If last weekend is any indication (and as of this writing, there are still three nights left to go), happy days are here again for the sprawling five-day festival popularly known as the Winter Music Conference. "It's going better than ever," reports WMC co-founder Bill Kelly from the poolside area at the Wyndham Hotel, where panel discussions and impromptu networking meetings have been taking place since Saturday morning. "As far as the vibe of the convention and the people connecting, it's better than any year we've had, including our peak year of 2001."
At press time Kelly didn't know how many badges WMC has sold, since it was still accepting walk-up registrants willing to shell out a $395 entrance fee. But, he says, "I think we're going to do better than last year."
Certainly South Beach's main thoroughfares (Ocean Drive and Collins and Washington avenues) were jam-packed last weekend with cars, preening teenagers clad in bathing suits, dazed club kids rambling from party to party, bumbling tourists, and clueless locals wondering what the hell was going on. The chaos wasn't solely the result of WMC but its fortuitous convergence with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and spring break. It seemed that teenage and college-age kids, indoctrinated by MTV's True Life episode on lust and love in South Beach, Wild On E!, and countless other media feeds designating the area as America's favorite party town, were out in droves, turning unassuming restaurants such as Señor Frog's and La Galleria into hotspots with long waiting lines comparable to any Mynt Ultra Lounge mob.
Oddly, Dennis Leyva, entertainment industry liaison for the City of Miami Beach, says he didn't see any "spring breakers," adding that his weekend adventures were limited to crobar events and invite-only parties at various hotels. But there were other, tangential reasons for an increase in visitors, from the end of the war on Iraq (despite the ongoing violence there) to the euro's increased power in the global economy. The result, according to Leyva, was a staggering 305 dance-related events that took place between Friday, March 5 (the start of the M3 Summit), and Wednesday, March 10 (the conclusion of the Winter Music Conference), up from 50 last year. "It has been pretty impressive," says Leyva. "From what I have been told by hotels and nightclubs, they have had a far bigger year."
Speaking of M3, how did it do? The summit did create a considerable buzz among industry folk, who flocked to the sessions to catch a glimpse of cool underground acts such as Louie Vega's Elements of Life band and British rapper Dizzee Rascal. M3 sold individual tickets to the public for the four sessions (they had previously been restricted to passport holders) to capitalize on the heightened interest.
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But did those people who raved about the sessions actually attend the summit? The two discussions I attended, one on digital distribution and the other a roundtable discussion with independent artists such as Princess Superstar and Casey Spooner (from Fischerspooner), took place in a tent that was half-full at best. But that's far from a scientific conclusion. Aleix Martinez, publicist for Girlie Action, a marketing firm that is one of the summit's principal organizers, admits "the sessions have been really successful because they were open to the general public." But he also estimates that anywhere from 1500 to 2000 passports were sold this year. The keynote speech in particular, given by producer/Jay-Z bootleg remixer/copyright freedom provocateur DJ Danger Mouse, drew an overflow audience. "We even ran out of seats, with people standing up," he says.
With more than 300 events, dozens of private and invite-only parties, and numerous panel discussions and press conferences, it is difficult to draw any hardbound conclusions. But after running around town for the past three days, I can confirm that Kelly was correct when he once told me that WMC "is the reason why people come here." Most of the people I spoke with on the street either didn't know anything about M3 or held bizarre, hype-inflated opinions on it. (One DJ says he thinks M3 is more supportive of "soulful house," ridiculous considering how WMC has long championed gospel house singers such as Ultra Naté).
M3 definitely generated more industry talk, thanks to a never-ending stream of e-mails and press releases trumpeting the summit and Girlie Action's formidable database of record industry contacts. Still it seemed more focused on electronic and dance styles and critics' darlings with crossover potential than producers who make four-to-the-floor sounds like mainfloor house, progressive house, trance, and breakbeat. So in reality, WMC is more "underground" than the upstart summit, if only because it continues to cater to a form of music that rarely garners mainstream attention.
So is a two-conference music week showdown in the making? Only time will tell. In the meantime, WMC might want to follow M3's lead and hire a publicity firm.