Q’s With James ‘Disco Donnie’ Estopinal Jr: On Surviving & Thriving After 25 Years

Disco Donnie
– Disco Donnie

It’s been a long journey for EDM pioneer Disco Donnie, who this year promoted the 25th anniversary of Zoolu at the Metropolitan in New Orleans. Along the way he has been targeted by police investigating drug use at his events, partnered with (and broke off from) Insomniac as it became an EDM leader, saw the rise and fall of SFX and his company reborn as a LiveStyle property. 

Today Disco Donnie Presents produces Sunset Music Festival in Tampa, Fla.; Ubbi Dubbi in Dallas; and Freaky Deaky in Houston, along with headline shows from the likes of Galantis, The Crystal Method, Flosstradamus, Steve Aoki, Darude, and Tchami in June alone.  

“Disco Donnie is essential in electronic music, and because of that it gives the whole company a halo effect [a spillover of influence] when we book,” LiveStyle CEO and President Randy Phillips recently told Pollstar.

The promoter took some time out of his life in Puerto Rico to chat about seeing electronic music grow over a quarter-century and where his company is at now.
Pollstar: So you work with many different sizes of shows, including low-capacity stuff, right?
Disco Donnie: Well I don’t know about “low-capacity.” We do close to 1,000 shows a year, everywhere from 400-cap to 2,000-cap, and a lot of special events in 4,000 to 5,000 cap rooms. We get the full spectrum of artists, from when they are starting out to when they make it into an arena. And hopefully when they make it into arenas they’ll remember who was there when they first came around. 
You did a lot of Marshmello shows early his career right? What can you say about his trajectory?
Yeah, we had a lot of dates with him. They were smart, they put him in little clubs and they sold out right away. He came back around for bigger plays and at the same time we were able to get him on all the festivals very early. We booked him on every festival about a year in advance and by the time the festival happened he had already started becoming who he is today; this huge artist. 
And that’s the perfect festival booking, when you advance an artist early and then they become huge. They’re not even in the right time slot or don’t have the right billing by the time the event comes.
When did you see electronic music start crossing over into the mainstream?
In late 2007, 2008, 2009, you could feel the momentum growing. Hip-hop artists started using dance beats and they started getting played on the radio. All of a sudden people started coming out to the shows more. 
Around that time Daft Punk played Coachella and a lot of industry tastemakers were there. They finally could connect the silly “bleep/blop” music with the visual aspect of it and I think that changed a lot of peoples’ minds. They thought “Oh wow, this is something important, this is entertainment.” 
Before, the rock world was making fun of the DJ’s as the way they saw EDM, it wasn’t considered real music. Once they saw the whole package, they saw that this was a creative force to be reckoned with.

So can we put claims that EDM is dying to bed? 
Well the market [first] crashed around 2000. Certain people thought it was dead then, a lot of us thought it would be back. 
Then, when it got so big so fast, people thought “The bubble’s going to burst!” Maybe we had a market correction in 2017, but now I think people realize that [electronic music] is not going anywhere.
Why do you work with such a large volume of developing artists?
Well that’s the system we have: to develop artists and build relationships with them and to stay with them throughout their career.
It doesn’t always work, some artists are more loyal than others, but we do the best we can and try to stick with them until they won’t work with us or they outgrow what we do. 
What is business like with LiveStyle vs. SFX? 
Well I was in SFX from the beginning and going through the bankruptcy was very difficult. In general, 2017 was a rough year for all festivals, especially EDM festivals. 
Coming out of that [rough business year] and the bankruptcy, having a new team at LiveStyle to work with really helped. They supported us, backed us, believed in us, and we were able to start building back onto our core business in 2018. 
We are doing more in 2019 and the plan is to do even more in 2020. We basically had to hit the reset button, and they had trust in us to go forward and grow.
What is growth going to look like for DDP?
At our previous height we were doing six festivals. We had to downsize [after the bankruptcy], so we did three in 2019. The plan is to do four in 2020 and to add one more every year after that.
So there’s a plan in place to do another festival and we are moving into other markets on the club side. We have to keep growing and keep it interesting. 
It’s been 25 years; a long trip, but it’s been a blast. I’m still enjoying promoting, I love doing it and I’m gonna keep doing it as long as people keep coming. And even if they don’t, I’m still gonna keep doing it. I think I’m having more fun now than I did when I started, so that’s a really good feeling.