The Ultra experience
Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 23:03
Sixty dollars spent on water alone, a tiny hotel packed with 10 people, almost 12 hours spent in a two-door car and three days of dancing to sets by the biggest names in Electric Dance Music (EDM) with more than 165,000 other people.
This past weekend, downtown Miami was overtaken by the Ultra Music Festival, North America’s biggest electronic music festival. With the recent explosion of EDM into the mainstream — capped off by Skrillex’s recent multiple Grammy wins — the 14th year of the festival was its largest to date. And by some strange turn of events, I happened to be one of the thousands in attendance.
As an avid music listener and lover, I can get behind any kind of music festival. However, I gravitate towards folky, lo-fi sounds, and my ideal festival experience had always veered more along the lines of Bonnaroo or Coachella.
Many of my friends have become immersed in the bustling dubstep scene over the past year, and they had paid for their Ultra tickets months ago. So when I had a ticket bought for me as a graduation present four days before the festival, I was overwhelmed and mentally unprepared. And though it’s not my scene, I knew it that it would be an incredible experience I could not pass up.
We got off to a late start leaving Tampa on Friday, and we were forced to face dreadful Miami rush hour traffic. By the time we finally made it to the festival site at Bayfront Park downtown, it was almost 9 p.m. Luckily, the line was nonexistent at that point, and we were able to rush inside. Hordes of ravers decked out in glow sticks, neon body suits and tutus rushed around in every direction. The only hope you had of staying with a group was forming a human chain.
Bypassing the stages at the front of the grounds, we headed to the main stage to catch the dupstep Messiah, Skrillex, who was set to play at 9:10 p.m. Having never understood the Skrillex craze, I was not expecting much. To my surprise, the set was tight, gritty and the light show was pretty outstanding. Granted, I was too far away to even tell if Skrillex was on stage.
Having heard nothing but great things about Friday evening’s closing act, Pretty Lights, we trekked to the live stage. The setup at the live stage was ideal — set on a large hill with elevated seating — and Pretty Lights’ ambient electronic sound was a beautiful close to the evening.
Saturday brought a battle to keep hydrated and keep my composure, as poor space planning and a massive turnout led to massive traffic jams of people trying to get from stage to stage. At one point, I made the mistake of waiting in line for a hot dog for 45 minutes, only to be told when it was my turn that the vendor was done making food. Spending $5 on each bottle of water didn’t exactly cool my temper.
The highlight of the day came when two of my friends and I decided to climb a fence that separated Carl Cox’s stage from the UMF Brazil stage in order to escape the crowd. Some serious fence dancing ensued, as did a bevy of high fives and cheers from the crowd below us and several threats from security to be kicked out of the festival.
Swedish disc jockey Avicii closed out Saturday on the main stage, where he was introduced by Madonna. In her intro, she delivered the Internet-buzz-worthy question, “How many people in this crowd have seen molly?” Molly is the slang term for the active chemical in ecstasy. It’s safe to say that the girl dancing in front of me during Avicii’s set — who eventually turned around and looked at me with her rainbow light glasses and told me I was “so great” — had probably seen molly.
It’s no secret that drug use is pervasive at Ultra—as is true for any music festival. Though I did not see a single person out of control or visibly inebriated, the countless number of light-up pacifiers and lollipops were a dead giveaway. Generally, it is an atmosphere in which everyone is left to their own devices.
Security checks were a confusing component of the festival, particularly Sunday. Sunday was the only day my belongings were thoroughly searched, and the security guard spitefully removed all of my Cliff Bars from my bag and threw them away. Any water we brought was also poured out before we entered. Just another way to ensure that we spent every penny we had at the festival.
Because the line was miserably long, I had to run to the live stage to catch the last 15 minutes of SBTRKT, a post-dubstep British producer. If I had made the entire set, it would have probably been my favorite of the festival.
Packed shows at the main stage by Steve Aoki and Kaskade followed, as well as some time spent at the beautiful Eco Village. Located at the back of the festival on a secluded hill, the small stage was surrounded by open grass, picnic tables, hammocks and trees strung with Christmas lights.