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
The woman is visibly intoxicated — on what, it's unknown. But the video highlights the nagging problem of drug use at EDM events.
In 2003, then-Mayor Manny Diaz tried to pull the plug on Ultra two weeks before the event, describing it as drug-infested, but he gave in when promoters agreed to boost the police presence from 38 to 70 undercover officers and 50 to 100 uniformed ones. They also banned backpacks and doubled fencing to prevent people from tossing drugs over the fence to friends.
"All Ultra can do is focus on our event and how we control it and our security, our enforcement policies, and our safety policies and make it the safest event possible," says Faibisch. "In 15 years in Miami and doing events around the world, we've never once had an incident."
That depends on how you define incident. In 2004, when 35,000 people attended the one-day Ultra, police made 117 drug-related arrests. In 2012, when 165,000 attended the festival's three-day run, 71 people were arrested, 45 for narcotics-related crimes.
This year, Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff will be watching closely. At a January 10 commission meeting, when Ultra was seeking permission to add the second weekend, Sarnoff said: "We all know drug usage is high at Ultra. And it might be OK for a young man to get high, or whatever you want to call it, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But you are going to have some people try to do Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..."
But it's hard to argue with the $79 million Ultra brings to the city.
Ultra's financial pull is put into perspective by Timothy Schmand, executive director of Bayfront Park, which operates without government funding. "There are other larger revenue streams that are more significant, like the LiveNation agreement for the amphitheater," Schmand says. But LiveNation's year-round events combined bring in only 24 percent of the park's revenue. Last year, Ultra's brought in 12 percent in just three days.
Despite Sarnoff's concerns, the Miami City Commission relented and approved Ultra's expansion this year, on the condition that organizers pay $500,000 to a special City of Miami police fund, on top of an already $600,000 pledge to hire extra off-duty police and fire services. Faibisch estimates there will be 150 to 200 officers patrolling the festival.
Faibisch, it seems, has come out on top: He's won over the city, outlasted Omes at Ultra, and has even become independent of the Winter Music Conference itself.
Though the WMC and Ultra had coordinated for years, holding their events during the same week, in 2011, things changed. That year, WMC and Ultra would for the first time be held on separate weekends, with a full week in between the two EDM events. News releases were fired by both parties blaming each other for the situation that forced dance-music fans to choose between the pragmatic conference and the spring-break atmosphere surrounding the festival (later rebranded as "Miami Music Week" by Ultra).
"For whatever reasons, [the WMC organizers] couldn't get their venue secure on the weekend we were supposed to do the show," explains Faibisch. "The only date that they could get their venue, which was the [Miami Beach Convention Center] that year, was a couple of weeks earlier. And we couldn't go that weekend because of [Miami's] Calle Ocho [festival]. [The city] claims to have a million people on the streets that weekend, and they didn't have the resources, so we couldn't go. The weekend we had was already set, and we had booked artists. We didn't do anything except continue on the path we were going."
When Ultra announced its 2011 dates in November 2010, WMC quickly issued a news release saying it was "blindsided by Ultra's last minute announcement." The conference claimed there had been "a signed October 15, 2009 contract between the two entities which stated that the 2011 Ultra Music Festival would be presented during the five-day period in February, March or April 2011 designated and promoted by WMC as the 'WMC week.' ''
So the two events took different directions: WMC retained its reputation as an industry business event, while Ultra became associated with fly-by-night partiers.
Carmel Ophir, owner of downtown nightclub the Vagabond, remembers the WMC's early days. "It was industry-driven," he says. "It was a full-on industry exchange of ideas and sounds. People were here whether they were in the industry or trying to get into it." But over the years, tourists began coming, largely for Ultra's debauchery.
"Eventually, people would call it 'WMC' but not go to the conference," Ophir explains. "Around 2007, I was being interviewed on-camera at Pawn Shop and the reporter asked me to talk about the conference, so I did. But he stopped me and asked me to talk more about Ultra. That's when I realized things were changing."
These are sentiments echoed by WMC cofounder Bill Kelly.
"I want to draw a line in the sand," Kelly says over the phone. "Truth of the matter is, WMC is an all-inclusive, citywide event that takes place in every possible venue imaginable. Ultra is a festival that takes place in a park. And there is a clear distinction between something that addresses and talks about the future of the industry and a free-for-all party."