Blood On the Dancefloor: Winter Music Conference Vs. Ultra Music Festival
It was Winter Music Conference: 2008. Yet another party. Almost no one noticed the pale blonde. She was overly dressed for Miami's South Beach heat, vogueing across the rooftop of the Raleigh Hotel. A lone cameraman dutifully snapped her strange pantomimes, but most people were more focused on scoring free drinks and listening to B-list DJs play afternoon-appropriate sets.
Less than two years later, the blonde is known as Lady Gaga, the record-breaking, hitmaking, international phenomenon.
Meteors like Gaga are rare, but stars are frequently born at WMC, where the global dance community gathers each year to hock new talent and celebrate the old. David Guetta got his American foothold here; Diplo set himself up for his BlackBerry sponsorship; and mega DJs like Tiësto reassert their dominance each year, with increasingly bigger crowds at increasingly bigger venues.
Driving this gathering of like-minded people are two events: The venerable WMC and a giant party known as Ultra Music Festival, which, according to Pollstar, is one of the fastest-growing outdoor festivals in the United States.
For 11 years, the two have coincided by design: UMF launched in 1999, piggybacking on the then-13-year-old WMC's growing popularity. While an anomalistic Easter forced a one-week move in 2004, both events were otherwise held the last week in March. WMC always launched midweek, and UMF wrapped up the weekend.
But this year, an unexpected shift in dates has made that scenario impossible, causing an international uproar in the process.
On Nov. 16, WMC announced that its 2011 edition will run March 8-12 -- not the last week in March, and therefore not corresponding with UMF, which was already scheduled for March 25-27. This happened despite a longstanding agreement between the two entities, stating that UMF would occur the same week as WMC.
Was it a heady, meaningful break or just a scheduling snafu? It depends on who you ask. But one thing's for sure: Dance music's real divas aren't leaving one bit of scenery unchewed, and "Miami in March" may never be the same.
WMC week is a tale of two conferences. The quarter-century-old, slightly gray one that focuses on business, networking and what co-founder Bill Kelly calls "emerging and legendary talent," and the one of the past 10 years that belongs to the spring break crowd, tourists and young partyers, strengthened by the presence of UMF, whose lineup this year features Duran Duran, Underwold, Moby, Tiesto, deadmau5, the Chemical Brothers, Disco Biscuits, will.i.am and David Guetta.
As clearly as Kelly points the finger at UMF, that's how definitively its organizers refuse to even acknowledge an argument.
"There is no current state because there is no dispute," UMF promoter Adam Russakoff says. "The dates chosen for WMC were impossible to present UMF, so for Ultra there wasn't any way [to make it work]."
In a statement posted on their website shortly after the dates were announced, UMF organizers countered WMC with a logistical hurdle of their own. The new WMC dates overlapped the annual Calle Ocho Street Fair, which attracts more than 1 million people to downtown Miami, home to UMF venue Bayfront Park.
"Ultra used absolute best efforts to maintain the relationship with WMC and join them in the move to the second week [of March]," they said. "However, this was rendered impossible by the City of Miami Police Department, as they do not have the resources to host Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho on the same weekend."
"We went so far as to help them find another venue for the conference to help stay together," says Russakoff, who nonetheless adds that UMF plans to correspond with WMC again next year. "We welcome it."
When WMC launched, dance fans weren't part of the conference's story. It was first held Feb. 19-21, 1986, at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott. About 90 people attended, setting up the structure for the confab's first incarnation as an industry-focused networking event, featuring evening showcases from top talent and the Florida warmth thawing the dominantly out-of-town delegates. The conference moved to Miami's South Beach in its sixth year.
Throughout the '90s, WMC became the place to be for anyone involved in dance music-a breeding ground for collaboration and new talent and a launch pad for the tracks that would define the genre for the following year. Delegates had the run of the town, gaining entry to most or all nightclub events with a flash of their WMC badge."
In 1996, when I was resident at [South Beach nightclub] Liquid, we had Frankie Knuckles on WMC Sunday," Waxman says, noting that the event was also tied to the annual Winter Party, which targets the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, "so we were charging at the door. Charging a WMC delegate? Blasphemy! Nowadays, the door people see those badges and they charge you double."
In the 2000s, the WMC experience started to change. UMF launched in 1999 as a one-day event in South Beach, featuring rave-favorite acts like Rabbit in the Moon and DJ Baby Anne. It moved to downtown Miami's Bayfront Park two years later to accommodate its rapidly growing size.
As dance music increased in popularity as a genre, UMF gained attendees downtown, and when word spread that every DJ on the planet was in Miami during a single week, fans started flooding the city, increasing the money-making opportunities for venues, hotels and retail stores. This influx corresponded with the heightened prevalence of bottle service, where a five-person table could easily net a club $1,500 in a few hours-far more than if each attendee paid a $25 cover or was let in for free with a WMC badge. Promoters and artist bookers from all over the world struck lucrative deals with local venue owners to host events, in hopes of establishing their own brands and artists on WMC's international stage and making money in the process.
Suddenly, the WMC delegate was a second-class citizen at best, unable to compete with masses of spring breakers or European tourists with deep pockets. Confrontations at club doors became the norm, with managers frequently being blocked from joining their artists inside, press lists getting cut and sometimes even DJs getting hassled at their own events. Dance music magazines committed whole sections to annual "WMC Aftermath" stories and kvetch-fests.
The conference, it seemed, had gotten lost in the scramble.
While the players themselves are being relatively civilized, their posses are making hay behind them. Calling the decision "reckless," Windish booking agent Steve Goodgold blasted WMC in an open letter. Artists are routed up to a year in advance, and both WMC and UMF have historically been scheduled for the last week in March. The new dates make it impossible for artists to network and see their colleagues at WMC and play UMF. As the largest dance festival in America, UMF is a massive, unmissable platform for any artist able to secure a slot."
It is a gross inconsideration by the WMC for event planners worldwide and artist scheduling," Goodgold wrote.
In another open letter, Louis Puig, the firebrand owner of downtown Miami superclub Space (which rushed its 2000 opening to correspond with WMC week), used the occasion to side with WMC -- despite the fact that he tried to launch a competitive conference, the Miami Music Conference, in 2005. He decried UMF's practice of locking its performers into exclusive contracts for the entire week, seriously affecting his own booking interests.
"Clubs don't compete with Ultra," Puig wrote. "They don't even operate at the same times, so why not let the artists play at clubs? This Ultra 'exclusivity' crap is hurting the artist and adult nightlife, as no adult I know can stand being at a festival for more than two hours. They also cannot stand sweating, getting trampled by the masses, dancing on dirt and/or mud and using those disgusting Port-O-Potties."
But Puig's letter also praised the opportunity for "two great music weekends," and ever-industrious event promoters are seeing green too.
"We're going to produce events both weeks, but our main focus will be during Ultra week. That's when most of the big talent will be in Miami," says Rob Fernandez, promotional director of New York nightclub Pacha, who staged 20 parties throughout South Beach during last year's WMC. "The venues and promoters will benefit because they will get another weekend of parties. The fans will suffer."
Forced to choose between the two weeks, fans are speaking out online, expressing their displeasure with the situation. Before, they had a virtual guarantee to see all their favorite DJs during a single week. Now, some DJs might only play one of the two weeks, and that might not be confirmed until flights get expensive and hotels sell out.
A poster on music and culture magazine URB's website commented: "Those parties are an elitist retreat for DJs, label bosses and promoters, while the REAL fans and heart of the scene has [sic] to go to work in the real world. Not to sound bitter but fuck both events, cry me a river you overpaid booking agents. I have no sympathy for the hyper-elite dance set."