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WMC and Ultra's complicated breakup

Jason Crosby

In November, when Winter Music Conference dropped the bombshell that its week of events celebrating electronic music would be moved from the end of the month to the week of March 8 through 12, everybody expected Ultra Music Festival, which normally serves as the de facto closing party for the conference, to follow suit. Yet only a few hours later, the Ultra camp dropped a bombshell of its own: The festival would not be following in WMC's footsteps.

And now, there's only one question on every electronic music junkie's mind: What the hell happened? Rumors of jealousy, greed, and hostile takeovers have flooded dance music forums and blogs. However, neither party seems willing to go on the record about what led to this deeply complicated and very public breakup.

The split goes beyond just jilting dance music fans. It could cause significant economic damage. Records show that hotel occupancy in Miami Beach hovered around 90 percent during 2009's edition of WMC and 85 percent during last year's conference. In 2010, the week of Art Basel Miami Beach didn't come even close to those numbers, only filling Beach hotels to 77 percent capacity. The one week with a higher occupancy rate was the week of New Year's Eve, with 87 percent.

Tourism has always been at the core of Winter Music Conference. The event began in 1985, when Louis Possenti and Bill Kelly decided to invite the electronic music industry to take a break from cold weather and fly down to South Florida to network, exchange music, and, most important, party. The first incarnation, held at a Marriott hotel in Fort Lauderdale, attracted 90 people. But as electronic music professionals became more organized, and dance music began to infiltrate the mainstream, Possenti and Kelly's conference grew.

And eventually, it made Miami Beach its permanent home. However, there were growing pains. Over the years, detractors continually questioned WMC's worth and purpose. Organizers have tried to justify the high registration fee (it topped out this year at $375, with walk-up registration costing $475) by working with nightclubs to provide all registered attendees free admission to club parties and events.

Then, in 1999, Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes founded Ultra Music Festival by hosting a small dance party on the sands of South Beach in the hope of capitalizing on all the talent gathered in Miami during WMC. The festival grew quickly, moving to downtown Miami's Bayfront Park in 2001 before seeking out the larger Bicentennial Park in 2005. And so, what started as a one-day event has grown into a massive three-day festival with over 200 acts and an expected attendance of 150,000.

To say Ultra has outgrown its humble WMC beginnings is an understatement. In 13 years, it has become the largest celebration of electronic music in North America, kicking off the busy summer festival season in the United States.

But not everyone welcomes its rapid growth. If you ask nightlife fixture and Club Space owner Louis Puig, it is Ultra's aggressiveness and greed that led to the breakup. In a letter Puig wrote shortly after the conflicting dates were announced, he forcefully declared, "This year and once again, Ultra is trying to monopolize WMC by engaging exclusive contracts with all major DJs, which will not allow them to perform at your favorite dance clubs."

Those "exclusive contracts" Puig mentioned are standard agreements between Ultra and its artists disallowing any performances in South Florida for a certain number of days before and after the festival. Some independent promoters get around this roadblock by hiring exclusive Ultra acts as "secret guests" who are not announced until hours — and sometimes minutes — before the show. It's a risky move because promoters cannot use the artist's name to advertise the event, which is essential if you are looking to sell out a venue. Not to mention, the artist runs the risk of violating his or her contract with Ultra.

In his letter, Puig added to his criticism of Ultra's business practices, writing: "WMC used to be about free parties with DJs and industry folks sharing and enjoying new music. Now, it is about greed and money, with Ultra and all the clubs fighting over talent, hotels charging [four] times what they used to, and agents and DJs banking on the demand."

Seizing the moment, WMC quickly released an official statement of its own, essentially agreeing with Puig and also laying the blame on Ultra. Emphatically, the conference's organizers claimed to have been "blindsided by Ultra's last-minute announcement this morning." And in self-defense, they insisted the date change was the result of "venue availability."

It wasn't long before Ultra hit back, saying WMC was aware it could not hold the festival during the second week of March because City of Miami resources would already be stretched thin because of the Calle Ocho Festival on March 13. "Ultra used absolute best efforts to maintain the relationship with WMC and join them in the move to the second week. However, this was rendered impossible by the City of Miami Police Department, as they do not have the resources to host Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho in Miami on the same weekend, due to the fact that all police resources will be outsourced to the one-million-person annual event."

The Windish Agency's Steve Goodgold, who represents acts such as Annie Mac, Crystal Castles, Diplo, Miss Kittin, and Simian Mobile Disco, also came to Ultra's defense in a press release, saying: "One would assume that the WMC representatives would have had an open communication with the people that make the week such a success. They did not. Instead, they simply made a poor decision by themselves to shift the dates, and ran with it."

So where does that leave WMC 2011? For now, it is scheduled to go on as planned from March 8 though 12 at the Miami Beach Convention Center — an under-reported change from its usual Mid-Beach hotel dwellings. And oddly, the conference's new dates overlap slightly with those of South by Southwest (SXSW), a music gathering in Austin, Texas. Perhaps it's just coincidence. But if not, and WMC thinks SXSW is a less threatening opponent than Ultra, it might want to reconsider. According to its own press release, WMC reported 3,763 registered attendees in 2010. By comparison, SXSW's music conference reported 13,020 participants the same year — and that count excludes the approximately 23,000 others that attended its film and interactive conferences.

Ultimately, if WMC is going to survive, it will have to worry less about competitors, stop battling Ultra, and learn to love the festival. The simple fact is that WMC always brought credibility to that last week of March, while Ultra brought notoriety. Why mess with a winning formula?

See New Times' full Winter Music Conference 2011 listings.


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