It was on an early March morning last year when I fell out of bed, threw on some clothes, and sweatily stumbled down the several blocks or so that took me from the apartment where I was staying with two friends to an imperious-looking hotel on Washington Avenue in South Beach. I was invited there by a sales representative for Glaceau Vitamin Water, a tasty new juice drink then debuting in stores around the country ... actually, I didn't know what he wanted to talk about. But he had sent a free box full of the stuff to the New Times office a week before, asking to meet me for breakfast. I guess I felt that I owed him a conversation.

As I sat down at a table, I began to get the shakes, the inevitable result of three days and nights of hard drinking during the weeklong bacchanal that is the Winter Music Conference. I probably looked like a refugee from 24 Hour Party People, which is why a waiter didn't even approach me with a menu until an hour later.

Finally the Glaceau rep showed up, ready to talk business. He dished out his spiel for what seemed like an eternity -- Vitamin Water, a great new product in the grand tradition of Snapple, was changing the business of "innovative" beverages. Why was he telling this to a lowly editor at a weekly newspaper? "You are one of the influents," he told me, "one of the handful of people who influence everyone else."

Right. I shut up and took it all in, let him buy me breakfast, then walked out with a brand-new black cooler bag filled with ice and about fifteen complimentary bottles of Glaceau water. After all, the Winter Music Conference is a free-for-all, not just for the "influents," but for anyone willing to tolerate house music ringing in their ears.

A good percentage of the 250 or so parties that are scheduled to take place from Thursday, March 4, to Wednesday, March 10, can be accessed for no charge. Some of them have open bars; others give out food. The majority of them are sponsored by magazines (Vice, Spin), car manufacturers (Mitsubishi, Volkswagen), clothing labels (Diesel, Armani Exchange), media conglomerates (Playboy, Viacom), energy drinks (KMX, Red Bull), and hundreds of others. Most of these corporations just want to achieve synergy by bombarding passersby with advertising and giveaways over a 4/4 beat. For the consumer, that means being able to wander into a Bacardi bus cruising along Collins Avenue and get a complimentary cup of rum and Coke.

Ben Turner, British-born founding editor of Muzik magazine and creative director for Dancestar USA, points out that WMC -- at least as it's perceived by the dance world -- is more of a showcase than a summit where business gets done. He says that the latter purpose is better served by MIDEM, an international marketplace that draws 8000 industry folk to Cannes every January. Many of the songs that are bought by labels during MIDEM are "previewed" by DJs during WMC, then hit record stores during the summer.

Turner believes that MIDEM is more constructive -- he estimates that executives who travel there do several business meetings a day. "It's the nature of the thing. When you go to MIDEM, you're not trying to go to twenty parties a day," he explains. "Miami is more of a place where people catch up on their contacts." In contrast to the more industrious MIDEM, WMC has evolved into a pleasure carnival, the inevitable result of countless entrepreneurs trying to muscle in on the action, who could care less about the actual conference.

Dancestar USA, of course, has taken full advantage of WMC's audience, launching the American edition of its Dance Music Awards here in 2002. Miami, Music, and Multimedia (M3), a consortium of entertainment marketers and consultants led by veteran journalist David J. Prince, is another interloper. Its stated mission, according to one of its press releases, is to help the recording industry "face the rapidly changing demands of the business."

That hasn't stopped M3, however, from teaming up with Motorola to help sponsor the whole shebang; that company is probably more interested in shilling two-way pagers to rich young "influents" than saving a recording industry razed by illegal Internet downloading and declining album sales. More tellingly, the consortium has also locked itself into an arms race with WMC, fighting to offer the best parties for its respective constituents, who are shelling out $285 for an M3 passport. At press time, though, M3 held a slight advantage, thanks to exclusive passport-only events starring hot U.K. rapper Dizzee Rascal and electronic wunderkind Prefuse 73.

It's ironic that M3, far from sticking to a MIDEM-like approach that encourages lots of business meetings, is using the same kind of promotional tactics that have supposedly made WMC irrelevant. Another amusing result of the competition is watching everybody try to deal with the presence of TWO rival conferences. Some, well aware of the fact that WMC is a brand name, have begun calling the week "Music Conference" or "Conference"; others say it is "Miami Music Week." At this rate, WMC/M3 may turn into just another week of the year, albeit with relatively better music to listen to in the clubs.

What about WMC, the organization that started this whole mess back in 1986 with a modest three-day soiree at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Hotel? When I spoke with Bill Kelly -- who founded the conference with fellow DJ and record pool owner Louis Possenti -- over dinner at the Lincoln Road eatery Cafeteria, he sounded conflicted.

Charitably, he says, "In the end, they're here for WMC. The name has meaning to them." But when confronted with M3's contention that professionals don't attend the conference's sundry panel discussions and forums, he grows angry. "The people who don't do business don't do business because they don't want to do business," he says. "People like David Prince have a place here, but they should show respect here. They come here as investors, so they're dollar-driven. I believe I have more passion for what I do."

Nevertheless several people, from local nightlife promoters to national magazine editors, say that success has made WMC a surly behemoth. They accuse the organization of turning away and alienating prospective business partners, as well as being unable to deal with the conference's astronomical growth over the past several years. They wonder why WMC proper hasn't been able to garner a larger financial share of an event that generates a reported fifteen million in consumer dollars for the City of Miami Beach.

In a separate conversation, Possenti says that the organization often turns outsiders away because "we want to keep it pure." But Kelly is less sanguine. Responding to complaints about his sudden decision last December to change the conference dates from the third week of March to the beginning of the month -- at a cost of thousands of dollars in lost bookings to some of the better-known DJs who fly into Miami every year to throw showcases -- he says, "It's my conference. I can do whatever I want."

Point taken. But WMC, for better or worse, has evolved into a cultural experience far greater than the intimate networking affair its founders once imagined. Many fans who spend a week going to parties rediscover the communal, utopian values (and exorbitant prices for drinks and drugs) and emotionally compelling music that made them fall in love with the dance scene in the first place. Even M3's Prince admits that when he attended the conference during the Nineties, back when "electronica" acts such as the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim were peaking in popularity, "it changed my life." If the WMC organization wants to shepherd its jewel past the corporate raiders and entrepreneurs who are threatening to turn the conference into a meaningless marketing vehicle, it needs to find a way to accept the thousands of attendees -- many now respected industry leaders in their own right -- who have made it so special.


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