The City of Miami Is to Blame for Ultra Music Festival's Departure

Ultra Music Festival announced Wednesday it would not return to Miami in 2020.
Ultra Music Festival announced Wednesday it would not return to Miami in 2020. Daniella Mía
What do you picture when you imagine Miami? Even if you’ve lived here and felt the full brunt of the city’s realities — the oppressive summer heat, the preternaturally shitty drivers, and so on — it’s likely you’re charmed by the same romantic notions that have permeated pop culture. Whether the image is real or sentimentalized, Miami is envisioned as a town of art deco pastels, where cocaine cowboys seek shelter in lavish South Beach discotheques, and, of course, where packs of neon-tank-top-clad adolescents gather annually for Ultra Music Festival.

As of yesterday, those scenes are all cultural relics of a bygone Miami.

It was announced Wednesday that Ultra had “voluntarily terminated” its license to produce the festival in Miami. In an open letter published via Twitter, the event’s organizers said they had settled on a yet-to-be-announced South Florida location “that will serve as an incredible and permanent home for Ultra Music Festival.”

“We have been approached by many interested parties over the years with offers to host the festival at some very unique and impressive locales,” the statement said. “One of these, however, has shined far above the others, and we look forward to making our home there for many years to come.”

It’s unlikely Ultra would have ever looked beyond Miami for a stable venue were it not for the machinations of a select few. In September, Commissioner Joe Carollo nearly single-handedly forced Ultra out of its longtime downtown home after reneging on a deal he’d helped negotiate between the Downtown Neighbors Alliance and the festival. With the wheels of event production already in motion, Ultra hastily relocated its 21st edition to Virginia Key Beach Park and Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key. The move displaced Rapture Electronic Music Festival and generated a slew of well-documented transportation and logistical issues. Ultra admitted in yesterday’s letter “the festival experience on Virginia Key was simply not good enough.”

Neither Carollo’s extensive history of shady politicking nor the changing nature of downtown Miami is any secret. As the perpetual construction and swell in high-rise condos illustrate, residential and business interests dictate the direction of downtown much more than they did when Ultra was first held at Bayfront Park in 2001.

Ultra’s departure from the city that birthed it marks an ignoble end to what had been the festival’s most fruitful decade. As American dubstep gave way to the EDM boom of the early 2010s, Ultra positioned itself as the foremost gathering for electronic music in the United States. Regardless of the debate around the festival’s shift from bringing forward-thinking acts such as Kraftwerk and Nicolas Jaar in favor of the crowd-pleasing stylings of the Chainsmokers and Marshmello, it’s impossible to deny Ultra's influence. For better or worse, the sight of scantily clad and suspiciously happy ravers collectively losing their minds in Bayfront Park quickly took on an iconic quality, so much so that Ultra began expanding its reach globally by staging sister festivals around the world. Even as fans traveled from abroad to experience Ultra and Miami firsthand, the mere idea of partying here had grown so alluring it became a lucrative export unto itself.

That’s all over now.

Make no mistake: The blame for Ultra’s exodus lies squarely with the very city that made it possible. In the days to come, there’ll likely be attempts to fault the festival, complete with allusions to ubiquitous noise complaints, hospitalizations, arrests, and the infamous 2014 incident that left a security guard in critical condition. As reports have noted, Ultra became safer through the years with the addition of comprehensive risk-mitigation measures and procedures. It’s a testament to the festival’s organizers that an event of Ultra’s scale — with all of the drugs, inevitable heat exhaustion, and general mishaps — ran as smoothly as it has (this year’s Virginia Key outing excepted).

In an interview with New Times yesterday, Mayor Francis Suarez attributed Ultra’s exit to Carollo’s antics. But as justified as Suarez's reasoning may be, “Crazy Joe” is far from the only force that caused the departure. It’s not the first time — and surely won’t be the last — that the desires of the city’s deep-pocketed few dictated the pleasures of Miami’s many. Take a walk toward downtown from Bayfront Park and you’ll find a monolithic parking garage in the space where beloved nightclub Grand Central once stood. And as Rolling Loud can attest, Ultra isn’t the first gathering to be relegated to parts far removed from the life and verve of the city.

Other Miami events aren't safe either. Who can confidently say III Points is secure at its long-standing home of Mana Wynwood? As more cultural spaces such as the Wynwood Yard and O Cinema are sacrificed at the altar of additional high-rises — bringing in new, moneyed residents and their inevitable noise complaints — the likelihood of that festival facing a situation similar to Ultra's increases. Wynwood in 2019 is unrecognizable from the neighborhood it was when III Points began in 2013, and it’d be naive to believe it won’t continue to change dramatically.

Real-estate developers and Robert Zangrillo-grade creeps have already made their intentions to further gentrify Little Haiti and Allapattah widely known. Simultaneously, while the specter of the Magic City Innovation District looms over working-class Miami residents, the same condo dwellers who pushed for Ultra’s removal are fretting over sounds from the 24-hour clubs that transformed the Park West District and made their abodes possible in the first place.

Miami is well on its way to becoming an anonymous series of opulent skyscrapers devoid of character or anything approximating cultural vibrancy. As its abysmal public transportation and lack of preparedness for sea-level rise show, the city rarely prioritizes long-term investments over immediate financial gains. The entirety of Miami won’t go the way of South Beach or Coconut Grove and become a shell of its former bustling self. But if institutions as renowned and as profitable as Ultra aren’t immune from the pressure, what is?

In light of Ultra’s questionable choices lately and the crime against dignity that was Colonel Sanders’ DJ set, it could be argued the festival’s leaving opens the door for something different in Miami, an opportunity to forge a new identity in an ever-evolving city. But as long as those in charge cater solely to the benefit of their wealthiest constituents, it’ll be an uphill battle to build anything that approaches Ultra's lasting effect on Miami.
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.
Zach Schlein is the former arts and music editor for Miami New Times. Originally from Montville, New Jersey, he holds a BA in political science from the University of Florida and writes primarily about music, culture, and clubbing, with a healthy dose of politics whenever possible. He has been published in The Hill, Mixmag, Time Out Miami, and City Gazettes.
Contact: Zach Schlein