The scenic location, the mega star wattage and a calendar placement that kicks off the North American festival season, Ultra continues to command big moments—two decades after its start.
Armin van Buuren at the 2017 Ultra Music Festival.
As he watched Grammynominated DJ Paul van Dyk’s closing set in Collins Park on March 13, 1999, Ultra Music Festival co-founder and Miami native Russell Faibisch had a sense that the ambitious electronic music fest he created was something special. “Standing on the main stage that night, I realized we had actually pulled it off,” he says. That first year saw 10,000 electronic dance music fans descend on South Beach—last year’s attendance was up to 165,000. And that’s only at Ultra in Miami. The Ultra festival is now a year-round global phenomenon with attendance in the millions. So just how did Faibisch make magic happen?
Lets begin with the lineup. Yes, it features huge stars (Steve Aoki, The Chainsmokers, Azealia Banks, Marshmello are all confirmed for this year’s festival) but it is also known for elevating lesser-known names. A 16-year-old Dutch DJ named Martin Garrix was scouted by SB Projects (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) in Miami in 2013, and has since had four No. 1’s on the Billboard Hot 100. “Russell and his team are great at booking talent that end up blowing up,” says Matt Medved, director of dance and electronic programming for Billboard, who recalls seeing Skrillex perform on a small stage in 2011. In 2015, joining Skrillex on the main stage were Justin Bieber, Diplo, Diddy and K-pop star CL.
Another huge draw: the dynamic and non-traditional DJ sets that have long distinguished Ultra from other festivals. “They were early to give electronic acts a platform for live performances, and now you see that all the time with the biggest acts in the world like The Chainsmokers,” says Medved. But perhaps it is Adam Russakoff, Ultra’s executive producer, who can best pinpoint the key to their success: “We’ve always offered a radical view of dance music by incorporating crossover and live performances,” he says. “It’s vital to remain unique while still staying within the confines of electronic performances.”
In addition to the A-list dance acts that are confirmed for the March 23 weekend, one can only guess who will be tapped to bring the non-EDM flash. There was Madonna in 2012 and Snoop Dog in 2013. Will 2018 be the year of Cardi B? For his part, Faibisch promises something “mindblowing” to ring in the 20th anniversary thanks to new technologies. Less glamorous but critical will be continued attention to safety due to recent mass shootings at music events. City of Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina has given public assurances that safety preparations are underway for the outdoor event.
Beyond the actual event, Ultra Worldwide—the umbrella company for the festival—will continue to grow. With 10,000 employees worldwide, Ultra held events across six continents last year, and more are anticipated this year with special focus on Asia (where from June to September last year 17 events were held with 400,000 fans attending and 25 million viewers tuning into livestreams). Radio, film and multiple sub-fests and residencies, like Resistance Ibiza, which debuted last year, will also be a focus. “We’ve got so many new and exciting projects slated to launch within the next five years,” says Faibisch, whose company does not release revenue numbers, though in 2013 organizers said that the fest that year had an economic impact of $79 million on the South Florida economy. “I’m only at the halfway point with another 20 years to complete my part in the Ultra story.”
Photography by: PHOTOS BY WORLD RED EYE