By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"Amoeba was my first-ever event, in 1998 at Power Studios," he says. "We had over 2,500 people show up."
But the idea of a beachside dance-music festival would come from another working relationship he developed in the mid-'90s. Alex Omes, a Miami Beach Senior High grad who was then about 25 years old, was publisher of a dance-music magazine called D'VOX, which devoted its pages to pushing the city's burgeoning EDM culture. Before launching the magazine, Omes had cut his teeth in the '90s Miami club scene as a bouncer at Cameo, where he developed the connections that would eventually allow him to be seen as an influence.
"I was doing an event and had to place some ads," Faibisch remembers. "That's when I met Alex Omes, who had the vision. We started Ultra together."
Omes and Faibisch connected on their mutual love for club beats, becoming close friends as well as business partners. The duo, looking to capitalize on Miami's growth as a dance-music hub, came up with the idea of holding a beachside party during Miami's WMC.
The conference was an industry event that had been launched in 1985 as a way for EDM artists, DJs, producers, and promoters to come together for panel discussions and seminars. During the week of the conference, there were also sanctioned dance parties and concerts at nightclubs throughout Miami. EDM fans began flocking to Miami every March. With thousands of people coming to town for the conference, the opportunity to launch a signature dance-music event was ripe.
Omes brought his industry connections, and Faibisch brought the business savvy.
"There were a lot of growing pains," Faibisch says.
Faibisch was able to secure investors, including a $10,000 bank loan for seed money.
"Everybody had to take a leap of faith in investing in what we were trying to accomplish. Rabbit in the Moon was the anchor — they played very rarely and usually only at Zen Festival. Once we got them, it was easier to get other artists onboard."
On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted an event planned by shock jock Steve Dahl: Disco Demolition Night. The event, held during a sold-out Sox game, had fans throwing disco LPs onto the field and climaxed with Dahl's destroying them. It ended as a full-blown anti-disco riot and effectively pushed dance music into the underground.
However, thanks to subcultures in London, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, new genres of dance music emerged over the next two decades: house, electro, techno, and trance. The late '90s saw DJs and producers like Moby, Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy gaining moderate success on the Billboard charts, though the genre still couldn't compete with hip-hop or pop.
But drugs, ecstasy in particular, seemed to go hand in hand with dance music, and when Ultra launched in 1999, EDM seemed to be at a crossroads. Pushed by national news reports of deaths caused by overdoses, cops raided parties and lawmakers passed anti-rave ordinances around the country. Dance scenes fizzled.
"It was euphoric in one sense and chaotic in another," says WMC cofounder Bill Kelly of the inaugural Ultra. "At some point, they were carrying people out of there on stretchers, right past a city commissioner they had invited. They brought him to see [the event] because they wanted to show it off."
Despite these early setbacks, Ultra seemed to learn that to survive, it needed to prove itself a fun but safe environment for EDM fans.
"Our number-one priority is safety and security," Faibisch insists. "A lot of promoters say that, but not many follow through. The police and city need to see that you're not only talking but backing it up with action and not trying to cut corners or save costs. If they see that, that goes a long way."
Successful as the first Ultra was, it lost money — $10,000 to $20,000, Faibisch estimates.
"Today, $10,000 to $20,000 doesn't seem like a lot, but back then, it seemed like we lost millions," he says.
But he forged ahead. "I'm very, very passionate about it," Faibisch says. "It's my heart and soul. It's what I eat, live, and breathe. Probably one of the most rewarding things now is looking back at the old days and seeing how just about everybody there was asking the same questions, saying, 'Stop, this doesn't make sense!' "
In 2000, Faibisch and Omes threw a second, successful Ultra, and by 2001, its third year, Ultra had outgrown its South Beach home at Collins Park. At the insistence of the city, Faibisch moved the party to Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Attendance swelled from the initial 10,000 attendees to 23,000.
As it grew, Ultra worked in tandem with the Winter Music Conference in championing electronic music. It coordinated dates, and WMC badge holders were allowed free access to Ultra.
The festival lasted five years at Bayfront, until 2005, when the park's trust urged Faibisch to consider moving it to the much larger Bicentennial Park, located north of American Airlines Arena.
The festival helped acts like Tiësto, Avicii, and Deadmau5 launch their careers in the United States. By 2006, with EDM virtually nonexistent on U.S. radio, playing Ultra, one the few major American electronic music festivals, seemed necessary to gain exposure. Established artists began seeing Ultra as a key place to premiere new tracks. Newcomers saw it as a way to get noticed.