Ten years ago in 2005, I went to my first Ultra Music Festival. Back then, it lasted just a day. Moby played, but he brought a full band and did all original material. The Carl Cox & Friends tent was still actually a tent. No one yet knew what a music festival “megastructure” would even look like. Tiësto was a headliner, and tickets cost
me my mom $55.
A lot of things have changed since that Saturday. The festival has long since expanded to three days and tickets are almost ten times more expensive. But most importantly, if 2005 were today, I wouldn’t be allowed to attend Ultra. A decade ago, I was 17, and Ultra is now officially an 18-and-over event. This new policy made kids cry all over social media when it was announced in September. But as a UMF veteran, I think it’s better this way. Quite frankly, I think it’s about time.
Last year, the festival came under fire following the fatal overdose of 21-year-old attendee Adonis Escoto and the trampling of security guard Erica Mack. These incidents led Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Commissioner Marc Sarnoff’s to prepare a resolution "prohibiting the Bayfront Park Management Trust from holding the Ultra Music Festival in the future.” But ultimately, the City of Miami Commission voted 4-1 in favor of Ultra returning to Miami and Bayfront Park.
Many people — including Ultra’s head of security, former Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez — saw the adoption of an 18-and-over policy as the first step toward a safer environment. Then, in the months leading up to its 2015 edition, UMF banned glow sticks, backpacks, pacifiers, and other raver gear. And when the event’s gates opened this past weekend, returning customers couldn’t help but notice stronger fences and increased security measures taken all along the festival’s perimeter.
I can say honestly that Ultra 2015 was a more mature and more pleasant experience than I’ve had at UMF in the past five years. Before, if I saw a young kid with his face screwed up or a girl with three-fourths of her body exposed, I couldn’t help but be a little worried. But this year, I knew that everyone I was partying with was a consenting adult free to make his or her own decisions.
That being said, I saw a lot less to worry about in general. By cutting back on the pacifiers, glow sticks, rage totems, and the like, Ultra felt focused more on the music and the show on stage, not the show that some kid was giving with his finger gloves next to me. So the kandi kids got to keep their kandi. Who cares? They were all really, really nice. Yes, people were still partying (and by partying, I mean getting fucked up), but there wasn’t as much out-of-control or over-the-top behavior. Maybe someone fell asleep in a port-a-pottie, but no one made out with a tree.
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But it wasn’t only Ultra’s age requirement and security measures that changed. The festival also seems to have found a new identity. Electric Daisy Carnival founder Pasquale Rotella once said he no longer cares to book superstar DJs. This weekend, UMF showed that it means to be the number-one destination for not only superstar DJs, but superstars that can shut down a room anywhere in the world. If you’re going to be the place where Diddy and Justin Bieber choose to make a joint special appearance or the festival where Paris Hilton goes to check out Die Antwoord, you’re talking about a serious cultural flash point. This is not the Ultra of ten years ago. As the organizers stated when the 18-and-over policy was announced: “We ultimately believe that Ultra Music Festival is a premium event geared towards adults."
I did a bunch of interviews with fans as they walked into the festival for an on-the-street New Times video. He didn’t make the cut, but one fellow Miamian confided that he’d been to the festival twice during years almost as long ago as my first time. He stopped coming because he felt like he was getting too old.
“I went in 2006 and 2012, but it was just too mainstream then,” he said. “I gave it some time, and now that they made it 18 and over, I said, ‘Shit, let’s give it another shot.’”
My thoughts exactly.