The grounds at Bayfront Park were crowded and hard to navigate, and when night fell, it seemed like an impossible task to get from one stage to another. Ravers climbed trees to get better vantage points (no one stopped them), while others laid down in the human traffic when continuing to walk became too much. Glazed eyes, stumbling gaits, reaching hands: It was kind of like a herd scene out of "The Walking Dead," but with brighter colors and younger victims.
But all that didn't keep the magic from happening on the stages, where Ultra's diverse line-up of artists showed a wide spectrum of EDM colors and flavors, and in just a few minutes, one visiting icon made an even bigger star out of one particular headliner.
1. Madonna always does something surprising and dance-culture focused the week of an album release: In 2005 for "Confessions on a Dance Floor," she toured a few New York clubs - including the downtown-cool and very tiny Misshapes - with a crew of her dancers. With EDM exploding, her promotional options were much bigger for "MDNA," out Tuesday. The buzz started in the early afternoon: Main stage headliner/one-year sensation Avicii would be joined by a special guest. By the time it was all but confirmed on Madonna's own Facebook page ("Maybe you should keep an eye on the following live stream," with a link to the UMF TV), the rumor had already spread throughout the Ultra backstage area.
At just about 11 p.m., after a tech glitch caused an introductory video montage to run twice (it featured big-name DJs talking about the EDM explosion, and ended with Avicii himself making an abrupt turn into Madonna praise), the Material Girl took the stage, with the throng still chanting "Avicii" (the video setup was apparently lost on them). "Electronic dance music has been a part of my life since the beginning of my career," she told the crowd, adding, "I can honestly say a DJ saved my life." (Somewhere, her '80s collaborator Junior Vasquez must have smiled.) Before intro-ing Avicii as "amazing," she had a question for the cheering massive: "How many of you have seen Molly?" In addition to being a new track by DJ/producer Cedric Gervais, that's also a reference to street drug Molly, which is derived from ecstasy. She stayed onstage while Avicii dropped his new remix of "Girls Gone Wild," fist-pumping in an "MDNA" T-shirt, then called it a night.
Ultra Music Festival
Swedish House Mafia
2. Forget pyrotechnics and 3D video mapping: This was the spectacle of Miami Music Week. DJ/producer/Grammy winner Afrojack invited a few of his most high-profile friends to share the booth with him during his headlining gig at South Beach superclub Mansion. By 2 a.m., David Guetta, Steve Aoki and Laidback Luke were taking turns dropping their hits for a packed crowd of models, other artists (Kaskade showed up to pay his respects), SoBe nightlifers, and a smattering of industry folk. Afrojack's girlfriend Paris Hilton hopped around the booth like a raver bunny, a smile affixed to her makeup-less face, forcing Guetta's wife Cathy to join her twirls and fist pumps. When Guetta and Afrojack dropped "Titanium," Guetta's hit featuring vocals by Sia, the whole room joined in the sing-a-long, like a declaration of EDM pride: "I'm bulletproof / Nothing to lose / Fire away, fire away."
3. For Justice, taking a first-to-last Main Stage set was a no-brainer. "We immediately accepted Ultra's invitation and are very happy to be here," said the black-leathered Xavier de Rosnay backstage. "And they gave us a good spot which is amazing."
While Justice is a dance-rock hipster favorite, the young, neon-hued audience of Ultra might be fresh territory for them, something which the band acknowledged and embraced as an opportunity. "We like to play festivals," said de Rosnay. "Let's say we're on a 10,000-capacity stage; there might only be 2,000 there who want to see us, and the rest are there either because they heard about us, or they know one song," - "Or they are lost," chimed in the usually quiet Gaspard Augé - "or there's nothing else on another stage that they want to see. Those are the ones you have to try to keep in it, but without changing what you do."
4. Both members of Duck Sauce - usual frontman A-Trak, and usually absent Armand Van Helden - did the press rounds backstage at Ultra before their 6:45 p.m. Main Stage set. The "Barbra Streisand" bro-friends shared some details about their upcoming album.
"It's definitely more comedy - we want to get the Comedy tag on iTunes," joked A-Trak. "We'd probably chart higher."
But seriously, the guys are focused on making an album that functions as a holistic whole, pointing to great collections of the '90s - like Basement Jaxx's "Remedy" and Fatboy Slim's "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" - as inspiration.
"When you listen to those albums now, the song structure back then was a lot different," said Van Helden. "It's like a speeding up of society. Now you can't have 16 bars go by without a drastic amount of change, when you could then."
5. At the UMF Worldwide tent - down at the far corner of the festival and superbly difficult to locate, particularly at night - Moombahton specialist Dillon Francis showed off the baby genre's slower BPMs and squawking synths, premiering a new collaboration with Big Beat/Atlantic artist Doctor P that sounds like a fan favorite in the making. The lyric hook? "Rap is alive / Music is dead / That's all I have to say / Now I'm going to bed."
6. The sound bleed from the Carl Cox Presents Cocoon tent made it even more disorienting than heavy dubstep usually is on its own, but the UMF Brasil tent seemed to be in a permanent state of body-thrashing fist-flail the entire day. With hard-hitters like Skream, Benga, 12th Planet (who was joined by the king of this stuff, Skrillex), Flux Pavilion, Pendulum and Datsik, the stage never really came up for air, and it seemed as if some drop-focused partiers took up residence inside, staying put the entire day.
7. The award for best set by an old timer with the purpose of attracting a new crowd goes to Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim. His hour on the main stage remained true to the cut-and-paste genre-play of his late-'90s sets, dropping snippets of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," 2Pac's "California Love" and Dick Dale's Pulp Fiction soundtrack fave "Misirlou" - but not at the expense of current stuff that the new kids love. Cook worked in nuggets like Tiësto's "Work Hard, Play Hard" and Chuckie's inevitable "I'm in Miami Bitch," tracks that are consistent with his merry trickster style, but indicate to the young crowd that he's been paying attention over the past decade. Welcome back, Norman.
8. Dubstep causes genre appropriation debate; dubstep makes parents shake their heads; dubstep might change pop music. But does dubstep cure cancer? Washington, D.C.-based non-profit DCC (yes, that's Dubstep Cures Cancer) seems to think it can. The group had a tent in Ultra's Eco Village vendor area, selling hoodies, T-shirts and booty shorts emblazoned with their declaration. Profits go toward cancer research.
9. Brand sponsors have the possibility of looking a bit, err, misunderstood at events like Ultra. Google's branded area for Android app store Google Play rose from the grounds like a raver oasis, a glass-enclosed house with air conditioning in a sea of sun-baked piles of grass and sand. Partiers in need of a break, or just a really, really comfortable seat, took refuge on the lounge's white couches and pod chairs, oblivious to the brand experience around them (screens showing available apps and content, hooked up to Android devices) - or in some cases, anything around them at all. Most popular was a multi-line charging station just outside the lounge, in the shape of the friendly green Android man: This, at least, was a utilitarian and memorable brand experience, that probably kept more than a few friend groups connected throughout the long day.
10. The next wave of rave comes complete with its own declarative merch. Partiers sported threads with insider slogans, like a neon-orange trucker hat reading simply "Rage," or an Urban Outfitters T confessing, "I love you, but I've chose dubstep," (or techno, or house - depending on your fancy). One lanky teen wore a shirt emblazoned with the touchy-feely lyrics to Benny Benassi's "Cinema" (remixed by Skrillex for a Grammy win): "You are cinema / I could watch you forever." Another had a Moby Dick line drawing, and the text, "Dubstep sounds like whale noises"; yet another simply stated, "Live for the drop" (aka the bass drop). While the messages are different, one thing is clear: Fans seem to be more passionate about the movement overall, than any one particular artist.