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20 Years of Ultra: So Much Has Changed, But Its Heart Remains (Opinion)

festival crowd at ultra miami

Ultra Music Festival in Miami is one of the largest and longest-standing EDM festivals internationally, becoming the most viewed music festival in the world in 2013 with over 330 thousand attendees across two weekends and ten million online viewers. 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the festival, and a lot has changed since the early days when electronic legends Paul Oakenfold and Paul Van Dyk would headline nearly every year.

The Music

The seed that is my interest in electronic music was planted around 2008 as a sophomore in high school. My friends and I would listen to Darude’s iconic hit, Sandstorm, at lunch until our ears bled, and that ultimately led me to a few different “Top 100 Techno” mixtapes. I don’t think they were all actually techno tracks, but at that point we classified all electronic music as techno, like people seem to do when they aren’t well versed in their genres.

(Still awesome though)

Of course, at this point in time there weren’t nearly as many genres and sub-genres as there are today, and even in 2018 I still find myself trying to determine whether my new favorite house track is considered bass house, deep house, G-house, or some wild fusion of the three. It can be hard sometimes to place the many offshoots of EDM into specific genres, but most of the stuff I was listening to in high school all shared a very similar, old-school sound. For the sake of convenience, I’m going to improperly refer to this general sound as “techno.”

When you watch video footage from the first Ultra, you may notice a lot of “techno.” You can hear it in every aspect of the music, from the way the vocals are processed, to the timbre of drum samples and synth selections. The number of tools that producers had at their disposal in 1999 was drastically limited compared to the countless amount of plugins, hardware and software available today.

Ultra Music Festival 1999 Stage


As the entire music industry grows, and the umbrella genre that is EDM continues to blend further with different types of music, it’s no wonder that the lineup at UMF 2018 will include artists across virtually every electronic genre. You can definitely expect to hear some retro “techno” sounds here and there, but I wouldn’t count on Tiësto playing the same set he did in 2002.

The Production & Equipment

One of the biggest changes you’ll notice when watching old footage from UMF ’99 is the production value going into the festival. There wasn’t anything fancy or flashy, just “a basic DJ set on a kitchen table,” Tiësto recalls. Josh Wink remembers the wind lifting the needles and records off the table which would temporarily stop the music. Fortunately, EDM culture has since become fully emerged in the digital age, so issues like that are no longer possible.

Ultra Music Festival 1999


The sexy and expensive CDJ/mixer setups that are today’s standard are only a tiny portion of UMF’s $300+ ticket price, which is largely dominated mostly by the stage production (and sky-high booking fees for headliners). A DJ’s performance is no longer judged solely on their musical taste and skills behind the decks, but also on the visuals that accompany the tunes. All household name DJs today have a stunning visual component to their shows, but at UMF ’18, you can expect headliners like Eric Prydz to have visuals that are almost as compelling as the music they accompany.

The People & The Vibe

Over the years, EDM has grown from an underground party to a worldwide sensation. I remember being in the 8th grade and hearing about a high school girl that my older sister knew who went to raves, and I thought it was a bit strange at the time. Nowadays I think it’s a bit strange when people misunderstand the EDM scene.

two hands coming together to form a heart at an EDM festival

Harsh critics of the scene only see festivals as venues for sketchy people to do drugs and listen to music that “all sounds the same,” but I think that’s a very warped perspective. While sketchy people and drugs too often find their way into many shows, the appreciation for the music and people at a rave or festival is unparalleled to anything else I’ve experienced. “PLUR” (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) – the acronym that EDM was built on – has remained a core part of the scene through and through.

“I think it’s an American rave saying,” said Josh Wink, “it’s really funny because it gets you back into this kandi-raver time of furry boots and glow sticks and the word PLUR.” This is one huge aspect of Ultra that hasn’t changed at all.

Music festivals like Ultra may seem unusual to someone who has never experienced something like it, but it’s challenging to find another place on earth where everyone is more caring and accepting of those around them. If you’ve never been to UMF before, GA is sold out, but it’s not too late to get VIP tickets! Every year may be a little different from the last, but at its core, Ultra will always be about awesome people coming together to dance to amazing music and make lifelong memories.

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