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

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"I was young, but that experience for me was like, 'This is it; this is what I want to do.'"

The then-15-year-old started attending raves around the city, becoming a full-fledged promoter by the time he turned 20. He attended business classes at Florida International University but eventually dropped out when Ultra started to consume all of his time.

"Amoeba was my first-ever event, in 1998 at Power Studios," he says. "We had over 2,500 people show up."

But the idea of a beachside dance-music festival would come from another working relationship he developed in the mid-'90s. Alex Omes, a Miami Beach Senior High grad who was then about 25 years old, was publisher of a dance-music magazine called D'VOX, which devoted its pages to pushing the city's burgeoning EDM culture. Before launching the magazine, Omes had cut his teeth in the '90s Miami club scene as a bouncer at Cameo, where he developed the connections that would eventually allow him to be seen as an influence.

"I was doing an event and had to place some ads," Faibisch remembers. "That's when I met Alex Omes, who had the vision. We started Ultra together."

Omes and Faibisch connected on their mutual love for club beats, becoming close friends as well as business partners. The duo, looking to capitalize on Miami's growth as a dance-music hub, came up with the idea of holding a beachside party during Miami's WMC.

The conference was an industry event that had been launched in 1985 as a way for EDM artists, DJs, producers, and promoters to come together for panel discussions and seminars. During the week of the conference, there were also sanctioned dance parties and concerts at nightclubs throughout Miami. EDM fans began flocking to Miami every March. With thousands of people coming to town for the conference, the opportunity to launch a signature dance-music event was ripe.

Omes brought his industry connections, and Faibisch brought the business savvy.

"There were a lot of growing pains," Faibisch says.

Faibisch was able to secure investors, including a $10,000 bank loan for seed money.

"Everybody had to take a leap of faith in investing in what we were trying to accomplish. Rabbit in the Moon was the anchor — they played very rarely and usually only at Zen Festival. Once we got them, it was easier to get other artists onboard."

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted an event planned by shock jock Steve Dahl: Disco Demolition Night. The event, held during a sold-out Sox game, had fans throwing disco LPs onto the field and climaxed with Dahl's destroying them. It ended as a full-blown anti-disco riot and effectively pushed dance music into the underground.

However, thanks to subcultures in London, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, new genres of dance music emerged over the next two decades: house, electro, techno, and trance. The late '90s saw DJs and producers like Moby, Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy gaining moderate success on the Billboard charts, though the genre still couldn't compete with hip-hop or pop.

But drugs, ecstasy in particular, seemed to go hand in hand with dance music, and when Ultra launched in 1999, EDM seemed to be at a crossroads. Pushed by national news reports of deaths caused by overdoses, cops raided parties and lawmakers passed anti-rave ordinances around the country. Dance scenes fizzled.

"It was euphoric in one sense and chaotic in another," says WMC cofounder Bill Kelly of the inaugural Ultra. "At some point, they were carrying people out of there on stretchers, right past a city commissioner they had invited. They brought him to see [the event] because they wanted to show it off."

Despite these early setbacks, Ultra seemed to learn that to survive, it needed to prove itself a fun but safe environment for EDM fans.

"Our number-one priority is safety and security," Faibisch insists. "A lot of promoters say that, but not many follow through. The police and city need to see that you're not only talking but backing it up with action and not trying to cut corners or save costs. If they see that, that goes a long way."

Successful as the first Ultra was, it lost money — $10,000 to $20,000, Faibisch estimates.

"Today, $10,000 to $20,000 doesn't seem like a lot, but back then, it seemed like we lost millions," he says.

But he forged ahead. "I'm very, very passionate about it," Faibisch says. "It's my heart and soul. It's what I eat, live, and breathe. Probably one of the most rewarding things now is looking back at the old days and seeing how just about everybody there was asking the same questions, saying, 'Stop, this doesn't make sense!'"

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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