Setting the Bar: How Florida Music Festivals Became the Standard of the American Dance Experience

Festivals are the backbone of the modern American dance scene, but what seems a staple was once a rare phenomenon with Floridian roots.

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Nov 8 2014, 2:38am

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In our fifth and final article on the history of dance music in Florida, we're turning our attentions to the humble beginnings of festival culture in Miami and beyond. From Zen to Ultra, from Icey to Tiésto, Florida kicked off what has now become America's endless festival season. It all started with Zen...

Zen Festival
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Zen was the festival that wouldn't give up. After a high school student named Jason Donavan took a trip to Orlando,FL and saw the wonder of Club Firestone, he found inspiration. Orlando was regularly hosting raves with 5,000 people, whereas Ft. Lauderdale and Miami could only stomach about 1000. Donavan started Zen Festival at the Central Florida Fairgrounds in 1995 and that ubiquitous name, Rabbit in the Moon, was one of the headliners. 7500 people attended the first Zen Festival and it immediately became the largest festival in Florida.

I recall a flyer for the 1997 edition that featured Polk Country Police officers on the front, reading "They tried to shut us down". On the back it said "they failed" with a photo of a crowd of thousands of people. 20,000 attended that year. In addition to electronic music and DJs, there were yoga workshops, lectures on religion, guided meditation sessions and other crazy stuff like pre-recorded videos from Timothy Leary and Hunbatz Men instructing guided conciousness. My parents had friends that went to Zen for any number of reasons. I attended despire the fear of running into them.

Not only did 20,000 people attend Zen festival in 1997, but they did so despite a lack of liquor, strict club laws and a curfew for teens. Zen was open for kids 16 and up, but anyone under 17 was barred for the latter portions of the festival. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Zen's 12 page flyers also functioned as petitions urging fans to stand on behalf of the First Amendment and its guarantee of 'the right of the people to peacefully assemble'." The flyer stated that "It is our decision and our right as citizens of the United States to dance all night. We must never lose our ability to choose."

Zen always maintained headliners like Crystal Method, Josh Wink, and Uberzone – but was forced to move around in its earlier iterations. One year it was actually in Miami which was 4-5 hours away from the original area that it was always held in. Zen eventually went "on tour" and traveled to different cities. It was even a large part of an early Chemical Brothers tour.

After being blamed for several nearby hotel overdoses and what must now seem like typical rave party finger-pointing, Zen posted this quote on their website. "Become aware of what you are doing to yourself and our culture. You damage not only yourself, but jeopardize the entire movement. If this problem isn't solved, there will soon be no more scene for anybody." This quote should be on every festival flyer at this point. PLUR.

CYBERFEST 2000
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Cyberfest 2000 was held on Labor Day Weekend at Melbourne, Florida's Convention Center and Grounds, billing itself as "America's Largest Dance and Music Festival" at the time, Cyberfest was brought to Florida via Coolworld, a California production company that held the first iteration in 1992.

Like Zen Festival, Cyberfest also held yoga classes and meditation, but took things to the next level and added aspects like "cyber-circus with a trapeze" (sounds scary), a Bhudda shrine and an outdoor laser light show. This festival did have alcohol but the rules with it were very restricted. The line up was wild. Keoki, Bad Boy Bill, Frankie Bones, DJ Magic Mike, Carl Cox and Miami's own legendary DJ Craze, who is (shockingly) yet to get a shout-out in this entire Florida series. Just in case you didn't know, Craze is the king of Miami and has continued to kill it since this time. Very important!

Cool World held Cyberfest throughout many locations in the United States. Some of the DJs on the line ups can still be found behind the decks at HARD, EDC, etc.

Ultra Music Festival
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Okay, so there was Woodstock, and the '90s came to life with traveling festivals like Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, and Ozzfest. But these were mostly rock'n'roll festivals. Some hip hop happened here and there. Even the immovable giants Coachella, Bonnaroo, and (again) Lollapalooza were more about diversity than dance tents.

Without contest, the original dance music festival in the United States, the King that paved the way and built the modern dance festival foundation, was Miami's own Ultra Music Festival.

But if we're going to tell this story right, we need to go back, waaay back, to the start of Winter Music Conference. That means reaching into the distant memory of March 1986, where the famed meeting of minds would have been unrecognizable to contemporary partygoers. It wasn't even in Miami. It was just a few meetings, conferences, panels, and discussions on the dance music industry between people who mostly knew each other in the Ft. Lauderdale Marriott. Little did they know, it was the beginning of dance music's most important sleepaway camp.

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The conference grew and relocated about 40 minutes south. For a long time, attendees stayed on task, bringing together high-profile artists, industry insiders, and technical leaders to discuss what game-changing software, trends, and business acumen could move the genre forward. There were fun competitions, award ceremonies, an international record show, but you can't get that many DJs in a room without someone hopping on the decks. The satellite parties and label showcases grew alongside, and by the late '90s, there was room for something big.

That void was filled in 1999 when an upstart calling itself Ultra Beach Music Festival took over the SoBe sands. Rabbit in the Moon headlined with a very-special live performance. You could find Florida's DJ Icey, George Acosta, and future Duck Sauce bro Armand Van Helden on the bill.

In 2001, UMF moved to Bayfront Park where it took up residence until 2006. It attracted top global talent, from Underworld to Tiesto, Moby, Paul Oakenfold, Roni Size, Pete Tong. Anyone who was anyone played Ultra, the only all-electronic music festival in the nation. It became a rite of passage for south Florida kids and attracted bpm-addicts from all corners of the globe.

The party continued to grow, and in 2006, UMF shifted to make more room at Bicentennial Park.That same year, lineup fave Carl Cox acquired his own tent. It remains one of the most ambitious and anticipated stages in the dance world. Live acts were integrated into the fest, bringing bands from The Killers to the Cure to the UMF stage. That feeling lives on today at the Live Stage, something we honestly can't celebrate enough and always deserves more attention. Ultra has been graced with performances from Kraftwerk, New Order, Crystal Castles, Empire of the Sun, and many more. We remember seeing Disclosure play to 50 people at 2 p.m. It was pretty insane.

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It's that attention to detail that put UMF on the map. It's because of UMF's success that a new dance music festivals pops up every 15 minutes. Back when Eminem rapped "nobody listens to techno," Ultra was bringing them in by the thousands, expanding to festivals worldwide, and from one day to three on the homefront. There was even a maddening two weekender in 2013.

In fact, Ultra has forever changed WMC. The satellite parties have taken over the Conference atmosphere, and when WMC and UMF broke into separate weeks for 2011, Ultra came up with its own "Miami Music Week." Though they once again coincide, MMW is a term a lot of young people use without knowing the difference.

Many festivals have tried where Ultra has succeeded, but none have yet grown to such rank. There was the mythical Bang! Music Festival in November of 2006. While it brought a variety of acts, from Modest Mouse to Common, the most memorable performance was of Daft Punk's Alive pyramid. No shit, we were there, and it quite literally changed our life. Somehow, Bang! didn't last, and holy crap the disaster that was UR1. People are still waiting to be reimbursed for tickets to a festival that inexplicably cancelled and disappeared. The greatest success so far has been Life in Color, formerly Dayglow, which returns for not one but two days in December of this year.

Let's be clear, Ultra was not the first. There were a ton of large Florida festivals that influenced it, and by the time Ultra was put on the sunshine state was no stranger to these things. Ravers would travel all over and frequent these things all the time and already knew how to party. From South Florida festivals with names like Magical Maydaze, Se' Ance, Ra, and Circa to Central Florida raves such as Usuaya, Love Festival and Zen, the late 90s were already full of these events when Ultra decided to kick off.

And, that, as they say, is that.