Any normal year, ravers and EDM heads would descend on Bayfront Park in Miami in droves in late March. They’d be flocking to Ultra Music Festival to dance their faces off for an entire weekend, probably rolling the whole time. But 2020 is not a normal year. Thanks to the novel coronavirus infecting people in droves across the globe, Ultra was cancelled for the first time in 22 years.
The first week of March, the City of Miami directed Ultra to postpone, after Florida’s Governor declared a public health emergency. So the festival migrated online, announcing that a “digital concert” would stream on SiriusXM. The “Ultra Virtual Audio Festival” was basically radio but branded as something more: a weekend marathon of live, streaming DJ sets.
Ultranauts, as they’re known in the EDM community, weren’t enthused, and a day after the “virtual festival” was publicized, groups popped up on social media calling for diehards to “Storm Ultra 2020, They Can’t Quarantine All of Us” (as the name of one Facebook event put it). “Bring your wireless speakers, friends, hydration packs, kandi, flags and PLUR vibes to Bayfront park,” the event moderator posted. “Facemasks encouraged.” More than 1,000 would-be attendees replied saying they were “interested” before Facebook shut it down. “It turns out they really can quarantine us all,” one person commented.
The Ultra Virtual Audio Festival was beamed to would-be ravers on a limited-run SiriusXM channel starting Friday, March 20. It featured DJ sets from artists who were supposed to perform at the canceled Miami festival, like Armin van Buuren, Afrojack, Martin Garrix and Major Lazer.
"With the postponement of beloved events, necessary changes in people’s everyday life, and need for social distancing, we know our listeners are seeking a sense of community more than ever," SiriusXM president and chief content officer Scott Greenstein said in a statement. "To encourage that, we are pleased to be working with Ultra Music Festival to provide our listeners with this virtual audio festival featuring the [...] biggest names in dance music."
Unfortunately, as The Daily Beast pointed out, Ultra’s attempt at livestreaming was a “depressing” disaster. “The Ultra Virtual Audio Festival wasn’t a feat of hustle culture or selling out. It was, simply, radio,” wrote reporter Tarpley Hitt. “No lasers or high-production; not even new production. (Fans complained on Reddit that some of the sets were recycled recordings from earlier years).”
The lackluster show is especially disappointing considering that Ultra isn’t new to this. SiriusXM has been broadcasting from the festival for 15 years; Ultra has been livestreaming since 2012 and broadcasting on Twitch since 2015. Plus, the EDM juggernaut broadcasts on FM radio to 22 million weekly listeners in 62 different countries.
At least some people in Miami had a lit time getting down to the livestreams in their respective apartments. (There are a lot of other dance streams to get into that are far better than Ultra’s Major Lazer set if you like listening to electronica while you work, exercise, clean or whatever.)
The “meh” quality of this year’s Ultra broadcast goes beyond having shoddy production value. And say what you will about EDM being the soundtrack of Silicon Valley, mythic land of ice-cold capitalism. Dance music, to be really transcendent, requires one very essential ingredient: other human beings to groove with.