Behind the Curtain

The Ultra Music Festival is part music, part counterculture, and all business

In the seven years since the Ultra Music Festival began as a neat little block party starring Florida's own Rabbit in the Moon on a fenced-off section of sand behind the Outback Steakhouse on Collins Avenue, some of its most outspoken critics have been those people you'd expect to have problems with Miami's answer to the rave scene that by 1999 was on the wane in its native England: civic officials and police officers. The underground dance music scene was not only associated with sweat-drenched packs of body-modified, glow-stick wielding youths, but with their drug of choice, Ecstasy (MDMA). A hit-and-miss chemical concoction, Ecstasy and its variants had been linked by law enforcement in Florida cities, including Miami, to deaths and injuries not particularly caused from overdoses but from heat stroke triggered from hours of dancing, dehydration, and falls.

As might also have been anticipated, when the festival jumped the Intracoastal to Bayfront Park and began pulling larger audiences and an ever more prestigious lineup of DJs and electronic music acts, an equally vocal fan base sprang up from the area's growing cadre of loosely aligned club kids, nightlife promoters, spare room mixtape makers, circuit-party aficionados, and Ecstasy geeks. In Miami's strict caste system of nightlife and clubs, the outdoor dance party was egalitarian and democratic. Electronic music had an androgynous, intellectual appeal beyond the booty shakers, and the crowds -- dressed in baggy, comfortable, unisex cargo pants and T-shirts -- charged the early festivals with love and energy not necessarily of a sexualized sort.

Yet despite the predictable differences of opinion, Ultra has grown into a wonderfully successful all-day multistage concert, and one that -- in the face of last year's shocking failure of the briefly revived Lollapalooza and underwhelming Curiosa tours -- could arguably be called artistically and commercially unique. On Saturday, March 26, when the nearly 15,000 people expected stream into the park through the Biscayne Boulevard-side chutes and ticket booths into Ultra 7, a mini-village will have been erected to reflect a Potemkin-like temporary idyll of utopia. Chances are the illusion (or, for some, hallucination) will hold.

Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes are the brains behind Ultra Music 
Festival
photos by Jonathan Postal
Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes are the brains behind Ultra Music Festival
Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes are the brains behind Ultra Music 
Festival
Jonathan Postal
Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes are the brains behind Ultra Music Festival

The indisputable big-name headliner this year is Moby, whose music, through incessant licensing for car commercials, soft drinks, and extreme sports events, is as familiar to dads in Barcaloungers as it is to teens with iPods. But there are other, more credible, acts as well, including composer-keyboardist-DJ BT, the inventive multimedia performer Sander Kleinenberg, funk-tinged Timo Maas, and inevitable sets by the ubiquitous Tisto, Paul Oakenfold, Paul Van Dyk, and Ferry Corsten. Underworld, an underground cult draw for years since they were first known as Freur, won't be bringing their brooding samples and crisp designs around this season, so wild card hopes are pinned to local favorites Danny Tenaglia, Carl Cox (he of the three-hour sets legendary for their exhaustive tranciness), and Erick Morillo, who is popular for his Subliminal Sessions mix CD collections.

One of Ultra's newcomers, the Australian three-piece Infusion, plans to play a progressive house set with real instruments instead of turntables or laptop computers. Infusion sounds like Gary Numan with better production, a little like Interpol, a little like late-Nineties New Order. "We tend to have a rough, rock-and-roll mentality," says Infusion's Jamie Stevens. "We don't use software when we play live, so it's all very hands on."

Stevens says the group achieves tech resonance by loading all of its samples into a 28-channel mixer and then using those sounds spontaneously during each performance. Stevens says he expects crowds at Ultra "to have fun, jump around, and enjoy themselves."

That, generally, is the idea at the thirteen-hour show, an idea the City of Miami, after several balks and a couple of threats, seems now to wholeheartedly support and abet. Two years ago, citing concerns about drug use at the concert, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz threatened to pull the plug on Ultra.

City spokeswoman Kelly Penton, however, clucks with disapproval over the bad old days. "If you look at some of the things that were going on in the park, in terms of vendor sales and things the promoters allowed, let's face it, those things were associated with drug use -- the water, the lollipops, the tables where you could get a massage," Penton recalls. Most egregious, she says, was the "outrageous price for a bottle of water."

As is the case at most Miami-area nightclubs, bottled water at Ultra is pricey -- about six dollars a pop. But the city laid down the law about the beverage, issuing an entire multi-page document about how, where, and for how much money water may be sold. This, among other things, seems to have smoothed relations between Ultra and the City of Miami, despite the fact that in 2004, according to a story in the Miami Herald, there were 117 drug-related arrests at the festival, and more than $25,000 worth of Ecstasy, crystal meth, and marijuana was confiscated. (Ultra festivalgoers are not allowed to bring anything, including purses, picnic baskets, thermoses, or backpacks, into the concert.)

Thus, says Tim Schmand, executive director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, it becomes incumbent upon the Ultra environment to provide something along the lines of a commissary, a way for "people to purchase or get anything they'd want from the outside." The Trust staff is charged with the nuts and bolts of getting ready for, monitoring, and cleaning up after the festival.

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