Flying back to New York from Miami’s Ultra Music Festival last week, I mainly spent my time saying goodbye to my flip-flops. As I was grudgingly untangling my scarf I couldn’t help but relive this last episode in my track record as an EDM festival enthusiast. While the general consensus suggests the 2014 US EDM festival season is off to a rocky start, my personal Ultra Music Festival experience has been one of contrasts and surprises.
Let me explain by comparing the offline, physical experience of the festival with the online, socially connected universe that has settled around it. Having attended the latest editions of Tomorrowland/world, Coachella and Electric Zoo, I was delighted with more – more immersive experiences, more feelings of connectedness, more stories born on festival grounds that echo across the social media universe. In this sense, the Tomorrowland/world franchises have marked the epitome of festival adventure in my opinion, reaching the apex of what is physically possible in terms of festival branding and activation surrounding individual DJ sets. They embody, in my opinion, the concept of ‘party-cipation’.
In contrast, Ultra has given me great music moments – my personal favorites include the Chainsmokers, ToomanyDJs and Hardwell – but has left me hanging when it comes to the actual festival adventure. And here is why.
The element I missed the most was the red thread that connects it all – the ‘party-cipation’ story. Tomorrowland/world is an example which is hard to top when it comes to storytelling. But beyond that, it creates an atmosphere of immersion, togetherness and friendship that I truly missed in my Ultra experience. When two Swedish girls approached our group, timidly asking for a drink (they were badged as 21+ but looked a little battered and declared themselves broke), we didn’t blink and all went for a beer together. Their surprise at our friendliness shocked me. What’s the big deal, really? How much can you possibly regret taking a few bucks out of your budget for someone you don’t know? On the contrary – meeting new people over a refreshing beverage has always been a great way to kick off lasting festival friendships for our group.
What truly surprised me about Ultra is not the offline experience it offers, but the online universe it has designed, which in my opinion has blown this 3-day event out of the water in terms of global impact.
1. The Ultra app
Festival apps are nothing new. But the Ultra service went one step further by adding 2 very useful elements: social calendars and external app integration.
- Social calendars: the app features ‘Most liked’ and ‘Most scheduled’ DJ sets, which can help to find best performances after the event, but also to make decisions on what to attend at the festival. Especially when the total number of performances is somewhere in the hundreds.
- External app integration: nothing is more annoying than missing out on unforgettable moments just because you’re busy juggling your status updates, tweets and Instagrams. The Ultra app not only offers an integrated news & social feed (#ultra2014), it also includes a GroupMe login directly on the platform. Less tapping, more enjoying. A no-brain.
2. The OverSharing phenomenon
The light effects on every stage seamlessly flowed into an ocean of lit-up screens hovering over the dancing crowd. Were people taking pictures? Duh. Were they filming performances? Obvi. But I have never seen so many people staring back from the screens: there were Skype calls and Facetime sessions everywhere I looked.
3. The #FOMO antidote
Ultra was prepared for the frustrated outcry of those not lucky enough to attend the festival in real life. A live streaming page was set up – but beyond that, it was also advertised in advance. Personally, I appreciate this effort at making people feel part of the experience even from far away.
4. The Live Set Tsunami
Ultra’s performances have already left their fluorescent traces on every music app and video platform out there and attendees have barely had the chance to catch up on sleep. This year, Ultra also set up a dedicated soundcloud account currently featuring about 40 live sets. The top six sets have already racked up more plays than the number of actual festival visitors (roughly 180K vs. 160K).
Born in 1999, Ultra is the brainchild of local entrepreneur Russell Faibisch, who dedicated the past 15 years of his life to turning this crown of Miami nightlife into a global EDM sensation. Today, it spans the globe with 11 yearly editions in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
This truly international identity is most likely what gave Ultra the head start in levering the power of social connectedness. I wonder, however, whether this identity is also what caused the sensation of anonymity and disconnectedness I experienced.
How can the ‘party-cipation’ feeling be strengthened in the future, in order to bring offline on par with online? The key, in my opinion, lies in a festival’s core brand values. Coachella and Tomorrowland are both strongly rooted in local realities. Tomorrowland’s brand message was successfully translated to the Tomorrowworld edition introduced in Atlanta last year.
I’m curious to see what other festivals will bring to the table of social trends over the course of 2014. Stay tuned!