Battle of the Music Mega-Fests
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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.
Photographs by Seth Browarnik