Music Festivals

Is Live Music at Ultra Music Festival Dead?

The Prodigy
The Prodigy Photo by George Martinez
Currently, 18 of the first 30 songs listed on Billboard's Hot 100 are electronic, hip-hop, or a style that contains some element of either. This year, the 19th edition of Ultra Music Festival was a reflection of that trend. The main stage, headlined by the biggest names in EDM — DJ Snake, David Guetta, Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, etc. — drew the largest crowds. Two of those acts, DJ Snake and Aoki, brought out surprise guests, 2 Chainz and Future, respectively. It was a thrill for fans who could tell their friends later on, “Guess who I saw live?”

But then, whom did they see live? The word "live" seems to have evolved and is now defined differently in the context of Ultra and other electronic festivals.

Ultra has always been a DJ-driven machine. When it comes to the tools of the trade, knobs and needles dominate. However, in 2006, organizers booked the Killers to headline the festival, carving out a place of live music at Ultra, and since 2009, producers of the mega-event have set aside one stage to provide a respite from the sometimes overwhelming presence of all of that laptop-powered, electronic thumping. They call it the Live Stage. (Before that, it wasn't uncommon to see live acts headline the main stage, like when the Cure performed in 2007.)
Photo by George Martinez
Since moving back to Bayfront Park in 2012, the amphitheater, the home of the live stage, has hosted acts such as Crystal Castles, M83, Matt & Kim, Miike Snow, MGMT, Passion Pit, Purity Ring and Yeasayer, among others. Though nearly all of these artists employ some form of electronic sounds, usually drum machines and synths, they are proper live acts with live instruments.

This past weekend showed a marked lack of such instruments. That isn’t to say that they were banned altogether, though. Cypress Hill had bongos (not to be confused with bongs, which they probably had, too), the Prodigy rocked guitars and a drum kit, and Zhu enriched his keyboard synths with a guitarist and a saxophone player. Still, it felt like we’d heard the death knell of the Live Stage in its former incarnation; at minimum, it’s on life support.

It’s difficult to pin down the reason for this, but one positive side effect of this change was the increase in attendance at the Live Stage. For whatever reason, the stage, though appreciated by the fans there, oftentimes went under-attended. For example, back in 2013, the Weeknd closed Sunday night on the stage. It couldn’t have been easier to walk down the aisles of the amphitheater straight to the very front. Remember, this was after the release of Trilogy. While he hadn’t yet achieved “I Can’t Feel My Face” Michael Jackson-type fame just yet, he was hardly an unknown entity.
Ice Cube
Photo by George Martinez
While the Live Stage didn’t host any full-blown bands in 2017, it endured as an oasis of alternative options for fans who wanted a break from the crush of the main stage. Rabbit in the Moon and Underworld provided more intimate shows with charismatic frontmen that brought crowds closer to the action, both physically and emotionally.

Justice unleashed its newly minted live show at its closing set on Sunday evening, but even as visually arresting as the signature cross in the background was, the show was just the French duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay twisting and turning dials. The killer set was devoid of live instruments.
Photo by George Martinez
With an average attendance that’s careened past the 150,000 mark in recent times, and another sold-out edition in 2017, Ultra Music Festival shows no signs of slowing. The twentieth anniversary is just on the horizon, scheduled for March 23 through 25 of next year. Whether or not organizers decide to restore the Live Stage to its former glory is a mystery, but considering that Ultra has always been one of the more innovative brands in music, it would serve Ultra and, more importantly, us, the fans, well to make the Live Stage into the Crazy Awesome Lit AF Live Stage. And if they want suggestions, just look at the aforementioned charts: Coldplay with the Chainsmokers, Maroon 5 with Kendrick Lamar, or any number of superstar team-ups that mash up genres, but, you know, with actual live instruments.
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