On Saturday evening, Alan Oleksa, a genial redhead from Pittsburgh, was bouncing at the back of huge crowd gathered to hear Jauz, an American DJ from San Francisco. The dancing throng of 165,000 had come out for Ultra, a massive music festival holding downtown Miami hostage until Sunday night.
Ultra trades in electronic dance music, or EDM, an umbrella term for the strain of hyper-produced frat party sounds known for their bass drops and apocalyptic volume.
Wearing the requisite Ultra outfit of snapback, tank top and Camelbak water bottle, Oleksa said he’s been paying attention to the EDM world for several years. But even for an old hand, the name of Miami’s other major dance music event didn’t ring a bell.
“Winter Music Conference? Never heard of it,” he said.
Oleksa wasn’t alone, as many of the concert-goers came exclusively for Ultra, with no mind to the other dance music happenings in Miami this past week.
“I’m 41 years old,” said Ultra attendee Jeff Wilkins. “I got divorced this year. I love EDM, and I said, ‘I’m going to Ultra.’ ” Wilkins, a tanned guy also in a tank top, said Ultra was on his bucket list. Winter Music Conference, on the other hand, was not.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Miami’s Winter Music Conference, once an internationally renowned music-industry standard, has dwindled in popularity in recent years. Founded in 1985 as a gathering of electronic music enthusiasts and insiders, Winter Music Conference once packed a whopping 500 events into a span of 10 days.
In the early 2010s, however, the event shrunk to six days, then to four. This year, after some speculation as to whether the gathering would happen at all, Winter Music Conference opened quietly for a three-day affair at Faena Forum.
Ultra, of course, has followed the opposite trajectory. Formed first as a small beachside rave at the 1999 iteration of WMC, the festival has ballooned over two decades into one of the most profitable music gatherings in the world, with nearly four dozen annual events in 21 countries.
But even though many Ultra fans have lost sight of Winter Music Conference, the relationship between the two events is deeply intertwined. Since Ultra’s founding, the concurrent festivals have butted heads in a bitter and nearly Oedipal rivalry — one that ended last week when Ultra announced that it had purchased Winter Music Conference and planned to reboot the competitor as part of the Ultra Worldwide brand.
Here’s how the feud began: At the dawn of the millenium, Winter Music Conference was in its prime. It was an established name in the business world of the electronic underground — hot young talent in house music would go there to be discovered, and enthusiastic scribes of the music press would come to discover them.
When Ultra first appeared on the scene — as a beach party where $30 tickets bought you 11 straight hours of dancing — the festival aimed to do something different.
Ultra was coming out of the rave craze — the ’90s-era music trend known for hard electronic sounds and daylong festivals open to all ages, according to Michaelangelo Matos, a contributor to the Atlantic and to Rolling Stone, and author of “The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Music Conquered America.”
“Winter Music Conference involved major label acts who played DJ sets in clubs and toured with musicians. They had nothing whatsoever to do with raves,” Matos said. “They were completely different animals. Ultra was a rave, and Winter Music Conference was an industry confab.”
Ultra started small. While Winter Music Conference boasted tens of thousands of attendees, Ultra attracted only 7,000 spectators its first year. Its second year in operation, Matos, already a player in the music press and a guest at WMC, had never even heard of it.
“Winter Music Conference was an established, all-encompassing thing,” Matos said. “It depended on where you were, but I don’t think many members of the press were going to a side rave.”
The festival grew, moving away from its beachside birthplace into downtown to accommodate a larger audience. In 2003, the festival officially partnered with Winter Music Conference. But Ultra didn’t register on Matos’ radar until 2006 — a major year for electronic music in the mainstream.
“In 2006, Daft Punk plays at Coachella, and that gets dance music on the map in a big way,” Matos said. “Suddenly it becomes more apparent that Ultra did well, or Electric Daisy Carnival — you’re starting to see and hear more about these events.”
In the mid-2000s, Ultra began to eclipse Winter Music Conference in popularity. In 2007, the festival expanded to two days. The following year, Paul van Dyk, a favorite DJ at Ultra (who is still playing this year), told the New Times that “over the last 10 years, Winter Music Conference is one thing, but Ultra as a stand-alone festival developed into something.” At the same time, Winter Music Conference was losing steam — registration numbers dropped every year.
By 2010, the latent tensions between the two festivals became less latent— they broke up. Ultra announced that they were scheduling their shows outside of the WMC dates, claiming that overlapping with the Calle Ocho festival put a strain on Miami police.
WMC didn’t see it that way. It put out a statement claiming that it was “blindsided by Ultra’s last-minute announcement.” The resulting schism forced some fans to pick sides. That same year, New Times put out a poll: “Will You Be Attending Winter Music Conference or Ultra Music Festival?” — Ultra won.
Louis Puig, owner of Club Space, spoke out on WMC’s behalf, writing in an email that “Ultra is trying to monopolize WMC by engaging exclusive contracts with all major DJs which will not allow them to perform at your favorite dance clubs.”
But ultimately the audience decided the winner — Ultra’s attendance trumped WMC’s by thousands.
In the past eight years, the schism has worked well for Ultra. It now brings 175 acts into Miami for a three-day festival that regularly sells out. Winter Music Conference has floundered. Matos said they were already floundering when he returned to Miami for Ultra in 2013.
“Winter Music Conference didn’t exist,” he said. “If you had asked almost anyone at Ultra, they would not have known what you were talking about. Not to be mean about it, but in terms of scale, it was a joke.”
Last Wednesday, when Ultra announced its merger with Winter Music Conference, Matos tweeted that “Ultra purchased WMC because they were tired of pwning them,” using the gamer slang term “pwn” to mean utterly destroy.
“I mean, that was like they decided to save the last pellet on the Pacman board, just so they could run around for a few hours,” Matos said. “They’ve owned Winter Music Conference in the internet jerk sense, in the ‘haha you’re owned’ sense for years. Winter Music Conference hasn’t been a viable commercial entity in quite some time.”