When Ultra Music Festival's lineup "leaked" last month, I was really hoping it was some kind of joke. The lineup was what I hoped Ultra would never become: lazy.
The problem is that instead of setting trends, Ultra seems to be following them. This wasn't always the case. In fact, up until a few years ago, Ultra was the American barometer of what you'd be hearing in dance clubs in a couple years.
That's not to say personally I may be getting too old for Ultra. Already partially deaf in one ear thanks to years of "OMG! Those speakers are amazing!" abuse, I now complain about everything: the music being too loud, the kids dressing like idiots, my feet hurting from standing too much. I fully realize at 30-something that I may no longer be a member of the ideal "demographic" that Ultra organizers are aiming for.
Still, that doesn't take away my right to complain. So what the fuck happened with Ultra? Well, let me break it down for you.
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There Seems to Be a Finite Number of Headliners
How many times can you book Avicii and expect it to look fresh and new? Remember when Ultra's main stage was an amazing mishmash of acts and the headliner was actually different each year? Tiësto, Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Rabbit in the Moon, and Justice all have performed on Ultra main stage and all had very different interpretations of dance music. You cannot build an event around EDM-only DJs (we're looking at you Avicii, Deadmau5, Martin Garrix, everyone involved in Swedish House Mafia, Afrojack, and David Guetta) and expect there to be any real variety.
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Live Music Has All But Disappeared.
I understand Ultra has to adapt in order to survive, and with it stages have to keep up with the times. (Remember the Dance Rock stage in 2007? No? Yea, neither do I.) But the slow fazing out of live acts at Ultra is troubling. Yes, there's still a "live" stage, but the riskier guitar-and synth-driven acts are all but gone -- even though this style of electronic music continues to flourish. (I really do believe live music has a place at Ultra, particularly as a showcase that some dance music requires a smidgen of musical talent and isn't all button pushing.) The last great live stage was in 2012, when Kraftwerk, New Order, M83, DJ Shadow, Metronomy, 2manydjs, Flying Lotus, and more took over the Klipsch Amphitheater. In 2013, despite what I considered a strong lineup, the live stage floundered thanks to odd set times that put acts like Nicolas Jaar against Swedish House Mafia. Last year, the live stage suffered from the same unpredictable attendance, and it seems Ultra has finally thrown in the towel this year and given everyone what they want more of: stagnant EDM.
EDM Has Reached Its Peak
Yes, stagnant. Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but EDM has hardly evolved during its meteoric rise. It's already feeling the pressure from deep house with Disclosure leading the charge. (Weirdly enough, Jamie Jones is the only real indication among this year's headliners of where popular dance music is headed.) It hasn't helped that EDM has gotten way too cozy with business part of the music industry, which makes the whole movement feel more like a product for sale instead of natural progression of youth culture. (The coopting of youth culture by boardrooms has always been the signal that a particular trend has run its course.)
Younger Dance Music Fans Have Little Interest in Legacy Acts
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And the problem when you "sell" dance music to a new generation is that there's hardly any push for them to learn about its history. Beyond getting angry that house, techno, dubstep, and trance has morphed into a single entity called EDM, be angrier at the fact that kids today think Daft Punk is as far back as dance music goes. Ultra used to pay respect to legacy acts by actually booking them. Kraftwerk, Erasure, the Cure, New Order, and more all played Ultra, and really showcased the basis of all of contemporary sound. How can you truly appreciate dance music if you don't understand the fundamentals? This kind of "musical education" sets apart dance-music-lover-for-life fans apart from the weekend warrior college kid looking to meet up with Molly. And doesn't Ultra want to guarantee its longevity by raising the newest crop of dance music fans?
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Ultra Music Fesival 2015. Friday to Sunday, March 27 to 29. Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets are on sale now and cost $299.95 to $449.95. Ages 18 and up. Visit ultramusicfestival.com.