Like Flies to the Light…only to be betrayed

It shimmers. It promises. It’s delivered before. Ultra.

The year is 2022. A musical genre that used to spook people has become your neighbor’s backyard BBQ party, a very expensive one at that. Is this a festival that Miami should be supporting? It’s our baby. But, so much time has passed since 1998, and sometimes relationships end for a reason.

First, I get into the music and examine the Resistance versus EDM divide. Then I attempt to answer the question: What are Ultra attendees getting for their money? I prove that a festival born by Miamians is no longer representative of Miamians, and lastly, I weigh the cultural betrayal against the economic benefit to answer the question – is Ultra Miami a good thing for Miami and music, and should we be supporting it?

MUSIC

I wish I could say this is the first year where I felt Ultra artists under-delivered, but that’s simply not the case. In 2014, when house music got full-on ugly, DJs were OD-ing left & right during MMW. “Confetti music,” a term coined by original Space owner Louis Puig, was peaking, and that’s when I first felt the void. I wouldn’t return to Ultra for another 4 years.

So how does 2022 compare to 2014? Well…I really hoped we had seen the worst of it. 2018, Ultra’s 20th anniversary, was a spectacular showcase, but it seems a revival was short-lived. That year was followed by a disaster year on the key. And then two years of silence.

In 2022, with hopes for a new era continued from the 2018 glory last seen at that venue, I wanted to either cry or vomit. For the first time in my life, I cringed at music being played. My best coping mechanism was to cover my ears as I was forced to pass some stages. Not to say all music was cringe-worthy. The best sets that I could enjoy:

1)     Ilario Alicante

2)     Dom Dolla

3)     Pan-pot

Why not some of the bigger players? Well with Carl Cox, the music felt safe. I have also now seen him play a 5-6 hr set at Brooklyn Mirage, and now can see I shine and so does the crowd from his long sets making him shine, too. I’d prefer to have one day of Ultra with a seven-hour Cox set versus the seven hours over three days that he performed.

As for Capriati, I loved his style. He did the job setup before him, unlike Bibi who perhaps intentionally bombed before him. So I can’t say it was in my top three because all day Friday was bad music except for him. The main role of his set was as a resuscitator – not a “transcender, which is a term I’m coining. If you had experienced the 2018 line up of Maceo Plex, then Jamie Jones, then Cox, you would understand the difference between transcendence in a set versus revival.

So what is it about Ilario that earns him the number 1 spot? Well, first of all, he’s a hard DJ to get to play here in Miami. There was plenty of space to dance at the guardrail. And the music was well-varied, from fast to slow, screeching techno to deep house. It seemed to hit all of the right notes, just like a well-baked cookie. A little sweet, a little salty, crunchy, chewy, warm. And who doesn’t like a good cookie? Every part of it made me want to shimmy and dance. I even got the chance to shout out an, “I love you!” during a soft spot in the set, which made him smile and a girl on stage smile and laugh, which in turn made me smile.

It was so much fun, dancing by myself at the guardrail to good music, meeting new acquaintances in the sunshine.

RESISTANCE V. EDM

What wasn’t fun was feeling ostracized/cut-off from the remainder of the festival. When I was younger, and so was Ultra, the music mixed. I remember walking by the Drum and Bass tent with my friends, and just standing for a few moments in awe, enjoying it, while moving on to our next tent. There was a mixture of elements, yet also a cohesiveness to the culture, to the event, to the palatability & curiosity of music.

2 Stages v. 4 stages. I’m not sure where the term “Resistance” originated. I’d like to maybe sue that person for defamation of what was a perfectly fine, unadulterated mixture of genres, including, but not limited to techno, tech house, electro, bass, and acid. Somehow these genres got cut off from other genres such as progressive, nu-disco, Dirty Dutch, tropical, and dubstep. (EDM)

Trance and Drum & Bass don’t even make listing. They’re neither. So where do they go? The “other” category? If you’re with me, you’re against this “Resistance” talk. It’s always been about house music. One love. Feel the love generation. If pop is pop, let it be at a pop festival. If house is house, let it be at a house festival.

Putting a VERSUS into the mix is not what Bob Sinclair was talking about.

MONEY

As for money invested, and for being a fan of the genres that include techno, tech house, etc., I’m insulted by the limitation to two stages of what I consider to be the cultural threads of house music. In numbers, that’s 33% of festival for people like me. Could I in good conscience pay to attend a festival that showcases my preferences as the minority? Well, yes, if I found the 67% vaguely interesting, curious, or palpable like in younger years. But I’m not finding it so. I’d rather hear new Reggae or Rock or stay home than hear screeching noise and 10-year-old songs badly remixed.

So I ask, should the 33% even be part of festivals like this? I mean, the stages are already setup that way with a specific path to and from the two stages, ostracized to the north, while EDM stages take up the larger southside grounds.

But the worst part…..the worst part about the 33% spending the money….is that one of the stages didn’t even have an even-surface dance floor. To me, it’s where the best sets were performed, and I had to dance on a hill? They couldn’t construct a wooden platform like organizers for Tomorrowland in Belgium will do? This was just nuts. I’m still suffering from knee pain. In fact, based on the hill alone, I would probably vote against Ultra (by just not going) because I couldn’t reasonably dance to my favorite music! What is that about?! Making us the minority is one thing. But to take another 16% away from me because I can’t dance on a flat surface? Shame on you.

As for the 66%, surely they are getting their fix. But their music isn’t for me. And I would consider the divide not being “Resistance” versus EDM, but rather EDM versus Pop. To me, that is the change I’m seeing. Ultra will one day exclusively become a Pop festival.

CULTURAL BETRAYAL

Beyond the movement of music, which I suppose could be a betrayal in itself, the saddest thing is that Ultra is no longer representative of its birthplace Miami. The proof is in the details:

1.      My arepa was served to me by a guy from Virginia. Pre-cooked, he noted that the Arepas are made locally (I would hope so). Furthermore, he admitted he had never had an arepa in his life. AND the most insulting part of the interaction is that he let my arepa slip into melted ice water and tried to put it back on the grill, telling me it would be fine. No sir, that is NOT ok.

2.      I met two production crew members on the metro-rail. I found out, it’s not a local crew. They were both from Washington, DC. They explained that Ultra hires the production companies & that the production companies outsource to labor companies. So the same people essentially are building the light and stage design at festivals across the country. So much for festivals being unique. Isn’t it the people (creators and production staff included) that make festivals special/unique?

3.      Syndicate – The last and probably most obvious reason why Ultra has lost its Miami magic is that it went corporate. According to Google, Ultra now conducts its name-brand spectacle in 29 countries. No wonder it no longer feels like home.

TO SUPPORT OR NOT SUPPORT ULTRA

Why is the cultural betrayal important? The first and foremost reason to keep Ultra Miami is the economic benefit. “But it brings so much money to our city!” is a popular response. Well, wait a minute…

1.      Does Ultra bring money to our city or does Miami Music Week?

2.      Didn’t I just tell you about three non-Miamians working the festival? Is Miami’s labor force benefitting? Friday afternoon rolls around and downtown Miami is a mess for our corporate workers trying to get home (Florida-resident laborers). To be fair, I had a locally-made Arepa, but do we know what kind of deal the organizers are cutting for our people?

3.      Is the festival beneficial for local economics? Part of my ticket is paying for the flight, meals, and hotel rooms for these Non-Floridian residents, such as the guy from Virginia, and the two from Washington, DC.

My Miami Money isn’t going back into Miami. That’s my conclusion. I exclusively attended Ultra this year, and outside of pay for Metro-rail transit, all my money went towards this festival. Was it worth it? Is it worth it for my city?

I did see my dollars be used in a cool, fun way. The Carl Cox megastructure this year was spectacular with synchronized parallel light beams that not only went up and down in rhythm or in unison, but also tilted side to side. That’s technology on a scale I have never seen before at a music festival. So my conclusion is that the money is going into Production. It’s not going into the User Experience. Because if it was about the User Experience…they would have made a flat dancefloor for the Cove. Pyrotechnics, LED lights, Nitrogen gas – sure – but a flat deck to dance? That’s what they chose to skip?

My recommendation is to let Ultra be Ultra. In reference to betrayal, you can’t tame a beast. If they’ll listen, I say take the entire “Resistance” culture out. Make the festival smaller to 3-4 stages which tailors to the pop music attendee population. That way, Biscayne Blvd doesn’t have to be blocked off, benefitting our commuters. Or just take it away, and let live music bands/DJs actually use Bayfront park as it was intended to be used. (When was the last time you noticed a show there?)

We are hurting desperately because Miami has lost its home, its community to corporate music giants. It’s our firemen, our policemen, our trash collectors and trash piles that are being used and perhaps abused. We first saw the sell-out of DJs like Guetta & Kaskade. Now we are seeing the sell-out of music events like Ultra. I suppose by now I’ve reached my conclusion that I do not support “Ultra.” In the past, yes, that name was gold, and can still be held as dear to so many Miamians’ hearts, myself included. But that word means something completely different now.

I want back what “UMF” used to represent. Maybe I’ll have the chance to create something that has to be whispered in the hallways of high school again. As I keep going down this My Miami Music road…thanks for joining me on the journey. There is hope yet.