‘Right Now All We Have Is Hope’: How One Festival Producer Is Navigating the Pandemic
In this Q&A, James "Disco Donnie" Estopinal chats about buying back his company, refunding fans, revising contract language, and figuring out a way forward.
Photo: Kaitlin Parry“It’s like I’m a cruise company. Who would buy a cruise company right now?” says James "Disco Donnie" Estopinal, a veteran EDM festival and concert producer, about re-acquiring sole ownership of his namesake company, Disco Donnie Presents, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(For those that are curious, Estopinal, whose middle name is Donald, used to attend raves wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “disco,” hence the nickname “Disco Donnie.”)
In 2012, DDP, which was founded in 1994 in New Orleans, partnered with Robert Sillerman to form SFX Entertainment in an effort to bring together all EDM promoters under one roof. (Sillerman's first iteration of SFX became Live Nation after it was sold to and spun off by Clear Channel Entertainment.) But financial troubles led to a bankruptcy filing in 2016 and SFX was rebranded as LiveStyle.
Earlier this month, Estopinal bought back his company from LiveStyle, including festival brands Ubbi Dubbi, Sunset Music Festival, and Freaky Deaky Texas. He says a new festival idea had been in the works but was sidelined because of the pandemic.
Here, Estopinal chats with us about his decision to go independent again, his company’s plans for the rest of the year, and how the current crisis might affect the festival and concert industry.
What were you working on when the pandemic began?
We were trying to bound the coverage for the two spring festivals and my insurance agent told me in early January that they were excluding for coronavirus. The infectious disease policy on the cancellation policies is an add-on, and we’ve never added it on. So I started following [news of the pandemic in Europe and Asia]… and I was able to make moves ahead of what was going on. I was able to see what was going to happen here. I figured, eventually, we were going to have to shut down. I just didn’t know when it was going to be. I was operating by the European model, which was in stages. They shut down 5,000-capacity venues, 2,500, 1,000, nothing over 500, and then 250. They must have figured out that that didn’t work.
So how did you prepare?
We carry large balances with a lot of clubs, so I was trying to get as much money in the door on the accounts receivables because I knew, at some point, the faucet was going to be turned off, and it would turn into, ‘we can’t pay you because we’re not open.’ I was able to prepare, get as much money in the door as possible. Where I really miscalculated was I didn’t see it coming all at once. We do shows all over the country. I thought there would be more regional shutdowns, so it would go in waves. I thought one state would be shut down, but we’d still be allowed to do shows in another state.
In the midst of this, you were buying back your company. Did that worry you?
In February, we were negotiating. We already had the contract; we were just negotiating deal terms. [I said] I want to put some coronavirus language in there. ... There were no real winners in this one because they were desperate to sell. It’s like I’m a cruise company. Who would buy a cruise company right now?
For my purposes, I wanted to ensure that we could take care of the people who bought a ticket because a lot of our clientele is in the service industry or they’re living week to week. I just thought it was important. If we have $200 of your money, you probably need it more than I do. I just wanted to ensure that we could do it. I didn’t want to ask permission to do the right thing. The same thing goes for my team. A lot of them have been with me for 5, 10, 15 years. Again, I wanted to be able to give them some stability. ... I was able to keep everybody, the way I wanted to do it.
Photo: Courtesy of LiveStyleHow will the pandemic impact the future of concerts and festivals?
This is the $1 million question. The thing is, nobody knows. I think everyone can agree that it’s pretty much changed forever. It’s hard to make decisions when there’s no constant, and right now, there is no constant. Right now, all we have is hope.
I could see a scenario of a slow opening. The best path forward would be to allow people in small groups and then add on to that, and then add on to that. And I don’t know what that number is, but get to a place where we’re growing out the capacity of these venues and restaurants and bars, and we’re keeping everybody safe. I know they’re chomping at the bit to get these sporting teams open, so, possibly, as soon as they’re back, so will be the festivals. What you’ll see is smaller-cap venues with cheaper ticket prices.
How can promoters and producers alleviate fans’ fears about gathering?
There’s going to be a certain percentage of people who are going to be scared going forward until there’s a treatment or a vaccine, but then there’s going to be another percentage of the population that doesn't care. When the local authorities say it’s safe, we’ll definitely have some guidelines going forward. It’s going to be a lot of education. I don’t know if we’re going to be going to bars in masks. I don’t know if everyone’s going to get a squirt of hand sanitizer. But it’s going to be different.
Photo: Courtesy of LiveStyleAre you planning for any festivals this year?
We moved the April festival [Ubbi Dubbi] into October and combined the two festivals in Texas [the joint festival is called Ubbi Dubbi Gets Freaky Deaky]. It’s hard because we can’t go on sale right now or announce the lineup because it’s just not right. People aren’t going to buy tickets. They want to know what’s going to happen to them. So even when things start opening back up, what does that mean? When are people going to be confident about going out again and buying tickets? Do they have money in the bank for a festival?