Is Live Music at Ultra Dead?

The ProdigyEXPAND
The Prodigy
Photo by George Martinez

Currently, 18 of the first 30 songs listed on Billboard's Hot 100 are electronic, hip-hop, or a style that contains some element of either. This year, the 19th edition of Ultra Music Festival was a reflection of that trend. The Main Stage, headlined by the biggest names in EDM — DJ Snake, David Guetta, Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, etc. — drew the largest crowds. Two of those acts, DJ Snake and Aoki, brought out surprise guests, 2 Chainz and Future, respectively. It was a thrill for fans who could tell their friends later on, “Guess who I saw live?”

But then, whom did they see live? The word "live" seems to have evolved and is now defined differently in the context of Ultra and other electronic festivals.

Ultra has always been a DJ-driven machine. When it comes to the tools of the trade, knobs and needles dominate. However, in 2006, organizers booked the Killers to headline the festival, carving out a place of live music at Ultra, and since 2009, producers of the mega-event have set aside one stage to provide a respite from the sometimes overwhelming presence of all of that laptop-powered, electronic thumping. They call it the Live Stage. (Before that, it wasn't uncommon to see live acts headline the Main Stage, like when the Cure performed in 2007.)

ZhuEXPAND
Zhu
Photo by George Martinez

Since Ultra moved back to Bayfront Park in 2012, its amphitheater, the home of the Live Stage, has hosted acts such as Crystal Castles, M83, Matt & Kim, Miike Snow, MGMT, Passion Pit, Purity Ring, and Yeasayer. Though nearly all of these artists employ some form of electronic sounds, usually drum machines and synths, they are proper live acts with live instruments.

This past weekend showed a marked lack of such instruments. That isn’t to say they were banned, though. Cypress Hill had bongos (not to be confused with bongs, which the group probably had too); the Prodigy rocked guitars and a drum kit; and Zhu enriched his keyboard synths with a guitarist and a saxophonist. Still, it sounded like the death knell of the Live Stage in its former incarnation; at minimum, it’s on life support.

It’s difficult to pin down the reason, but one positive side effect of this change was increased attendance at the Live Stage. For whatever reason, the stage, although appreciated by the crowds gathered around it, oftentimes went under-attended. For example, in 2013, the Weeknd closed Sunday night on that stage. It couldn’t have been easier to walk down the aisles of the amphitheater straight to the front. Remember, this was after the release of his album Trilogy. Though he hadn’t yet achieved “I Can’t Feel My Face,” Michael Jackson-level fame yet, he was hardly an unknown.

Ice CubeEXPAND
Ice Cube
Photo by George Martinez

The Live Stage didn’t host any full-blown bands in 2017, but it endured as an oasis of alternative options for fans who wanted a break from the crush of the Main Stage. Rabbit in the Moon and Underworld, both with charismatic frontmen, provided more intimate shows that drew crowds closer to the action, both physically and emotionally.

Justice unleashed its newly minted live show during its closing set Sunday evening. But even as visually arresting as the French duo's signature LED cross was, the show was just Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay twisting and turning dials. The killer set was devoid of live instruments.

JusticeEXPAND
Justice
Photo by George Martinez

With an average attendance that's rocketed past 150,000 in recent times and another sold-out edition in 2017, Ultra Music Festival shows no signs of slowing. The 20th anniversary is on the horizon, scheduled for March 23 through 25, 2018. Whether organizers decide to restore the Live Stage to its former glory is a mystery, but because Ultra has always been one of the more innovative brands in music, it would serve organizers and, more important, fans well to make the Live Stage into the Crazy Awesome Lit AF Live Stage. And if they want suggestions, just look at the aforementioned charts: Coldplay with the Chainsmokers, Maroon 5 with Kendrick Lamar, and any number of superstar collaborations that mash up genres but, you know, with actual instruments.

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