April 4, 2012

Ultra Music Festival – An Outsider’s Perspective

Music festivals are one of the few concert events that have just about everything for everyone. You can go to the Vans Warped Tour and see your favorite punk bands of yesteryear, or a young band who finally made it to one of the smaller stages and everything in between. Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Bonnaroo have varying acts with different styles even if they are generally in the same genre of music. These are just a few of the biggest music festivals of the year and annually they accommodate tens of thousands of people.

One music festival that was completely off my radar was the three day electronic music festival Ultra. I first heard about Ultra when the UniqueSquared Mobile Studio visited Miami last year for the Winter Music Conference 2011. We were able to score some passes for the 2012 show and the team was tasked with going so we could report on Ultra. I am not a DJ, I am not a producer, and I am not a huge electronic music fan so why would I go to Ultra?

After the long week that was Winter Music Conference 2012, Lonely Paul convinced me to come to Ultra on Sunday March 25th. I said, “LP. I am a rock fan. I don’t need to go to Ultra and I certainly don’t need to cover it because I will not be able to comment on any of the music at the show.” Paul said, “That’s Perfect! Write about Ultra from your perspective.” All timidness aside I stepped off the Mobile Studio in downtown Miami, and this is what I saw:

“You Can Buy Them at Adult Stores”

The streets were littered with garbage which signalled the closing of an already exhausting three days of a music festival. People walking to the downtown park area which was Ultra were dressed in next to nothing. This convinced me that after two days of being poorly dressed for the weather, people were trying to stay as cool as possible, for the weather and their ego equally. I became readily aware that Ultra is not just a place for EDM fans to coalesce and enjoy music that has enriched their aural experience. It is instead a place to be seen.

To be fair concerts are generally a place where those faithful to the genre they are attending make sure to dress the part. So whether you are wearing your skinny jeans to your emo show, your chain wallet to your metal show, or your yellow tank and pink bike shorts to your EDM show, everyone is guilty of this phenomenon. Concerts are as much a place to see as they are to be seen.

The attire of choice for the ladies was the furry leggings that went over the shoe. I saw a lot of this at Identity Festival and after seeing them at Ultra, I am convinced this is an EDM fad. LP had the curiosity enough to ask a young lady where one buys such superflous calf augmentations. “You can buy them at adult stores,” was the almost predictable response.

The most seasoned of concert goers had backpacks with water, food, and other assorted concert equipment. Others looked like it was their first day on planet earth and came in with an ID, phone, and cash in the palm of their hand. It became apparent from the looks on people’s faces and the few bodies I saw in the streets that this festival was no joke.

People looked tired and downright haggard. Relationships had been destroyed, phones, credit cards, and common decency had been lost, and heat exhaustion and drugs seemed to be catching up with even the most hardened of club rat. One poor soul was on the ground holding his head which signalled a victim of a beating, or quite possibly a beating to the subconscious. Either way he was surrounded by apathetic EMT’s and one shirtless friend who was trying to convince his fallen comrade that, “Everything’s going to be ok.”

“What Barricades?”

This was only the beginning as LP and I had yet to cross the threshold into EDM land. The barricades leading us to the front gate were about as useful as deodorant, which seemed to be a foreign concept to nearly everyone I saw, or smelled rather. People were knocking the barricades down, jumping over them, or pushing people out of the way to get a better spot in line. This was one big difference I saw at Ultra when compared to a rock festival.

Maybe its the drugs, or lack of sleeve tattooed muscle beach rejects, but there was a complete disrespect for etiquette. More specifically concert etiquette. Everyone wants to get inside and do it quickly and when you are the jerk who has to hop lines and knock people over to get closer, you are ruining the experience for others. This is a sure fire way to irritate the security guards and police officers who put you in time out for your disavowal of all things decent and empathetic.

Again this is not an attribute applicable to only this type of music, at this type of festival, in this type of town. But I will say the crowd was certainly more immature, more arrogant, and walking around with more of a sense of entitlement than I am used to. With a nice serving of humble pie and after washing it down with a big swallow of pride, I got my rockstar style VIP pass scanned and went in with an open mind.

“Let’s Look Away From the Stage”

On the surface, Ultra is actually a pretty cool festival. They have the usual necessary vendors for food, beer, and those ever illusive porta-john’s were never in short supply or hidden in obscurity. But with the influence of Cuban culture all over Miami, it was great to stop by a food stand with empanadas instead of the usual beer and hotdog diet that dominates festivals.

The stages were well spaced for accommodating crowds and besides the occasional moment where you could hear the DJ down the block, it was actually pretty isolated from stage to stage. The cool thing was that the stages fit the acts (I only saw 3 stages but from what my cohorts told me, this was a general vibe). You had your Aokis, Guettas, and Kaskades doing their bloated arena spectacles on the main stage. You had your trance, European DJ’s in a complex littered with lights, projection screens, and a super hi-tech spaceship designed stage. And then there were the stages that weren’t really like stages at all but rather an attempt at making an outdoor tent feel like an underground warehouse rave where LP and I got a chance to catch the very end of Digweed.

The stage that housed the smaller, lesser know, up and comers was a complete joke. It looked like a cheap imitation of a guerilla concert going on within the festival and reeked of desperation. To me, all electronic sounds the same, but after spending the day seeing the different stages I was able to see how different each of the sub-genres of electronic music really are. I am not saying I am a convert to the genre, but I now know a lot more about electronic music than I did before and realize the complexities and intricacies of different types of electronic music.

After wandering around, LP and I posted up shop at the main stage. We walked up as soon as Steve Aoki was doing his rock star thing. It was actually the most exciting moment of the day for me. I was about 100 yards away but he made me feel like I was in the front row with all the energy he brought to his set.

Take note up and coming DJs and especially rockers, this is what performing should be. The video camera cranes, jibs, and other crazy contraptions got the filmmaker cortex of my brain exploding with excitement (no I was not on any drugs). The sheer price tag on all of this video production equipment from the camera operators, to the projection screens, to the hidden booth where a producer is screaming at camera men to get this shot or that was truly sublime.

LP and I marveled at the light show and pyrotechnics which seemed to be as much apart of the sets as the music, sometimes more so. For this reason, it became imperative for LP and I to turn our backs to the stage and just listen. Maybe it’s the music snob in me, but I find it very important at any show to turn your back to the stage and listen to see if your eyes are deceiving you.

It became very apparent that some performers were truly talented in their craft, while others fell well short of that mark. Not being a DJ or EDM fan myself, even I could notice when a DJ had severe troubles with their mixer settings, effects selection, and general mixing capabilities. During one set from a performer who will remain nameless, LP turns to me and says, “you could mix better than this guy and you’re not even a DJ.”

Final Thoughts

I get why electronic music is so popular and I am even more aware of why it is making so much money. There are quality music makers in this genre out there but the majority of it to me sounds like the music of the attention deficient. There are never lyrics and when there are they are limited to a one line phrase about love or enjoying life repeated over and over. I love the message but it seems about as deep as a Hallmark card.

I am not saying every EDM song has to be a thought provoking, artistic endeavor because the fun party stuff can be great too. For me I like my music to be different every time I hear it and usually that has to do with a nuance to the sound I never noticed before and lyrics which make me find multiple layers of meaning. A lot of the popular EDM stuff I am hearing is generic with a minimal beat that crashes to the floor, builds back up to a 32nd note roll, drops for a quarter or eighth note, then comes back to the same minimal beat from before. There is zero creativity in that, and for someone to call themselves an “artist” based on that is a shame.

To be fair, there are tons of modern rock bands that are just as guilty of the same thing. Lyrics which highlight drugs and strippers, guitar riffs which are complete Nickelback or Foo Fighters rip offs, and underwhelming back beats from the rhythm section.

The truly inspiring folks in the electronic music genre are the ones actively making music or are at least involved enough in the process to get a production credit. This was not something overtly apparent when I was at the festival, but after looking at the liner notes of the acts I gravitated towards, I can see why my instinct was spot on. Even without knowing much about the genre, I can tell who the true stand out stars are, who the seasoned veterans are, and who the posers are without even hearing their music.

There is no question about it, I am not an electronic music fan. My thought is that my rant about Ultra, electronic music, and its millions of fans will pity me for my lack of understanding or possibly vilify me for putting their most beloved genre on a crucifix. My hope is that everyone will view this as exactly what it is: A guy who only goes to rock shows got thrown into an electronic music festival.

This is from the desk of a four on the floor rock fan who would rather talk about the ideological implications of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, attempt to mimic the complex syncopated rhythms of Rush, and toast to the original party rock anthems of Motley Crue, so I know where I stand. There are certainly things about the rock concert world that desperately need to be put in their place or at the very least satirized. It should be taken even further and be a critical assessment on the state of modern rock music, its fans, and the marketing and touring vehicles which promote it. That, however, is for the next blog.



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  2. [...] show. While it would be enjoyable to write here about Identity Festival the same way I wrote about Ultra, it seems the blog I wrote from that perspective has been imitated by others reporting on the [...]