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Disco Donnie

Disco Donnie Gets His Entire Groove Back | Interview

by Jennifer Fall

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 25 years, you have heard of James Estopinal, lovingly referred to as Disco Donnie. One of the true pioneers and godfathers of the festival scene today, he is the brainchild behind Disco Donnie Presents or DDP for short. I’ve been to numerous Disco Donnie events over the years, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to sit down and chat with him. Whatever you think you have been through, I can guarantee Donnie has been through WAY more… and lived to tell the tale.

Disco Donnie Presents has been especially good to the EDM world, hosting Ubbi Dubbi, Sunset Music Festival, and Freaky Deaky Texas, and partnering with countless others. As DDP continues to maneuver through the challenges associated with the COVID pandemic, DDP’s current plan is to deliver two festivals in 2020, Sunset 2.0 and Ubbi Dubbi Gets Freaky Deaky Texas.

Disco Donnie Presents is on the upswing, now that he has complete artistic autonomy of the company he founded 25 years ago. “What type of crazy person buys back their events company in the middle of a worldwide pandemic?” said DDP founder and CEO, James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal, Jr. 

Being in the driver seat is the best place to be. Since he recently purchased the remaining shares of DDP to restore 100 percent ownership of his company, we discussed navigating the acquisition during a pandemic (He really isn’t crazy), his penchant for taking care of his staff, and that pesky time period where he became infamous as the poster child for the Rave Act. (Spoiler alert: he was willing to talk about Joe Biden). The man is an open book–it’s no wonder he helped build the inclusive scene we all love today. It takes a strong man to go through all of that and come out shining. Listen above, or read the transcription below (edited for clarity). Cheers, Donnie. Long may we rave.

This is Jen from Fresh Music Freaks and I am speaking to a name that should need no introduction, Disco Donnie! He’s been producing events, whether they were underground raves or festivals for over 20 years. He’s just a true pioneer in our scene. In other words, he went through all the bullshit. So that PLUR back then, which we also referred to as, please let us rave, could survive. How are you doing today Donnie?

I’m doing well. I’m on lockdown date number 34. I’ve only gained 10 pounds, so.

Laughs

Yeah. You know, it’s pretty good.

So you haven’t reached the 15 that most people are saying is agreeable during this time?

I hope they let me out before 15, but although I probably won’t be able to leave the house because I would have to go right to the gym.

Yeah, I miss the gym too. Are you a gym rat?

No, not a gym rat, but I need to go to the gym.

Laughter ensues

I’m sure you look awesome. 

I just want to get down to it here. You’ve recently purchased Disco Donnie presents, the rest of your company in the middle of it pandemic no less. What made you decide that now was the right time?

Well, I mean obviously it’s not a good time, but, it was necessary. You know, it was something that I had since I sold it. I always wanted it back and I kinda had been working on a deal for the last five months. There were a lot of questions about giving people refunds, and a lot of like the AG Live Nations of the world weren’t giving refunds. And then a lot of the companies were laying off their team, their staff, as soon as this Corona Virus hit. So, my main concern was to be able to make those choices and I really wanted to be able to do the right thing. That was kind of the whole thing.

I didn’t want to go to somebody and have to get permission to give refunds, but I wanted to make that call as it’s my name on it. Those are the people that go to my shows and that’s the people that I have to talk to on social media. So, you know, I wanted to be the one to make that call. And so, it wasn’t a good time. I did get a good deal. They were desperate to sell it because of everything that was going on. And I was desperate to get it back because of everything that was going on. So it actually worked out for both people, both parties.

You’re a man who takes care of his staff at all costs. Even when SFX went under, you made sure your vendors and the staff were paid. So in a climate where certain companies seem to skirt their responsibilities, whether it be Ticketmaster (At time of interview) or a couple of other companies that are not doing refunds, you’ve always taken the higher road. That’s got to feel good. So if you had a slogan for how you prefer to do business, what would it be?

I know some of the companies that Jim Jeffrey Fondant, there are different reasons for each one. Right? And so some of those people only have one show and that’s what they base their whole /your projections on. So, you know, everyone’s different. But I just wanted to do it for the people, I mean, if you can’t right now… a lot of our crowd is in the hospitality industry and a lot of them lost their jobs. A lot of them can’t pay their rent. And that $200 is really important to them. It’s way more important to them than it is sitting in my bank account. So, I just want to make sure that especially, and them (at) this time, they knew that I had their back. So when, if they, when they, get back on their feet and then they open back up and they know… they give me their money in the future, (that) they can trust me with it.

Yeah. 100%. I mean, it’s pretty incredible what you’re doing. Do you feel that having that 100% creative control over your business is going to lead to more positive consumer experiences and what do you plan to do to continue to break the mold, so to speak with your events when we’re able to get out of the shutdown?

Yeah, my hands were tied sometimes on the budgets. We had to submit a budget and get it approved and try to stick to it. Of course, I always went over, and so I was always getting in trouble, but you know… I don’t want to, again, I don’t want to ask anybody. I just want to make the show better and I’m not worried about hitting my numbers this year because I’ll know they’ll come in the future. So I just want to be able to build it the right way without budgetary constraints. And I’m not worried about it, I’m not on a one year plan. I’m on a 10-year plan, a 20-year plan. I mean, things are going to be different. I’ll be able to put more money back into the show. I’ll be able to affect and the show to make it better and not just worried about what’s happening. You know, right now.

And I think that’s wonderful because as somebody who’s helped shape the direction of modern music festival scene. Where do you see electronic music festivals going within the next five to ten years and how do you personally hope to evolve it?

Yeah, I think there’s going to be some changes. I don’t think anybody can predict what it’s going to look like. I think it’s going to be different. I think it’s going to be more kind of, you know, I think may we got a little ahead of ourselves. Why does it… Why does everything need to be… why does the led screen need to be a million feet? Why do we need that? Was that important? I think that there’s some things, we’re going to see an adjustment, and maybe kind of go back to back to the roots and, and you know, maybe try to keep things simpler. Hopefully, get the artist’s fees down and the ticket prices down.

I don’t know when people are going to go back to work. I don’t know if they’re gonna want to spend money on that? They might have bills, credit card bills to pay. So everybody’s going to have to make an adjustment and, you know, we’ll just have to figure out from there. But this is a great time that we can take control of the scene and just hit the reset button, and then we can just build it the way we want to. And we might’ve done it before, but sometimes… we built the way wanted to before, but maybe we didn’t build it right. You know? So here’s a chance for us to… it’s like a redo.

Yeah. Everybody needs a redo. And you’ve been here from the beginning, from when there were underground warehouse parties, you know, cutting the bolts off, running in, getting things set up. And it’s a different world now. When you think about major festivals and the big led screens and the big storybook stages, you know, from then to now… so what do you feel the most difficult part of organizing and promoting events is that most people aren’t even really considering that goes on behind the scenes?

I don’t think they understand how much goes into it and there’s so many little pieces to it. It’s kind of like an engine, right? There’s so many different pieces to it, and you need them all. And you know, we basically start working on a show as soon as the festival ends, we’re already working on next year’s. So it’s kind of like a 365-day process. And, I said, I don’t think people understand like all of the things that go into it, how to work on it, all the different decisions, all the back and forth. It’s a lot of work and, and it’s kind of like… you do it, you get to the end and you know, it’s not even like a real (thing). You’re like yay… You know, you’re happy that day, and then the next day you’re right back on it.

There’s no real time to actually enjoy what you just did. Right? And then I know people were disappointed… We just had to cancel a festival that was supposed to be this weekend and people are very disappointed. You know, our whole team is really disappointed. I mean, they put everything into this, right? And we’ve been working on it for so long to see it go, and we were so close, and it was going to be EPIC… and just to see it go away… it’s painful. Nothing in this business comes easy and nothing ever goes right. So we just, we just got to move on and do it in October.

I think with all of the cancellations/ postponements that there’s a lot of fans that are sitting at home, they’re watching live streams. They’re trying to keep the music a part of their life because too many of us, it is our life. You know, our life force, our energy when we go out and dance at a show and you know, as a promoter you’ve had some pretty stellar relationships with artists over the years. Will we be seeing a lot more DDP production, live stream events? And if you had to pick a specific perfect lineup, especially, giving back to the scene that you’ve helped create, who would be on it?

Yeah. I mean we’re talking to a bunch of different artists right now about doing something. We’re doing some right now from some clubs in Texas that we can get into and have production already. So we’re doing that. We’ve been using local DJ’s and just kind of testing it out. We have some things in the works with some possible big brands and some possible sponsors and stuff. It’s just really hard right now because we want to do something that’s gonna be something that can raise money. Right? And we want to do something good. It’s not really easy to pull off something good, especially with everybody all over the place.

So our plan is to get something to raise money for charity. I think eventually people are gonna try to monetize these streams. I just don’t think right now, every time somebody’s asked me about that, just now, it’s not the time. You know, now’s not the time. Now is the time to, you know, pick the people that are showing it to other people that don’t have jobs. That there’s going to be a lot of stuff going on. I mean, there’s a lot of things right now, but it’s only gonna grow and yea, it’s just crazy. I mean, it’s changing how people live their lives. I mean, shit, when we open back up, maybe people just stay home and watch streams all the time now. I don’t know.

Do you really feel that people would look forward to a live stream more so than a live event where they can actually be in person?

No, I don’t. It depends. I’m just thinking like just people are realizing, or are finding interest in different things that they might not have looked at before. Right? So I know I used to cook a couple of times a week. Now I’m cooking every week, I mean every day because that’s all there is. I have to look forward to, you know, I used to go to a restaurant… maybe I’m just going to cook all the time because I’m enjoying it. So people that probably would’ve never watched a live stream are like, “Oh wow, this is, you know, this is fun”. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what it looks like. 

I’m just saying it’s changing people’s habits, right? Because if I look at my 13-year-old and you know, I can’t get him to go outside the house and there’s no kids in the neighborhood. I mean this poor pre-COVID, right… There’s no kids in the neighborhood. They’re all in a video game. So even if I tell him to go outside and he goes and knocks on the kid’s door, the kid says just go get on the video game… They’re not going to go outside and play. And we think that’s weird. But that’s how, that’s, that’s how they socialize, you know? So I don’t know. I feel like I’ve reverted into my 13-year-old kid where I’m watching everything online. Everything I do is socializing online.

You’ve partnered with numerous companies, especially Insomniac, on different occasions. Do you feel that partnering with likeminded people in this scene is one of the keys to success, especially as your business is trying to do more live streaming events, or get an idea of what the future looks like for the industry after COVID-19?

Yeah, I mean, look, I’ve partnered with everybody in the country. I mean every single person. I’ve been all over pretty much every state at some time. I’ve been able to learn from some people. Having a partner is good because you know, you can bounce ideas off of them and… it’s good. It’s good to be able to get somebody else’s opinion on things. Cause sometimes there’s a lot of things that I just don’t have the answer for. And so it’s good to get somebody else that is in it on the ground level and has been in it for a while, just to kind of go over things. Having partners is hard. Especially when so much money’s involved.

Each one is different. I’ve had partners that I’ve had for 20 years and I’ve had partners I don’t even talk to anymore. So, you know, each one is hard. Egos come into play and I go into the relationship like everybody’s a good guy and everything’s gonna be okay. You’ve got to treat everybody the same no matter how bad a partnership went before or whatever. You know? I’m not gonna change who I am because I got in a disagreement with another partner, right? So I’m just going to treat everybody the same and try to keep learning from the people I’m working with.

And it sounds like you’re staying positive and keeping a lot of those relationships close. You know, I know there have been some times in your past that probably weren’t the most stellar. Can we just talk a little bit about the Rave Act for a second?

Yeah. I was more effective when they were trying to basically, this is pre-Rave Act, you know, they came after me with they charged me with the crack house law, which was kind of like an archaic drug law that they used to go after (the) owners of houses that had known crack dealers selling from. The owners wouldn’t do anything because the crack dealer was paying them rent. So, when they couldn’t shut down, they couldn’t arrest the crack dealer, they went after the owners of the property. What they tried to do, was kind of apply that law that was already on the books into a promoter. Right? So they basically… they just tried to run it as a test case off for me.

And this is like in 2000. So they would charge me with the drugs that they purchased inside of my events. They wouldn’t arrest the drug dealers. They would try to save the drugs and then put it on my sentence. And then they said that I had knowledge that people were selling drugs. I mean, so, which, you know, that part was thrown at me. I know that there are drugs at every concert, right? So it wasn’t so far fetched that if I walk into a Snoop Dogg concert, it smells like a bong. Like someone just took a big bong hit, you know, it’s like that,

So it’s common knowledge. It’s not just my knowledge. Right? So they ran a test case and it was kind of scary. It was a long time ago. This is different. This is before you could buy marijuana and states had gay marriage and stuff. So yeah, you just talk about a whole different timeframe and basically, you know… I just finally walked away. 

They would offer me, it was like 0 to 20 (years). And they were spending with CCE, which is a continuing criminal enterprise because they went to eight of my events and that was 20 to life. They were offering me like a year and… you know, the ACLU got involved and a lot of people got behind me and supported it. You know, I just, I listened to what they had to say, but they didn’t, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t do anything wrong. When the ACLU came in, finally somebody that I was talking to, they were like, yeah, you didn’t do anything wrong. And I’m like, Oh, finally somebody is listening to me! So, I basically told them I wasn’t going to do a deal and they said, “oh, we’re going to get you eventually.” And you know, they haven’t got me yet!

Good for you Donnie.

They said they have a lot of files on me, so which I would be disappointed if they didn’t.

You’re pretty much the poster child for how to, how to survive that time period, and continue to have success after. So, what are some of the small details that made such a big impact to you at that time? And is there anything that you may have done differently in retrospect? 

On that time? I mean, no. I mean, listen… I don’t think we were doing anything wrong. I mean, I always…The DEA had come to my house before and had offered me, you know, asked me who the drug dealers were. And I told him I didn’t know, and then they asked me to be an informant. So they had been in(side) you know… I knew, like any raver at the time being a paranoid, rave promoter you had to pretend like that, you know, people are watching you. So, I always knew. I didn’t think they were gonna come after me. I didn’t know that part. I mean there’s not much I would do differently. Maybe I would have saved some more money because that lawyer ended up costing me pretty much all the money I had. (laughs)

Oh wow. Awww.

I don’t think there’s that much I could have done, you know? I mean, I don’t think there’s anything at that point that was gonna stop them from coming after us. I mean, maybe… I think we were still doing like all ages at the time, so maybe I guess if we would have had like 18 and up, um, that would have probably been, but I mean, this was way before… This is a long time ago, right? The scene was built on, openness and, and so it was for everyone. Right? And maybe that was probably not the right path to take.

Well, you’re pretty open about your experience and you’ll pretty much tell anybody how you feel about things. So I just have to ask you, are you voting for Biden?

Well, Oh, well, I…

They both laugh.

Yeah, um… I’m not going to talk about who I’m gonna vote for, okay. Because I work in both things. I think people can follow my train of thought on Twitter and talk about who I am. And I mean, I think they can figure out who I’m going to vote for. But yeah, I mean, even though Joe Biden supported that, the Rave Act, and said all those nasty things about ravers and stuff you know. I basically forgive him. so there’s no bad blood between me and Joe Biden. I wish him success, but I don’t want to talk about who I’m voting for.

Understood. I mean, I think it’s a really wonderful position to take and I applaud you for it. You know, the pandemic has caused everybody to be a little on edge and there’s so much social media that bombards us every day, whether it be positive or negative. So I just have to ask you one more question. What are you looking forward to doing the most after the pandemic risk has subsided?

Wow. What am I looking forward to? Huh… I just want to go out and be around people. I mean, I want to see my friends and I’ve kind of been isolated with my family, and it’s been definitely kind of weird, you know. I’m trying to show them like, Hey, we’re doing this. We just gotta take it serious. Yeah, I’d like to go out with my friends, hang out, play a little golf, and just go back to enjoying life. I mean it’s gonna be different, but it’s going to be baby steps. But just to even get to that coin… I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh, I think that’s amazing. And you said you learned to cook, so maybe you’ll be cooking even more!

Yeah, yeah. Maybe… I’m probably just saying that. Like I probably got Covid fever or something like that. I’m cooped up in here for so long. I’m just, uh, talking crazy now. I would like to go to a restaurant though, even though it’s definitely gonna be interesting. Two more weeks and hopefully we’re free.

Yeah! I’m trying to stay positive too. So the two biggest things we’re both looking forward to seems like restaurants and raves. Donnie, I want to thank you so much for talking to me today. Again, this is Jen with Fresh Music Freaks over and out.

ABOUT Disco Donnie Presents (DDP): Disco Donnie Presents is an award-winning and recognized leader in Electronic Dance Music event production, founded by veteran promoter James “Disco” Donnie Estopinal. Since the company’s inception in 1994, DDP has sold over 16 million tickets producing over 16hh,000 live events, arena shows, and outdoor festivals in over 100 markets around the world including the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Latin America. Annually, DDP is responsible for organizing and promoting nearly 1,000 club events across the U.S. ranging from Portland, Philadelphia, Houston, Tampa, New Orleans, Dallas, and St. Louis to name only a few; plus major festivals such as The Day After, Ultimate Music Experience, Ubbi Dubbi, Sunset Music Festival, Sun City Music Festival, and Freaky Deaky.

Founder and CEO, James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal, Jr. is considered one of the godfathers of U.S. Electronic Dance Music, evolving over the past 26 years to become one of the top dance music promoters globally. From his early days in the 1990s New Orleans dance scene, Disco Donnie coupled eccentricity with ingenuity to create elaborately themed parties that charmed patrons, garnered an international following, and unwittingly became a catalyst for a national debate over the First Amendment right to expression.

In 1999, Donnie first partnered with Pasquale Rotella, CEO of Insomniac Events. In 2008, the duo merged officially, setting their sights on strategically developing the Insomniac brand throughout the world and making Insomniac a household name. Working together, the pair ushered in events such as EDC Orlando, Dallas, Puerto Rico, New York; Beyond Wonderland Seattle; Nocturnal Wonderland Austin, and co-founded Electric Forest. The partnership also produced hundreds of club shows annually in markets across the U.S.

In 2012, DDP shifted its focus to the genesis and development of SFX Entertainment, as the first company to sign with founder Robert F. X. Sillerman; a media entrepreneur with a vision to invest nearly a billion dollars in electronic dance music to bring the world’s leading promoters under one roof. Since 2017, Disco has been a part of LiveStyle, which included a worldwide portfolio of top-tier event companies including, Disco Donnie Presents, React Presents, Life In Color, Made Events, ID&T, Tomorrowland, Sensation, TomorrowWorld, Beatport.com, Electric Zoo, Awakenings, Q-Dance, and more. 

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