Felix da Housecat closes WMC 2008 at The Florida Room
This means war! Such has been the mood in dance music circles since November, as the annual Winter Music Conference and the Ultra Music Festival—held simultaneously since 1999—parted company. The acrimony started when the WMC announced it was moving its dance music industry gathering to the extended weekend of March 11, while Ultra declared its beat-focused bacchanalia was staying put on its traditional Spring Break weekend of March 25.
It hasn’t degenerated into rival packs of glowstick-wielding kids charging at each other across Washington Avenue—yet. But from the blogosphere to the front page of the Miami Herald, there have been dueling accusations of rampant greed, organizational incompetence and, not least, a betrayal of electronic music’s supposedly egalitarian ethos.
Louis Puig, owner of downtown Miami’s Club Space—a local heavyweight—stepped forward with a much-ballyhooed open letter, pointing the finger of blame squarely at Ultra’s head, Russell Faibisch. “When in doubt, always chase the money,” Puig wrote. “Ultra is trying to monopolize WMC by engaging exclusive contracts with all the major DJs, which will not allow them to perform at your favorite dance clubs… You can also forget about seeing them at your favorite pool parties. You either pay the overpriced Ultra admission or you don’t get to see and dance to your favorite DJ at all… so much for democracy and your rights as a consumer.”
Puig’s populist righteousness would be a bit more credible if he himself hadn’t already deployed these same tactics at Space. Indeed, such exclusivity clauses have long been standard fare for concert promoters all across America— whether booking Paul Oakenfold or The Oak Ridge Boys.
As for those halcyon pool parties, they usually had little to do with the WMC. The Conference, begun in 1986 by Fort Lauderdale DJs Bill Kelly and Louis Possenti, started as more of an insidery trade show of sorts, and was initially clueless and often outright hostile toward these types of independently organized satellite shindigs—whether poolside or, in the case of Ultra’s 1999 debut, on the sands of South Beach just off Ocean Drive.
Crowd at Ultra 2010
“For years the conference was a largely gay, house-driven affair,” observed music critic Jeff Salamon in the Austin American-Statesman. “Then, in the mid-’90s, the country’s burgeoning rave scene—dominated by younger, largely straight dancers who listened to faster, noisier and more disorienting subgenres like jungle and hardcore—made inroads into the conference, often without explicit approval from the organizers. For the next couple of years, there were two different conferences going on at once, one for gay men 30 years and older who dressed in tank tops and did poppers, the other for multiply pierced teens and 20-somethings in baggy pants with a fondness for Ecstasy.”
It was this latter “counter-conference” that generated most of the industry excitement. As one record label distributor griped to me back in 2000, “The conference itself was a big waste of time. Almost all of the meetings I had were with the people who weren’t staying at the [conference hotel.] Ninety-five percent of the people I spoke with have no intention of registering next year; they’re just going to show up in South Beach anyway.”
A decade on, the WMC has continued its slide into irrelevance, with attendance dipping from over 5,000 to last year’s claimed 3,763 delegates. Meanwhile, Ultra moved to Bayfront Park and grew into one of the country’s topgrossing festivals, drawing upwards of 100,000 people. With a third day of music added to this year’s edition, Ultra looks set to top its 2010 take of $7 million.
Which is where Ultra’s clash with the WMC appears to have originated: Unable to secure a large convention-style hotel for the weekend of March 25, the WMC picked an earlier weekend whose Sunday ran concurrently with the massive Calle Ocho street festival on the mainland. Timothy Schmand, executive director of Bayfront Park, confirmed to the Herald that there simply weren’t enough police officers available to work both Calle Ocho and Ultra on the same day. Ultra’s organizers obviously felt they now had just as much name recognition and international clout as the WMC—and that the flock of events that had always piggybacked on the WMC would simply realign themselves with Ultra and its 100,000-strong crowd.
So far, Ultra’s gambit has paid off. Most higher-profile DJs are staging their events to coincide with Ultra. The WMC has issued a statement saying they were “blindsided” by Ultra’s move, but that they remain confident that their event would be more memorable: “The quintessential WMC experience is really about the camaraderie between pioneering artists and industry legends—walking into a club or pool party and seeing your favorite artists up on stage performing among their own peers.” That might be convincing if “the quintessential WMC experience” had ever had anything to do with the WMC’s own organizers.