Winter Music Conference closed out with Ultra 7, what should have been the most wonderful night of the year for electronic music lovers, especially the ground-level fan base who couldn't afford or simply couldn't get into the more exclusive fetes and concerts attendant to WMC's music-industry dweeb/professional partier cavalcade. At its best -- and there have been some awesome Ultras -- the festival can be a nearly Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of the arts using visual spectacle, surround-sound amplification, and a gorgeous ampitheatrical setting to focus equal attention on the audience and the stage to create a dizzying, unifying mass experience.
No such luck this time. Ultra Music Festival, which is supposed to feature top electronic acts, has devolved into an ugly rave sideshow replete with washed-up B-talents such as Paul Oakenfold, Perry "Peretz" Ferrell, and Kelly Osbourne; throngs of marauding hicks; and stall after stall of vendors hawking tacky trinkets and more varieties of fried meat than the World Hamburger Expo. To add to the suckage, the so-called post-party called Ultra Carry On at American Airlines Arena was a poorly organized fiasco. Hardly anything went right this past Saturday night, and nothing went well. So what happened?
For one thing, nearly every DJ on every stage and in every tent had a train-wrecked set. A different sound crew than in years past was handling much of the audio technology, and the unfamiliarity with Bayfront Park's acoustics was fatal. Sound bled corrosively from place to place (as did the greasy haze from a zillion deep fryers and griddles). Of course there were exceptions -- Josh Wink, PVD, and Donald Glaude overcame heat, reverb, and an unusually low-energy audience to crank out great sessions. But stalwarts Oakenfold, Lil' Louie Vega, and even Tiësto brought the same tired tracks everyone's heard endlessly. And maybe Eminem is right with his constant jabs at nemesis Moby -- nobody listens to techno, and certainly not to a truckload of acoustic instruments, not at Ultra anyway.
Over the years Ultra's reputation has spread. It's a place to take Ecstasy and mushrooms, dance, and basically go nuts for a few hours in a relatively safe environment. The new breed of Ultra attendee includes the original Europe-y ravers but also a lower common denominator, the kind of people who probably chained their dogs to the tree before packing the family -- including the eight-months-pregnant baby mama and gramma in her wheelchair -- into the Kia and heading downtown, only to take up a huge amount of dance-area space drunkenly doing lasso tricks with glowsticks-on-a-rope. The spring break-enhanced presence of squads of inebriated fraternity boys didn't help the thug quotient either. The most widely sported T-shirt was a white-on-black model declaring: "Fuck You You Fuckin' Fuck." Not your traditional smiley-face rave sentiment. So the vibe, once so infectiously happy, was infected instead with an undertone of predation and violence.
Drug use was as prevalent as ever, but in contrast to Ultra 6, during which more than 100 people were busted for possession, the cops didn't seem to give a ... darn this time around. Miami Police Department spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz said there were only sixteen arrests during the entire noon-to-midnight festival, fifteen of them narcotics-related and one for disorderly conduct. That's as many people who get arrested in downtown Miami on any regular day. Some partiers would probably have been better off with an intervention, Man-generated or otherwise. At 4:30 a.m. Sunday, more than four hours after Ultra ended, there were still nearly 50 people in the park in various states of OD, some completely unconscious. One man, a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Davie, said he'd taken more than a dozen hits of LSD and lost his cell phone, his glasses, and the rest of his stash.
He wasn't alone in leaving stuff behind. The park, one of Miami's loveliest public assets, was trashed beyond recognition, a foot deep in discarded electronics, vomit, hats, food, bottles, flyers (and let's not forget fried meat) -- much worse than last year, when the presence of booths staffed by social watchdogs such as PETA, NORML, and Greenpeace reminded at least some to put refuse in the trash receptacles. Speaking of all that biohazardous waste, come on now, people, how could you possibly go barefoot at Ultra?!?! Puh-leez.
Those hoping to escape the clinging grease at Ultra for the air-conditioned after-party at American Airlines Arena met with disappointment. Mike Walker, executive vice president of AAA's Heat Group Enterprises, explains the situation like this: "The promoters [Ultra's Alex Omes and Russell Faibisch] did not plan for the resulting amount of will-call and guest-list numbers for the event, hence the AAA was not made aware of the situation resulting in the initial backup of guests attempting to secure tickets from either their Internet order or name on a guest list.... AAA did not manage or handle the overall ticket ordering and sales process for this event nor were we notified of any guest-list will-calls until shortly before the event was to begin. Had we been better informed by the promoter as to the ticketing procedures setup, the initial delays at the box office could have been more efficiently managed. As it was, all the people attempting to pick up or buy a ticket were handled within the first two hours of the event start time."
Two hours! Good thing it wasn't a Heat game people were trying to get in to see. AAA employees and contractors working the party were spectacularly unhelpful. Journalists, roadies, and pass holders of all ilk were shuttled from gate to gate to gate by uncooperative AAAgents, with one imaginative crew chief claiming the press was not allowed to enter the arena at all.
For those who did get inside, the absolutely unadorned arena was set up like a high school gym dance. Predictably, annoying adults stepped on the fun, making the kids turn the volume down on that crazy music and absurdly turning the house lights on every few minutes. (Smoking, on the other hand -- cigarettes, cigars, and nontobacco -- was encouraged by lack of enforcement of the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act.) Hernan Catteneo almost single-handedly rescued the event with an energetic jam, but DJ James Lavelle of the group UNKLE played one of the worst sets of the entire conference, an inexplicable clunker that sounded like Kansas mashed up with REM.
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The Miami Herald reported Monday that 60,000 people attended Ultra; Andrew Fox, CEO of Track Entertainment and one of Ultra's major underwriters, said it was more like 45,000. Tim Schmand, executive director of the Bayfront Park Trust, said the number actually was "31,000 and change through the gate." Why did nearly 7000 people bother with the hassle of trying to get into the after-party at all?
Well, after a two-decade run of high-energy but socially fluid WMC parties and concerts and six bouts of Ultra, the creep of Miami social stratification finally caught up with conference. The Calle Ocho festival is welcomed year after year by a public willing to endure a bit of jostling and sloshed beer in order to see a bunch of great Latin music artists together in the same place. Ultra isn't free as CO is, but it operates on a similar principle. Now that WMC has been clubitized, schmoes from Kendall can wave around all the twenties they want, but if they're not on the list, they're not walking into State to see Miguel Migs, into Pawn Shop for a rare and exclusive Kool Keith appearance, and definitely not into the even more private parties at hotels and private mansions.
When events organized around a fringe interest become mainstream popular, they inevitably lose cachet. This happened with Burning Man in Nevada and is likely the fate of Indio, California's Coachella Music Festival. Should Ultra continue, its organizers need to take drastic steps to give the festival back to the people it was intended for in the first place. After all, as someone pointed out, electronic-music people don't rock, they pulsate.
Mundo Cerrado Norman Van Aken just folded Mundo (his New World bistro/market in the Village of Merrick Park, which opened only the December before last). A P.F. Chang's type of mediocrity will soon take its place.