On eve of Ultra Music Festival, the dance-music craze is slowing down

Fans arrive at the gates Ultra Music Festival 2015

EDM fans from all over the world arrived for the first day of the Ultra Music Festival at Bayfront Park in Downtown Miami on March 27, 2015.
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EDM fans from all over the world arrived for the first day of the Ultra Music Festival at Bayfront Park in Downtown Miami on March 27, 2015.

At first glance, the throbbing hubbub of Miami Music Week and the Ultra Music Festival, one of the marquee events on the global dance music calendar, looks as vibrant as ever. General admission and VIP tickets for Ultra, which takes over Bayfront Park Friday through Sunday, are sold out. Clubs and hotels in South Beach and downtown Miami are touting famous DJs and parties that extend past dawn.

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But behind the booming façade, the situation is not quite so bright. Some of Miami’s top clubs, such as South Beach’s Cameo and downtown’s Grand Central, have closed recently. SFX Entertainment, which several years ago bought a host of top dance music promoters, festivals and websites, inspiring predictions that billionaire owner Robert Sillerman would take electronic dance music into the corporate and consumer mainstream, recently declared bankruptcy.

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The 2016 edition of the TomorrowWorld festival in rural Georgia, one of SFX’s trophy events, has been canceled after a debacle last September that saw thousands of concertgoers stranded in mud and rain. Icon, the name new owners have given to Mansion, a longtime South Beach dance palace, has seen a sharp drop in crucial VIP liquor sales and is struggling to fill the massive space.

“EDM is over — it’s like disco,” says Vanessa Menkes, former head of communications for the now disbanded Opium Group, whose clubs including Mansion and Set dominated South Beach nightlife for years. “In 2005, you could open your doors on a random Saturday night and make $150,000. Those days are not coming back.”

In some ways, the music is falling victim to a success that appears to have peaked around 2013. Many of the music-loving clubgoers that are the genre’s core audience have been alienated by spiraling entry and drink prices that put the cost of even a minimal night out well over $100, even as clubs cater to wealthy customers who spend thousands in VIP sanctums. The performance circuit has become dominated by a small circle of famous DJ/artists like Calvin Harris, Tiesto, Diplo and Skrillex, leading to repeat appearances and fan burnout. According to one Miami music insider, when Mansion booked leading DJ Afrojack for more than $150,000 shortly before the club ended its 11-year run last fall, it couldn’t draw enough of an audience to break even.

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Fans like Annie Tomlinson, 22, an ardent Ultra attendee when she could get a one-day ticket for around $100, are opting out. She last went to the festival in 2013, though she says her peak experience was the year before.

“I still like the music,” Tomlinson says. “But it’s not worth it for the money anymore. It’s so hyped up and I’ve already experienced it.”

Senthil Chidambaram, CEO and founder of popular EDM website Dancing Astronaut, says that kind of burnout is growing.

“You see someone DJ and throw his hands up and fireworks in the background, and that experience is replicated a hundred times,” Chidambaram says. “So how is it changing for you? What’s the selling point unless you’re a super fan?”

Soaring DJ fees have become part of their celebrity cachet. Harris, the top earner, can command $400,000 at a luxurious Las Vegas nightclub such as Omnia in Caesar’s Palace. Other elite acts make $200,000 to $250,000. Those costs contribute to a kind of nocturnal financial arms race, pushing up base prices at clubs and festivals. Meanwhile, frenzy over the profit potential from wealthy customers for festivals like Ultra, where VIP tickets are $1,512, or at clubs where a tiny circle of clients can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single night, conflated excitement over a show with the thrill of extravagant consumption.

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The focus on finances could also shape the music. According to Chidambaram, as the scene peaked in 2013, many artists put out as much music as possible because each new release generated hits on social media and music sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Soundcloud — numbers that booking agents used to determine which acts to hire and how much to pay.

“There was so much content shoved down people’s throats, but it was not about the quality but the quantity,” Chidambaram says. “The more content you pushed the more opportunities to increase your number count.”

The buzz that led corporations to rush to sponsor what seemed the hottest genre for coveted millennial customers sometimes led to a blurring of music and marketing. The videos for two of EDM’s biggest hits, Avicci’s Wake Me Up, from 2013, and Swedish House Mafia’s Greyhound (the name of a vodka drink), in 2012, prominently showcased images of Ralph Lauren’s Denim & Supply logo and clothing line and Absolut vodka, respectively.

Meanwhile, the acts that haven’t produced a radio hit or are focused on the old school skills that keep a room full of dancers moving until dawn — what hardcore dance music aficionados call “telling a story” — are relegated to smaller clubs and fewer events. This limits the chances for the next creative DJ or cutting-edge style to emerge, or for a new generation of audiences to be drawn by music rather than celebrity and hype.

“The oversaturation and commercialization is the death of anything relevant in terms of artistry,” says Carmel Ophir, a longtime dance music promoter whose downtown club Vagabond closed in 2014, and who is presenting a week of old-school house music DJs like Louie Vega and Jellybean Benitez at Yuca on Lincoln Road this week. “The EDM world is one big KISS concert — we’re gonna give you bang for the buck, fire, explosions, blood.”

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Dance music fireworks still dazzle many. EDM has become central to mainstream pop, as demonstrated in hits such as Where Are Ü Now, produced by Diplo and Skrillex for Justin Bieber. Ultra has franchises in Europe, Latin America and Asia, where a new luxury club market has opened up in countries like China and Singapore. Festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and New York, or European EDM celebrations such as Belgium’s TomorrowLand, continue to be popular.

David Grutman, operating partner of LIV in the Fontainebleau hotel, the most successful of the Beach’s remaining high-end clubs and whose lineup this week boasts David Guetta, Afrojack and Harris, says those kinds of acts are still a draw.

“The top guys are still pulling as much or more,” Grutman says. But he has had to adjust from the peak of several years ago. Costly star DJ’s are mostly reserved for special occasions like Miami Music Week, and hip-hop Sundays have become hugely popular. Grutman has seen a drop in VIP customers from Europe and South America, whose currency has been devalued against the dollar, and are spending less or going elsewhere. And Grutman has branched out, opening Komodo, an Asian fusion restaurant in the trendy Brickell area. His former competitor Eric Milon, one of Opium Group’s founders, now co-owns Coyo Taco, a hipster eatery and speakeasy in Wynwood.

In Miami-Dade, many 20- and 30-somethings are opting for bars, lounges and smaller clubs in new areas like Wynwood, Brickell, Midtown, Little Havana and even Coral Gables, where parking is cheaper and traffic less congested than South Beach. In SoBe, new venues like Bodega, another small, casual taco restaurant/bar, and Rockwell, run by ’90s nightlife kingpin Chris Paciello, are drawing crowds.

“Club culture is changing,” says Seth Browarnik, a photographer who’s covered Miami clubs since the early ’90s, and founder of nightlife and celebrity website World Red Eye. “There will always be big clubs.. [but] you don’t have to be in a nightclub anymore; there’s all these different options now.”

Pop music tends to go through cycles in which music styles bloated with success and saturating the culture give way to upstart underground genres. Punk and new wave supplanted disco and stadium rock, hip hop and grunge inspired those bored by pop. House music started in gay, largely black and Latino clubs in the ’80s, then expanded to underground raves filled with blissed-out kids. Now EDM seems due for its own comeuppance.

“When anyone tries to make anything corporate, it’s over,” says Menkes. Chidambaram, 28, notes that many of his EDM-loving friends refuse to go to dance clubs. And Tomlinson says she usually goes to bars with friends, or clubs like Basement in Miami Beach, which have a more intimate atmosphere and progressive mix of music.

“Most of the clubs I go to don’t play house music,” she says. “It all sounds the same.”

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