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With another Ultra Music Festival in the books, the 2014 American EDM festival season is officially underway — though it’s off to a rocky start.
The 16th annual festival and flagship of the worldwide Ultra brand began on Friday (March 28) at Miami’s Bayside Park with the announcement that headliner Avicii was ill and would not perform and ended on Sunday with Miami’s mayor calling for an end to the event after a ticketless crowd rushed a fence, trampling security guard Erica Mack and leaving her in critical condition.
The swiftness with which the tragedy was politicized reflects the already heightened tensions between the promoters and local government — not that you would have known it from walking around the festival grounds with its estimated 100,000 attendees.
Ultra is known to deliver a reliable musical product, enhanced by state-of-the-art visuals and unfettered by high-concept designs. The biggest change from previous years was the lack of a singular zeitgeist-y moment. In 2012, it was Madonna‘s surprise appearance during Avicii’s set, signaling the induction of EDM into the mainstream. In 2013, it was Swedish House Mafia’s highly-anticipated Main Stage performance on their farewell tour, drawing the curtain on an era. But in 2014, no single moment emerged as a metonymy for the event or the scene itself. This, combined with the fact that tickets didn’t sell out until the festival had already started, might even be an indication that the EDM festival era has peaked.
Musically, Ultra doesn’t differ from other major North American dance music festivals, with various stages dedicated to electronic music’s many subgenres — techno, trance, house — and hordes of mostly young people taking in the sounds while wearing brightly colored and often minimal clothing. This year’s Main Stage featured a dazzlingly massive structure of LED panels and lights surrounding the DJ platform in a conical shape, giving a sense of depth and dimensionality. Designed by Vello Virkhaus and his V Squared Labs production house, the “vortex,” as it was informally known, rivalled the scale of productions at Tomorrowland and Electric Daisy Carnival, but with less thematic adornment.
While the Main Stage was designed to frame the headliners as superstars, even the smaller stages were adorned with LED panels and live-programmed lighting, giving fans a top-quality experience whether they were dancing to Claude VonStroke or Armin van Buuren. The Live Stage featured a range of artists from Dizzee Rascal to MGMT, though it came across as musically unfocused, even if individual performances were strong. Relegating talents like Empire of the Sun and M.I.A. to side-stage status simply because they aren’t DJs seems slightly tone deaf to the world beyond dance music, even if such prioritizing falls in line with Ultra philosophy.
While rain and lightning on Saturday interfered with the music, shutting down four of the seven stages in the evening, Miami’s weather played nice for the most part. When the sun went down each day, the breezes in Bayside Park’s palm trees illustrated just why Miami is called Magic City.
As the cultural and geopolitical intersection of North and South America, Miami is uniquely positioned to host the most global dance music festival in the United States. Flags from Croatia to Brazil to India waved proudly above the crowd or were fixed tightly around the necks of fans who preferred to show their national pride as a cape. These fans are only part of what makes the Internet live-streaming of Ultra a must-watch attraction for those not lucky enough to be in Miami. Whether it’s Skrillex and Diplo thrashing on the Main Stage in their side project Jack U, Nervo keeping the audience’s hands in the air for an entire hour or Zedd simply playing his hits, the artists know that the world is watching, and they love playing to the audience at home as much as the one in front of them. Through live-streaming, Ultra has become a truly worldwide phenomenon.
It’s this reality that makes Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado‘s comments throughout the weekend about keeping Ultra out of Miami next year not only unconstructive but anachronistic. Mayor Regalado has long had the festival in his sights, having threatened to deny promoters necessary permits in previous years. The horrific stampeding on Friday night fit into the mayor’s narrative. While Ultra could obviously benefit from an improved reinforcement of its perimeter, and Miami Police would probably be of better service spread out around the festival rather than clustered in cells as they were throughout the weekend, tragedies like Ms. Mack’s are unfortunately more common to big-box stores on Black Friday than they are to music festivals. And at 66, Mayor Regalado is removed from Ultra’s fan base by generations and likely sees its embrace of loud music and bare skin as a scourge akin to the city’s many other blights — crime, drugs, poverty, urban decay — all of which sit mere blocks from the festival grounds, obstructed by the recently built condo high rises that flank Bayside Park.
Not understanding the festival culture that Ultra champions is one thing, but seeking to destroy it rather than improve how it operates is misguided. Still, it’s unlikely Regalado’s campaign will get far; a 2012 report from Ultra’s promoters estimated that the festival and its fans infuse a cool $40 million into the local economy each year, with nearly another $40 million in indirect and induced spending in the weeks surrounding the event.
Organizers have promised that an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ms. Mack’s injuries are underway, and there is every reason to believe the results of such an inquiry will lead to changes in the way event security is handled going forward.
While they aren’t germane to compare, the personal health and wellness of DJs became a focal point throughout the week leading up to Ultra beyond Avicii. Tiësto performed on Friday with a bandage on his face after hitting his head on some stage gear earlier in the week. Afrojack went to the hospital on Thursday for dehydration. One half of Dada Life and one half of Showtek were both afflicted with various ailments, the former returning to his home country of Sweden for emergency, though non-life-threatening, surgery. All are expected to recover swiftly, but these incidents, coupled with the Bingo Players’ Remembrance Festival in downtown Miami on Thursday night — honoring the life of the group’s late Paul Baumer — were harsh reminders of the mortality of people often hailed as gods. DJs, it turns out, are human after all.
Luckily for them, so are their fans. While the zenith of the EDM festival may be in the past, there is still a bright future for its stars, eager to create musical moments of riotous glee for their many fans under the sun and the stars. Despite its flaws, Ultra is an unparalleled platform for these moments, and even when it’s politically inconvenient, for its internationalism, its legacy as a music city and of course its weather, Miami is the most fitting host.
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