What Does It Mean?

This past Saturday on a breezy yet warm night, the Nocturnal warehouse at 50 NE 11th Street in downtown Miami bubbled with flashing lights and pounding house music. On its rooftop lounge, club director Dade Sokoloff shuffled CDs into the mixer. He played Louie Vega's achingly beautiful Elements of Life and then inserted a rare collaboration CD between Paul Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim, all for the enjoyment of a handful of friends enraptured by a digital video display projected onto a canopy tent covering much of the lounge.

But Sokoloff, his wife, and associates weren't there to celebrate Nocturnal's launch after nearly three years of work. Instead, they drank beer and champagne, played with the club's "toys," and wondered about the week that wasn't.

"I spent the week trying to get the club open," said Sokoloff. He called the music festival popularly known as WMC "the worst week of my professional life."

Of the more than 300 bacchanals taking place during March 22-26, when this year's official Winter Music Conference was held at the Wyndham Resort, as well as for several days before and after those dates, Nocturnal's debut was the most eagerly anticipated affair of them all. Built over three years at a cost of an estimated twelve million dollars, the club had not only drawn many of the week's hottest parties but had also gathered a cacophonous buzz from a club crowd whose never-ending quest is to find new spaces to conquer and pillage.

The first sign of trouble was when Nocturnal's managers hastily canceled a "sneak preview" scheduled for Friday, March 18. The following Monday they moved the club's first official event, a Phuture party featuring cutting-edge techno and trance producers such as Tiefschwarz and the MFA, to Space.

Throughout the week, they continued to move some of the acts they had booked to other locations: Fatboy Slim, for example, was moved to crobar, while the Aquabooty party was taken to Opium Garden and turned into a free afternoon jam. Other parties, including Saturday's Contagious Musiq showcase with Rabbit in the Moon and many others, were canceled altogether. Sokoloff claims that all the artists and promoters were paid and that club owner Glenn Kofman lost "hundreds of thousands" as a result.

Oddly enough, the Nocturnal people never made an official announcement concerning its progress. So as it became clear to all that Nocturnal was having serious problems opening its doors, several conspiracy theories emerged. Some whispered notorious Space owner Louis Puig influenced the City of Miami to deny the club its permits, while others opined the police "busted" Nocturnal on some sort of offense. (What kind of "bust," you ask? Don't ask me; I'm only repeating the rumor.)

Sokoloff strongly dismissed both fantasies and explained that when Nocturnal didn't pass its roof inspection, inspectors required that he apply roof sealant and other finishing materials in order to ensure that it could withstand the weight of hundreds of people. However, he says that the club passed a number of other inspections, including ones for health and electrical permits. "You name it, we passed it," he says.

"Look, we didn't get it fucking finished. That's the bottom line," he continued, noticeably fried from a lack of sleep. So when will the damn club open? "Oh no, not that again," he laughs. "I'm not saying until it's finished."

In years past, there was one story that dominated the conference. In 2003 it was America's invasion of Iraq and its calamitous effect on a tourist industry still recovering from 9/11. Last year it was the arrival of the M3 Summit, a new conference that sought to woo back all the hipsters and record-industry folk who had stopped going to Winter Music Conference.

But this year's edition seemed diffuse and scattershot. While it's difficult to imagine a single nightclub becoming the talk of a weeklong event spread across two cities and involving tens of thousands of people, the Nocturnal fiasco was on the shortlist of conversation starters. Then there was the three-year-old Remix Hotel, a free confab for technology junkies. It seemed to yield a surprising amount of positive feedback among its 4856 registrants. Though that was only a slight increase over last year's 4800 attendees, more people than before seemed to be talking about the three-day event than before.

As usual, so many parties took place throughout the week that I can't make much more than general observations about them all. It seemed there were more VIP events than in years past. On Friday there was BBE Records' Real Music for Real People at the totally unreal Skybar at the Shore Club, where Questlove threw down Leaders of the New School's "Case of the PTA" and other old-school hip-hop classics. On that same night, a nondescript mansion on Pine Tree Drive was host to Sasha, who spun a furious tag-team set with James Zabiela and shocked many with his newly bald pate. As for those parties open to the public, Bugz in the Attic's showcase at Amika Monday, the Club Shelter event at Nikki Beach Thursday, Danny Howells's party at B.E.D. Wednesday, and the cool-as-fuck Revolver event at Pawn Shop Lounge Friday all received high marks.

As usual, the prospect of too many parties, alcohol, drugs, and fake tits (one friend complained that he felt as if his eyeballs were about to explode) drove many men and women to feel burned-out, overwhelmed, and dehydrated. Compounding matters were several complaints about the cavalier treatment some doormen, particularly the fine fellows at Opium Garden and Rokbar, were inclined to dish out to their would-be patrons. Such a combination of 24-hour partying and rude behavior from South Beach natives led many to wonder: What does it all mean?

Not much, at least to an industry that calculates winners and losers according to their Soundscan sales totals. Of the thousands of DJs, musicians, and vocalists who performed here last week, only John Legend, who headlined an M3 Sunset Session Wednesday, saw his last album go platinum -- unless one counts P. Diddy's surprise appearance with Felix da Housecat at the Revolver party, where he reportedly "jacked his body" like a metronome.

For now there isn't an American festival that has supplanted WMC as the premier showcase for electronic music. Most critically acclaimed artists flirting with mainstream success, however, are making South by Southwest (SXSW), the Austin, Texas industry conference that took place a week before WMC from March 11 to 20 (and turned journalists who had to attend both into burned-out zombies); or Coachella Valley Music Festival, which takes place from April 30 to May 1 in Indio, California, their major priorities. Unfortunately WMC is losing its reputation for featuring breakthrough performances by new and interesting acts, though M3's Sunset Sessions can count Brazilian Girls last year and Mylo this year as part of its growing list.

One prime example is Astralwerks Records, which decided not to host a WMC showcase this year. Astralwerks general manager Errol Kolosine notes that four of its artists -- newcomer Juliet, dance-rock hybrid Radio 4, Ben Watt, and the aforementioned Fatboy Slim -- made appearances in Miami last week. But he admits that others on its roster were more interested in playing at SXSW, where Astralwerks mounted two popular showcases, than WMC. "In all honesty, this year we didn't have the availability of enough of our artists to build a big event," he says.

Winter Music Conference is usually blamed for this lack of enthusiasm and disinterest. Over the past two years, however, co-founders Bill Kelly and Louis Possenti have tentatively begun to work with local nightclubs and add value to the badges -- that is, cut deals so badgeholders can get into parties for free or at a discounted rate. Though the laminate badges still wouldn't get you into most nightclubs, I saw several people wearing badges at exclusive, difficult-to-access VIP events such as the BBE joint at Skybar and the Defected Records pool party at the National Hotel. Perhaps Winter Music Conference is drawing more industry hustlers than people think.

If the good folks behind WMC, M3, and now Remix Hotel want to return WMC to its onetime role as one of the country's premier showcases for new music, they will have to continue to tame South Beach. They will need to do a better job of attracting young and hot musicians who want to actually sell records, not just mature into thirtysomething "superstar DJs." They will have to make financial deals with the city's premium nightclubs, from the towering Mansion to the opulent Mynt, and even downtown Miami's Pawn Shop Lounge and I/O. Then they will have to ensure that record-industry people who fly into Miami from around the world won't have to deal with overzealous bouncers, drunk meatheads looking to kick some hapless guy's ass or molest various women, and velvet-rope bullshit. It's a tall task that will keep WMC from drifting into irrelevance, if not necessarily obsolescence.

After twenty years of surprising growth and disturbing complacency, Miami's much-beloved music festival still has the ears -- and hearts -- of thousands. But, like the hundreds of industry folk who have already turned their attention toward SXSW and Coachella, many of us are wondering if WMC is merely full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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