How Ultra electronic music festival conquered the world, and its explosive growth in Asia
When founders started Ultra nearly 20 years ago in Miami out of a love for EDM, they had no idea it would grow to span six continents and over 20 countries, including Hong Kong’s Road to Ultra this weekend
Since global electronic music festival Ultra gained a toehold in Asia six years ago with an event in Seoul, it has expanded dramatically across the continent.
Its third Hong Kong edition, at AsiaWorld-Expo on June 9, will be one of 11 in Asia, and Ultra festivals will be held in more than 20 countries on six continents this year.
Russell Faibisch, who co-founded Ultra in Miami in 1999, says he suffered from culture shock when he first visited Asia in 2012. However, that did not deter him.
“I loved so many aspects about Asia, and saw the raw potential of what the Ultra brand could bring to the continent. I even personally relocated to Seoul for more than a year to oversee the initial phase of the long-term expansion. Ever since the launch of the Ultra brand in Seoul in 2012, the reception across the continent has been incredible,” he says.
While the original Ultra and those in other locations are three-day festivals that use multiple stages, Hong Kong hosts a one-day Road to Ultra on a single stage. That means its line-up has mainstream appeal – this year it is heavy on electronic dance music (EDM) superstars including Axwell & Ingrosso, David Guetta, Galantis, Andrew Rayel and Fedde Le Grand.
Axwell & Ingrosso are two-thirds of the progressive house supergroup Swedish House Mafia, who scored a series of monster hits in the early 2010s, including One, Save the World and Don’t You Worry Child. They parted company with SHM’s third member, Steve Agnello, in 2013 but the hits continued, including Sun is Shining and More Than You Know.
David Guetta is the man most responsible for EDM’s unstoppable rise over the past 10 years. After more than two decades plugging away as a house DJ and producer, within a month in 2009 the Frenchman produced his own hits When Love Takes Over with Kelly Rowland and Sexy Bitch with Akon, and produced The Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling.
Another Swedish house duo, Galantis, feature one member, Christian Karlsson, who’s also part of pop group Miike Snow, and a second, Linus Eklöw, who’s also a popular producer as Style of Eye. Famed for their hits No Money and Runaway, the pair are also known for their eclectic live sets.
Expect uplifting trance and big room house from Moldovan producer and DJ Andrew Rayel, who broke through as a teenager with his 2011 single Aether. And there will be a chance to party like it’s 2006 with Fedde Le Grand, the Dutch house DJ intimately associated with his own massive hit Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit.
The two previous Hong Kong Road to Ultras were at West Kowloon Cultural District.
Last year’s, on September 16, was headlined by Hardwell, Kygo and Zedd and took place in extreme heat. A 27-year-old festivalgoer died and three others were admitted to hospital, one in a coma; police said drugs were involved.
As a result, the event has moved indoors, and will feature drug detection equipment at the entrance, metal detectors and sniffer dogs. Plentiful free water will be available this time.
The original Ultra Miami has also faced its fair share of problems, with repeated complaints about behaviour – it takes place in the city centre – and occasional calls to close it down; the fact that it is injecting US$100 million into Miami’s economy each year might have helped silence them.
That did not look to be a prospect after the first event in 1999. Ultra started as an offshoot of dance-music industry event the Winter Music Conference. The associated club nights started to draw a crowd to Miami, and Faibisch and co-founder Alex Omes thought there might be a market for a beachside festival. Electronic music was a very niche taste in the US in the 1990s, and there were a few scary financial moments.
“Personally, it was a leap of faith into what I believed in and loved,” says Faibisch. “Back then, it was always an inspiring experience for me whenever I attended an electronic music festival, as it was very rare that they would occur in Florida in the ’90s. I fell in love with everything about them.
“My passion for electronic music and the desire to create a unique festival in a format never done before in the US were driving forces behind producing the first Ultra festival. Although we occasionally faced financial situations where everything could have been lost, we were never willing to sacrifice either the quality of the brand or the experience associated with it.”
The music-loving public in the US finally caught up with them: Ultra moved to a bigger venue in 2006 and thereafter just kept expanding; the 2013 edition, over two weekends, attracted about 330,000 people.
“Our starting point was to establish the brand and the experience associated with it in Miami before we entertained the idea of global expansion,” says Faibisch.
“We always knew that electronic music had the potential for longevity. We have now seen this come to fruition over the past two decades, and of course the worldwide explosion of electronic music has played a significant part in Ultra’s story.”
Road to Ultra: Hong Kong, June 9, 1pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau, HK$1,080, HK$1,280