Miami-Dade County

It’s Ultra vs. Rapture in a battle to hold electronic music festival on Virginia Key

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.

Two electronic music festivals are selling tickets for an event on the same weekend at the same waterfront venue in Miami. There’s only room for one.

Cue the lawsuit.

Rapture Electronic Music Festival has sued Ultra Music Festival over the right to stage a weekend of concerts on Virginia Key during the last weekend in March. Its suit asks the court to issue an injunction halting Ultra’s plans and allowing Rapture to produce its event.

In November, Miami commissioners approved Ultra’s move to the key, even though Rapture had already been booked for the same weekend.

Ultra lost its longtime home at Bayfront Park in September when Miami city commissioners unanimously rejected a contract for the popular electronic dance music festival to stay another year. Downtown residents had for years complained about the ear-splitting noise blasting from the festival, the traffic and the extended closure of Bayfront Park during the setup and teardown of that and other events. Ultra was also caught in a power struggle between feuding commissioners, resulting in a contentious debate that led to a surprising 5-0 vote to boot Ultra from downtown’s waterfront.

Organizers of Rapture were angry about being shoved out of the way in favor of Ultra for the weekend of March 29-31. Their objections during the November vote did not sway four commissioners who voted to give Ultra a one-year licensing agreement to hold the festival in two locations on the key: outside Miami Marine Stadium and in Virginia Key Beach Park.

Rapture had sent Ultra and the city a cease-and-desist letter in early January. On Friday, Rapture’s attorney filed a 19-page complaint in federal court alleging that the city and Ultra were aware of Rapture’s place on the schedule but ignored it. Rapture’s attorney, Paul K. Silverberg, contends that Rapture had a relationship with the city after holding its two-day event on Virginia Key in 2017 and 2018, and that the city and Virginia Key Beach Park Trust offered to host Rapture in 2019 and 2020.

Silverberg also argues that Ultra, the city of Miami and the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust are violating anti-trust laws by conspiring to establish Ultra, through its parent corporation Event Entertainment Group, as a monopoly in the local music festival market each spring.

“This was an opportunity for Ultra and [Event Entertainment Group] to shut down its competing Miami based festival held by Rapture,” the lawsuit says.

The five-count suit seeks to void Ultra’s application to hold the event in the park — an application that was submitted after Rapture’s application. It claims that Ultra’s move has damaged Rapture’s business, driving away vendors, performers, and concertgoers. Rapture is still selling tickets and maintains a countdown on its website.

Ultra_DayTwo_MJO_23 (2)
Guests dance during the second day of Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami on Saturday, March 25, 2017.

City Attorney Victoria Mendez said in a statement the city is disappointed with Rapture’s decision to sue.

“We are disappointed that Rapture has chosen this course of action and are reviewing the allegations in the complaint,” she said.

Rapture founders Youssef Khamis and Misha Varum released a statement saying they sued to claim what is rightfully theirs.

“At this point the future of Rapture at Virginia Key Beach Park is in the federal judge’s hands,” the founders said. “We have full trust in the federal system to obtain a fair judgement.”

Saturday morning, Ultra organizers released a statement refuting the Rapture’s claims.

“There is no merit to yesterday’s lawsuit,” the statement reads. “To claim that Ultra has violated the law is both disappointing and misplaced. Ultra lawfully secured its license to host its annual production on Virginia Key, including by obtaining necessary approvals from the City of Miami Commission.”

Ultra, with a daily attendance of more than 50,000, has drawn much larger crowds than Rapture. Ultra’s Virginia Key contract allows for up to 60,000 people each day, though organizers have acknowledged they could see a dip in attendance because of the venue change.

The decision to give Ultra a licensing agreement to move to Virginia Key was surrounded by controversy over the potential impacts a festival of Ultra’s size would have on Virginia Key’s sensitive environment, as well as the expected traffic congestion on the Rickenbacker Causeway. Environmental groups worry Ultra’s loud music and the tens of thousands of revelers would disturb the key’s wildlife, including birds during nesting season and research fish at the University of Miami’s adjacent facility.

A citizen advisory board tasked with making recommendations about how the city should manage Virginia Key echoed those worries in a resolution passed in late November that opposes Ultra’s move to the island.

Meanwhile, Ultra has been applying for permits with county environmental regulators in recent weeks. This week, festival organizers submitted plans to the city to minimize its impact on the environment and manage traffic, both requirements under the contract terms approved by commissioners in November. Ultra plans to use multiple buses and water taxis to get people to and from the festival.

Read the full lawsuit below: