Saturday, March 24, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

A year after club fire and Sunset Music Festival deaths, John Santoro rebuilds

YBOR CITY — There's a problem with the wires.

"It happened again on Saturday," John Santoro tells the staff at his club. A DJ was in the middle of a concert when the sound cut out — a nightmare for a DJ — and Santoro wants the issue fixed yesterday. "It's unacceptable to me."

The Ritz Ybor staff has ordered replacement wires. But there's a big show in two days by superstar DJ Dash Berlin. If the wires don't arrive on time, Santoro will shell out for an all-new sound system. He wants nothing left to chance.

"We are going to go and buy everything. Everything. Everything gets replaced before Friday."

Santoro, 47, is the king of Tampa Bay's electronic music scene, a kinetic world of sweat and neon catering to thousands of millennials each weekend. He's a veteran promoter, club owner and founder of the Sunset Music Festival, which draws 50,000 fans each May to Raymond James Stadium. He obsesses over details to maintain control of his empire.

In the past year, that control spiraled out of his hands.

Last April, Santoro watched a fire destroy his club, the Amphitheatre, the largest dance music venue in Ybor City. In May, two fans died following drug overdoses at the Sunset Music Festival, prompting calls to shut it down. The fire was a disorienting setback; the deaths a tragedy and painful public blow.

Santoro suddenly found himself facing hard questions from his city, his clientele, his staff, even his family.

"It was a lot of sleepless nights," Santoro told the Times in his first interview since Sunset '16. "How do you not analyze something like that? So that's what I had to do. Assess it, methodically go through step by step by step.

"And then I had to grieve."

• • •

Santoro was driving his son home from soccer practice on April 6, 2016, when he got a panicked call: The Amphitheatre was on fire. He dropped his son off at their Hyde Park home, raced to Ybor "and watched that thing burn."

For Santoro, the club — a 12,000-square-foot palace in a century-old brick tower — was the culmination of 20 up-and-down years in Ybor City. His first venue, Club Hedo, opened in 1996; the first incarnation of the Amphitheatre two years later. He and partner Joe Redner had pumped in $2.1 million in upgrades, including a revolving dance floor. Santoro lost the club once after a lawsuit over back mortgage and taxes, but got it back in 2011. He'd built it into an institution.

Spark. Poof. It was gone.

"It was one of the most surreal times of my life," Santoro said. "It was my baby, and I built it from nothing."

Santoro didn't lose much he couldn't replace, and no one inside was badly hurt. But for the first few hours, he was in shock; his engineer's brain refused to work.

"I'm sitting there trying to analyze it, trying to figure out how to do it, and that building of mine's just burning down in front of me. I just couldn't do it."

The fire was ruled an accident, sparked by a welder attempting to hang a disco ball. But there was barely any time to dwell on the cause. Santoro had about 50 full- and part-time employees at the club, as well as a community of electronic music fans who suddenly had nowhere to congregate. Someone launched a GoFundMe campaign that drew $3,355. Santoro had to postpone concerts and move several to the Ritz Ybor. And, oh yeah, the Sunset Music Festival was right around the corner.

His mind locked in the way it always did. Staff needs to get paid. Fix the problem. SMF needs to happen. Fix the problem. Relocation. Fix the problem.

Santoro gathered staff at a somber meeting and told them not to worry, he'd take care of everything. There were nights when he worked more than he wanted. In time, life "kind of flowed back."

And then came Sunset.

• • •

Santoro always knew he could sell electronic music. Even before America was ready to buy it.

He'd been a music fiend since moving from Long Island to Florida at 10, falling asleep and waking up to 8-tracks of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. He dropped out of Pinellas Park High, studied engineering at a technical school, and circled the world servicing glass bottling machinery at breweries in Europe, Asia and South America.

He saw how global fans responded to music not often heard in Tampa Bay. At 26, he moved back with a wild hair to enter the nightlife business.

"Maybe it was arrogance and a little bit of cockiness, saying I could do whatever I wanted to do," he said. "It was more a love of music."

Club Hedo was a smash, and so was the Amphitheatre. Santoro entertained dreams of new clubs. He launched a promotions company and was soon plotting his first festival.

"He was one of the few things we had going in Ybor City back then," said Ybor property owner Joseph Capitano Sr.

But nightlife is a fickle industry. The first two Sunset Music Festivals, at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, drew 5,500 people in 2006 and 6,300 in 2007 — not bad, but not moneymakers. Across the bay, Ybor City was in a fallow period, and Santoro saw crowds dissipate. Club Hedo closed in 2006; the Amp five months later. Santoro kept booking and promoting shows at other Tampa clubs, from A-list DJs to a pre-fame Lady Gaga.

But by this time, he was a family man who had two kids with his wife, Rena — John Jr., nicknamed "John-John," 11, and Leilani, 7. And so he resisted when Capitano, one of the Amphitheater's new owners, kept urging him to come back. Eventually, he did.

America was on the cusp of a new electronic music boom, as DJs like Skrillex, Deadmau5, David Guetta and the Chainsmokers emerged to conquer the mainstream pop landscape. Santoro booked them all. He and new partners relaunched the Sunset Music Festival at Raymond James Stadium in 2012, drawing 6,700 fans. That number leaped to 22,000 in 2013, then 50,000 over two days in 2014 and 2015.

Heading into 2016, it seemed nothing — not even the fire — could temper Sunset's growth.

• • •

The second day of Sunset 2016 felt like a rousing success, the festival's first-ever daily sellout.

In a backstage barracks of trailers and converted storage containers, the mood was different. That evening, Santoro learned a fan hospitalized for heat exhaustion on Saturday, 21-year-old Melbourne resident Alex Haynes, had died. Officials immediately spread more pallets of water throughout the site. It was, Santoro said, a relatively simple adjustment — organizers spend months preparing for any emergency, and can make such fixes "not just the next day, but that hour. That minute."

For one fan, it wasn't fast enough. Katie Bermudez, 21, of Kissimmee was hospitalized Sunday and died Monday. Both deaths were eventually ruled overdoses of the party drug MDMA, or ecstasy.

Ecstasy abuse has long been viewed as a hard fact of festival culture, especially when it comes to electronic music. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that raves hold the potential for "clusters of drug-related emergencies," and that public officials "should be aware of the potential health risks and costs associated with making publicly owned facilities available for large commercial events such as raves."

Three ravers died at a nightclub in Melbourne, Australia, in January. Three fans died at July's Hard Summer festival in California. Another died at June's Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. The list goes on. But until 2016, it had never included Sunset.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn ordered an investigation into whether the festival should return in 2017.

"This is not the type of event that Tampa wants to be known for," he said then. He declined to comment for this story.

Such criticism "comes with the territory," Santoro said. "Bob has his viewpoint. Everybody has their viewpoint. I'm not here to sit there and throw stones or anything like that."

Publicly, Santoro said nothing. Privately, he replayed and analyzed his team's actions. He looked for signs they'd missed and studied potential alternate sites. The festival commissioned a study showing that Sunset yielded the equivalent of 210 jobs, 12,500 hotel room stays and a local economic impact of $20 million. He reminded himself that "you cannot control every single action" of a crowd that size. "I don't know how absolute you could plan for protecting against poor choices."

He went to the Tampa Sports Authority to plead Sunset's case.

"On behalf of the entire SMF team and myself, I wish to extend the deepest condolences to their family," he told the board. "That's as heartfelt as I can get."

He promised improvements like a larger festival footprint, more water, more shade, more police, more cooling areas. Supporters spoke on the festival's behalf. City officials and the sports authority board concluded that best practices had been followed, but more could be done. The vote was unanimous: Bring SMF back to RayJay in 2017.

Any measures the festival implements won't be enough for Paul Haynes, father of Alex Haynes. No one from the city or festival reached out to him after his son's death, he said. If they had, he'd have told them he doesn't want to see the event return at all.

"Everybody knows the whole purpose of the thing is to go there and pop pills," he said. "If you don't open a bar, nobody's going to come. They'll sit at home. They won't go out and get drunk and drive. Same thing with the festival. If you don't offer the festival, they're not going to come and do drugs and die. It should be banned everywhere."

Santoro didn't feel it was his place to contact victims' families, he said. He knew, as a parent, how he'd feel had the roles been reversed. That's what he wrestled with most.

At home, he "bore the burden of everything so that the rest of us could have a life of normalcy," said his wife, Rena. "He kept everything together."

All his internal analysis, all his friends' support, "didn't make me feel any better," Santoro said. The sports authority's vote left him "humbled," but "I wasn't jumping for joy or anything like that." He still gets a nervous discomfort in his gut speaking about the deaths.

For Santoro, complete control is everything. Here was a tragedy he could not control, no matter the plans he put in place.

"We had two deaths," he said. "Whichever way you want to look at that, you had two individuals in what I consider my family passed. And I had to personally come to terms with that."

• • •

Things friends and associates say about Santoro: He's loyal. He's competitive. And he can be very protective, especially when it comes to his family.

The day after the Amphitheatre fire, the Santoros kept John-John and Leilani home from school.

"This is my back yard," Santoro said. "I have to hold my head up high walking my kids into school. My wife has to hold her head up high. We have to sleep at night."

The Sunset deaths posed a different challenge.

John-John is an aspiring DJ and producer — he studies violin and piano and has picked the brains of DJs like Skrillex and Zedd. He also performed at every SMF since 2012. Electronic music is a world he knows well.

"They know who their dad is," he said. "They see me make my decisions every day of their lives. I just needed to go and go and have an open and frank discussion about what's going on, and let them digest that."

His conversation with John-John, in particular, carried some weight.

"He's a smart kid," Santoro said. "He's extremely smart."

Santoro worked with a Tampa public relations firm to reframe his image. After the fire, Santoro and Sunset donated $10,000 to Tampa General Hospital's Camp Hopetake, a sleepaway camp for child burn patients. He's planning a hospitality gala to honor top area bars, hotels and venues that he'll host at the Ritz this winter. "This is the one time I'll pull all my favors in the industry," he said.

And then there was the matter of re-building his Ybor City empire. Through Capitano, he purchased the Ritz Ybor and moved his club down the street, bringing his Amphitheatre staff with him, hoping to preserve as many memories of the Amphitheatre as he can.

"That's what you're trying to cultivate, are those memories," he said. "It took time for the crowd to create memories in this room. You can't force that."

• • •

Concert bookings. Flier design. Backstage Wi-Fi.

Santoro is at a folding table in a room off the Ritz's main entrance, taking updates from his staff on every aspect of the business. He has an opinion on each issue, swinging his arms wide with suggestions and pronouncements: This worked. Can we do that again? Can we try this? Can we go back to the thing that worked before?

Someone holds up a hat. It's a prototype, branded with removable, customizable SMF logos they might sell at Sunset.

"I like it," Santoro says. "That's hot."

The staffer flips over the cap and pulls down an inner lining: This, he says, is where some kids sneak in drugs. Santoro frowns.

"You need to make sure that our team is aware of that," he says. "I'm serious."

Based on early ticket sales, he's expecting more than 60,000 fans, his biggest audience yet. In the coming weeks, Sunset will roll out a carefully coordinated queue of announcements about enhanced safety and security measures. It's all been mapped out via conference calls linking coasts and continents, with Santoro at the center.

"The festival talks to me," he says. "It constantly talks to me."

This event is his name. He owns it. He knows it better than anyone. He wants nothing left to chance.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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