Why Ultra Music Festival needs a new approach


By the Festival Lawyer //

By just about every objective marker this year’s edition of Ultra Music Festival in Miami was a massive success. Over 165,000 people attended the event. The 2014 Ultra Live Stream of the event had 9.7 million views from more than 190 countries. Financially the festival was thought to bring in about 200 million dollars of revenue for the city of Miami.

However, the festival also had a number of significant problems. First, a security guard was left in serious medical condition after being trampled during a gatecrashing incident. Then, one of the attendees, 21-year-old Adonis Espoco, died after being taken out from the festival when thought to be too drunk and left in a car to “sleep it off.” In addition, over 80 people were arrested and 153 people were treated by paramedics during the event.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff both immediately called for Ultra to be banned. In fact, hearings are scheduled on this matter on April 24th. It’s turning into a legal battle (most things these days do) due to the fact that Ultra has a contract that allows them to keep putting on the festival until 2018.

The mayor and his team’s legal argument seems to be that the festival breached their contract with the city by:

1) Ignoring warnings from the police that additional fencing was needed, and
2) Failing to provide adequate security and promoting “drug use, graffiti and other crimes” at the festival.


Ultra’s main response to the criticism so far has been to point out the extent of their security preparations. They had 257 police officers (49 more than last year); 18 undercover detail officers (including Homeland security and DEA officers) and made significant upgrades in terms of safety issues from last year. They also promised to conduct a thorough review of their safety procedures and stated they were open to additional security measures next year.

Some folks have suggested that there are practical changes that could help solve some of Ultra’s problems.

For example, some have argued that Ultra’s main problem is its location. It is extremely cool that a major music festival is located in the downtown area. And that location is part of why the festival has such a direct impact financially on the city. But having the festival in the middle of the downtown core creates all kinds of problems that would be avoided by having the festival at a more remote location.

Others have said that Ultra’s “all-ages” admittance policy is to blame. These people argue that Ultra would be a less chaotic, safer event if it were made into an 18 and older or 21 and older event.

These are all things that should be discussed. But neither the Mayor nor Ultra’s proposal answers the real question. How do we make future Ultra festivals a better, happier festival for both attendees and city residents?

In other words, is it possible to change the “culture” of the festival itself?


There are several problems with just telling festivals to “beef up security” whenever an incident happens. For one thing, this year’s Ultra already had numerous complaints of rude, inappropriate, unprofessional or overly aggressive behavior by security officers. Also, adding more security by itself just adds to an “Us vs. Them” mentality between partygoers and police officers. (Remember all the chaos that happened at Lightning in a Bottle last year when Riverside’s “Special Investigation Bureau” decided to start doing undercover drug sales and arresting attendees?)

Oh and by the way, it doesn’t work. I mean, is there anyone out there who seriously thinks adding 10, 20 or a 100 more police officers will keep all illegal drugs out of Ultra next year?

As I’ve suggested in prior articles, I think the answer is to address the issue of drugs head-on. By that I mean integrating drug education and a “harm reduction” approach to the issue of drug use at festivals.


“Harm Reduction” is an alternative public health philosophy that encourages policy choices at raves and fests that reduce the risks associated with the use of MDMA or other drugs. The idea is to recognize the reality that drugs are going to be present at the modern music festival and to provide drug education, drug testing and other resources to help people make smarter choices.

Harm reduction is the norm in European festivals and has the advantage of a proven track record of success in making festivals safer. So why isn’t it the norm here?

Well, one thing that the current drug laws are excellent at is making promoters and organizers extremely nervous about taking any steps that might be seen as “encouraging drug use”.

Instead festivals have to play the, “I’m shocked, absolutely shocked that drugs are being used in here” game like Captain Renault being shocked by the gambling going on in Rick’s Café.

In fact, I was at a conference not too long ago where an insurance lawyer mentioned as part of his talk that basically it was better from an insurance liability standpoint to have someone die at your festival and be able to point to your “zero tolerance” drug policies than to open yourself up to criminal and civil liability by talking openly about drugs and testing them. My reaction can be seen below:


In other words, these types of changes won’t come about unless the festival and Electronic Music Community itself demands that harm reduction services be made a part of every festival that would benefit from it.


In the last week I’ve had the opportunity to exchange ideas with a coalition of groups who are coming together to push for positive change in how we handle the issues of drugs, alcohol and personal safety at music festivals.

The group issued a press release today calling for the following:
1) Integrating “event industry safety best practices” into future festivals
2) Addressing alcohol and other drug use through education and onsite harm reduction rather than by just increasing law enforcement and security, and
3) Encouraging festivalgoers themselves to be responsible for their own and other attendee’s safety.

As the coalition stated in its press release:

Our coalition has come together to advocate for the EDM community. Large festivals are a crucial way for young people to gather together, socialize, and hear the music they love,” says Monica Salazar of the Electronic Music Alliance, a group that promotes social involvement among EDM fans. “Partygoers, the promoters and the host city all have a responsibility to work together to create safe and fun environments.

Coalition members include the Electronic Music Alliance, The Drug Policy Alliance, DanceSafe, MARS, The Zendo Project, AFP Creative and some guy named The Festival Lawyer.

Please take a minute to read the coalition’s press release. Share it with your festival crew, reshare it on social media and lend the coalition your ideas and support.


Honestly, what happened to the security guard in this case is inexcusable. But if you were on social media or watched the Ultra webcast you know that it was only part of what created the overall impression that the entire festival was a chaotic mess.

Some pictures of pretty over the top behavior went viral on social media. (Writer’s note – No I’m not going to link to those pictures. Suffice to say they were in the “Caligula would tell you to tone it down” category of photographs.) Also, the webcast itself captured a lot of images of pretty crazy behavior by festivalgoers.

You’ve heard me preach in this column before that I strongly believe that safety at a festival/rave is everyone’s responsibility. Not just the promoters or the organizers, but the attendees themselves. I am a huge fan of promoting positivity and “good vibes” among our fellow festivalgoers.

If you’ve been to a few festivals you know how important the “vibe” of the crowd can be. A fun, positive, enthusiastic crowd that is looking out for each other can make even a mediocre festival great. On the other hand, a crowd that is consistently determined to get as crazy as possible on drugs, fight, and otherwise create mayhem makes even a great festival ultimately not worth saving.

So that is why the coalition is also calling on attendees to take a “Party Pledge”. It calls on Festivalgoers to engage in responsible festival going and to encourage others to take this philosophy of caring for others and positivity to ALL festivals.

The pledge reads as follows:

We promise to look out for our festival buddies, and we support festivals that implement harm reduction practices. We promise to respect the clubs, venues, and festival grounds we use, and respect the staff that manages them. We are committed to calling out behavior that promotes an unsafe or uncomfortable environment for others. We have zero tolerance for violence. We want our community to be safe, proud, and fun, and welcome in cities and venues worldwide!!


If you’ve read any of my past columns you know that I think that some of the best aspects of human nature (play, inclusion, joy, love) are demonstrated at festivals and raves.

People sometimes think that being “responsible” is somehow intruding on their fun. But really it is just a recognition that we are all in this together and that together we can make things better and have more fun. In fact, I call making a commitment to be responsible for your friend’s safety at a festival the “Golden Rule” of being a good Festival Buddy.

Ultimately, we need to change the culture of these events. Ultra should stay in Miami. But a better, safer Ultra that promotes positivity and fun. If you believe in the same thing you can take the pledge here.



  1. This post provides clear idea for the new users of blogging, that actually how to do

  2. Isn’t it sad that our society is so focused on minimizing corporate risk rather than promoting safety, awareness, and health for individuals? It’s disgusting to even be concerned about insurance liability when lives are at risk… Great post! We really could learn a lot from the UK when it comes to education and harm reduction at these events.

  3. Vaffa Nculo says:

    idiotic article.

  4. Reblogged this on Terry Gotham and commented:
    This is something I’ve been hoping happens for years. Half a dozen advocacy & harm reduction groups are coming together to fight on behalf of you, the dancer/attendee. When the festivals throw up their hands and pretend there’s nothing they can do about kids making bad decisions, it seems it’s fallen to us, the attendees to look out for each other and educate one another while enjoying ourselves. I’ve taken the pledge. Have you?


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