Gary Richards and his friendly rival Pasquale Rotella have long been the twin peaks of today's EDM industry. But where Rotella's Insomniac Events specializes in lurid, extravagant mega-fests like the mammoth Electric Daisy Carnival, Richards' Hard Events play down the pyrotechnics and center on the music, putting cutting-edge DJs center stage. "The rave thing, we did that already," Richards says. "People come to my events because they want to know what's next."
As the 44-year-old CEO of Hard -- which was purchased by Live Nation in 2012 after five years as an independent (terms of the deal were not disclosed) -- Richards is known for his tastemaking festivals, including Hard Summer (which drew 100,000 fans in 2014, Hard Day of the Dead (80,000), and the Holy Ship cruise (the second leg of which launches Feb. 18). His events, which usually blend dance music with hip-hop, helped break some of the scene's biggest stars, including Skrillex, Diplo and Justice.
The son of veteran radio deejay Barry Richards and a skilled DJ himself -- working under the name Destructo, he just finished a national tour in support of his West Coast EP -- was behind the original Electric Daisy Carnival in 1991, before giving the brand to Rotella when Rick Rubin tapped him to sign techno acts for his Def American label. (Today, EDC is the largest dance music festival in North America.) After A&R stints at RCA and East West Records in the mid-'90s, Richards tried running his own labels, 1500 and Nitrus Records, with middling success. He took a hiatus from electronic music in 2000 when his brother, Steven, who managed metal bands like Slipknot and Mudvayne, was diagnosed with a brain tumor; Richards worked with him until his death in 2004.
On New Years Eve in 2006, he decided to give dance music one final shot and threw the first Hard party, featuring A-Trak, 2 Live Crew and Steve Aoki. Richards estimates he lost $150,000, "but," he says, "I knew I had something really f---ing special."
How has your perspective on the dance music industry changed over the years?
I used to feel possessive over electronic music because it was this underground scene that was ours. Back then, you could only hear it in downtown L.A. at three in the morning in some abandoned warehouse that we broke into illegally, and Robert Downey Jr. and Madonna would show up. And one day I remember hearing the Crystal Method on a Gap commercial and being like, "F--- that!" But now, I think that's selfish. I started Hard so everyone could hear really dope music. Now, it's so big that I'm at my kids' school and these 8-year-olds think I'm a hero because I know Skrillex and Martin Garrix.
How does being an artist influence you as an executive?
It gives me insight into what they have to go through day-to-day. It's a hustle on both sides. Electronic music in 2015 is like this hamster wheel that everybody's on: I don't know who's winning but everyone is running.
How did you get to know Rick Rubin?
I threw a party in 1993 called Rave America at Knotts Berry Farm [in California] with like 18,000 people, and he showed up with [Red Hot Chili Peppers singer] Anthony Kiedis and a couple guys from ZZ Top. We started talking about how he wanted to find more techno acts like the Prodigy and so on.
What have you learned from working with Live Nation exec James Barton?
More than anyone, James has taught me how to be a better businessman, and that without internal structure, things are chaotic. When I come to him with an idea for a show, the very first thing he asks is, "What's the budget?" I used to do shows and have no clue what the budget was: "Man, I got fuckin' Diplo and we're gonna do it on the beach!"
You're married and have two young kids. Between running your business and working as a DJ, what do you do to relax?
I hang out with my family, I swim, run, and I watch NFL. But I can't lie: work consumes me sometimes. I to try not be on some type of device or in work-mode all the time, but it's almost impossible to unwind.
How do you introduce your kids to music?
I drive them to school every morning and, let me tell you, they're getting a heavy dose of techno. Sometimes I want to listen to a mix I worked on the night with fresh ears, and it's cool to hear what they think about it. But they get the classics, too, lots of Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Sometimes I quiz them and say if they can name the guitar player in a certain song, I'll give them $5. That seems to get them hyped.
Was there a song or concert that made you want to be in the business?
Kiss on the Dynasty tour when I was growing up in Washington, D.C. I remember being entranced by their costumes and their presence. I'd run around with my tennis racket trying to emulate Ace Frehley.
Does business ever make it hard for you to enjoy the music?
It doesn't, thank god. Even if I'm exhausted and deejaying is the last thing I want to do, I'm pumped by the time I get up there. And I never get sick of the music -- I swear I have the highest threshold for techno of anyone on this planet. So it's actually the other way around: The music keeps my head in the business.
You seem like a cool boss. How would you describe your management style?
You know, I think I'm a cool boss but it doesn't always benefit my management style. And to be honest with you, being a better manager has been one of my big focuses ever since I joined Live Nation. When I was on my own, I didn't even have a style, I just did whatever it took, I'd just bulldoze. But now that I have these new resources, I'm learning how to compartmentalize everyone so that we all play to our strengths.
How will dance music evolve in 2015?
For one, I think the big, commercial, EDM pop sh-t has run it's course and the people who were into that are digging deeper. Two, I think electronic music has finally established itself as a real genre up there with hip hop, rock, blues, and so on. It might not always be the biggest thing in the world, but it's never going away. We've got history in Kraftwerk, the Chemical Brothers, Skrillex, Aphex Twin. They've paved the way for new guys, and they've set the bar high.
This article first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of Billboard.