Win Factor

On a breezy Wednesday evening at the South Beach nightspot Tantra, DanceStar USA, the upstart Miami-based production company whose second annual American Dance Music Awards should be a highlight of this year's eighteenth annual Winter Music Conference, was giving away so many free mojitos that you could literally walk around two-fisted. Technically the occasion for the free-flowing liquor was a press conference at which the group announced that A-list Hollywood actresses Juliette Lewis and Roselyn Sanchez would be hosting the event. But the real reason was to commemorate what augurs to be another big year for one of the fastest-rising businesses in the music industry.

As the small gathering chattered away, vocalist OBA Frank Lord, clad in leather pants with racer stripes and topped off by a black cowboy hat, wandered among the crowd, chanting the lyrics to Oscar G and Ralph Falcon of MURK/Funky Green Dogs' tribal-house hit "Dark Beat" in people's faces. "I wanna ride it," he purred before leaping onto the furniture, thrusting his fist into the air as Oscar and Ralph's track pounded away menacingly. The performance epitomized how DanceStar USA has consistently wowed onlookers -- DJs and producers, jaded club heads, the media, potential corporate sponsors -- with its drive and ability to orchestrate amazing scenes.

But for the past eighteen years, the Winter Music Conference has held its own International Dance Music Awards (IDMA), an event it calls "the first and largest awards ceremony dedicated to dance music."

DanceStar (of which DanceStar USA is a subsidiary) founder and CEO Andy Ruffell asserts that the American Dance Music Awards "is quite a different show from WMC's awards show." Ruffell's dismissal of the IDMA is voiced through a wry yet warm smile that speaks volumes about the overnight success of his American operations. When the ADMA debuted last year, it was broadcast on MTV2 and MTV Europe and featured platinum stars like Fatboy Slim, Lenny Kravitz, and D12; even pop princess J.Lo appeared via telecast to accept her award as "Best Chart Artist."

Far from just another tacky celebrity lovefest, the ADMAs are an expensive undertaking that Ruffell says cost somewhere between one and two million dollars to produce. While admitting that "right now, the shows don't make money," he plans to achieve profitability by wooing corporate sponsors and launching spinoffs like a special "souvenir" edition of DanceStar magazine, scheduled for distribution through Borders Books and Music this spring, and a compilation CD of music by ADMA winners. "The bigger the shows get, the more we can attract sponsorship," he says.

Traditionally the International Dance Music Awards has been a business event hosted by WMC organizers for DJs, producers, vocalists, and various record executives. While ADMA recipients are chosen by music fans who vote for their favorite acts on a heavily advertised Website, IDMA honorees are, according to WMC's own Website, picked through a balloting process involving "industry professionals across the globe." The public can purchase tickets to attend the ADMA; the IDMA is a semiprivate affair for conference delegates. DanceStar USA's awards are a spectacle designed to harvest media attention; the IDMA is for the people who work in the music industry.

Frank Ceraolo, panels and events coordinator for WMC, explains that this year's IDMA will be different. "The bar has been raised a bit in terms of class and presentation," he notes, admitting that previous IDMAs were more "banquet style" events. Long-time host and Artemis Records president Daniel Glass will be joined by radio jocks Vic Latino of New York's WKTU (103.5 FM) and Matt the Bratt of Tampa's WFLZ (93.3 FM). And there will also be more performing artists than in the past.

Actually, many of the acts booked to appear on the IDMA -- popular dance artists like iio, OBA Frank Lord, and DJ Sammy -- are also scheduled to perform at the ADMA. When asked about the ADMA, Ceraolo, a former A&R executive for Epic Records who once worked with superstar acts like Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan, testily replies, "First of all, it came out of nowhere last year, didn't really stand for much, didn't really draw a crowd. It may have drawn particular talent because they have pitched it a certain way to certain people, but I don't think it has been successful nor could it continue without developing some type of real base or foundation like the conference has."

Told about Ceraolo's comments, Ruffell answers, "I don't want to get into a war of words with WMC." He reveals that he spent a year negotiating with WMC on a deal that would allow both companies to participate in the ADMA. "I invested a lot of time and money in trying to make that happen, and in the end it didn't," he says. But Ruffell wouldn't go into specifics.

When pressed further about WMC's relationship with DanceStar USA, Ceraolo declined to go into detail and referred all other "legal" questions to WMC co-founder Bill Kelly. (Arrangements were made to speak with Kelly but he was unable to comment by press time.) Tellingly, though, Ceraolo refers to DanceStar USA's presence as one of many "greedy" interlopers who selfishly profit from WMC's name and allure. "A lot of people need to realize that, eighteen years ago, two gentlemen put together a concept that was very genius and not only helpful to the City of Miami Beach but created an influx of income that feeds our community," he says, referring to WMC co-founders Kelly and Louis Possenti. "With every good idea comes opportunistic people that want to ride off or chip away at a good idea."

Ruffell counters that "there are many other people who do events around other events. The Super Bowl happens once a year, but there's probably 200 events that happen around it. When we were talking about dates and where we could do it, the industry [people] said, 'Look, a lot of people come down to Miami at that time of year, so that's where you should do it,'" he says. "I think, long-term, whether the show stays in Miami, we're not sure, but it will certainly stay in Miami for the next three or four years, because Miami is the perfect home for DanceStar."

Later Ruffell extended that timeline to "the next ten years. The only reason the show would move is because of the demands of broadcasters," he added.

In the end any dispute between DanceStar USA and WMC is something of a fait accompli. While not divulging any names, Ruffell says he's negotiating with several networks to broadcast this year's awards show.

Undoubtedly aware of how the ADMA may adversely impact the IDMA's influence in the record industry, WMC is moving its event from last year's Level nightclub to the more prestigious Jackie Gleason Theater. It's the same venue DanceStar USA used last year.

Asked about the coincidence, Ruffell simply answers, "We've kind of outgrown the Gleason, I guess." Instead the ADMA will be held at Lummus Park in Miami Beach on Wednesday, March 19, a day before the IDMA. "We're expecting 3000 to 4000 people, and we wanted to do something different," he says.

In many ways the standoff illustrates WMC's ever-evolving role in what has become more than a mere industry conference. Unfortunately, by resisting the "opportunists," the organization that started the party in the first place risks irrelevance, or worse, obsolescence. But no one wants that to happen. After all it's the panel discussions, workshops, and networking opportunities like the IDMA, which WMC provides for aspiring musicians and label owners eager to survive in the music industry, that make a difference. Without them this infamous week-long celebration could become a hedonistic exercise as soulless and predictable as a pilgrimage to Ibiza. Ruffell says, "We're pleased with what WMC has done for Miami, and we're very pleased with what they've done for dance music."

Of course that won't stop him from trying to build one of the biggest music shows in America. But he thinks "there's plenty of room for everybody here."