Longform

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

Page 3 of 5

In 2000, Faibisch and Omes threw a second, successful Ultra, and by 2001, its third year, Ultra had outgrown its South Beach home at Collins Park. At the insistence of the city, Faibisch moved the party to Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Attendance swelled from the initial 10,000 attendees to 23,000.

As it grew, Ultra worked in tandem with the Winter Music Conference in championing electronic music. It coordinated dates, and WMC badge holders were allowed free access to Ultra.

The festival lasted five years at Bayfront, until 2005, when the park's trust urged Faibisch to consider moving it to the much larger Bicentennial Park, located north of American Airlines Arena.

The festival helped acts like Tiësto, Avicii, and Deadmau5 launch their careers in the United States. By 2006, with EDM virtually nonexistent on U.S. radio, playing Ultra, one the few major American electronic music festivals, seemed necessary to gain exposure. Established artists began seeing Ultra as a key place to premiere new tracks. Newcomers saw it as a way to get noticed.

"I've probably done 11 out of the 15 years of Ultra," superstar DJ Tiësto confesses. "It's probably one of the most important festivals in the world. To be a headliner there, on the main stage, with the big production, has been very good for my career."

"Ultra Music Festival is one of the largest and most influential platforms for electronic dance music in America," says Kerri Mason, who writes about EDM for Billboard.com. "It's hard to say whether it inspired the growth of EDM or just grew alongside it. But would EDM be where it is today without it? I would say no."

The festival has had a slew of iconic moments. Who can forget Madonna popping up during Avicii's set last year to ask "How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?" — and Deadmau5's subsequent railing against her for trying to seem cool with the veiled drug reference to ecstasy? The Black Eyed Peas performed "Boom Boom Pow" for the first time ever at Ultra 2009 — which perhaps hinted toward EDM's eventual pop crossover. Faibisch's personal highlight was the Cure playing in 2007.

Mason noted how artists debut at Ultra and go on to bigger things. "If you track Skrillex from two years ago, who played a side stage, to last year, when he headlined a main stage, you can see it year to year," she said.

According to court documents, Omes and Faibisch "operated the company on a day-to-day basis as a small shop and rarely observed any corporate formalities" until 2005, when they created a "memorandum of understanding" establishing Faibisch, his younger brother Charles, and Omes as shareholders. The memo specified that "management and operational decision making authority remain with Alex Omes and Russell Faibisch as presently exist in Ultra."

Over the years, the company has grown to include "a very small core team — less than 20," Faibisch says. "Everybody has their role... These are people who have been with us eight to ten years minimum."

Today, Omes is out, and a new partner, Adam Russakoff, is onboard.

Faibisch says that they put in long days due to the complexity of working with people all over the world and that Ultra 2013 will cost $25 million to $30 million to produce.

On August 10, 2010, Alex Omes found himself pushed out of the company he helped create.

According to a lawsuit Omes filed in August 2012 against Ultra's shareholders, Faibisch, his brother Charlie, and their new partner, Russakoff, hatched a conspiracy to oust Omes from the Ultra family he had cofounded so they could control "the now financially successful event." In what the lawsuit describes as a "secret shareholders' meeting," the three voted to officially push out Omes as president of the festival. The reason given by the lawsuit? The shareholders knew that Omes wouldn't agree to break off from the Winter Music Conference for Ultra's 2011 edition.

The lawsuit seeks financial compensation from the other Ultra founders, though court records don't say how much. Documents do not reveal how much the principals take as salary; the company is private, and Faibisch will not say. He insists most of the money is reinvested into Ultra. Omes's lawsuit also asks for dissolution of the company and re-formation of a new one in which Omes would again be in charge. Omes initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, then stopped responding. When contacted, Omes's lawyer referred all questions back to the complaint. According to filed documents, a hearing for an injunction is scheduled for May 30.

All Faibisch will say about the lawsuit or Omes is that "we were very good friends. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and a lot of love for him in my heart."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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