In Defense of Ultra Music Festival
Photo by George Martinez
Is everyone done with the pearl clutching in regards to Ultra Music Festival?
I get it -- EDM is Satan in musical form. And if you'd believe Mayor Tomás Regalado and City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, Ultra is the ninth circle of Hell.
The reality is Ultra deserves some credit, and while there are some problems that need to be addressed, city leaders shouldn't make such irresponsible statements -- like Regalado who said, "I think we should not have Ultra next year here" -- before a thorough investigation has been completed into the trampling of security guard Erica Mack.
See also: Ultra 2014's Ten Best Moments
Photo by George Martinez
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"If you want to say Ultra has outgrown the space [at Bayfront Park], that's a valid argument, but to say its overstayed its welcome is a slap in the face," says Cocaine Cowboy filmmaker Billy Corben, who's been vocal in his opposition to the city's handling of Ultra, both when speaking to the Miami Herald and Crossfade earlier this week.
He admits to never attending the festival. But he says politicians like Regalado and Sarnoff are "out of touch with the new voting bloc."
"The police chief [Manuel Orosa] is the only voice of reason. He hit all the right points when he held that press conference."
Although perhaps a bit inflated, Ultra reports "the economic impact generated from the six day event in 2013 was over $223 million." (Ultra was held over two weekends last year, and the source of that data is an independent review by Washington Economics Group, commissioned by the festival. It's also difficult to actually calculate the impact of Ultra alone when there's Winter Music Conference and tons of special events going on the entire week.) According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the hotel occupancy rate during March 2013 was 89.1 percent while the yearly average was 79.9 percent. It's safe to say Ultra probably has something to do with that.
"It's important because it serves as a catalyst to bring people to Miami," says Aramis Lorie, operating partner of downtown nightclub Grand Central. "It also brings revenue to the city and area businesses."
There is no argument that what happened to security guard Erica Mack last week is inexcusable. But Ultra tried to shift the blame exclusively to the perpetrators, saying in a press release, "the criminal acts of the gate crashers resulted in critically injuring one of our security guards, Erica Mack."
But that doesn't appear to be entirely the case. Chief Orosa claims the department warned the festival that the area would be a problem and it seems as though that advice was ignored. That doesn't mean Ultra is solely to blame -- because the people who decided that getting into Ultra illegally was worth more than Mack's life were also wrong.
Still, this incident isn't reason enough to pull the plug on Ultra.
Long before downtown Miami was filled with condos and residents, Ultra was there, showcasing the city to the entire world. It turned a simple one-day beach party into a festival that is considered one of the best in North America and the unofficial kickoff to the U.S. music festival season, which includes Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch!, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza.
See also: Ultra 2014's Ten Worst Moments
Photo by George Martinez
Ultra's most unique feature has also been the one giving it the most problems: it's location.
While most major music festivals happen at remote sites, where camping or other accommodations are required, Ultra is among the few large-scale fests that actually takes place in a city's downtown core. (The only other festivals that come to mind is Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park, and Outside Lands in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, but both of those parks dwarf Bayfront Park in size.) However, because of Ultra's central location, the economic impact in felt through the city -- in the hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs that festival-goers visit throughout their stay.
"It shouldn't move from downtown to another location because there isn't anywhere else with suitable hotels and transportation," argues Lorie.
Of course, for several years, the biggest opponents of Ultra have been the new residents in downtown. But complaining about noise in downtown is like complaining that water is too wet. You live in the city's core. Noise, even coming from major events like Ultra, is to be expected.
Then there are the drugs -- or DRUGS!!! if you believe Sarnoff's assertion that everyone is high at Ultra. That's simply not true. Are drugs a problem at Ultra? Yes. But they are a problem at Coachella, Bonarroo, and every other major music festival in the world. Drugs are a music festival problem, not an EDM one. Most festival-goers aren't what I'd consider heavy drug users, but perhaps recreational ones, who, because they shelled out a couple hundred bucks for a ticket, want to party to the fullest. These are weekend warriors who do a bit of molly and then go back to school or work on Monday.
Could EDM acts lay off a bit when it comes to the drug references in their songs? Definitely. But so could hip-hop and even pop musicians. EDM's bad wrap comes from its long -- and not so subtle -- drug culture. Combine that with music that parents just don't understand and you've got a recipe for an 11-o'clock news segment on the dangers of dance music and drugs.
It's necessary for an organization like DanceSafe, which provides non-biased literature and drug testing services, to be present at Ultra. That way, concert-goers might feel comfortable testing the "molly" that they're thinking of taking and perhaps finding out it's actually methylone, AKA bath salts, without fear of legal repercussions.
"There's just too much ignorance and people who don't know what they're doing," says Lady Casa, one of Miami's most influential ravers, when asked if an organization like DanceSafe could help. "I don't like to deny, like, 'No, no one is on drugs. It's not about the drug.' Of course, there are people for whom it isn't about the drugs. For some, it's about bonding with other people, about expressing themselves, enjoying the music, showing off their costume, and interacting. I know plenty of people who don't do drugs, but you can't deny it's part of the culture."
Lady Casa agrees, though, that drugs play a role at any music festival, saying that "drug culture is very much involved," even at the non-EDM focused events like Coachella and Bonnaroo.
That being said: Ultra organizers, before you let politicians like Regalado and Sarnoff (who will get behind any cause as long as it gets them reelected) push you around -- there are some things to consider.
People trying to break into Ultra isn't a new phenomenon. From my days of covering the festival at Bicentennial Park, I would frequently get news that the main gate had been breached by would-be concert-goers who had mobbed the security detail. It's probably time to dump the amateur security guards, at least at the front entrance and around the perimeter, and replace them with local police or professionally trained security.
Photo by George Martinez
The fact is, the festival has operated with a mostly clean record -- not counting drugs and overdoses, because there's only so much that can be done when it comes to personal responsibility.
It still amazes that Ultra can have that many people party relatively safely in a space as small as Bayfront Park. It should be considered the gold standard of large-scale events in Miami. There are less traffic problems going to Ultra than around the automobile clusterfuck known as the Sony Open or along the streets of Wynwood and Design District during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Another thing that should be addressed is Ultra's all-ages policy. It's time to end it. Make the festival 18 and over. Or even better, make it 21 and over. (Tomorrowworld held a successful inaugural U.S. event with only 21-and-over attendess.) Ultra would probably win back some fans who have written the festival off as a kiddie rave. Perception is paramount, and having underage kids attend the festival isn't helping.
"I don't know if that's the answer," says Diego Martinelli, local nightclub promoter and founder of Safe, when asked about putting an age restriction on Ultra. "But in order to get themselves out of hot water, that might have to be compromise they may have to make."
And let's talk about that ticket price: I've defended the festival's right -- and still do -- to charge $399 plus fees for a general admission ticket. Space at Bayfront is tight and the amount of people that the park can hold is a lot less than other music festival grounds. Production and artists costs are much higher today than when Ultra started. However, had organizers introduced the ticket layaway plan from the very beginning, more people might have felt like they could manage the bill -- instead of resorting to jumping the fences. (Not that I'm saying that's the reason why the security breach occurred, but I'm sure some of the gatecrashers felt like they couldn't afford to go.)
Still, Ultra organizers may decide it's time to move from downtown Miami and I wouldn't blame them. At this point, it makes sense. Far from the reach of the city of Miami, they could expand again to two weekends. If they had to move somewhere else in Florida, Big Cypress Indian Reservation seems like the logical choice. Langerado's 2008 edition already proved it could handle a music festival. It has 360 acres of land available, compared to Bayfront Park's 32. That's more than enough room to put on a massive festival and include on-site camping. The move might also bring down ticket prices and the cost of accommodations for festival-goers. (Have you tried booking a room during Ultra weekend? My advice, don't, unless you are ready to take out a bank loan.)
The only downside? It's located about 79 miles and over an hour's drive away from Miami, on the northwestern fringes of what's barely Broward County. You can forget about tourists staying in our hotels or partying at our nightclubs. The move would hurt those in the service industry who rely on the amount of people that Ultra and WMC bring into the city. Also, Ultra's relocation would hurt the conference, turning it into a much more muted experience that could fall into irrelevancy.
"I think if Ultra didn't coincide with WMC, it would definitely hurt [the conference]," asserts Martinelli. "It might affect the corporate clubs that rely on the David Guettas and Hardwells more than it would the [underground] stuff. I can see why [the city] wants to do away with it, but I don't think it's a good thing."
But if we are also going to spread the blame, some responsibly must fall on the City of Miami's shoulders, because it has failed time and time again to provide residents with a sizable park space comparable to New York's Central Park, Chicago's Grant Park, or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. (I love the new Perez Art Museum Miami, but it cost us a park that should have been renovated and opened to the community.)
It's embarrassing that Miami continues to tout itself as a metropolitan city, but puts so little value on green space. If Miami had a signature park, Ultra and other events like it would have an adequate space where they could be staged. Instead of turning city- and county-owned land over to developers, politicians should consider creating a proper "backyard" for residents and visitors.
Miami is in no position to shoo away Ultra just yet, and Regalado and Sarnoff should consider the downsides. Ultra exposed not only its own shortcomings, but those of the city as well. Miami needs to work better with the festival, instead of acting like the hostile landlord that it's been the past few years.
(And dammit, never again do I want to have to take issue with something and have to be on same fighting side as the Herald's Fabiola Santiago.)
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