This year's Winter Music Conference - the 26th version of the annual dance music event that turns Miami into its own musical March madness - is alive and kicking despite rampant rumors, plenty of trash talk, and way too much drama.
The split between WMC (March 8-13) and the Ultra Music Festival (March 25-27), which over the past decade has grown from an earnest gathering on the sands of South Beach into one of the biggest electronic-music events in the world, has had DJs everywhere scrambling to sort out their schedules. After all, both have coexisted in beat-driven harmony for years, but now are separated by two weeks, forcing fans and artists alike to choose between which week to attend. And it's a difficult situation, as the announcement by WMC took many artists by surprise.
"A lot of DJs have their agents book around WMC and Ultra six months in advance," says Steve Aoki, an electro-house DJ whose father founded the Benihana restaurant chain and whose brother owns Doraku Sushi in Miami Beach. "So when something like this changes, it kind of screws the whole routings up for all these DJs - they should have announced it last year."
New York house-music icon Junior Sanchez sees it a slightly different way: "I think Winter Music Conference has to do something to preserve its identity, but I don't see why they can't both work together and come to some sort of agreement. There's more than enough artists to play Ultra, and more than enough artists to play at WMC."
Bill Kelly, co-founder and co-director of WMC, says the festival is going back to its old-school roots.
"It's more like what the Conference was prior to Ultra, where we have multiple venues booked up and some of the talent in town for the entire week," he says. "So you can hear your favorite DJ - if you couldn't catch him in one place, you can catch him someplace else. It's kind of like the old WMC back again. It seems like the whole DJ thing over the course of the '90s and into 2000 kind of blew up into a bigger-than-itself thing. And what's happened is, those guys only wanna get paid ridiculous sums of money, and clubs can't afford that anymore. The only people who can afford it are the ones who put on the huge festivals, so DJs such as Tiesto or Armand Van Helden now look to the festivals as their main source of income. They've kind of shunned the club scene altogether, and if they play only four or five big festivals per year, they don't have to do anything more than that.
"And it's crazy, and it's a fad, and it will have its day just like anything else."
German superstar DJ Paul van Dyk, who was the headlining act at the first Ultra fest, has had quite a change of heart, objecting to UMF requiring its artists to not perform elsewhere during WMC week.
"What Ultra became is nothing that I support, and in a way I regret being part of building it to what it became," he says. "Winter Music Conference was always about the artists that actually present new music to their audiences. With all that exclusivity bullshit that Ultra started, obviously that wasn't possible anymore, and I think we were the first ones to make a clear statement last year of pulling out of this whole scenario. ... It's just sticking with what this is all about. It's about the fans of electronic music.''
Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles - the Godfather of House - has yet another perspective:
"I think they went to sleep on the concept of updating what WMC should be all about," he says. "The concept of it should have been changed a long time ago. And I knew eventually someone was gonna come along with a better mousetrap, and it was gonna get in the way. When Ultra just happened, it drove so much attention away from it. ... And this thing about their [WMC] badges being honored at all the clubs where all the DJs are playing - that turned out to be a whole lot of B.S., because I've watched kids go up to the doors and their badges not be honored. And to me, that's so heartbreaking and disgusting. Because I know what it is to be those kids, who are excited after spending all this money to get there, and you're not even recognized. They get herded around like cattle - it's really heartbreaking.
'And now you've got the Ultra Festival going on with all these big-name DJs, and it's a really big thing and these kids just go for it. They get inside, they can see who it is even if it's from afar, and they get to be a part of it and they don't get dissed at the door."
Miami star Oscar G isn't sure the split between WMC and Ultra will be permanent.
"I don't know, man - I think everybody's wondering," he says. "I guarantee you, it'll have a lot to do with how everything turns out, you know? Kind of letting everybody know where they stand."