Lessons learned at Ultra Music Festival
Ultra Music Festival will not return to the city of Miami next year, marking the end of a two-decade run for the electronic dance music event on the Magic City’s waterfront. Organizers of Ultra, a world-renowned festival with a large international audience, announced their departure in a letter delivered to the city Wednesday afternoon.
The letter simultaneously severed the homegrown event’s longstanding relationship with the city of Miami and put a $2 million dent in the city’s bottom line.
Call it the day the electronic dance music died in Miami.
Organizers are backing out of an agreement that allowed them to stage their most recent event on Virginia Key, a controversial move spurred by commissioners who kicked the festival out of Bayfront Park in September — an unceremonious exit underscored by political infighting among Miami commissioners, complaints from downtown condo residents and debate over Ultra’s fee to the city.
The Virginia Key contract, which was approved in November, automatically renewed for the following year unless either Ultra or the city revoked the agreement within 60 days of the festival’s closing each year. On Wednesday, the day before commissioners were scheduled to vote on whether Ultra would be allowed to return, festival organizers beat them to the punch.
Ultra’s next home could be in Homestead, according to sources familiar with those discussions.
In a statement tweeted to fans Wednesday afternoon, Ultra acknowledged fans’ complaints about their experience at the festival on Virginia Key.
“After listening to feedback from many of you, (including over 20,000 fans who took our post-event survey), it is clear that the festival experience on Virginia Key was simply not good enough,” read the statement. “This is Ultra Music Festival, after all, and our attendees expect us to deliver on our commitment to excellence. Being committed to excellence not only means constantly striving to become better. It also means being willing to change things when they are not working.”
Ultra did not reveal the new location for next year in its statement, but Homestead officials confirmed there are talks to bring the festival to south Miami-Dade. Homestead City Manager George Gretsas told the Herald he has been made aware of conversations between Ultra and the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which he relayed to his City Council on Wednesday.
“It is our expectation that at some point, they will formally submit a proposal,” Gretsas said.
Ultra’s letter to Miami — a terse statement announcing Ultra’s decision to terminate the contract, hand-delivered by a courier around 4 p.m. — caught administrators and politicians off guard. Thursday’s vote was hotly anticipated after a rough debut on the island, where logistical problems plagued the event’s opening night and the volume of the music aggravated residents on mainland Miami.
City Manager Emilio Gonzalez quickly met with Mayor Francis Suarez and senior city staff to discuss the letter. Gonzalez delivered copies to commissioners on the dais, where they were several hours into a slow-moving hearing regarding the future of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. No commissioners commented on the news during the meeting, which stretched for several hours after the city was notified of Ultra’s departure.
“On one hand, we’re sad to see this event leave the city after its first year on Virginia Key,” Suarez told the Herald minutes after learning the news. “On the other hand, we saw Ultra had significant logistical issues at that site.”
Gonzalez spoke more directly to the loss of local business revenue from the event, which attracts tens of thousands from across the world for the three-day festival at the end of March. The city manager, who could hear the festival from the living room of his house in The Roads this year, said he was disappointed in the loss of economic activity.
“It is unfortunate that they felt they had to make this decision,” the city manager said.
It might not have been that hard of a decision, given the festival’s dealings with the city over the past year.
Commissioner Joe Carollo, chairman of the semi-autonomous agency that manages Bayfront Park and had a contract with Ultra, pushed the festival last summer to agree to a minimum $2 million payment in order to stay in Bayfront — then he confoundedly opposed the contract he negotiated in September.
Carollo had been feuding with Commissioner Ken Russell, who questioned why a separate agency was controlling the park’s operations. Russell was astounded Carollo wouldn’t vote for the deal, and the ensuing debate resulted in a unanimous vote to boot Ultra from Bayfront Park. A chorus of downtown residents, many of whom were upset they could not use Bayfront Park during Ultra’s setup and tear-down, cheered the decision.
Suarez said Carollo’s behavior marked the beginning of the end for Ultra’s run in Miami.
“That contract was negotiated in bad faith,” he said.
Wednesday evening, Carollo defended his position, emphasizing that the vote against Ultra in September was unanimous, and he was simply responding to residents’ complaints about Ultra’s loud music reverberating through their homes. He said he saw no way for Ultra to stay in downtown without upsetting neighbors.
“They couldn’t control the noise there,” he said. “There’s just some things you can’t accomplish.”
In early November, the Herald first reported Ultra’s potential move to Virginia Key, which set off a whole new wave of opposition from Key Biscayne residents and environmental activists concerned about the key’s sensitive wildlife habitat. Commissioners approved a $2 million year-to-year licensing agreement that could be terminated within 60 days of the event’s closing each year.
Ultra had already sold tickets for the 2019 event, and now planners had to organize an event for up to 60,000 people on a completely new site in about four months. That came with the challenge of moving up to 60,000 people on and off Virginia Key each night of the festival after the last performance. On the first night, March 29, festival-goers were irate with the inadequate and disorganized shuttle bus system, leading thousands to walk nearly three miles across the William Powell Bridge to order rideshares in Brickell.
Festival organizers rushed to improve the situation on the second and third nights, leading to smoother exits, but mainland Miami residents still complained of rumbling bass carrying across Biscayne Bay and into their homes. Environmentalists lamented the potential harm done to wildlife and research animals kept at a University of Miami facility on Virginia Key. A preliminary analysis of Ultra’s impact showed that some of UM’s research fish were stressed out during the first night of the concert.