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How Russell Faibisch Built Ultra Music Festival -- and Whom He's Battled Along the Way

Russell Faibisch left the Outback Steakhouse on 21st Street in Miami Beach on March 12, 1999, the night before he was to launch his huge beachside electronic music festival.

"We had a big family dinner. Everyone was feeling really good," Faibisch recalls now. "Later, as I drove away, something bizarre happened." He got pulled over by a cop. "I ended up getting arrested for something with my tag — something ridiculous. I had never been in trouble before and had never gone to jail."

Faibisch sat locked up as the hours ticked away. The show could not go on without him.

"Everyone was waiting for me because I had the cashier's checks," he remembers. "The sound company would not turn the sound on until they had the money up-front."

See also: 15 Years of Ultra Music Festival (Photos) | WMC / MMW 2013 Events

After about eight hours of uncertainty, Faibisch was released (the charges would later be dropped), made his way to Collins Park, and handed over the remaining payments. Gates opened at 11 a.m. as planned.

Ten thousand fans swarmed the event as electronic dance music (EDM) acts including Josh Wink, Baby Anne, and Paul van Dyk cycled through the event's main stage and 100-plus-decibel beats boomed over the city. As partiers danced, got half-naked and sweaty, and ran from the concert to jump into the ocean and back, Faibisch and his business partner, then-28-year-old Alejandro Alex Omes, spent the day running around and troubleshooting.

After nightfall, the headliner, Rabbit in the Moon, a Tampa-based electronic act, took the stage. This was the climax to a hectic day for the young promoters. Faibisch, Omes, and their friends slowed down to catch the performance. Faibisch was sure to soak it all in. He had succeeded in breaking out of the nightclub scene and pulled off a $200,000 event. He was 21 years old.

"To watch it unfold before our eyes was something really special," Faibisch remembers.

On a recent day this February, Faibisch, now 35 but still with cherub cheeks and boyish features, wore classic Miami business casual — blue jeans and a button-up — and retraced his steps at Collins Park.

"I remember walking on the sand here in 1998 and looking at this beach and dreaming," he says, "dreaming of what we could do, of what was possible."

Today, Faibisch's Ultra Music Festival and its related projects make up a monster business. There are satellite Ultra festivals in Brazil, Ibiza, South Korea, Croatia, Argentina, and Chile. There are Ultra radio broadcasts, film premieres, and a partnership with legendary New York City label Ultra Records.

And no one can deny that Ultra has become a powerful force in Miami. An economic-impact report commissioned by the festival estimates that it pumped $79 million into the local economy last year, when it had grown to be a three-day party. This year, the event will double to take place over six days on two weekends. A record 400,000 attendees are expected, making Ultra the largest music festival anywhere in the United States in a city's downtown core. The only other festival that comes close is Chicago's Lollapalooza, a three-day affair at Grant Park.

Along its 15-year journey, Ultra has had to battle city commissioners, a debauched image, and the Winter Music Conference (WMC) that paved the way for it. And last August, cofounder Omes filed a lawsuit against Faibisch, alleging that he was illegally kicked out of the company during a "secret shareholders' meeting." But as the saying goes, you can't make it to the top without making a few enemies.

Born and raised in the western suburbs of Miami-Dade, Russell Faibisch inherited a knack for business from his father, who shares his name with his son. The elder Faibisch, a Brooklyn native and bail bondsman since 1968, founded Surety Corporation of America, a company that provides underwriting services to more than 650 bail bond agents nationwide. As a teenager, the younger Faibisch worked in the family business.

"People ask me if doing Ultra is hard," Faibisch says now. "But after working with criminals, Ultra seems like a piece of cake."

While attending Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School, he developed a love for electronic music.

"It was Depeche Mode in [1993] for the 'Devotion Tour' at the Miami Arena that everything clicked for me," Faibisch says, "and I realized that this was what I want my life to be. Somehow, someway, but I hadn't figured exactly how yet." Later, he would name his festival after Depeche Mode's 1997 studio album, Ultra.

Also in 1993, Faibisch attended Divine Playground, one of the city's first major rave events, held in March 1993 at Bayfront Park. It featured an eclectic lineup — live acts like 808 State and Rage Against the Machine along with DJs like Icey, Sven Vath, and Keoki. Faibisch describes the event as "ahead of its time."

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Jose D. Duran is the associate editor of Miami New Times. He's the strategist behind the publication's eyebrow-raising Facebook and Twitter feeds. He has also been reporting on Miami's cultural scene since 2006. He has a BS in journalism and will live in Miami as long as climate change permits.
Contact: Jose D. Duran