How Russell Faibisch Built Ultra Music Festival -- and Whom He's Battled Along the Way
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.
"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."
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  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.
"Amoeba was my first-ever event, in 1998 at Power Studios," he says. "We had over 2,500 people show up."
But the idea of a beachside dance-music festival would come from another working relationship he developed in the mid-'90s. Alex Omes, a Miami Beach Senior High grad who was then about 25 years old, was publisher of a dance-music magazine called D'VOX, which devoted its pages to pushing the city's burgeoning EDM culture. Before launching the magazine, Omes had cut his teeth in the '90s Miami club scene as a bouncer at Cameo, where he developed the connections that would eventually allow him to be seen as an influence.
"I was doing an event and had to place some ads," Faibisch remembers. "That's when I met Alex Omes, who had the vision. We started Ultra together."
Omes and Faibisch connected on their mutual love for club beats, becoming close friends as well as business partners. The duo, looking to capitalize on Miami's growth as a dance-music hub, came up with the idea of holding a beachside party during Miami's WMC.
The conference was an industry event that had been launched in 1985 as a way for EDM artists, DJs, producers, and promoters to come together for panel discussions and seminars. During the week of the conference, there were also sanctioned dance parties and concerts at nightclubs throughout Miami. EDM fans began flocking to Miami every March. With thousands of people coming to town for the conference, the opportunity to launch a signature dance-music event was ripe.
Omes brought his industry connections, and Faibisch brought the business savvy.
"There were a lot of growing pains," Faibisch says.
Faibisch was able to secure investors, including a $10,000 bank loan for seed money.
"Everybody had to take a leap of faith in investing in what we were trying to accomplish. Rabbit in the Moon was the anchor — they played very rarely and usually only at Zen Festival. Once we got them, it was easier to get other artists onboard."
On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted an event planned by shock jock Steve Dahl: Disco Demolition Night. The event, held during a sold-out Sox game, had fans throwing disco LPs onto the field and climaxed with Dahl's destroying them. It ended as a full-blown anti-disco riot and effectively pushed dance music into the underground.
However, thanks to subcultures in London, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, new genres of dance music emerged over the next two decades: house, electro, techno, and trance. The late '90s saw DJs and producers like Moby, Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy gaining moderate success on the Billboard charts, though the genre still couldn't compete with hip-hop or pop.
But drugs, ecstasy in particular, seemed to go hand in hand with dance music, and when Ultra launched in 1999, EDM seemed to be at a crossroads. Pushed by national news reports of deaths caused by overdoses, cops raided parties and lawmakers passed anti-rave ordinances around the country. Dance scenes fizzled.
"It was euphoric in one sense and chaotic in another," says WMC cofounder Bill Kelly of the inaugural Ultra. "At some point, they were carrying people out of there on stretchers, right past a city commissioner they had invited. They brought him to see [the event] because they wanted to show it off."
Despite these early setbacks, Ultra seemed to learn that to survive, it needed to prove itself a fun but safe environment for EDM fans.
"Our number-one priority is safety and security," Faibisch insists. "A lot of promoters say that, but not many follow through. The police and city need to see that you're not only talking but backing it up with action and not trying to cut corners or save costs. If they see that, that goes a long way."
Successful as the first Ultra was, it lost money — $10,000 to $20,000, Faibisch estimates.
"Today, $10,000 to $20,000 doesn't seem like a lot, but back then, it seemed like we lost millions," he says.
But he forged ahead. "I'm very, very passionate about it," Faibisch says. "It's my heart and soul. It's what I eat, live, and breathe. Probably one of the most rewarding things now is looking back at the old days and seeing how just about everybody there was asking the same questions, saying, 'Stop, this doesn't make sense!'"
In 2000, Faibisch and Omes threw a second, successful Ultra, and by 2001, its third year, Ultra had outgrown its South Beach home at Collins Park. At the insistence of the city, Faibisch moved the party to Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Attendance swelled from the initial 10,000 attendees to 23,000.
As it grew, Ultra worked in tandem with the Winter Music Conference in championing electronic music. It coordinated dates, and WMC badge holders were allowed free access to Ultra.
The festival lasted five years at Bayfront, until 2005, when the park's trust urged Faibisch to consider moving it to the much larger Bicentennial Park, located north of American Airlines Arena.
The festival helped acts like Tiësto, Avicii, and Deadmau5 launch their careers in the United States. By 2006, with EDM virtually nonexistent on U.S. radio, playing Ultra, one the few major American electronic music festivals, seemed necessary to gain exposure. Established artists began seeing Ultra as a key place to premiere new tracks. Newcomers saw it as a way to get noticed.
"I've probably done 11 out of the 15 years of Ultra," superstar DJ Tiësto confesses. "It's probably one of the most important festivals in the world. To be a headliner there, on the main stage, with the big production, has been very good for my career."
"Ultra Music Festival is one of the largest and most influential platforms for electronic dance music in America," says Kerri Mason, who writes about EDM for Billboard.com. "It's hard to say whether it inspired the growth of EDM or just grew alongside it. But would EDM be where it is today without it? I would say no."
The festival has had a slew of iconic moments. Who can forget Madonna popping up during Avicii's set last year to ask "How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?" — and Deadmau5's subsequent railing against her for trying to seem cool with the veiled drug reference to ecstasy? The Black Eyed Peas performed "Boom Boom Pow" for the first time ever at Ultra 2009 — which perhaps hinted toward EDM's eventual pop crossover. Faibisch's personal highlight was the Cure playing in 2007.
Mason noted how artists debut at Ultra and go on to bigger things. "If you track Skrillex from two years ago, who played a side stage, to last year, when he headlined a main stage, you can see it year to year," she said.
According to court documents, Omes and Faibisch "operated the company on a day-to-day basis as a small shop and rarely observed any corporate formalities" until 2005, when they created a "memorandum of understanding" establishing Faibisch, his younger brother Charles, and Omes as shareholders. The memo specified that "management and operational decision making authority remain with Alex Omes and Russell Faibisch as presently exist in Ultra."
Over the years, the company has grown to include "a very small core team — less than 20," Faibisch says. "Everybody has their role... These are people who have been with us eight to ten years minimum."
Today, Omes is out, and a new partner, Adam Russakoff, is onboard.
Faibisch says that they put in long days due to the complexity of working with people all over the world and that Ultra 2013 will cost $25 million to $30 million to produce.
On August 10, 2010, Alex Omes found himself pushed out of the company he helped create.
According to a lawsuit Omes filed in August 2012 against Ultra's shareholders, Faibisch, his brother Charlie, and their new partner, Russakoff, hatched a conspiracy to oust Omes from the Ultra family he had cofounded so they could control "the now financially successful event." In what the lawsuit describes as a "secret shareholders' meeting," the three voted to officially push out Omes as president of the festival. The reason given by the lawsuit? The shareholders knew that Omes wouldn't agree to break off from the Winter Music Conference for Ultra's 2011 edition.
The lawsuit seeks financial compensation from the other Ultra founders, though court records don't say how much. Documents do not reveal how much the principals take as salary; the company is private, and Faibisch will not say. He insists most of the money is reinvested into Ultra. Omes's lawsuit also asks for dissolution of the company and re-formation of a new one in which Omes would again be in charge. Omes initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, then stopped responding. When contacted, Omes's lawyer referred all questions back to the complaint. According to filed documents, a hearing for an injunction is scheduled for May 30.
All Faibisch will say about the lawsuit or Omes is that "we were very good friends. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and a lot of love for him in my heart."
Omes wasted no time in trying to regain his crown as Miami's music festival king. He joined legendary nightlife entrepreneur Emi Guerra as principal of a new event organization, Go Big Productions, and in 2011 and 2012 kept one of the most successful dance-music acts, Swedish House Mafia, away from Ultra. He hosted Swedish House Mafia shows concurrent to Ultra, thus drawing away some of Ultra's potential customers.
Then in summer 2012, Go Big announced the UR1 Festival, a two-day, multistage event to be held during the December weekend of Art Basel Miami Beach. It would combine music and visual art, with Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz, and the Offspring as headliners. The expansive lineup also included EDM acts as well as pop, hip-hop, and indie-rock stars.
But the event never came to be. It was canceled suddenly in November 2012, with weather forecasts and, inexplicably, the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy cited as the reasons. But insiders speculated that sluggish ticket sales were the real reason for UR1's getting the ax. At presstime, the promise of rescheduled dates still hasn't been fulfilled.
A young woman has her leg wrapped around her Ultra fling. She grinds on her newfound lover, talking to him sternly but lovingly. Suddenly, she backs away and smacks him, as though he's said something offensive. Unfortunately for her, the lover is one of Bayfront Park's palm trees, and the whole weird episode is caught on several camera phones and uploaded to YouTube and dubbed a better love story than Twilight. By the Monday after Ultra 2012, she's become a viral superstar.
The woman is visibly intoxicated — on what, it's unknown. But the video highlights the nagging problem of drug use at EDM events.
In 2003, then-Mayor Manny Diaz tried to pull the plug on Ultra two weeks before the event, describing it as drug-infested, but he gave in when promoters agreed to boost the police presence from 38 to 70 undercover officers and 50 to 100 uniformed ones. They also banned backpacks and doubled fencing to prevent people from tossing drugs over the fence to friends.
"All Ultra can do is focus on our event and how we control it and our security, our enforcement policies, and our safety policies and make it the safest event possible," says Faibisch. "In 15 years in Miami and doing events around the world, we've never once had an incident."
That depends on how you define incident. In 2004, when 35,000 people attended the one-day Ultra, police made 117 drug-related arrests. In 2012, when 165,000 attended the festival's three-day run, 71 people were arrested, 45 for narcotics-related crimes.
This year, Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff will be watching closely. At a January 10 commission meeting, when Ultra was seeking permission to add the second weekend, Sarnoff said: "We all know drug usage is high at Ultra. And it might be OK for a young man to get high, or whatever you want to call it, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But you are going to have some people try to do Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..."
But it's hard to argue with the $79 million Ultra brings to the city.
Ultra's financial pull is put into perspective by Timothy Schmand, executive director of Bayfront Park, which operates without government funding. "There are other larger revenue streams that are more significant, like the LiveNation agreement for the amphitheater," Schmand says. But LiveNation's year-round events combined bring in only 24 percent of the park's revenue. Last year, Ultra's brought in 12 percent in just three days.
Despite Sarnoff's concerns, the Miami City Commission relented and approved Ultra's expansion this year, on the condition that organizers pay $500,000 to a special City of Miami police fund, on top of an already $600,000 pledge to hire extra off-duty police and fire services. Faibisch estimates there will be 150 to 200 officers patrolling the festival.
Faibisch, it seems, has come out on top: He's won over the city, outlasted Omes at Ultra, and has even become independent of the Winter Music Conference itself.
Though the WMC and Ultra had coordinated for years, holding their events during the same week, in 2011, things changed. That year, WMC and Ultra would for the first time be held on separate weekends, with a full week in between the two EDM events. News releases were fired by both parties blaming each other for the situation that forced dance-music fans to choose between the pragmatic conference and the spring-break atmosphere surrounding the festival (later rebranded as "Miami Music Week" by Ultra).
"For whatever reasons, [the WMC organizers] couldn't get their venue secure on the weekend we were supposed to do the show," explains Faibisch. "The only date that they could get their venue, which was the [Miami Beach Convention Center] that year, was a couple of weeks earlier. And we couldn't go that weekend because of [Miami's] Calle Ocho [festival]. [The city] claims to have a million people on the streets that weekend, and they didn't have the resources, so we couldn't go. The weekend we had was already set, and we had booked artists. We didn't do anything except continue on the path we were going."
When Ultra announced its 2011 dates in November 2010, WMC quickly issued a news release saying it was "blindsided by Ultra's last minute announcement." The conference claimed there had been "a signed October 15, 2009 contract between the two entities which stated that the 2011 Ultra Music Festival would be presented during the five-day period in February, March or April 2011 designated and promoted by WMC as the 'WMC week.'''
So the two events took different directions: WMC retained its reputation as an industry business event, while Ultra became associated with fly-by-night partiers.
Carmel Ophir, owner of downtown nightclub the Vagabond, remembers the WMC's early days. "It was industry-driven," he says. "It was a full-on industry exchange of ideas and sounds. People were here whether they were in the industry or trying to get into it." But over the years, tourists began coming, largely for Ultra's debauchery.
"Eventually, people would call it 'WMC' but not go to the conference," Ophir explains. "Around 2007, I was being interviewed on-camera at Pawn Shop and the reporter asked me to talk about the conference, so I did. But he stopped me and asked me to talk more about Ultra. That's when I realized things were changing."
These are sentiments echoed by WMC cofounder Bill Kelly.
"I want to draw a line in the sand," Kelly says over the phone. "Truth of the matter is, WMC is an all-inclusive, citywide event that takes place in every possible venue imaginable. Ultra is a festival that takes place in a park. And there is a clear distinction between something that addresses and talks about the future of the industry and a free-for-all party."
Kelly's event may be more high-minded, but there's no denying that, in terms of pure numbers, WMC attendance has become interdependent with Ultra.
In 2011, WMC pushed forward with its earlier dates, and attendees saw a more muted conference than in years past. Ultra, on the other hand, saw record attendance levels for its first three-day event.
Faibisch notes that "when [WMC] announced their  dates, they were back in line with ours."
Ophir notes that Ultra can make it difficult for nightclubs to book acts because it makes artists sign aggressive exclusivity contracts — legal agreements stipulating that acts cannot play at competing venues during the festival nor 60 days prior and after. In effect, the acts at Ultra cannot play at most South Florida venues from January to May, thus creating demand when they show up at Ultra.
But Ophir can't deny that, ultimately, Ultra's power is "definitely a positive thing." His nightclub will be booked solid during the week of Ultra.
Downtown at Miami's Bayfront Park, people lie on the grass, and a trapeze school's equipment is the only thing that stands out from the greenery. But in late February, the whole park, save for a children's area, closes to the public for more than a month to make way for multiple stages and the 15th incarnation of Ultra. Faibisch climbs a hill and points out where the massive Bayfront stage will go and how Biscayne Bay in the background will frame it. "Here's where it's going to be," he says proudly, imagining the majesty of it.
"When you go to the festival and you see the production and the amount of stages and quality on those stages and the lineup we put out and the money it costs to book those people, in addition to whatever we have to pay the city... that's why you don't see any other electronic music festival in the world that has this kind of lineup. No one does it. We do it."
Driving over the Julia Tuttle Causeway, the city skyline hovering over the water, he sighs.
"Ah, I love Miami," he says, and presses the gas on his Porsche Boxster.
Zachary Fagenson contributed to this report.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.