Longform

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

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Omes wasted no time in trying to regain his crown as Miami's music festival king. He joined legendary nightlife entrepreneur Emi Guerra as principal of a new event organization, Go Big Productions, and in 2011 and 2012 kept one of the most successful dance-music acts, Swedish House Mafia, away from Ultra. He hosted Swedish House Mafia shows concurrent to Ultra, thus drawing away some of Ultra's potential customers.

Then in summer 2012, Go Big announced the UR1 Festival, a two-day, multistage event to be held during the December weekend of Art Basel Miami Beach. It would combine music and visual art, with Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz, and the Offspring as headliners. The expansive lineup also included EDM acts as well as pop, hip-hop, and indie-rock stars.

But the event never came to be. It was canceled suddenly in November 2012, with weather forecasts and, inexplicably, the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy cited as the reasons. But insiders speculated that sluggish ticket sales were the real reason for UR1's getting the ax. At presstime, the promise of rescheduled dates still hasn't been fulfilled.

A young woman has her leg wrapped around her Ultra fling. She grinds on her newfound lover, talking to him sternly but lovingly. Suddenly, she backs away and smacks him, as though he's said something offensive. Unfortunately for her, the lover is one of Bayfront Park's palm trees, and the whole weird episode is caught on several camera phones and uploaded to YouTube and dubbed a better love story than Twilight. By the Monday after Ultra 2012, she's become a viral superstar.

The woman is visibly intoxicated — on what, it's unknown. But the video highlights the nagging problem of drug use at EDM events.

In 2003, then-Mayor Manny Diaz tried to pull the plug on Ultra two weeks before the event, describing it as drug-infested, but he gave in when promoters agreed to boost the police presence from 38 to 70 undercover officers and 50 to 100 uniformed ones. They also banned backpacks and doubled fencing to prevent people from tossing drugs over the fence to friends.

"All Ultra can do is focus on our event and how we control it and our security, our enforcement policies, and our safety policies and make it the safest event possible," says Faibisch. "In 15 years in Miami and doing events around the world, we've never once had an incident."

That depends on how you define incident. In 2004, when 35,000 people attended the one-day Ultra, police made 117 drug-related arrests. In 2012, when 165,000 attended the festival's three-day run, 71 people were arrested, 45 for narcotics-related crimes.

This year, Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff will be watching closely. At a January 10 commission meeting, when Ultra was seeking permission to add the second weekend, Sarnoff said: "We all know drug usage is high at Ultra. And it might be OK for a young man to get high, or whatever you want to call it, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But you are going to have some people try to do Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..."

But it's hard to argue with the $79 million Ultra brings to the city.

Ultra's financial pull is put into perspective by Timothy Schmand, executive director of Bayfront Park, which operates without government funding. "There are other larger revenue streams that are more significant, like the LiveNation agreement for the amphitheater," Schmand says. But Live­Nation's year-round events combined bring in only 24 percent of the park's revenue. Last year, Ultra's brought in 12 percent in just three days.

Despite Sarnoff's concerns, the Miami City Commission relented and approved Ultra's expansion this year, on the condition that organizers pay $500,000 to a special City of Miami police fund, on top of an already $600,000 pledge to hire extra off-duty police and fire services. Faibisch estimates there will be 150 to 200 officers patrolling the festival.

Faibisch, it seems, has come out on top: He's won over the city, outlasted Omes at Ultra, and has even become independent of the Winter Music Conference itself.

Though the WMC and Ultra had coordinated for years, holding their events during the same week, in 2011, things changed. That year, WMC and Ultra would for the first time be held on separate weekends, with a full week in between the two EDM events. News releases were fired by both parties blaming each other for the situation that forced dance-music fans to choose between the pragmatic conference and the spring-break atmosphere surrounding the festival (later rebranded as "Miami Music Week" by Ultra).

"For whatever reasons, [the WMC organizers] couldn't get their venue secure on the weekend we were supposed to do the show," explains Faibisch. "The only date that they could get their venue, which was the [Miami Beach Convention Center] that year, was a couple of weeks earlier. And we couldn't go that weekend because of [Miami's] Calle Ocho [festival]. [The city] claims to have a million people on the streets that weekend, and they didn't have the resources, so we couldn't go. The weekend we had was already set, and we had booked artists. We didn't do anything except continue on the path we were going."

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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