Hard Events’ Gary Richards Talks Hard Summer’s Lineup, Keeping EDM Fests Safe — and His Future With Live Nation

Gary Richards
Nikko La Mere

Hard Events founder Gary Richards — a.k.a. Destructo — is one of the titans of contemporary dance music, founder of one of the genre’s biggest promotion companies, a veteran of several record labels and a longtime and respected DJ. His company is behind the Hard Summer (which drew 150,000 people over two days last year), Hard Hawaii, and Day of the Dead festivals as well as the Holy Ship cruise. Long known as a tastemaker — his events have helped break Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Diplo, Deadmau5, and Justice — Richards’ festivals have always mixed dance music with hip-hop, and never more thoroughly than this year’s 10th anniversary show. Hard Summer 2017 takes place at the Speedway in Fontana, California, on Aug. 5 and 6 and features Snoop Dogg (who’ll perform his 1993 classic “DoggyStyle” in its entirety) as well as Migos and Rae Sremmurd co-headlining along with DJ Snake, Justice, Zeds Dead, Bassnectar, and Skrillex and Boyz Noise’s project Dogs Blood in their only 2017 performance. Also on the 110-act bill are big-ish names like Ty Dolla Sign, Cashmere Cat, Charli XCX, Mike Will Made It, Tinashe, Mobb Deep, E-40, a host of new acts namechecked in the interview below, and Richards himself in his parallel DJ career as Destructo.

In many ways it’s a culmination of a 25-ish year career that began with Richards throwing raves in his native L.A. After launching the original Electric Daisy Carnival in 1991, he handed off the brand to fellow dance maven and (sometimes) friendly rival Pasquale Rotella to take a job as Rick Rubin’s dance-music A&R at Def American Records. (Rotella has since developed Electric Daisy into North America’s biggest dance-music festival.) After several years at labels and a period of working with his brother Steven (who managed Slipknot and died of a brain tumor in 2004), Richards launched the first Hard show on New Year’s Eve, 2007. Over the ensuing years, the company’s rocket-like growth matched that of dance music, and it was purchased by Live Nation in 2012 for an undisclosed price; Rotella’s Insomniac Events came under the same roof the following year.

Yet for all the success, the past couple of years have also been, well, hard. Two concertgoers died of drug overdoses at 2015’s Hard Summer and three died last year; MDMA (aka ecstasy) toxicity, the main culprit, was exacerbated by heat of the Southern California summer sun. And as Richards says below, things at Live Nation have been rocky. Sources say this is due in no small measure to his ferocious rivalry with Rotella — the two are like the yin and yang of dance music, Richards’ musical purism eternally clashing with Rotella’s Vegas instincts — which has flared into the open many times over the years. It happened again either shortly before or shortly after — maybe even during — this interview, when Richards denied accusations that he’d refused to book acts who played Insomniac events. (Through a spokesperson, Richards declined to elaborate further or to confirm that the person he references below is Rotella; reps for Live Nation and Rotella declined Variety’s requests for comment.) The drama is entertaining but frankly much less interesting — and lower in nutritional value — than the music at the festival, which is the real reason for this interview.

To be honest, the hip-hop headliners at this year’s festival are more exciting than the dance-music ones.
I love both and I always have — at the first Hard we had 2 Live Crew and at the second we had Pharrell and N.E.R.D. It’s always blended really well. I think hip-hop is having this moment, and there are certain things in electronic that are kinda the same old sh–. So I’m just moving with the times: Migos and Ty Dolla Sign and obviously Mike Will Made It are exploding. I love Mike Will’s productions and I don’t think he’s ever played a festival, so that’s one of the ones I’m most excited about.

The past two years have had serious tragedies. How do you police and protect the crowd without it becoming so overbearing that people can’t enjoy it?
We have to do everything we can to keep people safe, and if people say security is overbearing I’d rather have that than what happens if you’re not careful enough. It’s a tough balance. For example, last year when we started loading in at [the site’s camping area] the night before, I started seeing all these tweets that people had been waiting for three or four hours to get into camping. I called my head of security: “What’s going on? Everybody is pissed that it’s taking so long” — literally they were taking out people’s backseats and canines were going through the cars. I was like “Can’t we speed this up?” And he said, “No: this is what we have to do to keep [contraband] out of this event and keep it safe.” I think we err on the side of more than less when it comes to safety; we have to show the city and the police that we mean business and we’re not going to look the other way.

Are you doing things differently this year?
Last year was our first year at the track, so we’re trying to address things like understanding how [human] traffic patterns flow, shading, exit and entrance, all the experiential things of the festival — just making it easier for people to get in and out and around. When I walked into the site for the first time I saw 500 acres — our last venue was 40 or 50 acres — and I was like “WOW! Look all this space!” But afterward I got a lot of people saying, “Man, I walked like 15 miles!” so we’re gonna push everything in and have more water features and use the space better. It gets pretty hot in the afternoons and people tend to show up all at once. We have to search them and it’s a whole process, so we’re shading that area better and working on getting people in quicker, getting them a drink, making sure they’re not having to wait for bathroom. It sounds simple but when you’ve got 80,000 people, that’s a lot — last year we had 70,000 people on Saturday and 80,000 on Sunday.

Is terrorism more of a concern now, since the San Bernardino shootings [in 2016] were not that far from the venue?
It’s always a concern but we have different groups of security that work the event — between the sheriffs and all the different agencies we might have a thousand law-enforcement [personnel] there. We have a team of like 40 security guys who are Blackwater and Navy Seals guys and they run all our security, we have people from Homeland Security, people who sample the air for different toxins. I don’t think we’re a target but if someone’s coming for us, we’re ready for it. It’s horrible that we even have to talk about it.

Okay, onto a happier subject. Who are the up-and-coming acts this year?
A lot of female performers had said that there weren’t enough other female performers, so that’s one of the things that we’re really focused on — I asked agents for female acts and a lot of them didn’t even have any, so I just asked around. This year I think we have 24 female performers on the bill, which is a huge improvement from last year. There’s a girl called Madame X from the U.K.; I just had J. Worra and Cray, who are amazing, open for me in L.A. and New York; we’ve got Uniqu3 coming out of New Jersey, she’s crushing it; Sita Abellan who’s been traveling the world; I played with GG Magree in Australia — there are a lot of young, up and coming females we’re trying to push. And we’ve got some regular old dudes coming up (laughs) like 4B, Kap G, Ghetts, a lot of U.K. hip-hop like Skepta and JME, although they’re kind of established. But I’m always thinking how I can make it unique and different and still get the crowd we need to pay the bills. Introducing new stuff is what Hard is all about — a lot of people say they come for the [artists on] the bottom half of the bill.

Where do you find all these younger acts?
I DJ all the time so artists and other people send me stuff to play. I’m on a few threads on Twitter with other producers and we trade music, and I just ask people what’s hot — it doesn’t matter if it’s Calvin Harris or the Deux Twins, if they’re good they’re good. I don’t book the show like everyone else — everyone does it based on how many tickets the artists sell, but if I like one [act] better than another, they’re going higher on the poster. I don’t care if they’re selling more tickets — if I was about that I’d have the Chainsmokers. It’s about underground, electronic, rap and what’s happening on the streets.

As someone in your mid-40s, do you feel like you’re still in touch with the streets and what 20-year-olds want to hear? 
I think so — I kinda still feel like my musical taste is that of a 15-year-old boy. I DJ’ed 80 shows last year — I’ve gotta DJ Friday in Reno, what am I gonna play? My ears haven’t really gotten old, and they haven’t failed me yet. Now, there are some things I know the kids like that are a little aggressive for my tastes — I always say I like to make people dance more than jump — but I understand why they like it and I at least know which producers are good and which ones aren’t. In the industry these days, there’s a lot of research and surveying and testing and “what’s the skip rate,” but if I hear it and it’s good and it moves me, it’s on there.

How’s your relationship with Live Nation? It’s been five years now.
Yeah, this is coming up on the renewal of my deal, so we’re at the end.

“The end”? Are you going to stay? 
(Sighs) I dunno. That’s a good question. We shall see. We shall see.

Has it been a positive experience? 
Well, there’s been positive and negative to it. I think that Hard has grown by leaps and bounds and Live Nation has given me a platform to expand monetarily in things I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was funding everything. But then again, there are other forces at play here that are running the electronic scene in different directions than me, and they kind of battle with me and that part of it’s not fun  — and it’s unnecessary.

When will you decide?
The game plan is to finish up this show and figure it out.

[Publicist asks to wrap it up.]

Okay, where are things going stylistically in dance music?
On my new EP [“Renegade“] I’m doing a blend of house and rap, with Ty Dolla Sign and Pusha T and E40, and I think blending like that is really coming up. Then again, I see so many people trying to do that, but you can still tell who’s doing it from their heart and who is just doing it for a quick buck, like “Let’s put a rap feature on here and mix David Guetta and Pitbull!” (laughs) Hang on, let me look at my bill and see who’s poppin’ … Wax Motif has got some really good new stuff out, I do a lotta production with him. Ekali is really coming up, Madeintyo out of the rap world, Motez, Drezzo, Ghetts – he’s kinda like the new-new from the U.K. I have a Spotify playlist that represents what I think is dope from the lineup, and that’s really why I picked all these people. You can listen and hear why they’re on the bill.
Two years ago it seemed like dance music couldn’t get any bigger. It doesn’t feel as salad-days now, but it hasn’t fallen off either. What happens next?
As long as there’s good music coming out it’ll always be thriving, but I guess some people’s eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Maybe it got a little too big and it’s gonna pull back a bit. A lot of the busters who came along and tried to cash in — maybe their stuff’s not doing so well. People always ask me that question but I’m positive because I can always come up with something new. I know so many DJs who got so big that they don’t know what to do next. I worked for Rick Rubin years ago and I asked him “What’s your secret?” He said “I just make music that I can drive around in my car and listen to.” I make a festival so I can go to it.