As an electronic music promoter, you either fail or succeed.
But one win doesn't mean the struggle is over. A second attempt must prove your accomplishments were no fluke. You've got to avoid the sophomore slump.
Pull something off not once but twice, and you've officially hit a watershed. It's the third time that's the charm. The third time, you cement your legacy.
Gary Richards, the man behind Hard and Holy Ship, knows this first-hand.
"In the beginning, you're just trying to survive," Richards says. "The main goal obviously is to produce an amazing event, and for me, it's to get the great music. But also, it's a business, and you've got to at least not lose money."
Holy Ship is no mere music festival. Rent a giant Italian cruise ship, fill it with the biggest dance music acts in the world, try to sell 2,800 tickets for the maiden voyage, and you're taking on "a huge fucking gamble."
"You could lose millions of dollars," he points out. But Richards is a gambling man. "I just knew in my heart of hearts it would work."
He took the bet, put his reputation and his investors' capital on the line, and hit a home run. In 2012, the inaugural Holy Ship was a huge success, albeit a messy one.
"We crossed that hurdle, but I don't think people knew what I was trying to do," he says. A simple after-video allowed Richards and his team to share their vision with the wider world.
"We were able to show people on the second one, so we sold it out right away. And when you know you're going to sell the tickets, then you can really focus on making it amazing."
At least part of the Holy Ship magic is the overall sense of community. Ship Fam isn't just a buzz term, it's a real source of identity for hundreds of passengers. This cruise has earned some of the most hard-core fans in the business, because it's come to represent more than the usual rage fest, both sonically and atmospherically. Fans and artists alike anticipate every edition of the three-day party at sea, looking to escape reality, reunite with old friends, and make new connections.
In fact, Richards claims "a ton" of collaborations have resulted from the close quarters and chill vibe. Skrillex is what they call an "OG." Skrill hasn't missed a year and has since worked with fellow shipmate Boys Noize as Dog Blood, and told us of how he just wrapped up a two-track collab with Flume, a Holy-Ship-virgin-no-more.
"I've introduced so many artists to each other," Richards says. "I go out of my way to do that 'oh, this is this guy and this is that guy.' I let them all brew and do their thing."
There are no strict schedules on the boat. It's more than likely you'll see surprise back-to-back sets. Case in point, an hour-long slot during this year's cruise by Claude Von Stroke quickly turned into an all-star performance. Everyone from Diplo to Disclosure to Skream took a turn on the decks. It was a good, old-fashioned bro-out.
"Barclay told me there were so many people back-to-back, he played one record," Richards recounts. "That's so rad. I hope that happens to me one day."
For some, Holy Ship's spell is all consuming. But still, when it comes to certain DJs, it's not always an easy sell.
"A lot of the artists are skeptical," Richards says. "It sounds like the worst thing in the world to them, being on a boat with all these people."
The first year, he had to beg Fatboy Slim about ten times before the English star finally caved. The second year, he was scared Justice's Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay would back out and label him a liar right up to the moment that they appeared in port.
This time around, Richards convinced his personal idol and house god Armand Van Helden to join the roster. The DJ even agreed to perform alongside partner A-Trak as Duck Sauce on Thursday night, but only on the condition that he be helicoptered back to Miami immediately following his solo session during Friday's private island party. Of course, by the time Helden played his last track, he wished he could stay. That's Richards' favorite part of the experience.
"Seeing those artists that are skeptical and then turning them," he says. "That's really cool."
The next day, for Holy Ship!!! 2014's second private island party, legendary producer and entertainer Pharrell nearly missed his beach set because of a late fly-in. It was a total nightmare, but as the chaos mounted backstage, Richards stayed calm.
"It's like, 'His fucking helicopter,' and this and that. [The team was] ready to leave. They were going to skip it, but I was like, 'No, we've got to do it," he says. "Once he was there, I felt like I did my job. I said what I was going to do, and it happened."
The unanticipated changes weren't easy to pull off. He pushed the whole schedule back and kept Skrillex on the decks an hour longer. But that's the dedication you need to succeed. Fans have learned that Richards' word is bond.
"All I have as a promoter is my trust with the audience," he insists. "I think most promoters, they always fuck over their audience. They take the money, and they under-deliver. I want to always do what I say I'm going to do."
By now, Richards knows he's got a good product, and so does the world.
"The last two, we were still figuring out what Holy Ship was. But this one cements it," he says. "I think people have just been waiting all year, because they know. I was saying to people, the first night of Holy Ship!!! 2014: 'Of the 20 years I've been doing events, I've never seen people go that crazy. They were fucking having it.'"
From the moment the crowd gathered, even in the line at customs, revelers were decked out in elaborate costumes, blasting music from their portable speakers, hugging and screaming and racing through the halls.
"I think it gelled from the second they got on," Richards says. "The last ones, maybe it took a little longer. But now, because I would say 80 percent of the people on this boat have been on it before with the same people. They're all homies."
Considering its increasing success, Holy Ship can now be considered an established EDM enterprise. But Richards is not ready to settle into a comfort zone.
"As much as I love the Ship Fam and the people, I also want to get a taste of the new," he admits. "When I was 20 years old, I used to think you had to be in a dirty warehouse at 4 in the morning to hear electronic music, and that's a selfish thing. Electronic music is good. Everyone should hear it, but I used to think, Oh, it's my shit, like, fuck off. But then you get older, and you realize, if it's good, everyone should be able to hear it."
Richards is dedicated to keeping his loyal fans satisfied, but his personal desire to include more people in the party has been boosted by his investors' desire for brand expansion. The pressure is on to get bigger. The Hard team is already prepping for a possible two Holy Ships in 2015. It might be another in Miami. Or maybe in the Mediterranean. Or off the coast of Brazil.
"I want more people to be able to experience Holy Ship, but the goal is to grow and still keep it dope and special," Richards explains. "That's the tricky part, because everybody wants me to expand everything, sell more, make more money."
He is the kind of purist who doesn't believe bigger is necessarily better. But as a business man, he understands bigger is the bottom line. The challenge is marrying his ideals and his goals.
It's a hard job for a Hard man, but will Richards buckle? Not a chance.
"You always think, Well, how can I make it better or top it and still keep the vibe? What other interesting things and new artists can you book?"
Even while speaking, Richards' mind is obviously full of plans, stress, and concerns about the next sea adventure, still a whole year away. He frowns, but only for a moment, and then he laughs.
"After seven years of doing Hard and Holy Ship," he says. "Somehow, I always figure it out."
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.
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