, it was to a new home at the State Historic Park, but the stakes were even higher. Earlier that summer, 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez had died from MDMA intoxication after attending Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival five miles away at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. As a result, county officials called for a moratorium on raves at publicly owned facilities and created a new public health task force designed to “enhance rave safety.”

Like Hard, Insomniac had either outgrown most local facilities or had a difficult time finding one that was willing to host its kinds of events. With its future in Los Angeles in question and its fanbase expanding amid the continued rise in EDM’s popularity, Insomniac needed venues to host its other events. In 2011, EDC moved to Las Vegas, where it has remained, now hosting 150,000 people a day.

Meanwhile, the State Historic Park’s scheduled renovation took longer than expected, taking it off the map as an option for large-scale events along with the Coliseum and The Forum, which remained off-limits due to their previous festival-related incidents. With the city highly wary of massives and low on venues that could house them, by the early 2010s, dance music festivals started disappearing from Los Angeles.

Even though dance music was more popular than ever, Angelenos had to trek an hour or more away by car to get their festival fix. While the Inland Empire had long been home to Insomniac’s Wonderland massives in San Bernardino, Hard also made the trek out of the city, moving from downtown to 20 miles east in South El Monte, then to Pomona, then to the city of San Bernardino to Hard Summer’s current home in Fontana, 50 miles outside of Los Angeles.

“We kept getting moved out,” Richards tells Billboard Dance. “It just kept getting bigger and more headaches.”

Following two drug-related deaths at Hard Summer in Pomona in August of 2015, L.A. County supervisors called for a temporary ban on festivals held at publicly owned properties, as well as an electronic music task force to recommend health and safety measures for future events. Ultimately, the task force suggested not to ban electronic festivals outright, but to distribute drug education materials at large events, provide more access to water and to require four police officers for every 1,000 guests, among other recommendations.

But by the mid-2010s, as the EDM explosion had stagnated nationwide, its once bright-eyed festivalgoers had started growing up. Not only were they members of the workforce with bills to pay and more discretion over their disposable income, their tastes had changed, too, with many of them ditching the core-rattling dubstep and big-room bombast of their youth for more traditional house and techno.

The industry landscape was evolving as well. Days before Hard Summer in August 2017, Richards announced he was leaving Live Nation and Hard, and was soon after named President, North America of LiveStyle, the new company reformed from the pieces of EDM conglomerate SFX Entertainment, which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy the year before.

The following April, Richards announced All My Friends, a two-day summer festival in downtown’s Fashion District. In August of 2018, AMF debuted at Row DTLA, where the stages sat on black asphalt among a parking garage and industrial buildings, including the former site of the American Apparel factory. The site is near the intersection of S. Alameda and 7th Street, where Richards often passed while en route to warehouse parties as a teen.

“I always want to be in the city,” he says. “The further out of the city you go, the more freedoms and more things you can do, but  … I felt [my events] resonated more in the city than outside.”

While Insomniac-branded festivals have yet to return to Los Angeles, the company found an opportunity to return to the aesthetic of Rotella’s own warehouse-party roots in L.A. proper. In May of 2016, Insomniac launched Factory 93, an event series geared toward fans of house and techno. The brand throws parties in sanctioned warehouse spaces and at two Insomniac-affiliated clubs in L.A., and it also curates stages at Insomniac festivals including EDC Las Vegas. Amid a thriving period in downtown’s already solid warehouse scene and increasing fan interest in “underground” sounds, a festival of Factory 93’s own seemed like a natural next step. Thus, Secret Project was born.

Secret Project debuted over two days in October 2018 at the 1756 Naud St. warehouse space in Chinatown, next to the State Historic Park. Its lineup -- which included international DJs and live acts such as Bicep, Peggy Gou, Motor City Drum Ensemble and Dixon B2B Âme -- felt unprecedented for the area: Though house and techno had been featured at previous major festivals, it was usually on smaller side-stages. Here, it was the main attraction, with the scene’s evolution toward underground music and smaller crowds making it possible for promoters such as Rotella and Richards to return to the downtown area in which they had laid roots.

“The appetite for new and exploratory sounds has been growing stronger in L.A. for the better part of 10 years,” says Secret Project co-promoter Deirdre Coleman.

To bring Hard back to the State Historic Park in 2018, DesChenes says the team worked closely with the city in advance, allowing officials to preview artists, artwork and the overall experience the festival planned to provide.

“[The city] looks at what we do and sees massive shows,” she says. “They wonder how many people will be coming into their community. Will they respect the community? Is everything going to be safe for the residents who live here and for the people who are coming here?”

In order to appease their concerns, Hard scaled back Day of the Dead by making it 21+. The festival, hoping to avoid any potential noise issues (the community’s No. 1 complaint, according to DesChenes), also lowered its sound decibel level and revised the lineup accordingly, skipping much of the heavy bass music and rap that populates its other events in favor of more melodic house styles that also appeal to older audiences.

“If we were doing this somewhere else, it would probably be a different event overall,” admits DesChenes. “Those were the little sacrifices we had to make to bring it back to the city.”

Secret Project is also 21+. After starting as an 18+ fest its first year, All My Friends went to 21+ for its second run. Perhaps most crucially, these festivals both also significantly scaled down in size from the massives of the EDM heyday, with each hosting up to 10,000 people per day. (Comparatively, the latest Hard Summer in Fontana drew about 170,000 over two days.)

When a festival grows, Richards explains, it taxes more resources from the city. It also changes the surrounding area’s traffic patterns, which even on their best day are still a mild inconvenience for drivers in the fifth-worst city in the nation for traffic.

“When you’re dealing with 10,000 people as opposed to 100,000 people,” he adds, “it’s 10 times less the problem.”

DesChenes posits that the city has eased up on festivals because dance music is more mainstream today, and thus more understood and accepted by the general public.

“It’s on the radio now,” she says. “Electronic music is almost pop culture at this point, whereas before, it was this underground, secret thing. So the conversations we’re having are a lot easier because the artists we’re booking are more well known. When people at the city are looking at our lineup, half the time they know half the lineup, or their kids do.” (Emails to State Parks, which runs the State Historic Park, and the Mayor’s Office were not returned. Row DTLA declined to comment for this piece.)

Meanwhile, local DIY promoters are also seeing the benefits of this evolution. Masha Martinovic and Jimmy Maheras, both DJs and co-founders of L.A.’s Dig Deeper and Into the Woods parties, respectively, see potential in these festivals and hope their graduated lineups will funnel open-minded punters to the smaller events.

But, as Maheras points out, five of Southern California’s major dance festivals -- San Diego’s CRSSD fall edition, Secret Project, All My Friends, Insomniac’s Escape: Psycho Circus and Day of the Dead -- all transpire within a six-week period from the end of September to the beginning of November. “I don’t know if it’s the festivals’ fault or if people just go out less,” he says. “Maybe a bit of both. There’s definitely a saturation in festivals and a saturation in general events as well.”

There’s also the pressure of direct competition so close to home, particularly with Secret Project, whose artists and target audience overlap with DIY organizers’. While Insomniac’s logo doesn’t appear on Secret Project’s branding, its star-studded lineups would be next to impossible for a truly independent promoter to book.

Maheras and Martinovic say they were unable to book certain artists who played the festival for their own parties due to radius clauses (contractual agreements restricting artists from playing within a certain distance or time frame of an event), which promoters utilize to keep events unique and competitive. But as more events join the crowd, smaller operations without the financial backing and brand prestige to outbid their better-endowed peers must either dig deeper into the talent pool or risk getting the short end of the stick.

Both parties have found something of a working solution, for now. Martinovic, as well as DJ-promoters from Making Shapes, Lights Down Low and Bears in Space have populated Secret Project’s lineups over both years. Rather than shut out the people they’d normally be competing with, Factory 93 invites them to share in the spotlight. It also helps that these smaller organizers give the festival both access to their fan-bases and local underground credibility.

But while events such as Day of the Dead, All My Friends and Secret Project have opened a new chapter in Los Angeles’ ever-evolving dance scene, Richards doesn’t foresee them returning to the level of the EDM festival heyday.

“I kind of see festivals … it’s just like music, there’s just too many of them,” he says. “There’s only so many times people can go out. It’s really more [about] which ones have a point of view that are interesting and unique?”

The next round of major-promoter festivals in L.A. is still a few months away, but the city is clearly ready to party year-round. In May, Dirtybird will celebrate its 15th anniversary at Exposition Park -- where EDC once reigned -- with the Birdhouse Festival. The weekender is a step up from the popular Dirtybird BBQ events, albeit at a reduced capacity (from 7,000 people per day to 5,000).

“We like to keep our events more intimate and weird,” says label head Claude VonStroke, “so we changed from one day to two days so we could maintain the family vibes and not have the capacity get too corporate. We value the fan experience over jamming bodies into a venue.”

In September, Barcelona’s long-running Primavera Sound festival makes its U.S. debut at the State Historic Park. Though the lineup has not yet been announced, the festival’s impending arrival has resurfaced worries from smaller promoters about how radius clauses will affect their own event schedule.

"There are pros and cons for people in my position, but overall I’m really excited to see what they bring," says Martinovic. "There’s a lot of potential here in L.A."

The city’s key figures are all in their own ways contending with the saturation and obstacles of which Richards speaks, but the L.A. scene also knows a thing or two about beating the odds.

“It’s definitely not easy,” Richards says. “But I’m a forever optimist, you know? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”