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It developed from a rather small thing by the beach into one of the biggest festivals you have in the U.S. And it represents nearly everything electronic music has to offer, and so therefore it's one of the most important festivals not just in the States, but in the world."
The man earnestly selling the virtues of Miami's own Ultra Music Festival during a crackly Transatlantic phone call from Berlin is Paul van Dyk, a rather famous trance DJ who plays eleventy billion festivals all over the world in any given year. (Okay, maybe not that many, but it seems like it.) Ultra organizers Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes handpicked him to perform the closing set at the fest's first edition, and he has done so every year since the event's inception in 1999.
Faibisch and Omes estimate the first year drew 7,000 people, the second 15,000, and the third 23,000. They grew it last year to its current two-day setup, for which they expect 50,000 attendees of all persuasions and residential locations. Although Ultra is officially affiliated with Winter Music Conference, the successful transition of the festival from South Beach to the downtown waterfront is a significant symbol.
"Over the last 10 years, Winter Music Conference is one thing, but Ultra as a stand-alone festival developed into something," confirms van Dyk. "People scribble it in their calendars way before it's actually happening because they know it's important to be there."
"There are many festivals in the world that do something similar, but Ultra has something unique because it's the one and only festival like that in the States," Junkie XL says in an eerily similar interview. Junkie, a.k.a. Tom Holkenborg, is a Dutch expatriate living in Los Angeles who has played several editions of Ultra. "It draws all the fans from all over the States to that festival because they can see everybody pretty much at the same time. And I think that's what's unique about it.
"For instance, if I compare it with Holland, we have roughly 10, 15 festivals like that in one year," he continues. "And then you go to Belgium — which is just an hour-and-a-half, two-hour drive — another 10. And then you go to England, another 15, 20. And then you go to Germany, another 15 to 20. So people have loads of different festivals to choose from, and it definitely has an impact on how people feel about the festivals. Here people in October are already talking about the fact that they're going to Ultra and so looking forward to it. You don't have conversations like that in Europe, because any month you can pick four or five that you want to go to."
"Ultra shows a lot of change in what the Winter Music Conference has been and what the Miami scene has been," says Philip Blaine, director of festivals for Goldenvoice, which produces Coachella, the annual West Coast event to which Ultra is loosely compared. "Winter Music Conference wasn't so much of a social scene as it is now. Back in the early Nineties, it was more a pure music conference. Now it's like a phenomenon just like South by Southwest is. Where Coachella is really a destination, Winter Music Conference, Ultra, and South Beach are three great reasons to go to Miami. They do a great job with their lineup, because Miami is more of a dance music market in general, and it's particularly so during the Winter Music Conference."
"Coachella is more like a crossover festival that has a good amount of attention for electronic music, but covers everything that mattered in music that year over a very broad range," notes Junkie. "Ultra is an electronic festival that has some bands playing there that may be influential for some electronic artists — like the Cure or the Killers and Bravery. Coachella is very unique as well; it is more like a crossover festival. But those to me are the two festivals that it's all about here in the States at this point."
As Ultra has grown, it has pushed both its new and its regular artists and DJs to blossom right along with it. It has also nudged attendees to expand their ears and learn about new and unfamiliar sounds alongside familiar favorites.
"It is somewhat a challenge as an artist," admits van Dyk. "The first few years, of course there were the hard-core fans of electronic music. [Now] you get a lot of other people as well that are interested in music in general and that are trying to experience something new. And it's always a challenge to convince them. Obviously, when I play on the main stage, it's not all Paul van Dyk fans down there. It's a big crowd, and I'm trying to rock them, trying to entertain them and make them understand why I like this kind of music so much. This is a challenge, and this is something I really enjoy doing. This is why Ultra is special for me."
Outside of DJing, van Dyk enjoys taking in as much of the festival as he can each year. "I've seen so many fantastic things it's difficult to point something out, really," he says and then singles out the drum 'n' bass arena for its consistency year after year. He also appreciates the world-class talent of reigning Miami DJs such as Oscar G, Ralph Falcon, and Edgar V, the last with whom van Dyk has toured. And for his part, van Dyk is excited about stretching himself further and inspiring others this year by playing live — totally live, he stresses — at Ultra for the first time. He plans to bring along several of the vocalists from last year's album, In Between, for the 90-minute set.
The event is about more than superstar DJs and headlining acts, though. It has always given light to locals, semi-locals, and young upstarts, and that's an essential part of its vitality. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, Village Voice Media (New Times' parent company), for example, sponsors a yearly DJ contest, whose prize is a coveted performance slot at Ultra. Winners have come from cities as far away as San Francisco and surely would come from locales even farther away if the rules allowed international entries.
"It's very important to us to support local talent as well," says Omes. "I book talent every single weekend at clubs here in Miami, so I always know who's up-and-coming and what will be the hottest thing to have at Ultra." He has also honed his approach for the festival's longevity. "I think basically what we need to do to have the key to success is change with the times, of course: add some new, live element ... and have new talent, the up-and-coming and new generations."
"For the past five years, we've gone into some live elements, but with the same core of what it is that we do with electronic music," says Faibisch. "We're always trying to do new things and stay true to the electronic music as well as cross over where it fits."
"To me, Ultra Music Festival — like only a handful of historical events — has become part of the American culture," says Fort Lauderdale's Galaxy Girl (a.k.a. Jeannette Romeu), a trance artist who has performed at the event several times.
The festival has meaning above and beyond a career boost for Galaxy Girl; Ultra actually shaped her whole musical identity, based on a pivotal show she performed in 1999. "By the time I was finished, a young teenage couple came to me and said, 'You are Galaxy Girl, aren't you?'" she remembers. "And I said, 'No, I'm Jeannette Romeu.' And they insisted, 'No! You are Galaxy Girl; we just saw you play up on the stage!' So I laughed and my friends and manager Alan Freed were next to me and kept saying, 'Yes, that's her! She is Galaxy Girl!' So that night I became the Galaxy Girl. True story."
After all of that, no one even bothered to talk about the ridiculously fun people-watching at Ultra; that's gotten only bigger and bolder as the years have passed. Check it out next weekend, or when the planned 10th-anniversary DVD drops later this year.