Winter Music Conference Searches for Identity After Splitting From Miami Music Week

The very first Ultra Music Festival.
The very first Ultra Music Festival.
Photo courtesy of Ultra Music Festival

Matriphagy; noun: A condition in which the young cannibalize their creator to survive. It's a practice common among crab spiders, whose mothers sacrifice themselves to trigger the predatory instinct. The younger generation doesn't kill in bad blood. Overwhelming, the parent is necessary for growth, the only way to fulfill the spiderlings' full potential.

It's a fair metaphor for the relationship between Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival.

Ultra never could have existed without WMC, but in recent years, the two have become estranged. The younger Ultra has overshadowed its ancestor in size, scope, and relevancy.

That fact has become abundantly clear this year, as the two giants have scheduled their events one week after the other, forcing artists, fans, promoters, label executives, and industry insiders to choose sides. The sold-out Ultra will welcome 50,000 partiers a day at Bayfront Park from Friday to Sunday, March 18 to 20.

Winter Music Conference hasn't released attendance records since the split in 2011 and was unable to return an official comment by presstime, but in size and scope, it's nowhere near the powerhouse of Ultra.

"To expect anybody to come [to Miami] and stay for more than seven days — people can't do that," says Ben Turner, a UK-based EDM exec who's played the role of dance-music journalist, magazine editor, artist/event manager, and cofounder of the International Music Summit. He's been attending Miami's March madness since 1996, and he finds this year's season problematic.

"It has really confused everybody," he says. "I think people are disappointed. Everyone has to make a decision, and I think, unfortunately for the conference, people are going to side where the talent sits. People will gravitate around the big-name DJs, and the big-name DJs will be paid to perform at Ultra. They're not being paid to go to a conference the week later."

It's even more confusing for industry outsiders, those fans to whom Winter Music Conference, Ultra Music Festival, and Miami Music Week might as well be interchangeable names or simultaneously moving parts. Of course, these parts are not the same, and to truly understand the recent very real divide, one must first know the history.

It all began in 1985. Crowds in the United States reeled from disco backlash, but that didn't stop WMC cofounder Billy Kelly and friends from gathering "a small group of industry professionals" in Fort Lauderdale to exchange records, network, and talk shop.

Who would have guessed Ultra would grow so large?
Who would have guessed Ultra would grow so large?
Photo by George Martinez

"Our purpose was to express the power and message of dance music in clubs and on the radio," Kelly said in a 2015 interview with Miami New Times. "We wanted to share this experience on a global scale and give dance music a place in history that I feel it deserves."

Though an underground movement in the States, dance music flourished throughout Europe and South America. South Florida's temperate climate and multicultural influence made it the perfect home for a so-called winter music conference. WMC grew steadily, moved its base to Miami, and, thanks to a few one-ticket, all-inclusive, daytime pool parties, quickly gained a must-attend reputation.

"I've been almost every year for the last 20 years," Turner says. "We've all been very inspired by it, but if I'm really honest, the actual conference element of what was WMC was never a particularly well-attended affair. Most people were poolside enjoying the networking side of things."

The success of WMC pool parties inspired many labels and promoters to throw their own unofficial satellite parties, further fueling the diversionary nature of the week, pushing panels and product displays to the back of partiers' minds. The founders of Ultra Music Festival saw this trend and capitalized. In 1999, they erected stages on the sands of Miami Beach, emulating the popular parties of Spain's island dance mecca.

"Ibiza was really becoming a travel destination for Americans in the mass, and it was becoming more visible with mix albums and promotions," says Miami-based DJ and brand developer Sean Drake. He had attended WMC since 1996 and was on the bill of that first Ultra in 1999.

Though nothing of the magnitude it is today, Ultra turned enough heads to return the following year. By year three, it outgrew the beach and set up shop in downtown Miami. In 2007, it expanded to two days. Perfectly poised for the following EDM explosion, it grew to three days in 2012. Presale tickets sold out in 20 minutes. Madonna made a guest appearance on the main stage.

Today, UMF operates annual festivals in 13 countries, blanketing the world in high-production celebrations and arguably leading the industry in lineup diversity and crossover success.

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"[Ultra] is in the top five global electronic music festivals," Turner says. "If you look at what's come out of Ultra the last few years, there have been headline-grabbing performances, the kind of things you see at award shows. Some of the collaborations they've had and headlines that have come out of it... it's a huge amount of talent there."

For millennial ravers drawn to EDM's neon brightness and sexualized purity, Ultra in the heart of urban Miami is a PLUR rite of passage. They may not know anything about WMC's 30-year struggle to bring dance music to the spotlight, but they sure as hell know Justin Bieber might appear at Ultra to take the stage with Skrillex and Diplo and that when Avicii debuts his newest hit, it's at the Miami main stage.

"I think Ultra spent more time in R&D, traveling the globe to various markets, seeing how things are run, where they wanted to take the brand along with investing in growing the team," Drake says. "WMC never put on an actual festival... With any brand, you have to constantly invest from the ground up to push it forward."

Miami Music Week has become the main attraction.
Miami Music Week has become the main attraction.
Photo by Alex Markow

Without WMC, though, many argue that dance music never could have made it to this point. "WMC is a staple, and I think that it is a giant reason that dance music has become legitimate," says Devan Walsh, an artist manager with the Rubix Management Co. in Los Angeles who has participated at the conference the past two years.

For 12 years, WMC and Ultra existed separately but harmoniously. The relationship was symbiotic — two massive beasts sharing a week to move hundreds of thousands to a shared space. Things changed in 2011, when WMC decided to precede Ultra by a week. It was the first test, and WMC ultimately failed. People flocked to parties held the second week, and Ultra branded its own satellite pool parties under the name "Miami Music Week."

When the two merged dates again in 2012, the Miami Music Week moniker remained. It has grown every year, further confusing fans as to any difference or official citywide participation. Now they've split once again, and bets are being placed. So far, at least 112 parties have been announced March 15 through 20, according to Miami New Times' Miami Music Week Party Guide. Meanwhile, 108 parties are listed on the Winter Music Conference's official guide "The List," populated by independent promoters looking to get eyes on their parties, and 61 of those listed occur after Ultra, Sunday, March 20.

Those who have attended recently say WMC still packs a relevant punch for industry insiders. "These people [who attend the panels] are really receptive and really hungry for information," says Walsh, who has spoken on panels about the industry's direction and EDM's pop crossover potential.

But WMC faces even more competition than Ultra. The annual EDMbiz Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, anchored around Ultra's grand stateside competitor Electric Daisy Carnival, has taken prominence in the way of panel attendance and meaningful discussion, not to mention the innumerable international gatherings every year. Amsterdam has a conference. Ibiza has one. Brazil has one.

"There's an element of ownership and entitlement" in every market, Turner says, whose own International Music Summit, directly inspired by WMC, has hosted conferences in various locations for almost two decades. "They almost become like festivals. Everybody feels they need to have them."

Of course, there are risks for Ultra as well in having the events split. This year, Miami Music Week overlaps with Austin, Texas' very popular multi-industry event South by Southwest. Some insiders say Ultra, MMW, and WMC would be better sticking together.

"Two great events have split in half," Turner says. "When they were overlapping each other, it was very valuable on many different levels. It feels like there are more and more bands of DJs choosing to not attend every now and then."

Could WMC again play a premier role during MMW? "I think it could be resuscitated with a strong, energized, and organized forward-thinking team; the right funding; and finding a way to rebuild the bridges and partnerships that made it strong many years ago," Drake says.

It's not an impossible task, but in a post-internet society, the attention of the masses is not necessarily a renewable resource. If WMC hopes to regain the stronghold of its past, it better act quickly.

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