Any respectable electronic music fan in the world has heard of Ultra. Naturally, as Ultra is celebrating its 20 year anniversary this March, we chose to give the award for Magnetic's Industry Person of the Year to Ultra Co Founder, CEO, Chairman, Executive Producer and Talent Buyer for RESISTANCE, Russell Faibisch. His dedication to the industry is endless, having started the festival from humble beginnings on Miami Beach in 1999 and growing it to a successful international brand represented in 25 countries.
As Ultra was facing major losses in 2006 due to a slow down in the US scene, Faibisch took it overseas for the first time in Brazil and then went on to earn countless successes. The festival is now in the likes of China, Croatia, Japan, South Korea, South Africa and for the first time in Australia next year, summing it up to 6 continents.
For those of you that might be wondering how the festival got it's name, even that is rooted in the love of electronic music. The festivals namestake was inspired by Faibisch’s favorite band Depeche Mode who released their album Ultra in 1997.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Russell about the early days of Ultra, the impact of the Florida based act Rabbit in The Moon and then Tiësto & Carl Cox later on. In 2015, Ultra launched “RESISTANCE” debuting first in Buenos Aires and then Miami the following month. Along with partner Adam Russakoff, it is pretty safe to say Russell Faibisch is regarded by many as the number one booker in the world, putting together incredible line-ups every single year, with Tiësto headlining for 17 consecutive times, alongside legendary acts such as The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Kraftwerk, The Cure, New Order and more.
Clearly, Russell isn’t only about launching new brands and booking the best talent - he also takes the best ideas from abroad and brings them to the U.S.A. That’s exactly what he did with Arcadia and its giant spider structure originating from Glastonbury Festival in England. Since 2016 it has become a must see area of the festival along side the Carl Cox Megastructure.
As one of the most iconic duos of all time, Daft Punk has been rumored to headline in Miami for years, we had to ask him about it, see his response below!
What was it like putting together the first Ultra on the sand in Miami Beach 20 years ago? Did you feel like it was a new page of electronic music being written in any way?
Enthralling. It was incredibly intense, exciting and terrifying all wrapped into a single emotional, mental and physical rollercoaster. I was twenty-one years old and had left college to focus on promoting my events. No one believed in what I was doing except for a small, but amazing, group of us. It was very personal for me to succeed at getting the show off the ground, making it happen at all costs and ultimately launching the Ultra brand as a festival the way I had always envisioned it in the years prior. I’ll never forget the euphoria I felt that night. In that moment, I knew it was all worth it. Most in attendance that day also knew something special was brewing. It was an over-the-top electronic music festival on the beach with a plethora of international artists during Winter Music Conference in Miami. This was new for the U.S. The winds of change were blowing.
What were some of the early challenges and triumphs?
There were many challenges in the beginning, most were financial and others political. Plus, a turf war with a competing international festival brand had touched off. For the better part of the first ten years, millions upon millions were lost. This had a profound personal impact on me since I was responsible for sourcing funds each year. Family pressures were mounting as I was being pressed to leave the music industry and take over the family bail bonds business, a national enterprise that my father had built from scratch over three decades. Everyone was advising, and everything was signaling, to pull the plug. No one outside the organization believed that it either was, or would ever become, an actual and potentially profitable business.
Even though an easy solution would have been to scale everything down, not book great lineups bursting with the world’s best artists and reduce the quality of then available stage productions, I was never willing to sacrifice either the quality of the brand or the experience associated with it.
Our greatest triumphs have always been consistently stocking Ultra with the biggest lineups and cutting edge stage productions year after year. This always resulted in elation and satisfaction from fans, artists and from the industry at large.
Eventually, being able to make up for prior financial losses and allowing the business to operate debt-free was a huge personal triumph.
How did Ultra get its name? We heard something about an English band…
I was looking for the perfect name for my production company in 1997 and for months, I struggled with it. It was important that the name represented how I envisioned my events being presented. Beyond ordinary. Excessive. Extreme. Coincidently, or as fate would have it, during that same time my favorite band had just released their newest album…and, at that point, it all came together, Ultra.
During that very first Ultra Beach Music Festival, Rabbit In The Moon was headlining and came back many times after. We imagine you have a special relationship with them. How do you think they were instrumental in what Ultra has become today?
Rabbit In The Moon definitely plays an important role in Ultra’s history. During the mid-90’s there was a huge rave scene in Florida and RITM was the top U.S. live electronic music festival headlining act, with a very strong cult-following. They annually headlined the biggest electronic music festival happening in the eastern part of the country, Zen Fest. When they chose to play the first Ultra in 1999, it was a huge statement to our prospective fan base and it set the stage for what would eventually become the changing of the guard for Florida music festivals.
Ultra Worldwide is represented in 25 countries including festivals on 5 continents, now 6 with Australia coming up next year. It is quite a mind-blowing accomplishment. How do you choose those countries? Is security one of the main priorities?
Security and safety is always our number one priority at every one of our events. We utilize best practices and work hand in hand with countless partners in achieving those priorities, including local law enforcement agencies and related task forces, first responder groups and a blend of security professionals and experts. Today, Ultra is an adult brand, with a strict 18+ and zero tolerance drug policy.
Every destination is carefully and strategically chosen and every location has its own story and place in the Ultra Worldwide landscape.
We generally select regions that are alluring global destinations with a love for electronic music, locales around which one can plan an exotic trip, with Ultra being the main attraction. Checking out lions on an African safari, cage diving with great white sharks in Shark Alley, island hopping in the Adriatic Sea, visiting Mt. Fuji, the Mayan Temples, Machu Picchu or exploring the Island of the Gods are just some of the hundreds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can be had while attending Ultra Worldwide events.
I’ve spent time in every country in which a festival is based, researching local markets, nightlife and cultures, and scouting potential venues.
I also spend time getting to personally know all our local promoters and their teams. Every local promoter who is part of our Ultra Worldwide family is incredibly knowledgeable and has a unique understanding of their respective territory / territories.
Although bringing Ultra to the world was something I had always dreamt of, I never imagined, when I started, that six continents were even possible.
In 2006, the financial losses in Miami were becoming insurmountable. In order for the brand to continue and to avoid bankruptcy, I had to act. So, I decided to launch a global expansion and traveled to Brasil to set in motion the next phase of our business. Brasil was the first stop on a global journey that has since catapulted the Ultra Worldwide brand to where it is today.
What was it like putting together the first Ultra Music Festival in China last September? Did the local authorities embrace the idea? It is surely a growing market for electronic music but we assume there were some challenges given the political relationship between China and the U.S.
We’d been working on launching Ultra China for five years. It took a lot of patience and a commitment to our strategy to make it work. There were many challenges along the way. The combination of very strong teams in Asia and locally in China made the first festival edition of Ultra in Shanghai a huge success. We have great respect for their culture and are very excited to further our expansion in mainland China.
Focusing more on the Ultra Worldwide brand, how big is your organization now?
We’re headquartered in Miami. Through our international network, we also operate our business on a daily basis on six continents and in virtually every time zone imaginable. We are very hands-on with everything relating to our brands, managing everything in-house. Branding, artist programing & bookings, production, stage design, art design, web, tech, marketing, promo and logistics. Everything.
You are only as good as your team and the people you surround yourself with. Even though our core team is relatively lean, they are the most dedicated, talented and incredibly loyal group of individuals you can ask to be associated with. Many have been a part of this since either the first year or the early years. Most have been around for at least ten years.
No question it starts from the top, with my two partners Adam Russakoff and Charles Faibisch. Adam has been with the organization since 2006. He’s the talent buyer for Ultra, Director of Business Affairs and an Executive Producer.
We work together on the day-to-day operations of the festival business, making quite the dynamic tandem. My brother, Charlie, works behind the scenes mostly and is a visionary in his own right. He’s been a part of this since the beginning when he was in high school passing out Ultra flyers in the late 90s. He is the Director of Merchandising and is also an Executive Producer. Our Production Director and Co-Producer Ray Steinman has also been involved since the early 2000’s. He is a superstar.
Tiësto once said that Ultra’s super production made a big impact on his career. What do you think he meant by that exactly? Do you think you have had the same impact on other artists as well?
If anyone can make that statement, it is Tiësto. He has played Ultra Miami’s Main Stage for 17 consecutive years (except in 2006 when he wasn’t able to make it over that March). The Ultra Miami event takes place at the beginning of the annual festival season, and all eyes around the world from this scene are watching, whether in person or online. It has an undeniable impact on an artist’s career for the year ahead. Ultra’s Main Stage productions are massive, unique and state-of-the-art. Our stage productions are designed to specifically showcase the artists and their performances. DJs are this generation’s rock stars and Ultra Miami gives them the ultimate platform to demonstrate that to the world.
The new RESISTANCE stage and Arcadia with its giant spider have definitely brought something amazing in Miami for the last couple of years. It gives a futuristic feel and a show fans surely appreciate. Any other similar project in the making you would like to share?
The RESISTANCE brand first debuted as the new official underground stage of Ultra Worldwide at the Ultra Buenos Aires festival in 2015. It then made a big splash in Miami the following month with a production collaboration with Arcadia, centered around their Afterburner Stage. The following year we brought Arcadia’s award-winning Spider Stage from England, marking the first time it has ever been to the U.S. Prior to that, it had previously been seen at Glastonbury, where I first discovered it years earlier.
Since then, RESISTANCE has taken on its own identity and has expanded to all corners of the globe. This includes expanding to two stages at Ultra Miami featuring two massive productions comprised of the Arcadia Spider and the Carl Cox Megastructure. It has become a festival within the festival. RESISTANCE is my passion project and my focus is to continue the RESISTANCE evolution with an emphasis on Ibiza. We debuted a monumental two-month Ibiza residency at Privilege over the summer of 2017, transforming the venue like it’s never been seen before by recreating the grandiose Miami Megastructure stage production inside the world’s biggest club.
If you had the chance to do another festival that focused on another genre of music what would it be?
I have less than zero interest in producing a festival outside of the electronic music genre that is not related to our brands. I do what I do because of my love and passion for the music and for our brands. Without that, being an independent festival promoter would not be enticing.
Over the last four years the big business of festivals has become very corporate with all the big players buying up the strong brands. How and why have you stayed independent for so long? Would you ever consider selling to the right buyer?
We have remained independent because we insist on having total control over our business decisions, strategies, branding, creativity and vision. We have never considered selling. We love it too much. It’s our life’s work. It’s our legacy.
It is pretty clear EDM wouldn’t be what it is today without Ultra. What do you say to those who think EDM –and Ultra has gone too commercial, too mainstream? Was creating the new RESISTANCE brand an aim to refocus on something more underground?
In regards to Ultra, anyone who thinks that is unaware of the festival’s historic lineups. While our Main Stage features artists who are on the mainstream end of the electronic music spectrum and who can fill the main stage with tens of thousands of fans, what makes the festival complete and unique is our incredible programming of sub electronic music genres on the other stages over the last 20 years. The live stages, the underground stages, the best in Trance, House, Trap, Breakbeat, Drum & Bass, Dubstep and so many other sub genres in between have always been heavily represented on Ultra’s stages since its inception.
In addition to having just about every iconic electronic music live headliner perform over the years, such as The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Justice, Kraftwerk, Underworld, LCD Soundsytem, Deadmau5, Faithless, Jack U, Empire of the Sun and Major Lazer, we’ve also programed iconic cross-over acts into the lineups, including The Cure, The Killers, The Weeknd, New Order, Snoop Dogg, Duran Duran, Cyrpus Hill, Ice Cube, The Black Eyed Peas and more...
Long before RESISTANCE, in 2005 Carl Cox, Lynn Cosgrave and myself collaborated to start the Carl Cox & Friends Arena at Ultra Miami. It became one of the main attractions of the festival for twelve years. Last year it transitioned into the RESISTANCE Carl Cox Megastructure. Since 2001, we’ve also had Twilo, Space Ibiza, Amnesia Ibiza, Circoloco, DJ Mag and Mixmag host underground stages.
We’re sure you had that question in the past but can we hope for a Daft Punk performance at Ultra one day?
We would love nothing more than to have the honor of them headlining our festival one day.
There was a Madonna episode when she made an appearance while Avicii was playing. Her statement on stage ended up more than controversial, the whole city of Miami, and the world, was talking about it. What are your thoughts about that, and how did it affect the Ultra brand?
It’s no secret that Madonna is controversial but it is also equally undeniable that she is the ultimate entertainer/artist/performer and is a legend. That said, having built a festival over the years that Madonna then wanted to be a part of speaks volumes for the brand.
Ultra is going to celebrate its 20th Anniversary in March 2018. Can we expect any surprises? Any secret you can share with us?
Yes, something very big is in the works! Every year we pride ourselves on delivering for our fans special unannounced performances and surprises. But for the big 20th Anniversary, we knew we had to deliver something huge. Something unique that can only be seen at Ultra. It is completely under wraps. The only thing I can say is to Expect The Unexpected.
After 20+ years in this business, do you ever consider hanging it up and leaving on a high note or are you in this for another 20 years?
Without a doubt, I’m in this for another twenty years. Luckily, I started when I was young. I have more to accomplish and I’m just getting started...