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Is Texas America's Next Big EDM Capital?

When it comes to dance music, the Lone Star State is still the Wild West.

Header photo courtesy of Lights All Night Dallas.

A few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve, three giant, digital clocks count down behind A-Trak. "Ten minutes," the New York DJ announces, breaking in over a remix of Kanye West. "Five minutes." He climbs up on top of the booth and waves his arms at the thousands of people before him, who twirl glow sticks and dance with hula hoops. Finally, the screens turn blindingly white, and the room explodes with balloons, confetti, and streamers. One girl to the side of the stage, unsteady in heels with a drink in her hand, falls over.


For most of the year, Dallas Market Hall plays host to conventions and trade shows, but tonight, A-Trak is playing day two of Lights All Night, the longest-running EDM festival in Texas. With the room's rows of vendor booths and neon lights—and a roster of performing artists that includes Above & Beyond, ASAP Ferg, and Zedd, Nero and RL Grime—the scene feels like a mix of a state fair midway and a bottle service club in Las Vegas. But it's also a kind of spectacle that's becoming increasingly common in the Lone Star State, where events like Sun City Music Festival, Ultimate Music Experience, and Day for Night have helped transform Texas into a hub for EDM.

A-Trak performing at Lights All Night 2016 in Dallas. Photo courtesy of the festival.

Started in 2010 by two Dallas natives just out of college—Scott Osburn and Hank Keller—Lights All Night drew 6,000 people its first year, before expanding to 26,000 the next. The festival has since turned into a New Year's standby for Texas EDM fans, and 2016 was a year of growth: Deadmau5, who finished his set in Dallas an hour before A-Trak took the stage, hopped on a plane to El Paso, where for the first time, Lights All Night was hosting a concurrent NYE event on the other side of the state.

"There seems to be huge opportunity in Texas," says Osburn. Events like Lights All Night, which, between Dallas and El Paso, attracted 40,000 people this year, are considerably smaller than West Coast powerhouses like Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Beyond Wonderland in San Bernardino; by comparison, the former claimed 400,000 attendees last year. But festivals in Texas face a considerably less saturated market as well. "[They] control Southern California and Arizona and Vegas," Osburn says of these mammoth festival brands. "We cannot compete with them at that level. But in Texas, nobody really owns it."


"I'm always surprised at Texas festivals to meet people who drove 10 hours from the Rio Grande Valley or El Paso or Houston."—Evan Bailey, vice president of Disco Donnie Presents.

Texas might not be the first place that an outsider would expect to be an EDM hotbed. But the state, which takes 10 hours to drive across and nearly 15 to drive from top to bottom, boasts four of the largest cities in the country. Three of them rank among the U.S.'s ten most populous; Houston alone has two million residents, with San Antonio and Dallas both nearing one and a half million. Even the smaller cities—like Lubbock, Waco, and College Station—receive an influx of tens of thousands of young people every year, thanks to major universities like Texas Tech, Baylor, and Texas A&M.

Another factor working in the state's favor is that Texans are willing to travel. "One of the things that makes Texas unique is the fact that people will drive so far," says Evan Bailey, vice president of events company Disco Donnie Presents. "I'm always surprised at Texas festivals to meet people who drove 10 hours from the Rio Grande Valley or El Paso or Houston." That sentiment is echoed by Day for Night's Omar Afra, who estimates that 75 percent of the Houston festival's attendees in 2016 came from outside the city.

Most importantly, Texas has a robust economy—the second biggest in the country, behind California. And even with the cost of living rising in a tech capital like Austin, Texas remains a considerably more affordable place to live than its coastal counterparts. In other words, there are lots of young people with money to spend on music festivals.


The first annual installment of Lights All Night, in El Paso. Photo courtesy of aLIVE Coverage.

EDM itself has been in the state for decades. In the mid-to-late 90s, underground raves and warehouse parties were commonplace in cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston. The market, according to Disco Donnie Presents founder and New Orleans native Donnie Estopinal, was very much every man for himself: "In the 90s, everybody was very territorial; it was a lot different than it is now," he says. "You didn't have national brands. It was like a mafia with promoters fighting in each city."

Nonetheless, one of the earliest large scale electronic festivals in Texas was Electric Daisy Carnival, brought to Austin by Insomniac Events founder and Los Angeles native Pasquale Rotella, in 2001. Like many dance music franchises at the time, though, Electric Daisy Carnival Austin quickly ran up against a scare-mongering media, convinced that the raving was a gateway to drugs. "The politics in Texas were not good," says Rotella, who opted to withdraw Electric Daisy Carnival from Austin after only two years. "The rave scare was, in some cities, worse than others—the anti-dance music, Fox 11 News thing that was going on in the early 2000s."

The negative public perception of dance music wasn't limited to Texas. It culminated in the Illicit Drug-Anti Proliferation Act of 2003, the US government's attempt to regulate the sale and use of illegal substances. Adapted from a bill called the RAVE Act, which was introduced by Senator Joe Biden in response to a death at an event in New Orleans run by Disco Donnie Presents, the law made it easier to prosecute property owners and party promoters for drug use that took place at their events. "The media and some government agencies didn't really understand the culture, which is understandable," says Rotella of the country's burgeoning rave scene. "It was something new and people were scared of it."


"The media and some government agencies didn't really understand the culture back in the early 2000s, which is understandable. It was something new and people were scared of it."—Pasquale Rotella, founder of Insomniac Events

After the bill passed, Estopinal says that electronic music in Texas "had to start back at ground zero." "The scene crashed," he says. "It was still there, but it went in half in the course of three or four months." While a handful of events—like Dallas' Meltdown festival, which was eventually bought up by Houston promoter NightCulture—continued, it took years for EDM festivals to return to Texas. Eventually, in 2008, Insomniac Events teamed up with Disco Donnie Presents to bring the Nocturnal Festival to Rockdale, a suburb of Austin. Two years later, the same year that Lights All Night started, Electric Daisy Carnival returned to Texas, this time in Dallas.

Held at Fair Park, the home of the state fair, Electric Daisy Carnival Dallas attracted 11,000 people in 2010, then 24,000 the next. "We couldn't have sold any more tickets," Rotella remembers of the 2011 edition. "It was maxed out. We actually had some capacity issues. I personally got some tickets from the fire marshal." The event was also marred by tragedy: one 19-year-old fan died of drug-related causes, while dozens more were hospitalized. Dehydration may have been a factor, as temperatures that June day pushed up to 110 degrees.


After the 2011 festival, Rotella pulled the plug. On the phone with THUMP, the promoter claimed it was because Electric Daisy Carnival Dallas was unable to find a larger venue to upgrade to. "We decided to take a break," Rotella says. "It doesn't mean we won't ever do Electric Daisy Carnival there again. We come and go from markets all the time; it's exciting for us."

Lights All Night 2016, in Dallas. Photo courtesy of aLIVE Coverage.

Estopinal, for his part, set out on his own, going on to establish some of the biggest festivals in the state. Events like Sun City Music Festival in El Paso, Ultimate Music Experience on South Padre Island, and Houston's Something Wicked—which Disco Donnie Presents puts on with NightCulture—attract EDM heavy hitters like Skrillex, David Guetta, and Tiesto each year. Like Lights All Night, all three are strategically pegged to holidays—Ultimate Music Experience on spring break, Sun City on Memorial Day weekend, and Something Wicked on Halloween. Two of them, Ultimate Music Experience and Sun City, are destination festivals, offering fans a chance to escape the city for the weekend. "There are already 25,000 college students on [South Padre] Island that weekend, so it's a no-brainer to do a festival then," says Estopinal, of Ultimate Music Experience.

"There's been a lot of talk of [the EDM bubble] bursting and all these things, but in the case of Texas, we've kind of just scratched the surface," says Bailey, of Disco Donnie Presents. "When you look at New York or L.A., they're really oversaturated. Considering the size of the market, Texas still has room to grow substantially."


The market is robust enough that Rotella is preparing to return to Texas once again this spring with a new concept, Middlelands, which will be held May 5 to 7 at the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds outside Austin. This time, Insomniac Events will be working in conjunction with C3 Presents, the powerhouse behind Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Festival. Rotella, who says Middlelands will include attractions like jousting and medieval games, personally handed out flyers for the event at last year's Renaissance Festival. "I tended to talk to the people dressed up the most at Ren Fair, because I wanted them to come," he says. Middlelands played to the theme by booking Game of Thrones actor and professional DJ Kristian Nairn, but it's not all niche, with mainstage regulars like Kaskade and Major Lazer rounding out the bill.

Oneohtrix Point Never plays at Day For Night 2016, in Houston. Photo by Julian Bajsel.

But other festivals have broken away from your typical EDM rotation. Last December, Day for Night, a Houston festival in its second year, made international headlines when it landed Aphex Twin as one of its headliners (and jokingly advertised an appearance from a Harambe hologram). The event marked the U.K. producer's first stateside appearance in eight years. While not strictly an EDM festival, Day for Night—founded by local alt-weekly Free Press Houston, who operates it in partnership with New York creative agency Work-Order—drew heavily on electronic music, with performances from Kaskade, Odesza, Squarepusher, Tycho, and a DJ set by Björk. The hype was so strong that Consequence of Sound ranked it the No. 3 music festival of the year—before it even happened.


"I think that Aphex Twin represents this beautiful crossroads for a lot of types of music," says Free Press Houston founder and publisher Omar Afra. "But I think the best thing about it is that he doesn't play any[where] else. That's why I wanted him, whereas a lot of other festivals essentially draw from the same bands on the same circuit."

Art—and particularly, art installations and interactive light shows—forms a core part of the DNA for Day for Night, which was split between four different stages, inside and outside of an old post office in downtown Houston. The dazzling visuals, Afra says, formed a "connective tissue" between the festival's diverse array of artists, which also included rappers like Run the Jewels and rock bands like the Butthole Surfers. "EDM is so much a part of the makeup of most kids' playlists, there's not a second thought [in booking it]," Afra says. "[But] kids are getting tired of the same old formula for festivals."

Art installations at Day For Night 2016. Photo by Greg Noire.

Still, there are reasons to believe that the Texas EDM market has its limits. Afra points out that there are few open spots on the state's festival calendar—not only because of major events like South By Southwest in the spring and Austin City Limits in the fall, but also because of the weather. Summers in Texas can be dangerously hot; indeed, inclement weather has forced the cancellation or evacuation of at least a half dozen major festivals in the past couple years, including the debut of Something Wicked's sister event in Dallas, Something Wonderful. "The weather and Texas festivals [go] hand in hand," says Afra.

Even when Mother Nature doesn't interfere, competition between promoters can be just as problematic. "The other thing that's hurting people across the board is that agents are still booking as aggressively as they did in 2012," Lights All Night's Osburn says, referring back to a time when the American EDM market was still expanding. "The saturation happening, at least in the Texas market, is insane." He admits that he and the festival's co-founder, Keller, were "fortunate to come into the market" with Lights All Night when they did. "It was a time of exponential growth. It's just different [now], because you have to come in with strong investment, and look at it over the long term," he says.

Expanding to El Paso, a city that not only opens up Lights All Night to fans in West Texas, but also those in New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico, is the latest long-term investment for Osburn and Keller. But, inspired by Day for Night, which Osburn calls "visionary," they're already looking at what the next move will be.

"In order for us to be relevant moving forward, we really need to rethink the formula," Osburn says. "It was such a left-of-center idea, and it worked. I think that's the most exciting thing—and in Texas, of all the places."

Correction [January 25, 2:55 PM]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nocturnal Festival, in Rockdale, started in 2010, when it in fact launched in 2008.