How Disco Donnie Became The King of Rave
Ask any major promoter for advice on throwing your own events, and many will say the same thing: don’t do it. Save your money. Get into something else. See, behind the lights, the sounds, the glitz, and the glamour, running events is a tough business, especially in dance music.
There are hundreds of moving parts involved in event production including sanitation, water, parking, production, first-aid, merchandise, hospitality, art installations, ingress, and egress. If even one aspect of an event is executed poorly, the entire production can fall through.
Beyond that, raves and festivals have been under siege from local, state, and federal governments for decades. Politicians have worked hard to remove such events from popular culture, thankfully to no avail.
To persist in the world of live events, one must be passionate, resilient, and respectful of others above all else, and James "Disco" Donnie Estopinal epitomizes all of those qualities. Nearly 30 years after getting his start, he still loves dance music culture with all his might.
“How did I get here? I don’t even know. It took a lot of luck. Some hard work. It’s been a long journey. I was almost out so many times I can’t even count. Just to even make it past all the trials and tribulations, and to get to this point where I’m still doing it and still enjoying doing it and hopefully doing it well, it’s crazy to me,” says Estopinal. “I don’t know how I went from being a street promoter to running a whole event. Not by myself. With my team. But being in charge of it and at the top. It’s mind blowing to me even what we pull off.”
Estopinal had the honor and privilege to host the first major festival in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold: Ubbi Dubbi in Ennis, Texas back in April of 2021.
“When we walked in at Ubbi Dubbi and I saw everything that was going on I had to turn to my wife and say that I can’t believe that I actually do this. This is what I do,” says Estopinal.
Since 1994 Estopinal has produced over 16,000 live events through his company Disco Donnie Presents (DDP). These events include club nights, outdoor festivals, and arena shows in hundreds of markets all over the United States, as well as internationally in Canada, Mexico, and Latin America.
Currently, DDP hosts over 1,000 events every year, many of which are club nights held in cities with less saturated markets like Kansas City, Tulsa, Savannah, Columbus, and Nashville. Operating in these areas has always been a cornerstone of Epistonal’s business model because he got his start in one of those markets, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Epistonal was originally going to be what he refers to as a “nine-to-five-person.” Around the time he attended his first dance music party, he had just graduated college and he was working for his mother at her firm for certified personal accountants while he waited tables on the weekends.
Epistonal attended his first dance music event when one of his fellow waiters invited him to a party, and it was a life-changing experience for him.
“I was at a crossroads in my life where I was about to go down this one path,” Epistonal says. “I just felt like I was locked into the rest of my life at a young age, and I always felt like I wanted something more. When I found the rave scene that’s when I realized that this is what I was looking for.”
Epistonal soon took the natural first step that many aspiring promoters take when they are looking to get into the industry: passing out flyers outside of shows. Of course, he made no money at first, but eventually, people started to notice his hustle, and the money came in.
Disco Donnie Presents/ Rukes
“I went from just being a guy on the dancefloor to through a series of—not anything I was doing. I was just working hard, but in about a series of 12-14 months I was the biggest promoter in the city,” Epistonal says.
It’s rather common knowledge that the music industry can be a spurious place for newcomers. As a seasoned event promoter, Epistonal has had his fair share of experiences in that regard, but they helped him learn how to navigate the business.
For example, when Epistonal started to pick up steam in New Orleans he had a partner in his operation. Together in the 90s, they produced a Mardi Gras event that made $12,000 in profit, and his partner asked him to drive the artists back to the hotel before they reconvened to split the money.
After Epistonal finished dropping off the artists, he returned to his partner’s home where they were going to make the split. Unfortunately, his partner had already split town, his roommate told Epistonal that he had moved to Houston.
Epistonal was out $6,000, but it was a blessing in disguise as far as he was concerned.
“He took all the money, but in that respect he elevated me to the top promoter. I had the best venue,” Epistonal says.
The venue to which Epistonal is referring is the State Palace Theater in New Orleans, which served as a cornerstone of DDP for many years. He had a schedule of events mapped out anywhere from six to eight months in advance. Other buildings were surrounding the theater that he was able to access for larger events of up to 6,000 people a month. Headliners of the time included major players like Frankie Bones and Bad Boy Bill.
Also through the reputation, he developed with the theater, Epistonal was able to begin collaborating with promoters in different markets. While that may sound standard in today’s event landscape, it was far different in the late 90s.
“I started branching out and working with people in Houston and Atlanta and regional stuff. It was just a lot different because I couldn’t say that I was working in that city because back then everything was very territorial,” Epistonal says. “It was like the mafia. Each city had its own group of families and if anybody went from one city to another city that would get people really upset.”
Disco Donnie Presents/ Rukes
Despite that difficult dynamic among different markets, Epistonal kept hustling and kept developing relationships based on respect, and in 1999 one of the other promoters he collaborated with was Pasquale Rotella of Insomniac. Together they worked on Electric Daisy Carnival and Nocturnal Wonderland and began a relationship that would continue for many years.
Unfortunately, right around that time Epistonal and the rest of the electronic music event promoters in the US faced another issue. One that they had little to no control over: changing tastes.
“The scene really scaled up until about 2000, 2001. Then there were a lot of large European festivals that were coming over in the Summer of 2001, and they ended up having to cancel because of low ticket sales,” Epistonal says. “We were thinking we finally had made it. They were playing electronic music on MTV, and we’re like ‘Here come these European festivals. This is our big break,’ and it was kind of showing the signs of wear and tear. That something was going on with the scene. There was a changing in people’s tastes, which happens a lot in America. People just go from one thing to another. They’re not locked in to anything for very long.”
As the tastes were changing, Epistonal also endured several government initiatives launched against dance music events. “Operation Rave Review,” was an initiative from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that led to Epistonal’s events in New Orleans being under surveillance for eight months in 2000.
Soon after, Epistonal and the manager of the State Palace Theater were charged under the Crack House Law, claiming that the theater was opened to distribute illegal drugs. They each faced potential prison sentences of multiple years.
During the trial, Epistonal shifted to throwing weekly events at the House of Blues in New Orleans, and after beating the case in 2001, he returned to the State Palace Theater once again with no surveillance.
Disco Donnie Presents/ Rukes
Such challenges demonstrated Epistonal’s incredible resiliency as a promoter and a human being. In the face of so much adversity, he kept going.
“It was definitely rough. It was hard to explain to a lot of my friends and my family. ‘Why do you keep trying this? Get a job.’ My wife told me I needed to get a job,” Epistonal says.
But Epistonal did have a job. He then moved to Columbus, Ohio while the scene was still in a downturn, and immediately started working with smaller promoters.
“I was working with anybody that wanted to work with me,” Epistonal says.
This open-minded attitude opened doors for Epistonal all over the country. From New York to Miami, to Seattle, to San Diego, he was throwing festivals and smaller club nights. Many of the smaller promoters were disillusioned and unmotivated to continue producing events, but Epistonal encouraged them to keep going. He had unshakable faith that the scene would return, and sure enough, he was right.
Around 2007 and 2008, Epistonal started building a team and the current iteration of Disco Donnie Presents started to take form as he partnered with Insomniac. Through this partnership, Epistonal helped to produce festivals like EDC Orlando, Beyond Wonderland Seattle, EDC Puerto Rico, EDC New York, and others.
This was a huge step forward for Epistonal; a validation of his years of hard work. He was producing events all over the world with one of the most respected names in the industry. However, as Epistonal had experienced many times before, the industry can be a spurious place, but resiliency pays off.
“Some time about at the end of 2011 Pasquale told me that I didn’t own any of that. I could lease it from him, so that was a shock. I had taken my whole team down this road and all my partners and everything. At that point I pivoted, and I took the assets that I did have, created a deck, and literally within two months after that conversation I had a handshake deal with Bob Sillerman to sell my company to SFX,” says Epistonal.
This step of leaving Insomniac for SFX was the first in another period of sudden and radical change for Epistonal and DDP. At the time of the sale, SFX was set up to be a new pivotal force in entertainment. Sillerman’s goal was to set up a media conglomerate around electronic music and thus courted brands in various sectors.
Live events were a prominent sector, and SFX purchased huge stakes in promoters including DDP and European promoter ID&T that is responsible for festivals like DGTL and Mysteryland. SFX also acquired the event ticketing service, PayLogic, and the popular online music store, Beatport.
In June 2013, SFX went IPO and became a publicly-traded company on the Nasdaq, which made Epistonal very proud. But after considerable issues with management, SFX filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in February of 2016. This was a difficult moment for Epistonal, but also one that allowed him to demonstrate his resilience and his respect for the people he works with.
“It was another challenge that we just had to deal with, but you just have to keep going. The whole thing with that was I just basically told everybody, ‘Look you’re always going to get paid with me,’,” Epistonal says. “Everybody that we owed money as far as DDP goes, they got their money.”
Epistonal and DDP stuck with SFX as it got rolled into a new conglomerate called LiveStyle, but after realizing he had better relationships with other parts of the industry as an independent promoter without the corporate reputation attached, he made the remarkable step of buying back his own company from LiveStyle. LiveStyle accepted the deal and Epistonal became the first promoter in history to buy back his promotion company from a larger entity.
The deal was finalized in April of 2020, right when events were shutting down worldwide. Yet another challenge that Epistonal conquered. Now he is back throwing thousands of events per year, including events like Freaky Deaky and Illenium’s resort festival, Ember Shores.
In hindsight of all these different experiences throughout the scene, all the ups and downs, Epistonal has one thing to say to people who would follow in his footsteps as an event promoter:
“Don’t do it. Quit right now. Light your money on fire,” Epistonal says with a laugh.
On a more serious note, Epistonal recommends trying numerous different jobs in the industry to find what you’re good at and what motivates you. But most of all it’s about resilience, respect, and a pure love of the culture.
“You’re going to have to work hard. It’s not something you can learn overnight. I’m still learning,” Epistonal says. “You got to keep trying, and don’t take no for an answer. If they really love it and they’re really committed they’ll get in there somehow.”