Dance

Ultra Music Festival 2018 Plays a Safe Game With Strong Cards in 20th Anniversary: Op-Ed

Marshmello
Jason Koerner/Getty Images

Marshmello performs on stage at Ultra Music Festival 2018 at Bayfront Park on March 24, 2018 in Miami. 

Milestones are reflective moments, and after 20 years of historic sets, surprise guests and forward-thinking design, Ultra Music Festival's 20th flagship event couldn't help but look back at its greatest moments for inspiration. The three-day celebration ran like a highlight reel of stalwart stars and hometown heroism, but for all its talk about “expect the unexpected,” this year's Ultra often felt delightfully familiar.

Right from the start of Miami Music Week, the shadow of the past crept across Ultra's face. The kick-off press conference announced the festival had officially acquired Winter Music Conference, the 33-year-old industry gathering that had once been the impetus for the festival's own birth. It's because of WMC's initial success that Ultra founders were able to tap international dance talent and fans for its inaugural year in 1999, and as focus on its panels and showcases faded behind the brightness of surrounding parties and events, Ultra saw an opportunity for reinvention.

WMC is now a three-day conference held the days leading up to UMF's opening bell. The concentration of the effort and its association with Ultra -- presumably its speaker and panelist pool will overlap with UMF's lineup -- should lead to a higher participation rate and regeneration of WMC's industry importance. It's wild that the once-new kid on the block now bought the old boss, but it just goes to show how far Ultra has come in its two decades.

The brand is now international, but Miami is the biggest and baddest event on the Ultra calendar. Nostalgia played prominently at the heart of many performances, from Porter Robinson's Virtual Self audio-visual love letter to the early aughts, to Carl Cox's scene-stealing drop of Daft Punk's “Rolling and Scratching.” Fischerspooner titillated with politicized sexuality while reminding fans of dance music's gay male roots. Julian Marley and The Wailers were a new face on the bill that represented an old sound. Even Marshmello's surprise performance of “Miami” with Will Smith celebrated a generational throwback.

This year's edition saw facelifts to the Carl Cox, World and Main stages, though the names that lit marquees were long-standing Ultra favorites. Three things are certain in life; death, taxes and Tiesto playing Ultra. The Dutch DJ debuted five new tracks, while The Chainsmokers brought a bass-riddled sound to rival its earliest sets. OG headliner Rabbit in the Moon took UMF full-circle at the live stage, while the secret guest closer was anything but a surprise. Swedish House Mafia is perhaps Ultra's most famous star, having bookended its three-year career with UMF main stage performances.

Until the moment three figures emerged under the bright lights, there were whispers in the crowd that it might be elusive French duo Daft Punk. But this weekend, Ultra wasn't so much gunning for a shocking new storyline in 2018 as it was highlighting its accomplishments and triumphs of the past.

In 20 years, Ultra has survived growing pains and changing trends to go from dance scene upstart to industry pace setter. The crowd is more stripped down and the stages more souped up. Surprise guests have become routine and blinding pyrotechnics expected, but there's yet something magical about its flag-waving masses that travel the world to take part in this vibrant carnival.

As it closed the chapter on its second decade with what was essentially an exciting (though expected) rerun, it begs the question; in what direction does Ultra now grow? No one can tell the future, but with such a storied past as a road map, Ultra should be anything but lost.

Festivals 2018