As Ultra celebrates electronic dance music, some wonder if its heyday is past

Ultra Music Festival 2018 - Day 1

The 2018 Ultra Music Festival marked the 20th iteration of the event in Miami since it was born from a small side party at the Winter Music Conference in 1999.
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The 2018 Ultra Music Festival marked the 20th iteration of the event in Miami since it was born from a small side party at the Winter Music Conference in 1999.

For seasoned Miamians, the arrival of Ultra –– a notorious annual music festival that pulls in 175 acts and 165,000 fans for three days and eight stages of nonstop dance tracks –– is almost routine.

Roads shut down, traffic slows, and partiers in neon outfits roam Bayfront Park, all accompanied by a constant, thundering bass line and for some, recreational drug use.

That familiarity has been earned with practice. This year’s Ultra kicked off Friday afternoon, marking the 20th iteration of the event in Miami since it was born from a small side party at the Winter Music Conference in 1999.

This weekend, attendees can catch several returning staples, like Carl Cox, Tiësto, David Guetta, and Steve Aoki, or join the crowds for recent pop sensations, The Chainsmokers, Afrojack, and Marshmello.

Scenes from the second day at the Ultra Music Festival Saturday, March 24, 2018, at Bayfront Park in Miami.

At the end of its second decade, Ultra appears to be growing at breakneck speeds. In a press conference Wednesday, representatives announced the organization would extend its international empire (comprising 23 festivals in 20 countries) to yet another nation –– the People’s Republic of China.

It is also expanding closer to home. This week, Ultra purchased the parent event Winter Music Conference, promising to revamp the historic music industry meeting in its own image.

But the continued growth of the festival is at odds with one prevailing attitude in the music press –– that electronic dance music is dead.


Media outlets from business publication Forbes to the music taste-maker Pitchfork to critics at The Quietus have been predicting the end of electronic dance music at least since 2013.

For those unfamiliar with actual music at Ultra, the festival trades in “electronic dance music,” or EDM, the commercially viable and heavily produced stepchild of ’80’s and ’90’s house and techno.

The glossy, streamy, heavily reverberated sounds of electronic dance music snowballed in the mid-2000s and grew to unprecedented popularity into the 2010’s. In 2014, the electronic dance music industry earned a whopping $6.9 billion globally.


The growth of EDM was so rapid, many began to refer to it as an economic bubble, similar to the housing bubble responsible for the financial crisis of 2008.

Many of the major players in the music scene began a downward trajectory: Google searches of the artist Skrillex peaked in 2012. Similar artists Avicii peaked in 2013 and Zedd in 2015. Swedish House Mafia, one of the household names of EDM, broke up in 2013, performing their final concert at Ultra.

Drug-related incidents and deaths created trouble at several electronic dance music festivals.

But if EDM was on the decline, it wasn’t reflected in its finances. In 2016, EDM grossed 7.1 billion dollars globally –– 60 percent more than it had in 2013, according to International Music Summit’s 2016 Business Report.

If you ask anyone in the audience at Ultra this year, EDM is far from dead.

Devin Orlando, a slim, blonde 20-something from Kansas City, said he got into the music only 18 months ago.

“I got hooked,” he said. “So, I came to Ultra last year. Now, I’m back again. The music is just happy.”


Nick Sanchez, a reticent guy with a beard, came to Ultra from Syracuse. He’s been listening to electronic dance music for 10 years, but this is his first time at Ultra.

“Do I think EDM is fading? No,” he said. “It’s gonna be around.”

Michaelangelo Matos, a music critic who contributes to the Atlantic and Rolling Stone and wrote The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Music Conquered America, says the popularity of EDM is waning, but the obituaries were premature.

“No one thinks we’re in peak EDM right now, because it’s established. It doesn’t have the excitement of being the thing a whole generation of kids are into at once –– that moment passed,” Matos said.

Ultra isn’t climbing music success –– it has summited, Matos said.

“You can tell just looking at the DJ headliners,” he said. “This is very old guard. There isn’t a lot of new blood here. This lineup says ‘we are an established festival and this is our top tier of talent.’ 

Miamians should stay used to Ultra, in other words –– it probably isn’t going anywhere.

“People would like EDM to be gone. Well, it isn’t.” Matos said. “It isn’t going to be for quite some time and that’s the way it is.”

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