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Five hundred people. That's how many bodies it takes to get Miami's massive Ultra Music Festival off the ground and running. Five hundred people. From promoters in nearly every major city in the country, to a production staff that ranks among the world's finest. Five hundred people. All on the same page, all for the same cause, and all coming together for one of the most action-packed events in music.
But behind that 500 is a core of two — one pair of men who had a big idea and ran with it. A couple of local cats who didn't wait for some door to open, but instead went ahead and kicked it in on their own. And once they'd breached the threshold, no one could hold them back.
We speak of Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes, founders and directors of Ultra Music Festival, which is now in its 11th year. It was their baby to begin with, and it remains their baby to this day. The two handle everything from pulling permits to booking superstars and whatever other not-so-simple logistics such a mammoth undertaking entails. And as the evidence shows, their hands-on approach has moved many multitudes.
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In fact, last year Ultra boasted an attendance in excess of 70,000; this year should prove to be even bigger. New Times sat down with Faibisch and Omes on the eve of another milestone to see if we might find out what it takes to make such a great thing possible.
New Times: What was the original idea behind Ultra?
Russell Faibisch: Well, we started doing Ultra club nights. The first one was at Shadow Lounge. We had an Ultra Weekend — with Paul Oakenfold, Dimitri from Amsterdam, Dmitri from Deee-Lite, Dave Ralph — and that sold out. It was tremendous.
We wanted to keep doing them, but at the time, no club wanted to give us Friday and Saturday nights, so we decided to create our own venue, do our own thing. We'd been going to festivals, and that was our hobby and our passion. All the DJs were coming for Winter Music Conference, so we booked 'em and made it happen.
When did you actually become an official part of Winter Music Conference?
Faibisch: We teamed up with [WMC founders] Bill Kelly and Lou Possenti, I would say, for Ultra 6, which was 2004.
The first two Ultra festivals were on South Beach, and then you outgrew it and moved to Bayfront Park. At what point did you decide it was time to graduate beyond Bayfront to Bicentennial Park, and then expand the festival to two days?
Faibisch: We did five years at Bayfront Park, until we sold it out with 30,000 people. It was the first time Bayfront Park sold out a gated event at the amphitheater. Then it was time to look for a bigger venue, so we moved next door to Bicentennial Park, which is pretty much double the capacity.
That first year at Bicentennial, with The Prodigy and the Killers, we very nearly sold out. And that's when we decided to expand the festival concept to two days, so we could continue booking more artists, higher-quality artists, and continue growing the festival.
What have been some of the highlights for you, personally, over the years?
Faibisch: Ultra 5 with Underworld live in the amphitheater was beautiful chaos — it was amazing. It was the first time they'd been to Florida, and people went nuts.
Another highlight was in 2004, when we started an electro stage. At the time, it was totally new, totally fresh, and cutting-edge. We had a lineup of The Rapture live, LCD Soundsystem live, Miss Kittin live, Too Many DJs, Ambulance LTD live — just a crazy lineup. For then, it was super-cutting-edge.
The interesting thing is the stage was not a success. What we booked was a success, but it was not well attended at all. But we started something. And ever since then, we've been incorporating that sound into the whole festival. And you see where we're at this year with Booka Shade, Simian Mobile Disco, Cut Copy, and those kinds of artists.
I'd also like to mention The Prodigy's set at Ultra 8, the first time they played the festival. It was amazing. That's really the year when the Carl Cox tent was born, and you see what it has become. The year after that, one of the best highlights ever was Fatboy Slim, who had the 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday time slot in the Carl Cox tent. It was magic. Last year it was David Guetta, and it was ridiculous! This year it's gonna be Erick Morillo in that slot.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about specific artists on this year's bill. First off, why Black Eyed Peas?
Faibisch: There's a very good reason for the Black Eyed Peas. Right now they're coming out with a new album [The E.N.D.], and it's very electronic. Actually five of the tracks are produced by DJs, including both Crookers and Fedde Le Grand. Will.i.am is really into the dance scene right now, and he wanted to use this as a promotional opportunity to get to a new core of fans with their new sound.
How does the booking break down?
Alex Omes: We do a lot of research, find out what's hot, who's got the best tracks, who are the best acts.
Do you delegate, say, the Carl Cox tent?
Faibisch: That's a collaborative effort between Carl's manager and us... I mean, it's his world.
What's the capacity of the main stage area?
Faibisch: It depends on who's playing, but at peak hour, there's probably about 20,000 people.
That's insane! How many stages and tents are there altogether?
Faibisch: This year there are eight per day, so 16 over the course of two days. And that's been brought down. When we did Ultra 8, we had 14 stages in one day! We've been lowering the amount of stages but beefing up the quality of the production.
Do you think the economy is going to affect this year's attendance?
Omes: Well, everything's down this year about 20 percent, especially in clubs, but what we do is a little different. For one fair price, you get a hundred DJs.
Are you guys a part of Ultra Records as well?
Faibisch: They're our partners for New York events, and we are signed to the label. Every year they release a new Ultra Music Festival compilation.
I heard talk of an Ultra magazine too.
Faibisch: We just launched an e-newsletter/e-magazine.
What other Ultra action have you guys got going on?
Faibisch: We just did three amazing sold-out shows in Brazil with Tiësto, Carl Cox, Erick Morillo, Fedde Le Grand, and Benny Benassi. We do Ibiza with Club Amnesia — one show in August and one show in September. We've done Puerto Rico and we're doing it again. And we're closing a deal right now to get into Mexico City.
Omes: And we're also working on Ultra club nights for Miami, New York, and Vegas.
What overall changes can folks expect at this year's Ultra?
Faibisch: The best lineup and production that Ultra's ever done by far. We've truly taken production to the next level this year.
Omes: It's gonna be unreal.