Just a few days ahead of their annual electronic music oasis, Sunset Music Festival, returning to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, Disco Donnie Events founder (and promoter for the event) James Estopinal, Jr. and the festival’s owner John Santoro are engrossed in back-to-back meetings finalizing details for the holiday weekend affair. Sunset, first held at Vinoy Park just a half hour away in St. Petersburg back in 2006, has grown from 5,500 attendees to an expected 60,000 this coming weekend (May 27-28) with headliners Major Lazer, Above & Beyond, RL Grime, Zeds Dead and dozens more acts.
The organizers were hit with a deafening blow during last year’s edition after two young adults reportedly overdosed on ecstasy at their event, which was amplified by Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn saying “these type of festivals attract these types of drug use and these types of drugs.” If that wasn’t enough, about a month prior, Santoro’s nightclub, Amphitheatre — the city’s go-to dance music venue — was destroyed in a fire after an errant attempt to remove a disco ball during non-operating hours sparked the blaze. Thankfully, nobody was harmed.
Santoro no longer has the lease to the iconic rave space but has since purchased landmark venue The Ritz Ybor just a few doors down on Ybor City’s main drag 7th Avenue, a host for a new era of dance music memories. “We need to make memories like we have. Those walls have memories,” Santoro tells Billboard. “At The Ritz, those walls have history, you know. We’re just putting our new coat of history on those walls now.”
Before the sixth annual Sunset Music Festival kicks off, Estopinal and Santoro took a short break from all-day meetings to discuss this year’s newly implemented safety measures, to reflect on the brand’s exorbitant growth in the last half decade and the enduring impact it’s had on the evolution of Tampa’s electronic scene since their early days as business partners.
How are preparations going for SMF this year?
Santoro: Each year we’re always on track for bigger and better. We’ve been preparing for this load-in for a year and started loading in last week, earlier than last year. This year we expanded our footprint adding a lot of extra field space, extra shade and cool down areas, we moved some of the stages away from each other to give a little more of a breathable feel. I walked the field for the past week and every day I’m like “We should’ve been doing this from day one.” You get that progression going. I’m very proud of how the production of the layout is rolling in.
What inspired you to re-launch SMF at Raymond James Stadium 6 years ago? How did Disco Donnie Presents get involved with SMF?
Santoro: The first SMF took place at Vinoy Park in ’06. We had it there for two years, then I had kids. [Laughs.] But it came up again because of the relationship Donnie and I had. Donnie, when did we start doing shows?
Estopinal: I think we started working — when did Ampitheatre close the first time?
Santoro: Ampitheatre originally closed in May 2006.
Estopinal: Yeah, John and I started doing shows together in like 2005. I was running course through Orlando and Tampa so we partnered up with him at Ampitheatre. The scene was totally different back then, it wasn’t the mammoth thing it is now. We kept doing shows after the venue closed and started using restaurants. What was the restaurant?
Santoro: We were at Green Iguana. You won’t even remember this Donnie but we actually brought Lady Gaga to Green Iguana when she was rolling through here.
Estopinal: There were some great venues we used. We put Tiesto there, Armin van Buuren. We started with some club shows and built up a following. We knew the market was there and Tampa didn’t have an electronic music festival, we found a great venue and we went ahead and took a chance. We lost a lot of money in year one but we didn’t skimp out on anything, we continued to do it right and attendance doubled the next year and doubled again the following year and it’s been a skyrocket since year one.
What attracted both of you to electronic/dance culture?
Santoro: I had my first club called Hedo in Ybor back in 1994-95. With the success of that club, I wanted to get a bigger superclub, so that’s where the genesis of the thought of having Amphitheatre came about. The reason I wanted a bigger club was because I was going down to Miami back in the day to spots like Groove Jet, Shadow Lounge, Space — those types of clubs I was frequenting a lot. I just loved the music. Even though Hedo was more like college booty music, I just fell in love with EDM. I was like ‘what is this magic down here?’ So, when we were figuring out what we wanted to do with the bigger club in 1997, we bought the property and started doing the build out and in Christmas 1998 we turned the Amphitheatre on. Since the doors opened, the club has never not been electronic music.
Estopinal: I was out of college, working at a CPA firm, and engaged to be married. But I felt like something was missing in my life. I was looking for something. Somebody invited me to a party one night, and as soon as I walked through those doors my whole life changed — I found what I was looking for. There wasn’t much information about what the music was at the time, but I just loved the music and the whole scene and social parts of it as well.
In the saturated festival climate we’re in, what’s the key to great marketing for an event? How do you stand out and create an experience that also lives up to the hype?
Estopinal: There’s definitely a lot more festivals now than when we started and there’s probably even going to be more after. But we have had this weekend now for six years and there’s really not that much going on during this weekend. Other things come and go — I think Counterpoint [in Atlanta] used to be on this weekend a couple years ago — we’ve had some competition but this is the best weekend to get talent from all around the world because they’re playing Vegas at pool parties and other destinations. It’s also a long weekend so that’s how we’re able to get a lot of people to travel. It works out great for us, but we just have to differentiate ourselves by continuing to get better and grow and doing the right thing. If we keep doing it right, people will keep coming back.
Santoro: Who fits the festival and who’s available. Right? I mean, that’s basically what you got and we’ve never shied away from trying to get the best lineup. For Tampa, I feel like we did a great job this year too. Basically, this is Tampa, this is Florida, this is the Southeast. Luckily, Donnie does a lot of shows all around this area and I have the club to where we can really put our fingers to the pulse on what the climate is, and then adjust to that.
It gets brutally hot out there at SMF. What new safety/health measures are being added this year on both the festival’s and local authorities’ parts?
Santoro: We expanded the footprint. We expanded the staffing levels at the festival itself. Tampa Police put in their own game plan and expended their operations as well as Tampa Fire. Tampa Sports Authority put their game plan together. We’ve all expanded and we increased the size with a secondary cool down station — we have the cool down maze and now a cool down tent that’s different but essentially serves the same purpose. We have these big mandala shade structures that provide shade, we went from one to four of those this year. We expanded the water stations. The way we put the third stage, we spread it out a bit more, we captured a little bit more field this year. Since 2012, we evolve, modify, tweak, adapt. The whole industry does this. As far as the extra safety and welfare piece of the event, it’s just robust, which is the best word I can use.
The Florida festival circuit has EDC in Orlando and Ultra in Miami, among others. How does SMF and the city of Tampa fare? Are all the organizers collaborative?
Estopinal: Tampa is a huge market for electronic music. If it’s not an A- market, it’s a B+. Our artists love to play there and it has a really good reputation for being a city to have a party in.
Santoro: I noticed this way back in the 90s, that Tampa was definitely the pipeline down to Miami. We all seem to co-exist very well, all the markets: Miami, Orlando, Tampa. Nobody tries to beat up on anybody. I feel from my vantage point that it’s a big kumbaya thing. I think the people in Florida get that, there’s not really a ton of rivalry. We are who we are, we love who we are. Having a circuit as it pertains to EDM, it just kind of works well. From 90s to now, there’s just a nice routing and all the markets are really solid for our music.
Estopinal: We’re cool with the guys from Ultra. We definitely don’t try to step on their toes and we let them know what’s going on. The guys from Insomniac reached out to see what our lineups were this year to make sure we didn’t book the same artists. We definitely communicate, but the one thing we’ve shown is that Tampa is big enough to have its own festival, just as successful as those other big cities.
What’s been your greatest challenge or learning lesson thus far in promoting/booking/producing SMF?
Santoro: Obviously, I’m laser-focused in on this weekend. I think that the planning of it is always moving fast so we’re already talking about 2018. In the past, I wasn’t really thinking about what would happen the following year. That was my big takeaway: you can never plan too soon for this size of an event.
What’s your favorite standout memory producing SMF?
Santoro: Mine without a doubt, above everything else, was seeing my six-year-old son DJ on the small little stage off to the side the first year [at Raymond James Stadium]. He practiced all year long — he was only six, you have to put it in perspective. To see him up there spinning with no cheating, he was really beat-matching the mix, he did his own song selection. It was just crazy! I was sitting right in the middle of the field looking up at him, looking at this little kid. All of a sudden a big crowd moved in, he set it off. That was my moment. There’s been lots of great memories but that by far shines the brightest.
Estopinal: Just walking around seeing how happy everybody is, you know, you put this whole thing together and I’ll these people are having a good time. People walk up and say “thank you,” and tell you that your events changed their lives. I know our events didn’t change their lives, but I know what they’re saying because that’s the same way that I feel about the scene. Every time that happens it touches a special place for me all over again. It never gets old.
Did you guys know Tampa is the only metropolitan city on the east coast of the United States where the sun sets over the water?
Estopinal: Well, then I’m glad we named the festival correctly. [Laughs.]
Santoro: It was all planned. [Laughs.]
Sunset Music Festival takes place May 27-28 (Memorial Day weekend) at Raymond James stadium in Tampa, Florida. Tickets are available on their website.