Conference Calling

The 14th annual Winter Music Conference (WMC) kicks off in Miami Beach this Saturday, bringing a flurry of DJs, artists, producers, and industry types to South Florida. Much like its monolithic cousins -- the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin and the CMJ Music Marathon in New York -- the WMC purports to bring the industry together in a maelstrom of networking, marketing, and, of course, shitloads of various artists strutting their talents.

Where the WMC differs from its larger counterparts is in its focus. Centered at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hilton Resort, the WMC is strictly about dance music. Although in recent years the majority of artists showcasing have been purveyors of the much-hyped and confusingly splintered electronica form, the conference covers all facets of dance music, from Hi-NRG to hip-hop to Latin to soul. Founded by area DJs Bill Kelly, Jr. and Louis Possenti in 1986, this specialized convention was organized as a response to the music industry's reluctance to embrace dance music as a genuine form.

Although the first WMC, held in Fort Lauderdale, drew only about 80 attendees, the conference has grown over the years, culminating in a 200 percent increase in delegates since 1996, when the WMC began marketing itself to the international music industry, where dance music has maintained a strong popularity. This year delegates from 32 countries are expected to show up for the industry's most decadent working vacation.

All of the major industry conferences profess to be meccas of exposure and enlightenment for those involved, but they tend to deteriorate into substance-riddled schmoozing, with industry flacks scurrying about, scoping badges to see whose ass they should be kissing. Though the WMC maintains its high intentions, offering a glut of seminars and panels ranging from the usual A&R, marketing, and distribution confabs to technology-related subjects, it too is primarily an opportunity to network (read: party) with industry professionals and artists from points global. This year's attendance is expected to top 4500, up from last year's 3500.

The WMC offers a plethora of events, including the International Dance Music Awards, a Tuesday afternoon DJ spin-off, new-artist showcases outside the Fontainebleau, and established-artist showcases (both WMC-sanctioned and unsanctioned) in nearly every club on Miami Beach. This year's roster of talent features an impressive number of superstar DJs and electronica artists; among those scheduled to appear are Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, DeeJay Punk-Roc, Josh Wink, Lo-Fidelity Allstars, DJ Craze, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Paul Oakenfold, along with many others. For local fans not down with shelling out the $365 conference badge price, tickets and/ or paid entry can be purchased for many (though not all) individual events.

Electronica hit the Winter Music Conference in full force three years ago with the introduction of the international delegates. U.K. import Steve Levy, president and founder of Los Angeles-based indie electronica label Moonshine Records (home of Carl Cox, Keoki, and Cirrus), has attended the conference since 1993, when he witnessed firsthand the electronica boom. "Techno and electronica weren't really an issue at that point in time," he says. "There was quite a lot of hip-hop DJs there, but the house thing was more of a side thing. In '97 I was amazed by how all the [electronica] people that I'd dealt with in England had come over. There was a lot more street-level guys, kind of how I felt in '93 -- I've got a new label, running around with my business cards, feeling very important even though at the time I wasn't.... There's a whole new generation of people out there doing that."

When questioned about the impact of the conference on the electronica genre, Levy says pensively, "I don't know about impact. It's a cool place for everyone to kind of get together and say hi." The Winter Music Conference's European older brother, the MIDEM Conference in Cannes, France, is where the dance-music industry really gets down to business. "[At MIDEM] we're talking money, we're buying and selling," Levy explains. "I think at first people thought that the Winter Music Conference was going to be like that, particularly the people that were coming over from Europe and were used to MIDEM, but it quickly degenerates into beers around the pool, and then everyone going out all night."

Frank Mendez, a Fort Lauderdale DJ and founder of jungle label EvilBase Records, agrees with Levy's assessment. "It's definitely a networking thing," he says. "Say you work with an artist at the conference and everything's handled correctly; if you ever want to work with that artist again, they're more than willing to work with you." Mendez is hosting his own label showcase this year on Saturday night at Zanzibar with fellow jungle labels Soundsphere and Cipher, as well as managing production for Urb magazine's Sunday-night party at the Cameo Theatre, leaving him little time to attend the conference's panels and workshops. "Last year I didn't get a chance to go one day to the seminars 'cause I was so busy working. So I'm just gonna do two parties and enjoy the rest of the week with everybody in town."

For local artists such as Mendez, the conference offers a chance at high-visibility exposure. Local talent is spread throughout the multitudes of parties and showcases. "The main thing [for a local artist] to do is get on a bill with the well-known artists," Mendez explains. South Florida DJs Luis Diaz, Shannon, Eclipse, Element, and Fathead are among those spinning alongside legends this year.

Lest one think that the WMC is pure bacchanalian electro-utopia (ignore for a moment the exponentially increased local market demand for Ecstacy and speed), it should be pointed out that the conference has many tangible accomplishments under its belt. Certainly not the least of these is the introduction of two dance-music categories -- Best Dance Record and Best Remixer -- to the Grammy Awards. After years of pushing for a separate dance category to no avail (cofounder Bill Kelly, Jr. sourly remarks that one of the initial responses from the Grammy committee read, "Dance music is something that pop artists do in their more frivolous moments"), the WMC began campaigning for its attendees to register as members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Two years ago, as a result of the dance-music industry's newfound voice and voting power within NARAS, the two categories were added.

The WMC's other major accomplishment was spawning the LIFEbeat, the Music Industry Fights AIDS charitable organization. In the early '90s, Kelly was approached by brothers Bob and Ray Caviano to help organize a charity backed by the music industry. After a planning meeting at the conference, LIFEbeat was formed. Today it's a highly successful AIDS charity, organizing the music and snowboarding Board AID benefits and disseminating information on AIDS- and HIV-related illnesses, as well as donating funds to AIDS research organizations.

Major achievements aside, the Winter Music Conference provides novice DJs, artists, and producers with plenty of opportunities. Last year, poolside at the Fontainebleau (schmooze central at the conference) among the Speedo-clad throngs of industry players, Sarah Gianetto and Ryan James Jeffs, two aspiring young producers/label honchos from Tempe, Arizona, lugged around a box of 100 white-label promo acetates of the first single on their new label, Dream Music. The single, a lush, trancey track entitled "Time" by Phoenix artist the Dream Traveler, wasn't yet pressed for distribution, so those 100 records were the only ones in existence.

"We hit every bigtime DJ we could," says Jeffs, with results that went beyond what the two rookies could have hoped for. Before they had a chance to press more copies, word came from overseas that "Time" was a bona fide club hit in the U.K. The track began to appear on distributor hot-sheets, industry publications that chart tracks played by well-known DJs. The track's popularity led U.K. critics to christen a new electronica subgenre (like it needs another one): "desert trance." "Time" has since been licensed and released on two mix CDs by prominent DJs: Thomas Michael's West Coast Vibes I (Phatt Phunk), and Yber-DJ Paul Oakenfold's Tranceport (Kinetic Records).

The triumph of unknown talents is the true essence of the Winter Music Conference. While the SXSW and CMJ conferences have become less about exposing new talent and more about drinking free beer and crowding in to see already-signed superstars, the WMC expands on the boozing and schmoozing concept, offering a (poolside) meritocracy where genuine talent is rewarded with attention.

The Winter Music Conference runs from March 13 through 17 at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. For more information and links to showcasing record labels' Websites, go online to www.wmcconfab.com.

Additional reporting by David Holthouse.

Contact Brendan Kelley at his e-mail address: Brendan_Kelley@newtimesbpb.com

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