Ultra cofounder Russell Faibisch talks expansion plans and making peace with WMC
After 13 years, Ultra Music Festival has pushed aside the week that helped create it. Ballsy as the move might have been, it was evident Ultra had long overshadowed Winter Music Conference. The conference's attendance hovered at just 3,763 last year, but the festival sold out two full days' worth of music, flooding Bicentennial Park with more than 100,000 bodies.
In 2011, the festival has ballooned into a three-day monstrosity with more than 200 acts and an expected attendance of 150,000. If that isn't crazy enough, this year's edition of Ultra sold out 34 days before the event. It's hard to believe the small party started by Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes on the sands of South Beach has warded off competitors — Bang and Global Gathering — and become the unofficial kickoff to the music festival season in the United States.
But Faibisch — cofounder, president, and executive producer of Ultra — says all of this overwhelming success doesn't mean the festival is ready to dismiss WMC. He's willing to keep the lines of communications open for 2012. And that's not all. Everyone knows that a certain robotic duo has yet to grace the festival's main stage, and he's willing to hear you out on who else needs to rattle downtown Miami.
Ultra Music Festival: Friday, March 25, through Sunday, March 27. Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are sold out; ultramusicfestival.com.
New Times: Why the expansion to three days? Considering there are plenty of parties happening well after Ultra shuts down every night, do you worry attendees might wear themselves out?
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Russell Faibisch: It was a combination of an overwhelming demand by the fans for more, and from so many different artists that want to play Ultra. Some other major U.S. music festivals have had success with this format over the past couple years. The timing felt right, so we decided to make the move, and we have become the world's first-ever major electronic music festival to go three days and completely sell out in advance.
How much preparation goes into putting on an event the size of Ultra?
We prepare for this all year long. Actually, we're already working on 2012. A lot of planning goes into building this festival and more than two weeks in the park to construct it. It takes an amazing team to make this happen. I'm thankful to have the best production manager in the business, Ray Steinman; and a business manager/partner, Adam Russakoff, who has mastered the art of talent buying.
The lineup this year might be one of the most diverse ones in recent memory. However, there are some people who would like to keep this a DJ-only event. Do you think diversity is key to the festival's success?
Ultra has always been a very diverse electronic music festival, especially since 2006. Programming the lineup each year is one of the biggest, most important challenges for me. There are hundreds of DJs on the lineup. That will never change. The live element has an essential place in electronic music, and Ultra is the only electronic music festival you will find with this mixture of high-profile DJs and headline bands. There is nothing like having the rare opportunity to experience a live performance from the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, or Röyksopp on a massive festival stage. When booking crossover headline bands like the Cure, the Killers, Black Eyed Peas, Bloc Party, and Duran Duran, we are very careful only to invite artists that either have a history of influencing electronic music through the years or who are now incorporating electronic elements in their music.
Are you surprised Ultra 2011 sold out 34 days before the event?
I am surprised but also very humbled by it. We work hard every day, striving to produce the best, most innovative festival possible. It's rewarding to watch the attendance go up every year since we began. We are at the point now where people trust Ultra, knowing each year we will raise the bar and take it to the next level. This year, electronic music is exploding everywhere. All countries around the world are experiencing it.
The festival is returning to Bicentennial Park this year. But with the looming construction of Museum Park, will that change in 2012? Are you committed to keeping the festival in downtown Miami?
Every year, I hear rumors that we are moving to another city, or it is the last one. It's funny — we've never even thought about those things. Ultra Music Festival is all about the Magic City. We are very committed to keeping Ultra in downtown Miami.
What is your favorite Ultra memory?
So many throughout the years... Thirteen is a long time. Some highlights would have to be Underworld in the [Bayfront Park] Amphitheater in 2003, finally getting Carl Cox on the festival in 2002, Paul van Dyk's epic closing sets in the early years, Prodigy and the Cure playing in 2007, and at the end of the night during the first Ultra in '99 on the beach when we realized that we actually did it.
Of the acts that have never performed on an Ultra stage, do you have an unfulfilled wish list?
Ultra definitely has a select few headliners that have been on our wish list for a long time. We're always working on booking them, and we are close. Everyone will be very happy when we do! Yes, we are always open to suggestions.
What acts are you most excited to check out this year?
There are many on my list: the Chemical Brothers, Röyksopp, Underworld, Empire of the Sun, Pendulum, Fedde le Grand, CSS, Boys Noize, Crystal Castles, Afrobeta. But mostly I'm excited to see what's going to happen in the new Carl Cox & Friends Arena, a two-story megastructure being custom-built for Ultra. Carl, Moby, Laurent Garnier, and Loco Dice are going to tear it apart!
Is there a possibility we could see WMC and Ultra back on the same week in 2012?
Always a possibility. It would be really great if we can make it happen together next year.
Ultra does a lot of smaller events around the world. Any chance we could see some one-off Ultra events in Miami in the near future?
We are in talks about producing some very exciting upcoming projects that could happen in Miami. Internationally, in addition to UMF Brazil and UMF Ibiza, we are getting ready to announce two new UMF countries and continents!
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