A quick listen to the radio or a glance at the modern musical landscape shows proof of a total electronic takeover. Some of the industry’s most recognizable faces smile from behind a laptop rather than a microphone, and the dance scene remains one of the highest-grossing and most resilient outgrowths of the otherwise upended music business.
Thirty years ago, though, people were only just getting over the disco backlash, let alone emptying their wallets to hear a jet-setting DJ spin a few hits. Yet that’s when Bill Kelly Jr. had the bright idea to start an international industry gathering for dance-music professionals in South Florida.
“Our purpose was to express the power and message of dance music in clubs and on the radio,” he says. “We wanted to share this experience on a global scale and give dance music a place in history that I feel it deserves.”
Today, Winter Music Conference is one of the biggest and most important weeks of the year for DJs, producers, managers, record labels, party promoters, developers, and industry insiders of all shades and grades. Major players and hopefuls alike descend upon Miami’s sandy shores to trade business cards, secrets, tracks, and top-secret products. The success of WMC has spawned Ultra Music Festival, the International Dance Music Awards, and more careers than Berry Gordy launched — and Kelly knows it.
“I have this sense of accomplishment in helping to bring dance music to such an iconic state,” he says. “In my view, Winter Music Conference has provided a historical platform for dance music to evolve and adapt to new technology.”
In 1985, WMC held its modest debut in Fort Lauderdale. It was nothing like the grand spectacle of 2015. Kelly describes the attendees as “a small group of professionals.” There were major and independent label A&Rs, record pool directors, artists, promoters, and radio reps. They got together to simply talk shop and share the latest news. Back then, there was actual money to be earned by recording and pressing actual records — which, by the way, was still the only way to play hot tunes.
“Trading those record crates weighing 50 or more pounds apiece for a thumb drive in the 2000s was one favorite moment,” Kelly laughs.
Of course, though, technology has also had ill effects on the music biz and WMC.
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“The implosion of the music industry in the late 1990s was a devastating challenge, but it was also a sort of reinvention for us,” the conference founder recalls. “Building commercial awareness to more consumer-oriented events helped change the way WMC impacted South Florida, helping generate a more party-like atmosphere and ultimately building a performance-type platform for artists to engage audiences while still providing an educational conference side to it.”
Over the past 30 years, Kelly and Winter Music Conference have seen a lot of changes, and in the wide eyes of many EDM maniacs, the insider appeal often gets lost in an ever-expanding smorgasbord of pool parties and all-night ragers, plus the all-encompassing mayhem of Ultra Music Festival’s three-day extravaganza. Even WMC has become more of a schmooze fest than an educational destination. But in the fast-paced, red-hot, modern-day dance industry, maybe that’s just how business is done. It certainly makes for some good memories.
“Thinking back on all the artists who have performed over the last three decades or who have been part of the International Dance Music Awards show would be another favorite moment,” Kelly says. “Nile Rodgers speaking and playing guitar at a WMC Q&A or Carl Cox answering questions from his fans in a special symposium or Paul van Dyk performing poolside at WMC — the list goes on and on.”