Ultra Music Festival invades Europe
It’s just gone midnight in midsummer Croatia and Stadion Poljud, home of Croatian football team Hajduk Split, has been thumping to electronic beats for the best part of eight hours already. There isn’t one part of the immediate area that has escaped the vibrations coming from the main arena’s goliath speakers, including the makeshift green room backstage.
Over the past two days, some of the biggest DJs in the world have relaxed on the sofas here, and there aren’t many that come much bigger than Dutch Trance superstar Armin Van Buuren. Despite being one of the headliners of the first-ever Ultra Europe, the Dutchman seems unfazed by the prospect of the mammoth crowd awaiting him. “I could be out there dancing, which is what I used to do,” he says.
Indeed, Armin refuses to buy into the hype surrounding him, dismissing out-of-hand the ‘god-like’ tag that has been bestowed upon him over a career spanning the best part of two decades.
“I don’t really consider myself to be god-like at all – I find that a little uncomfortable actually,” he reveals. “It feels amazing to know that so many people like what you do, but I want to stress that I feel I’m a fan first and foremost of this music.”
Although admirable, his sentiments are likely to be lost on the 100,000-odd partygoers drawn to this small, and beautiful, corner of the Adriatic coastline for a weekend of sun, sea and synths, courtesy of the festival behemoth, Ultra.
This is the award-winning Ultra’s first foray into the European major festival market. Although they have been resident in Ibiza since 2007, it is however nothing on a par with the set up here, which has understandably drawn in fans from more than 75 countries. It is evident that the American organisers, who have seen their brand grow from a one-day event on South Beach, Miami in 1999 to a calendar-defining party now at home on four continents, have gone all-out for the start of their five-year stint in Croatia.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the festival’s publicity material, which was unable to accommodate the likes of Fedde Le Grand and Sander van Doorn amongst the headline names. Despite being world-renowned DJs, Armin’s compatriots instead found themselves advertised in the area of the promotional poster more often associated with supporting acts.
Both Fedde and Sander have been in the business for nearly a decade respectively, and both seem happy to be “kind of in the middle”, as they each put it in separate interviews – not quite veterans, but also not the flavours-of-the-month either.
“I think it’s a nice position to be in,” said Fedde, who has enjoyed a string of international hits, including ‘Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit’ (2006) and ‘Let Me Think About It’ (2007). Indeed, both seem happy to impart their musical wisdom upon the new generation of DJs and producers emerging from the so-called ‘EDM’ global phenomenon.
“Last year I produced ‘Kangaroo’ with a young producer called Julian Jordan. I’m guiding him right now and it’s really working out well. It’s great to see all these kids popping up left, right and centre,” said Sander.
Promotional material aside, the line-up, crowd-size and stadium setting of Ultra Europe shows just how far Dance music has come, and indeed what it has become, particularly in recent years alone. It is relatively evident that since settling in the mainstream, Dance music (or ‘EDM’) has been subject to strong commercial forces.
In between the industrial-scale pyrotechnics and gigantic screens with flashing graphics, the DJs were regularly joined on stage by a WWE-like MC and several bikini-clad dancers. You couldn’t help but feel at times that the whole set-up was very Americanised, both in terms of music policy and production values.
The 700,000 people watching the festivities online, will no doubt have been impressed by the sensory feast delivered down their broadband connections but this wasn’t the long-established European understanding of what Dance music is and what it represents.
Sets from otherwise progressive artists tended to veer towards more Electro House, something I can only guess helped to bring the continuity and consistency of the festival together. But it appeared, as an outsider, that the organisers had had this in the back of their mind from the early planning stages.
If random electro breakdowns and flame-throwing Tron dancers weren’t your thing, there was also a comparatively more modest, underground and intimate stage in the immediate grounds of the stadium, hosted by the legendary Carl Cox. Here, festival-goers could enjoy sets from the likes of Luciano, Marco Carola and the man himself, from sunset to sunrise.
“Five years ago I wouldn’t have been playing Ultra festivals. The mainstream, bigger, noisier, kind of music getting big has automatically shifted the whole industry up a level. So now, although we’re not as big as the headliners, it’s still brought us up to having stages and being able to do what we do to different audiences, so I appreciate it,” reflected Jonny White, one half of underground duo Art Department.
London-based Jon Rundell, whose remix of Devilfish & Roel Salemink’s ‘Man Alive’ stormed the Beatport techno and mainstream charts, also took to the stage over the two days in Split. Having recently been taken under the wing of Carl, he’s enjoying a busy year of gigs, festivals, residencies and studio time. “Musically, it’s very strong out there for what we do,” Jon said.
If you look past the glitz and glamour of the setup, Ultra nevertheless remains at its core a music festival – and in an increasingly crowded market, festivals need unique selling points. What sets this one apart from its competitors is that following two days in Split, the entire festival moved to a new location.
Despite many revellers looking slightly worse for wear at this point, the hour-long ferry journey to the sun-drenched island of Hvar took the party pool-side at the Grand Amfora Hotel. With sets from acts including Nervo and Steve Aoki blasting over the luxury pool from a specially-constructed stage, it was clear that there would be no let-up in the ‘EDM’ extravagance laid on by the festival’s organisers.
As a debut outing, you couldn’t help but admire the resources that the organisers had put into the whole event. In a European festival market, which already counts Creamfields and Tomorrowland as two of many heavyweight dance fixtures alone, Ultra needed a grand entrance, and they certainly delivered just that.
At times however, you couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the Miami festival just in a different location but while there was an air of ‘American franchise’ about it there was no doubting for a first outing they had succeeded in what they set out to do.Tagged in: Afrojack, Armin Van Buuren, Creamfields, Knife Party, Porter Robinson, Tomorrowland, Ultra Music Festival
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