When it began in 2004, M3: Miami, Music & Multimedia was inspiring. The panel discussions, which featured future superstars like Danger Mouse alongside industry veterans like legendary British mogul Tony Wilson (who discovered New Order), were conducted in air-conditioned tents at the end of Washington Avenue, near the beach and away from traffic. During the parties, held at the Surfcomber Hotel, people danced under starry skies to the work of performers like Dizzee Rascal and Louie Vega's Elements of Life.
Those nights seemed full of the hope that M3 would grow into an influential music conference. Someday it may fulfill that promise. But for now, M3 is on indefinite hiatus.
"In order to grow the M3 brand from a three-day annual event into a year-round lifestyle experience, we are entering into a significant investment/production partnership in 2007, the details of which will be announced shortly," said M3 Summit CEO Brad LeBeau in a press statement issued in December.
The corporate-speak masks a difficult reality. After three years, millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship, and dozens of parties, M3 has yet to turn a profit, and needs to reorganize in order to survive.
"None of the partners got paid, me included," says David Prince, the music journalist who founded M3. He cited stress, exhaustion, and "working for free" as his reasons for leaving the company shortly after the 2006 summit ended.
LeBeau, whose Pro Motion brand is one of the most successful marketing firms in dance music, joined M3 as a financial backer in 2005 and took over the company last year. "To ensure that M3 happened last year, we took on a major partner," says Prince. "I ran the company for the first three years, but right around the time M3 happened last year the balance shifted in the company to Brad ... so it essentially became his company." When asked if he had a falling out with LeBeau, Prince says, "No comment."
LeBeau referred interview requests to his publicist and M3 partner, Girlie Action Media & Marketing co-owner Vickie Starr. She responded via e-mail, "Nobody from M3 is doing press right now." When asked to elaborate she wrote, "There's nothing really to say. The company is restructuring and just needed to take this time off. Nothing dramatic."
This year M3's owners are trying to walk away quietly from the dance music orgy popularly known as Winter Music Conference (WMC). It's almost as if they want to be forgotten, at least until they can prepare for a proper comeback.
Three years ago, however, they weren't shy about competing with WMC. At the time, each of the New York-based entrepreneurs carefully deflected talk of starting a beef with the conference. Now, Prince freely admits, "When we started doing M3 Summit, we wanted to be the Winter Music Conference, but properly."
As a former staff writer for Spin, Prince began compiling an e-mail list of WMC events to send out to industry friends in 1999. The list eventually grew into an authoritative document of the week's happenings that reached thousands of subscribers. With the help of Flavorpill, a company that publishes e-mail magazines, he started a Website in 2003.
Launched the following year, M3's New York-based partners included Prince, Girlie Action, Flavorpill, Giant Step promoter Jonathan Rudnick, entertainment attorney Adam Davids, and corporate event producers Carolyn Clerkson and Willie Mack. Prince says he met many of the people involved through attending WMC.
"What I had really enjoyed about going to Miami for a long time is the discovery of new music," he continues. "But it got to be the same slew of artists and DJs who'd be there every year." M3 was conceived to bring that lost quality back.
Despite positive feedback from attendees, M3 was a shaky business venture. It was assembled in less than three months, unusual considering the large number of parties and seminars involved. (By comparison, Winter Music Conference spends six to nine months organizing.) M3 didn't even have a formal business plan. Its financial success hinged on attracting corporate sponsors and selling badges to its array of panels and events.
"There was a lot of learning as we went along," admits Prince. "I had never put on an event of this magnitude before. If we were smarter business people, we would have waited a year and planned it much further in advance."
Over the next two years, M3 burnished its reputation for attracting nonconformist performers and entrepreneurial mavericks. The 2005 edition featured MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson, and artists such as Diplo, John Legend, and Cirque du Soleil. In 2006, there was Hot Chip, Lady Sovereign, and the Juan MacLean.
For all of its artistic success, M3 never developed into a viable enterprise. Keen observers noticed troubling signs from the beginning. Midway through the first year's event, doormen began to let people into the concerts for free, a sign that badge and ticket sales were slow. Many of the summit's initial sponsors seemingly disappeared in 2005. But Prince says, "The sponsorship either grew or stayed the same every year."
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M3 initially sought to beat the WMC at its own game, delivering a wider range of electronic artists than the overexposed DJs who typically played during the week. But by 2006 it had evolved into a seminar for futurists, exploring alternative ways to profit from the ailing music industry. Prince says if he knew what M3 would become, he would have avoided a fight with WMC and moved it to a different time of the year altogether.
Prince doesn't know the future of M3. "It's his company now," he says of LeBeau. "The truth of the matter is that it's out of my hands." His new project, which he hopes to launch in 2008, is being developed with the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and the producers of the Sonar music festival in Barcelona, Spain. "It will be a version of Sonar in Miami," Prince says.
Improbably Prince still declines to give props to Winter Music Conference for establishing South Beach's multimillion-dollar dance bonanza, claiming that spring breakers and European tourists deserve equal credit for its success. But he acknowledges an industry perception that Winter Music Conference simply outmatched M3.
"Winter Music Conference is happening, and M3 is not, so I guess you could look at it that way," Prince says. "But M3 really brought something new, exciting, and different. It brought down a whole group of people for that week. That's going to be notably absent this year."