Being a successful promoter isn't easy, it takes years of learning to cope with the net losses while still managing to sustain that "we got what you want" appetite. Disco Donnie (a.k.a. James "Disco" Donnie Estopinal) has been feeding this hunger, delivering world-class parties for over 20 years under the umbrella of Disco Donnie Presents.
The veteran promoter whose been dubbed as one of the "Godfathers of Electronic Dance Music" has helped usher in festivals like UME, SMF and The Day After Festival, which kicks off on January 16 in Panama City, Panama. In addition to festivals, DDP promotes tours for the likes of Borgore, Wildstylez, Excision, Above & Beyond and Steve Aoki. Also, this coming April will mark the introduction of Something Wonderful, a brand new festival that's been added to DDP's arsenal of good times.
THUMP sat down with Disco Donnie to learn and joke about everything from getting older, to the cycles of electronic music, and the mistakes promoters (including himself) have made while trying to break into the dance music scene.
Disco Donnie didn't come from a business background per se, but he had some of his ducks in row, which later established the core of his beginnings.
"I came from the dance floor, I didn't come from MIT and I did everything—I mean, I did every job. From handing out flyers to working the front door to loading speakers, I learned every position and worked my way up. In the end I think I know what makes people happy," he explains.
Having started his operation in the '90s, Disco Donnie has been able to see the rise and fall of electronic music. He insists that nothing has really changed when it comes to creating an electronic music scene. Well, sort of.
"Sure there's been changes, whether it be production, DJs, or pricing. But in the end the only changes are the people. People cycle in and out but it's always been about the community and the friends you make along the way. Back in the '90s, it wasn't as much about the artists, it was more about the promoter and the theme. But now it has become about who's playing—it has to be a whole package that people want to buy into," he states in a thick New Orleans accent.
Equipped with approximately 13 full-time employees and five part-timers, Disco Donnie Presents is about making it happen locally, nationally and internationally. Although the in-house team may not be as big as you'd think, when it comes to actually promoting these events, there are teams of hundreds of people that barrage the streets.
"My local partners are my key, they're the boots on the ground and they're the ones that get the word out. I wouldn't want to go into a market and say 'let's do this' because people value the local feedback. Whether it is price points, drink menus, sets—people like people from their hometown more than outsiders."
Growing up in New Orleans, where the drinking limit was 18 and getting into clubs at age 14, Donnie had an early start in partying. But throughout his high school days, the music was more about New Order and less about electronic music.
At 22-years-old, Donnie was working in a restaurant and it was around that time when he experienced his first rave.
"When I came back from college in the late '80s I had my life drawn out. I was going to be married with kids and take over my mom's CPA firm. But after that rave I thought to myself 'everyone should be exposed to this.'"
If you include his service industry start at 12-years-old, Disco Donnie has been taking care of people over over 33 years. But creating a localized dance scene was a real gamble, especially creating one that wasn't cheesy. Luckily, it was a coup that paid off.
"When I got into the rave scene it wasn't a business, it was a hobby. There wasn't a promoter book or the Internet—it was all trial and error. At the time, the closest market was Texas and there wasn't really any music available to us other than Tower Records and even then, you'd go to the electronic section and there was maybe one record," he chuckles.
After spending time promoting for other people, Donnie realized it was his turn to take the floor and started asking for 50 percent of admission revenues at events. His first real event was a total DIY. He even loaded in the speakers himself and had the visuals shot on sheets in the upstairs of a bar that had the capacity for a mere 400 to 500 people.
"It was basically like someone doing a house party, but after that first event I just hit the ground running and haven't stopped. The crowds keep getting younger and I keep getting older, but it's still going [laughs]."
That is until the early 2000s, when authentic electronic dance music basically… died.
"We used to do some big shows in the '90s and early '00s and then when the market crashed we all had to revert back; it became a club-dominated market. Take EDC in LA, it went from 30,000 attendees in 2000 to 6000 people in 2002. You could've done a festival with the biggest DJs in the world but no one would've cared about it. It was only in 2008 when things started to pick up again."
During this resurgence it was Donnie's mission to build festivals in his key local markets in Texas, which included Houston, El Paso and Dallas. In his mind, these places "needed a dance festival and year-round club shows."
"We wanted to slowly build festivals and grow things organically, which isn't easy. One thing I've noticed with promoters—and hell I did it too—is that they start doing one thing and then they automatically try to do more without having perfected the first thing they are doing."
Another big undertaking when it comes to putting on large-scale festivals is the capital, or on many occasions, the lack thereof. Donnie had initially taken on the full responsibility of dealing with the agents who represented the crème de la crème of DJs. Initially, there were only three agents who managed all of the talent. But when more were hired and had more offers to read, Donnie started to see the need for help. So, he created a business deck and started shopping it around.
Enter Robert F. X. Sillerman and SFX Entertainment, who bought into the plan and in 2012 made DDP one of its first acquisitions.
"These festivals can cost anywhere from one million to $20 million and not a lot of people have that kind of money. It's stressful for sure, so it's good to have a big company like SFX backing you, then you can concentrate on the live show. There are a lot of variables with these festivals too. Normally you're going to lose money in the first year, hopefully in year two you break even because people know of the festival, and then your third year is the year you try and make money back from year one."
But things don't always work out in such a linear fashion.
"There are other times where you may lose all three years. There are times when you make money in the first year—there are no guarantees. People's tastes change, you could raise your prices too much, and if it doesn't tank after two or three years you keep going with it. If after year three you're not getting enough traction it's time to cut your losses and pull out."
In a couple of days TDA will take over Panama City, which according to Donnie is "like going to Miami but just a longer flight."
Performers at this year's TDA include Claude VonStroke, Tiësto, NERVO, DVBBS and W&W, and the newly added Beatport stages will house underground and techno acts like Art Department, Fur Coat and Damian Lazarus.
With hopes of creating "a three month, Ibiza-type destination place in North America" it's not like Disco Donnie Presents' engine is slowing down—the mastermind's still got the wanderlust to spread.
"Whether you're watching a show or eating a hot dog, we create an environment that stimulates at every corner. It's an incredible feeling on that last day of a festival, being with all the people that helped put it on, giving speeches, toasting, seeing 20,000 to 30,000 people happy, it's a big rush. We go crazy on that last night then wake up and start all over again. That's the real day after—the hangover."