How Russell Faibisch Built Ultra Music Festival -- and Whom He's Battled Along the Way

How Russell Faibisch Built Ultra Music Festival -- and Whom He's Battled Along the Way
George Martinez
Russell Faibisch, cofounder of Ultra Music Festival. View the slide show 15 Years of Ultra Music Festival.

Russell Faibisch left the Outback Steakhouse on 21st Street in Miami Beach on March 12, 1999, the night before he was to launch his huge beachside electronic music festival.

"We had a big family dinner. Everyone was feeling really good," Faibisch recalls now. "Later, as I drove away, something bizarre happened." He got pulled over by a cop. "I ended up getting arrested for something with my tag — something ridiculous. I had never been in trouble before and had never gone to jail."

Faibisch sat locked up as the hours ticked away. The show could not go on without him.

Ultra debuted in 1999 on Miami Beach with a modest setup.
Courtesy of Ultra Music Festival
Ultra debuted in 1999 on Miami Beach with a modest setup.
An early shot of DJ/producer Tiësto.
Courtesy of Ultra Music Festival
An early shot of DJ/producer Tiësto.

"Everyone was waiting for me because I had the cashier's checks," he remembers. "The sound company would not turn the sound on until they had the money up-front."

See also: 15 Years of Ultra Music Festival (Photos) | WMC / MMW 2013 Events

After about eight hours of uncertainty, Faibisch was released (the charges would later be dropped), made his way to Collins Park, and handed over the remaining payments. Gates opened at 11 a.m. as planned.

Ten thousand fans swarmed the event as electronic dance music (EDM) acts including Josh Wink, Baby Anne, and Paul van Dyk cycled through the event's main stage and 100-plus-decibel beats boomed over the city. As partiers danced, got half-naked and sweaty, and ran from the concert to jump into the ocean and back, Faibisch and his business partner, then-28-year-old Alejandro Alex Omes, spent the day running around and troubleshooting.

After nightfall, the headliner, Rabbit in the Moon, a Tampa-based electronic act, took the stage. This was the climax to a hectic day for the young promoters. Faibisch, Omes, and their friends slowed down to catch the performance. Faibisch was sure to soak it all in. He had succeeded in breaking out of the nightclub scene and pulled off a $200,000 event. He was 21 years old.

"To watch it unfold before our eyes was something really special," Faibisch remembers.

On a recent day this February, Faibisch, now 35 but still with cherub cheeks and boyish features, wore classic Miami business casual — blue jeans and a button-up — and retraced his steps at Collins Park.

"I remember walking on the sand here in 1998 and looking at this beach and dreaming," he says, "dreaming of what we could do, of what was possible."

Today, Faibisch's Ultra Music Festival and its related projects make up a monster business. There are satellite Ultra festivals in Brazil, Ibiza, South Korea, Croatia, Argentina, and Chile. There are Ultra radio broadcasts, film premieres, and a partnership with legendary New York City label Ultra Records.

And no one can deny that Ultra has become a powerful force in Miami. An economic-impact report commissioned by the festival estimates that it pumped $79 million into the local economy last year, when it had grown to be a three-day party. This year, the event will double to take place over six days on two weekends. A record 400,000 attendees are expected, making Ultra the largest music festival anywhere in the United States in a city's downtown core. The only other festival that comes close is Chicago's Lollapalooza, a three-day affair at Grant Park.

Along its 15-year journey, Ultra has had to battle city commissioners, a debauched image, and the Winter Music Conference (WMC) that paved the way for it. And last August, cofounder Omes filed a lawsuit against Faibisch, alleging that he was illegally kicked out of the company during a "secret shareholders' meeting." But as the saying goes, you can't make it to the top without making a few enemies.

Born and raised in the western suburbs of Miami-Dade, Russell Faibisch inherited a knack for business from his father, who shares his name with his son. The elder Faibisch, a Brooklyn native and bail bondsman since 1968, founded Surety Corporation of America, a company that provides underwriting services to more than 650 bail bond agents nationwide. As a teenager, the younger Faibisch worked in the family business.

"People ask me if doing Ultra is hard," Faibisch says now. "But after working with criminals, Ultra seems like a piece of cake."

While attending Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School, he developed a love for electronic music.

"It was Depeche Mode in [1993] for the 'Devotion Tour' at the Miami Arena that everything clicked for me," Faibisch says, "and I realized that this was what I want my life to be. Somehow, someway, but I hadn't figured exactly how yet." Later, he would name his festival after Depeche Mode's 1997 studio album, Ultra.

Also in 1993, Faibisch attended Divine Playground, one of the city's first major rave events, held in March 1993 at Bayfront Park. It featured an eclectic lineup — live acts like 808 State and Rage Against the Machine along with DJs like Icey, Sven Vath, and Keoki. Faibisch describes the event as "ahead of its time."

"I was young, but that experience for me was like, 'This is it; this is what I want to do.'"

The then-15-year-old started attending raves around the city, becoming a full-fledged promoter by the time he turned 20. He attended business classes at Florida International University but eventually dropped out when Ultra started to consume all of his time.

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29 comments
Tim Pritchard
Tim Pritchard

There's definitely some pros at Ultra Festival. Not really my music scene but a party is a party & Ultra is a huge f'ing party. Party on Wayne.

sticks_7
sticks_7

Ultra Music Festival Hope to see You in 2014 watched 2013 Sets were amazing especially liked hardwell, armin van buren, Skrillex and david guetta.

MusicLover
MusicLover

ULTRA has evolved into the Epitome of Cultural & Human Decadence but if it generates money then why not right? Everyone's for sale and so Miami will become another Vegas. Way to push the culture forward!


mickeybailbonds
mickeybailbonds

I've been there with Russell through Amoeba, Magical Maydaze and Ultra.  Will ALWAYS have much love for Ultra and Russell.  I wish I had stayed in Miami and continued through the process with Russ, but after 08 and The Cure, there wasn't much else to conquer.  EDM has become WAYYY too commercialized.  Russell gave me a hand at getting into the bailbond business and has had an extremely positive impact in my life.  I love him dearly (and Charlie, too, but not so much Adam).  Keep doing your thing, boys, and stop listening to the assholes like "the ultra truth"; you guys make Miami proud!!!

theultratruth
theultratruth

THIS FAMILY HAS ACCEPTED MONEY FROM SOME OF THE MOST HIGH PROFILED CRIMINALS IN THE WORLD. SAY WHAT YOU ARE PROUDLY AND STOP TRYING TO BE A VICTIM! YOU ARE NO MARK ZUCKERBERG! YOUR A MAJOR DIRTY PLAYER IN THE GAME! LOOK I'M MAKING YOU FAMOUS!

theultratruth
theultratruth

"WE THE PUBLIC, FEEL THAT WE ARE BEING PLAYED" 

"GIVE MUSIC BACK TO THE PEOPLE" YES TO EDM !! NO TO ULTRA !!

Jimbo99
Jimbo99

Might wanna publish the short list of who got paid kickbacks along the way too. Notice how the dead grass in the park and crowd issues downtown disappeared for weekend #2 when they paid off the city for another $ 500K ? Guess someone's kid needed braces or that college fund needed seed money ? Who knows, maybe it was a house upgrade just the same ?

Frank Castle
Frank Castle

i wanna see the story behind WMC...that should be good

jjcolagrande
jjcolagrande topcommenter

Nice clip, well-written, plenty of scope and context.. 

As usual, Mr. Ophir sounds like a snob. 

Two weeks of Ultra is a horrible idea for downtown corridor...



smeejay
smeejay

You should be a teacher.

Jimbo99
Jimbo99

@theultratruth @Jimbo99 That's the key to most anything, make that money on the front end and the back end of it all too. It's the bait/lure of an extravagant event. I think those that got arrested on drug charges, well if they aren't smart enough to figure it out, there's having a good time and then just making an azz out of yourself.

theultratruth
theultratruth

@Jimbo99 @theultratruth maybe this has more to do with just being arrested at ultra. maybe it has to do with morality, and codes we live by as human beings.     ::::::::focus on the light going off in your head, and not the one flashing in front of your face:::::   

Jimbo99
Jimbo99

@theultratruth @Jimbo99 Again, we're talking about Ultra & being arrested and needing to be bailed out of jail. Why would one get arrested at Ultra ? Probably because that person is making an azz out of themselves. Urinating in public ? Looking for a hooker ? Public intoxication ? On some controlled substance(s) ? Fighting ? Those that can't conduct themselves in a socially responsible manner are for the most part the troublemakers that wind up needing bail bond services. If one doesn't want to take that risk, stay away from the event ?

As for someone that attempted to kill another ? One would have to wonder what the alleged victim did to merit that kind of response. People generally have no reason to try to kill anyone. Not unless you did something to drive them to do that ? Did you rip them off or screw them over in a big enough business dealing, whether it was legal or illegal ? Or was it because someone slept with another's wife ? In any scenario, there is cause & effect. Just me, but sometimes exercising a little judgement & common sense, you have to know when it's time to go to sleep every night ? The acid test for anything should be whether whatever happened was good for all involved.

theultratruth
theultratruth

@Jimbo99 @theultratruth you don't have to do drugs or be drunk to end up in jail. I didn't read half of what you wrote but I know what it's about. now that the issue is more to light......we don't need bail bonds man....actually its just another unnecessary process in the system. why can't we pay within the confides of jail itself? Also, let's say for example someone try's to kill you, but lets say its not booked as attempted murder, then that person can bond out and kill your ass. I don't expect you to have any morals, I just hope you do. But then again your probably hypnotized by Ultra and all the fireworks. Your all sheep. Unless your a wolf too.

Jimbo99
Jimbo99

@theultratruth @Jimbo99 That's the point, nobody I know has ever been in jail and going there isn't an option in my lifetime or theirs, we're law biding citizens not losers. My life is drug free, and that includes alcohol. Anyone that needs an illegal substance to feel/experience life deserves to be in jail in my opinion, because that's what the rules are. I don't want to be around anyone doing or selling drugs, because inevitably they'll wind up in jail. Drugs are a game that being the loser on or selling them is what makes you the police department's customer. Raise the standards for yourself and those in your life and bail bond scumbags are the last people in this community you'll ever meet in your lifetime. Those that went to Ultra on drugs put themselves in a position to have bail bond people become a part of their life. I'm not looking to finance their lifestyle. If I stand in line at a store to make a purchase, that's longer than I want them around me just the same as the drug addicts and abusers.

 
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