For the past dozen years, most Winter Music Conference attendees have chosen to close out their week of nonstop partying by heading for the great outdoors — or, rather, the outdoor Ultra Music Festival. In 1999, it was on the beach, where the Atlantic washed up against Ocean Drive. But as more and more dance fans got tipped to the action, that was no longer a viable option, so the masses crossed the causeway and took over downtown. First Ultra hit Bayfront Park; then it outgrew those grounds and landed at nearby Bicentennial Park.
And this year, Ultra promises to be even more massive. Cofounders Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes, who've been in big business together for 13 years, head the gargantuan two-day festival. They gave us the lowdown on some of the fest's largesse, including the incredible number of acts Ultra draws. "We average about 200 artists per year," Omes says. "A lot of those are repeats, though, because most of them insist on coming back. Last year, we had 208; this year, we'll have over 300."
Omes's personal past highlights include Rabbit in the Moon's first appearance when Ultra was still on the beach. And Faibisch cites the Killers' 2006 headlining stint as one of his fondest memories. Both unanimously agree that Underworld's debut appearance at the festival was one of Ultra's all-time high points.
Ultra Music Festival
Ultra Music Festival: Friday, March 26, and Saturday, March 27. Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday. Bicentennial Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $89.95 and up; ultramusicfestival.com.
The two also concur about the yearly Carl Cox and Friends tent, which attracts 10,000-plus party people. "This isn't just Carl's only Winter Music Conference show; it's the only time he plays America all year," Faibisch says. "And people know this, so they don't miss it, ever."
The Cox tent crowd, though, comprises only a fifth of the number of attendees, which continues to reach unparalleled peaks. In 2008, Ultra set a single event attendance record for Miami, and it has consistently broken every record at Bayfront and Bicentennial parks. And though the City of Miami hasn't yet given keys to the two festival chiefs, it's quite clear Ultra is a boon to our town's coffers.
Just think of the jobs. When Ultra ramps up a few months before each year's doings, the fest itself employs more than 50 full-time staffers. "But that doesn't include promoters," Omes adds, "which number over 500 and are in every major city in America, and in another 10 or 12 cities outside the U.S."
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"One of the coolest things," Faibisch says, "is last year we had people come from 58 different countries and all 50 states. So it really is a worldwide phenomenon."
Indeed it is. And, as always, it's also a time of firsts. This year, Ultra will fully introduce dubstep to the mass mix, and for many a dance fan, it couldn't come at a better time. "Dubstep really blew up over the last 12 months," Faibisch says. "So we decided to combine it with drum 'n' bass and create 'dub 'n' bass.' We've got all the big players, including Benga and Skream, and all of them are playing exclusively at Ultra. And of the drum 'n' bass, we've also got LTJ Bukem making his first appearance since we started this thing back on the beach."
This year also boasts the live debuts of Faithless Soundsystem and Orbital, which both appear for the first time in South Florida. Then there's Groove Armada (first Ultra fest) and Bloody Beetroots (first American show). There's also the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, who, Faibisch says, "has become quite the jet-setter on the electronic scene" and will follow up his band's 2009 headlining spot with a solo show of his own. And — this just in! — Nas and Damian Marley will bring their Distant Relatives collaboration to Ultra's main stage.
Add Tiësto, David Guetta, Deadmau5, Disco Biscuits, Crystal Method, Passion Pit, and a few hundred other names you must trust, and all in all, there's really no other word for it: This is Ultra. And you'd be crazy to miss it.