The Winter Music Conference that starts this weekend in Miami Beach is more than just the dance-music happening of the year; it is the year for the 6,500 people expected for the 17th annual around-the-clock party. With a soundtrack by the world's top DJs and electronic acts, the global convergence draws legions of late-night house heads looking for the latest revolution.
And local e-music entrepreneur Steven Moore planned to skip it. Like others who have watched the club-music scene balloon into a corporate industry over the past few years, Moore has grown tired of the no-holds-barred dance-floor summit.
The conference is "becoming less about the music and more about the hype," fears Moore, who runs the independent Underground Record Source store on Mills Avenue. The wildly sought-after, unofficial side of the conference isn't what it used to be, either. "I do not like the whole South Beach attitude," Moore says. "None of the clubs honor the conference badges. They charge ridiculous entrance fees, and drinks are $10 to $12 for a little plastic cup."
Moore's grumbling is typical as the conference embraces its growth, its influence becoming more powerful as enterprising forces elbow their way into formerly underground territory. The turntable-driven music that pushed warehouse partyers to the point of ecstasy during the just-say-no era is now big business. Kick drums and acid-soaked synth lines today provide the soundtrack for TV commercials, movie scores and video games. Electronic dance music is in the midst of a gold rush, attracting outsiders who are not always in the same groove as insiders.
But in the end, the siren song of the event proved too irresistible even to Moore. He'll grudgingly throw his fourth annual free poolside party at The Clevelander Hotel in the midst of the five-day conference, showcasing his local Phattraxx Records roster of talent alongside established European superstars. Moore's tradition is but one playful beat in the pulsing synergy that radiates from South Florida this time of year.
From humble beginnings in 1985, the Winter Music Conference (WMC) today is comparable in stature to the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, and the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, both of which have evolved into pivotal yearly showcases of mostly rock acts and labels.
Here is where deals are made, careers launched, hearts broken, projects promoted, vinyl traded and lucrative alliances established. Registered conventioneers can lap up insider info at more than 30 seminars and panels. Not surprisingly, many of these presentations are sparsely attended. Maybe that's because these are some of the few places where DJs aren't spinning.
Besides, the action is all around. Everywhere you looked at last year's WMC -- in conference rooms, in penthouse suites, on the beach, in the clubs and on the streets -- transactions were taking place. Scantily clad females passed out free samples of the latest energy drink. Promo teams painted the town with free vinyl and CD samplers. Stacks of four-color fliers touting performances and parties, both official and unofficial, covered surfaces like high-tech tablecloths. It all seemed to be spinning out of control, which is a good thing at a dance party.
But not everyone was so enchanted by the kaleidoscopic crush. Last year's hot rumor had the WMC on its way to Las Vegas, some saying it had outgrown its tropical paradise. In fact, this year's March 23-27 conference program has graduated from the beachfront Radisson Deauville Resort to the more spacious exhibit halls and meeting rooms of the Miami Beach Convention Center.
"The city of Miami Beach has totally embraced it and, as a matter of fact, had a big role in the conference moving to the Convention Center. ... They see it as a tourism revenue that also brings a lot of journalism to town, and they're pretty supportive," says Evelyn McDonnell, the pop music critic for The Miami Herald.
Still, she notes, "there are certain city commissioners that don't love the clubs here even though it's a big revenue source."
"Don't cry for dance music," says Susan Mainzer, publicist for Green Galactic in Los Angeles, which represents a respectable stable of established e-talent, including DJ Irene, Doc Martin and Orlando's Q-Burns Abstract Message. "It's just getting bigger, bigger and bigger." Like the industry itself, she says, this year's conference is hitting record numbers. "You can't get a flight. You can barely get a hotel room. That seems really healthy to me."
This will be Mainzer's seventh WMC, and she predicts it will be a "kinder, gentler" affair because of Sept. 11. "There's a lot of free parties, a lot of free events. People are just kind of dispensing with the whole idea of 'you-need-to-be-on-the-list' -- everyone is on the list."
And she means everyone.
"It is one of the biggest events in America," says UK-based John Digweed, one of the most respected DJs in the world, who has hit the WMC "five or six times." (He can't quite remember, a common side effect of the conference.) "It's recognized now as the place to go if you want to meet all the movers, the shakers and the in-people. From a DJ's point of view it's really important."
This year is extra-important for Digweed, who is half of the world's mightiest DJ duo. On the conference's opening day, Sasha & Digweed kick off the most ambitious house-music tour to date, "The Delta Heavy Spring 2002 Tour" at Miami Arena. The big-budget bonanza, which hits larger U.S. concert halls through May, is produced by the same folks who made the Warped Tour a household name and includes cutting-edge visuals by the masterminds behind the graphically intense credit sequence for the film "Seven." How underground is that?
"It's a contradiction, I know," admits Digweed. "But the music's still underground. ... This music still isn't getting played on MTV or radio very much."
"The Delta Heavy" tour is a far cry from the early days of the conference, which got its start as a friendly gathering of the tribes that serviced and supported the underground dance industry and its most fervent fans. The Miami location was key for wintering reps from the music's national epicenters -- San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Detroit. Europe's contingent, which still comprises a solid 20 percent of registrants, mixed well in the multicultural nightlife. Even back then, Orlando figured into the equation, quickly evolving into one of the world's major electronic music centers, thanks to house-warming pioneers DJ Icey, Kimball Collins, Dave Cannalte and Jimmy Van M.
Van M breaks into a laugh as he recalls his first pilgrimage to the WMC. "Eight years ago, I was one of 160 people there. It was more of a personal vibe," he says. Picture a bunch of buddies getting together to celebrate the music and have a good time. The event was barely a blip on the radar. "But it was really exciting," he says. "You could just do anything you wanted. It was so carefree, way different than it is now. ... We're an industry now, you know."
Van M knows. The former behind-the-scenes booking and promotions star emerged from the ranks of Orlando's underground and is now one of the fastest-rising DJ talents in the world, based in New York City. The proof is in his tour itinerary, which includes the prime opening slot on "The Delta Heavy" tour. Van M played a big part in breaking house music into the mainstream in the U.S. In 2001 he dropped the mixed CD "Bedrock" on Digweed's label of the same name.
But that doesn't mean Van M doesn't acknowledge the effects of growth and the resultant changes, even if he doesn't understand them.
"It's such a young industry. I think it's about to go into a little bit of a different direction," he says. "What it is exactly, I don't know yet. [But] I don't think it is in danger of collapsing."
It's easy to be so positive when you're already successful.
"If you're the one receiving the money, it is great," says local entrepreneur Moore, sitting in the back of his Mills Avenue store, frantically working the phones, tracking down a much-needed check from a distributor. "But if you are trying to get started and/or be an indie, it sucks."
Like many typical players in the field, Moore works the music in many ways. He owns a store that specializes in niche-market dance-music vinyl, which is more popular with DJs than the kids in the clubs. And as president of Phattraxx Records, he heads up a label known for its top-selling Orlando Breaks series, and national shelf-filler Subsonic Distribution.
But Moore is most excited about his latest endeavor, a half-hour TV program titled On Waxx , which debuts at 2 a.m. April 6 (that's late Friday night, early Saturday) on local channel Fox TV-35. The show attempts to capture the atmosphere and exuberance of dance clubs via live electronic and DJ performances. Moore -- who buys his airtime from the station and sells commercials to make his money back -- says he already has had an "incredible response" to the show, for which he envisions national syndication. And the TV program is a great way to promote his other endeavors, which he admits could use a boost.
Because he's an independent trying to raise his profile on his own terms, Moore doesn't see the irony in his new project. He's absolutely frustrated that many independent distributors, the backbone of the underground, have either sold out or have declared bankruptcy, taking money and product down with them.
When distribution dries up, independent dance-music stores like Moore's feel the sting of competition from megaretailers like Best Buy. What was formerly the domain of the indies -- the hard-to-find genre releases -- are now stocked on mainstream shelves.
"Fortunately we're becoming corporate, too," says Chaz Gray, CEO of Orlando-based e-music manufacturer and distributor Future Music Distribution. "We have a corporate structure with an indie mentality; that's always been the secret to our success. We now realize that a lot of the bulk of the dance CDs are no longer sold through the indies; they are sold through the major chains, and that's where it is going to be. We had to adapt and make sure that those stores are able to carry our product."
Future Music is a seasoned participant of the WMC, and Gray has a heavy workload planned for the week. "I mainly look for products to license for the U.S. -- that would be the No. 1 thing, to scout for any new unsigned talent."
Orlando live-electronic act Prophecy was that unsigned talent a few years back, a regional curiosity trying to catch the ear of somebody important -- a necessity in scoring lucrative bookings and contacts. This year, the pop-house band triumphantly returns for the third time to WMC's premier gig, the opening-day ULTRA festival at Bayfront Park, to perform alongside electronica's brightest stars -- The Crystal Method, BT, Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold and others -- for more than 25,000 expected fans.
Contacts that the band made years ago are obviously paying off. Prophecy still has not signed to a major label, but the bookings are coming fast and furious, and its expectations from the WMC are considerably different.
"To be honest, I'm kind of over the conference now," says Prophecy keyboardist-producer Mauricio Arroyave. "There's really no purpose for the conference this year; all of our deals have been done. We're playing ULTRA mainly because it's just a really fun party."
While Prophecy has made its mark, other up-and-comers haven't. And that's who Gray will be scouting -- those who embody the latest sounds in a shape-shifting industry that's a patchwork of regional styles.
"The new musical genre that is definitely coming up this year ... is electro," says Mainzer. Also on her checklist: "I've been really into tech house lately," which comes out of the U.K. and is stripped-down and synthetic sounding. And then there is the Detroit-born ass-n-titty style known as "ghetto tech," says Mainzer, "a cross between hip-hop bass and techno."
No matter the changing playing field, as gold is struck and the boundaries redrawn, the party continues. And no matter the cozy past or unknown future, the Winter Music Conference is an irresistible moment in dance music.