"Rick used to call me Techno Boy," Richards said by phone from Hard's headquarters in Beverly Hills. After dropping out of Cal State Northridge, Richards had stunts with various record labels in the LA area. "They were always like, why do you sign this electronic crap that doesn't sell?"
Two decades later, Richards felt the genre was finally gaining steam. He founded Hard Events in 2007. Today, it's one of dance music's leading brands, responsible for events like Hardfest, Holy Ship!!, and Day of the Dead Haunted Mansion on Nov. 3 in Los Angeles. In July, Hard was acquired by concert behemoth Live Nation, a move that some diehard EDM fans feared marked the genre's final days of underground life.
That, too, makes Richards chuckle. He felt the same way in 1993 when he sold out an event at an amusement park in Orange County called Rave America.
"I thought, 'Alright man, there goes electronic music, off into the mainstream where it'll die a horrible, overplayed death.'" he said. "But it's never just over, that's not how music works."
Today, Richards is married with two children, Steven, 4, and Riley, 6, and lives in Beverly Hills. We spoke to him by phone about how the rave scene has changed and where he plans to steer it.
The beginnings: I was born in Washington, D.C. and lived in New Orleans for a little but my family settled in LA by the time I was in high school. My dad, Barry, has had a great career as a radio DJ. He's still in the business and still thinks he's hip. He sent me a picture of him and Justin Bieber the other day and it's like, Dad, come on man. I started school at Cal State North Ridge but wasn't loving it. And as social chairman of my fraternity, I just spent all their money on huge parties. The school's president didn't like that and wanted me out, so I moved in with a friend who lived in Santa Monica. The second night I was there, he came back from this late-night electronic party called Nectar, and he was just on fire. He was like, 'Man, wait until you hear this stuff.' We started going all the time.
Church with Mr. Kool-Aide: In California, you're allowed to start serving booze again at 6 a.m. which was when these raves let out. Of course, nobody wanted to stop partying so we started renting out a club on Sunday mornings and threw a party called The Sermon. We'd go out to the big Saturday night rave dressed like priests and tell everyone to come to The Sermon. It evolved into this huge thing called Midnight Mass, and then we moved it to a water park nearby and called it The Holy Water. My partner at the time was this guy Mr. Kool-Aide, or Steven Hauptsuhr, who is like the Syd Barrett of America's rave scene. And one day he said, 'I've got an idea. Let's throw a party on a farm with a ferris wheel and a fire-breathing lady and a skyride and let's pair it with electronic music. We'll call it Electric Daisy Carnival.' That was in 1991. Pasquale [Pasquale Rotella] was a fan at the time and helped us promote. In 1997, he called and asked me if he could use the name EDC, and I said sure, why not?
The first farewell to the underground: By 1993, it felt like the music wasn't underground anymore so I threw a party called Rave America at Nots Berry Farm, which is an amusement park in Orange County. It sold out with like 20,000 people. Rick Rubin came with Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a couple guys from ZZ Top and he asked me if I wanted to work in the record business and help them sign some EDM artists. I said sure, the Prodigy were super hot and it seemed like it was blowing up. But we started signing all these techno artists thinking they'd catch on, too, but nobody was buying it. Nobody.
Richards on losing his brother, Steven, and taking a break from EDM: In the late 1990s, my brother Steven worked at Epic and managed hardcore bands like Slipknot and Mudvayne. He ended up getting a brain tumor in 2000. I just knew the chances weren't good and I wanted to spend every minute with him that I could. And because he was a total music-obsessed workaholic, I knew the way to really get to hang with him was to quit everything I was doing and move in with him. So I worked with him everyday on these crazy metal projects like Ozzfest that are completely not my scene but it was really special for us. He was 33 when he passed away in 2004, and I was devastated. I'm still devastated. And at the time, I was totally lost. I named my son after him and retreated for a little while from everything.
Bouncing back: I figured I could only really go forward if I was doing what I knew, which was electronic music. I threw my first Hard Event on New Years Eve, my birthday, in 2007. And everything lined up. For whatever reason, people suddenly gave a shit.
About Holy Ship!! and Coachella's upcoming copycat cruise, S.S. Coachella: To be honest, I'm flattered. I love Coachella. So when they called me to tell me they were going to do a cruise like Holy Ship!!, I thought it was classy of them to let me know. I'm still in awe at all this stuff. Totally, completely in awe.
Live Nation and HARD's next chapter: The great thing about the acquisition is that Live Nation deals with all the city stuff -- the codes, the operations, the red tape. That allows me more flexibility to come up with ideas for tours and festivals. I think I made the best decision possible. They're totally committed to electronic music, which is why they brought me and the guy from Creamfields in here. The fans are in good hands.
On whether pop stars are ruining EDM: When I first started in 1991, we were selfish. Electronic music was underground, it was our thing and we didn't want the masses to know about it. You could only hear it at 4 a.m. in a warehouse in downtown LA if you knew a guy and fuck you. But now, it's all good. The sound has been discovered and people are relishing it. It's a movement. So I just feel like my job is to try to steer people toward the best, most innovative, credible stuff. It's about more than "Gangnam Style," because that shit will disappear. This is about the sound evolving into the best it can be.
On the future of EDM: Erol Alkan once told me that dance music is like the flu. It goes away and it comes back stronger, it goes away and it comes back stronger. But frankly, I don't know how it could get any bigger than this, so I just hope it gets more and more credible. I hope I'm still doing this in 10 years and am still proud of what I'm doing.
Above: Gary Richards. Photo by Erik Voake