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

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When Ultra announced its 2011 dates in November 2010, WMC quickly issued a news release saying it was "blindsided by Ultra's last minute announcement." The conference claimed there had been "a signed October 15, 2009 contract between the two entities which stated that the 2011 Ultra Music Festival would be presented during the five-day period in February, March or April 2011 designated and promoted by WMC as the 'WMC week.'''

So the two events took different directions: WMC retained its reputation as an industry business event, while Ultra became associated with fly-by-night partiers.

Carmel Ophir, owner of downtown nightclub the Vagabond, remembers the WMC's early days. "It was industry-driven," he says. "It was a full-on industry exchange of ideas and sounds. People were here whether they were in the industry or trying to get into it." But over the years, tourists began coming, largely for Ultra's debauchery.

"Eventually, people would call it 'WMC' but not go to the conference," Ophir explains. "Around 2007, I was being interviewed on-camera at Pawn Shop and the reporter asked me to talk about the conference, so I did. But he stopped me and asked me to talk more about Ultra. That's when I realized things were changing."

These are sentiments echoed by WMC cofounder Bill Kelly.

"I want to draw a line in the sand," Kelly says over the phone. "Truth of the matter is, WMC is an all-inclusive, citywide event that takes place in every possible venue imaginable. Ultra is a festival that takes place in a park. And there is a clear distinction between something that addresses and talks about the future of the industry and a free-for-all party."

Kelly's event may be more high-minded, but there's no denying that, in terms of pure numbers, WMC attendance has become interdependent with Ultra.

In 2011, WMC pushed forward with its earlier dates, and attendees saw a more muted conference than in years past. Ultra, on the other hand, saw record attendance levels for its first three-day event.

Faibisch notes that "when [WMC] announced their [2012] dates, they were back in line with ours."

Ophir notes that Ultra can make it difficult for nightclubs to book acts because it makes artists sign aggressive exclusivity contracts — legal agreements stipulating that acts cannot play at competing venues during the festival nor 60 days prior and after. In effect, the acts at Ultra cannot play at most South Florida venues from January to May, thus creating demand when they show up at Ultra.

But Ophir can't deny that, ultimately, Ultra's power is "definitely a positive thing." His nightclub will be booked solid during the week of Ultra.

Downtown at Miami's Bayfront Park, people lie on the grass, and a trapeze school's equipment is the only thing that stands out from the greenery. But in late February, the whole park, save for a children's area, closes to the public for more than a month to make way for multiple stages and the 15th incarnation of Ultra. Faibisch climbs a hill and points out where the massive Bayfront stage will go and how Biscayne Bay in the background will frame it. "Here's where it's going to be," he says proudly, imagining the majesty of it.

"When you go to the festival and you see the production and the amount of stages and quality on those stages and the lineup we put out and the money it costs to book those people, in addition to whatever we have to pay the city... that's why you don't see any other electronic music festival in the world that has this kind of lineup. No one does it. We do it."

Driving over the Julia Tuttle Causeway, the city skyline hovering over the water, he sighs.

"Ah, I love Miami," he says, and presses the gas on his Porsche Boxster.

Zachary Fagenson contributed to this report.

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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