Mega festivals have been crucial to the rise of EDM in the wider pop culture – none more important than the award-winning ULTRA Music Festival.
Yes, it is hotly debated, but 'EDM' – electronic dance music – is a specific genre as much as a movement, the catchall term used freely in US industry circles in the new millennium, as was 'electronica' in the '90s.
But, undisputedly, mega festivals have been crucial to the rise of EDM in the wider pop culture – none more important than the award-winning ULTRA Music Festival (UMF). Originating in Miami, Florida in 1999, UMF is today a global brand, even being streamed online.
Launched successfully in Melbourne – traditionally a 'Techno City' – with 2018's sold-out Road To ULTRA Australia concept (the headliners Axwell, Afrojack and Carnage), the now annual ULTRA Australia will return to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Kings Domain this month.
There will be four stages, including a new hardstyle arena – the '90s Dutch rave offshoot experiencing a revival. Indeed, ULTRA's curation is in tune with shifts in the scene.
The headliner of headliners? Dutch superstar DJ Hardwell, hitting Australia for the first time since 2014 when he toured his I Am Hardwell concert.
Ruling 2013's DJ Mag Top 100 DJs poll with a trademark big room house, Hardwell is fabled for his UMF sets. But, in 2018, he embarked on a hiatus, prioritising self-care. Symbolically, Hardwell made his comeback closing 2022's UMF.
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In 2023, the ever-chameleonic DJ is advancing a style that pundits have dubbed "future techno" and "future rave".
Also on the bill are credible hardstyle acts such as the UK pioneer Darren Styles and Dutch duo Sub Zero Project, Italian techno DJ Deborah de Luca, Australian general dynamo Timmy Trumpet, Floridian bouncy houser ACRAZE and Dutch trance master Ferry Corsten.
Intriguingly, ULTRA Australia has partnered with the international fashion retailer SHEIN, beloved by Gen Z (and TikTokers) in a music and fashion collab that underscores the festival's trendsetter status.
In addition to offering the carnivalesque SHEIN X ULTRA Australia merch collection, SHEIN will host a Glam Station for festival-goers to sample its cosmetic line SHEGLAM.
PARTY LIKE IT'S 1999
The first ULTRA Music Festival took place in Collins Park, Miami Beach, in 1999, with its co-founders being Russell Faibisch and the late Alex Omes.
They scheduled the one-day beach party in March to coincide with Miami's Winter Music Conference (now owned by ULTRA) – German trancer Paul van Dyk being their biggest name.
In later years, UMF has typically been held in downtown Miami at Bayfront Park. However, in 2019 it relocated to the barrier island of Virginia Key for an experiment. The inaugural festival was well patronised, although the promoters lost money.
But, these days, UMF is a major economic boon for Miami, resuming two years after the COVID-19 pandemic. It attracts some 100,000.
While, from the outset, UMF presented stadium-level DJs, the organisers likewise transformed the festival into a spectacle with cutting-edge production values – comprising of stage design, lighting, pyrotechnics and a glamourous dance squad, the ULTRA Angels.
UMF constantly reformulates itself. In 2005, it teamed with techno titan Carl Cox for the Carl Cox Global Arena, pre-empting the introduction of an "underground" space, RESISTANCE, ten years on featuring techno and house DJs.
UMF has secured identities from outside EDM, too, with The Weeknd performing in 2013. The most discussed act at last month's three-day edition was Grimes, premiering her augmented reality project ELF.TECH ART RAVE.
GOD IS A DJ
The ULTRA Music Festival has generated its own mythos. After all, it has platformed EDM's most iconic figures – like Swedish House Mafia. In 2013, the DJ supergroup played what was then supposed to be their farewell shows over consecutive UMF weekends, Coachella-style.
The late Swedish DJ/producer Avicii routinely approached UMF as an opportunity to test some of his biggest tracks.
In 2012, the same year German techno grandfathers Kraftwerk were booked, The Prodigy dropped his remix of Madonna's Girl Gone Wild, off her EDM-influenced MDNA. The Queen Of Pop herself introduced Avicii in a surprise appearance, with Madonna's cheeky speech going viral.
Avicii previewed his bold country/EDM fusion in 2013. Accompanied by the neo-soul vocalist Aloe Blacc and live musicians, he performed the bluegrass-flavoured Wake Me Up!.
Initially, it polarised the crowd – and Avicii copped heat online. But, as the lead single from his debut album True, Wake Me Up! would go on to become a huge hit.
The Scandinavian presaged other country hybrids, paving the way for Lil Nas X's trap Old Town Road. Alas, Avicii ominously cancelled a highly-anticipated date at 2014's UMF, being hospitalised for health issues.
Madonna aside, many a pop, rock or rap megastar has been drawn to UMF – from former teen idols to veterans.
Again in 2014, Diplo and Skrillex showcased their buzz new vehicle Jack Ü. The following year the pair returned, with Justin Bieber rocking up to sing Where Are Ü Now. Then, in 2019, Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth joined Dutch trance super-DJ Armin van Buuren as he played a remix of the '80s hit Jump.
In 2018, UMF celebrated its 20th anniversary with co-headliners The Chainsmokers – peak EDM – and a reincarnated Swedish House Mafia. Also eccentrically billed? Azealia Banks (who previously performed in 2013) and the electroclash group Fischerspooner.
Obviously competitive, the future bass stalwart Marshmello brought out a succession of guests, among them Lil Uzi Vert and… Will Smith (who revisited his '90s hit Miami).
ULTRA DOWN UNDER
In 2008, UMF started expanding internationally under the ULTRA Worldwide banner with the advent of ULTRA Brasil.
Today, there are satellite events on six continents (Antarctica when?). In 2018, Road To ULTRA Australia happened exclusively in Melbourne as "a prequel" to a full festival the next year (additionally, the promoters hosted a marquee at the Spring Racing Carnival with Scott Disick as a celebrity guest).
The timing was significant. In 2013 the homegrown EDM brand Stereosonic was acquired by the US SFX Entertainment – which subsequently filed for bankruptcy, leaving a vacuum in the local scene.
In 2019, ULTRA Australia was held in both Melbourne (relocating to Flemington Racecourse) and Sydney. The festival was sidelined by the pandemic in 2021 but returned to Melbourne last year with Afrojack, Alesso and the evergreen Steve Aoki.
The UMF flagship had long booked Australian exports like Dirty South – plausibly our earliest EDM superstar DJ – and Perth's drum 'n' bass band Pendulum. In 2016, Pendulum staged a comeback set to close UMF, having switched focus to their electro-house side-project Knife Party.
The Road To ULTRA Australia roster, too, boasted local stars in Timmy Trumpet and Will Sparks. And Timmy, now a global phenomenon himself, placing at #8 in DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs, will again play ULTRA Australia.
By chance, the Sydney DJ/producer/trumpeter is buddies with Hardwell – the two collaborating on the tracks The Underground and Revolution (alongside Maddix). It really is a small ULTRA world.