After 25 Years, The Winter Music Conference Heats Up

deadmau5

The house music DJ deadmau5 (pronounced "dead mouse") performs at the Ultra Music Festival, the accompanying concert event to the Winter Music Conference, in 2009. He is headlining this year at Ultra. Drew "Rukes" Ressler/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Drew "Rukes" Ressler/Flickr

Hot on the heels of South by Southwest comes different type of music festival: the Winter Music Conference.

And it is "hot." The WMC is all about dance music, and it's taking place this week in Miami.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conference — one of the largest music industry gatherings in the world. Today, the WMC attracts the likes of P. Diddy and the Black Eyed Peas. But it didn't start that way.

The Early Days

In 1985 DJs and record producers Luis Possenti and Bill Kelly held a meeting of about 80 dance music industry insiders at a Marriott hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Winter Music Conference has grown exponentially, now hosting over 70,000 attendees in Miami's South Beach. Dance music, as a genre, had been established over a decade before the Winter Music Conference began, by a crowd that sought an escape from the pretension of mainstream club life at the time.

Hear The Music

A preview of artists appearing at this year's Winter Music Conference/Ultra Music Festival:

"I would trace everything back, really, to disco," says Frank Broughton. He's the co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, a book that chronicles the role of the DJ in the 20th century. "Disco is hugely important, because that's really when making records specifically for a club became a popular pursuit, if you like. Before that there had been bands making records, obviously, you could dance to, but essentially they had been aiming for radio."

Broughton also says dance music's roots are in the gay black community of New York City.

"In the '60s, nightclubs were a lot about the jet set and being glitzy and stepping front of a velvet rope," he says. "And then, especially in New York there was a crash at the end of the '60s. Vietnam was dragging on, there was the oil crisis, and things like this. Disco was a form of escapism, and it was also very much tied in with gay liberation. If you pinpoint the moment where New York nightlife really exploded, you could say arguably that it was the 1969 Stonewall Riots."

Around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, a DJ named Francis Grasso was revolutionizing the role of the DJ, using a technique called beat-matching, or mixing, to string songs together into one uninterrupted body of music, played the whole night long. A good DJ can create a smooth transition from one piece to the next by synchronizing the beats of two songs.

Spring Break

Over the years, the music and the scene have changed — and so has the Winter Music Conference, according to Broughton.

"The Winter Music Conference used to be timed to coincide with the White Party, which is a big gay circuit party," Broughton says. "And so originally, it was much more tied in with that gay underground, which is an essential part of the old school dance music industry. But then, I think it was about five years ago, they retimed it to coincide with spring break, and that totally changed the entire complexion of the event. And some would say not for the best."

DJ and producer Sharam, of the Grammy Award-winning duo Deep Dish, doesn't necessarily agree.

"You get an influx of students coming into South Florida for spring break, so it was like a breeding ground to educate people and inform people about dance music and electronic music," Sharam says.

Sharam has been going to the Winter Music Conference for over 15 years. In contrast, up-and-coming DJ Gina Turner is attending this year's Winter Music Conference as a producer for the first time.

"I'm just excited to see what's going to happen in the next couple years with dance music and pop music," Turner says. "Like, for example: I know straight house music producers working very closely with labels like Atlantic or Interscope. So it's like hard-core dance meets serious pop."

The idea of a mainstream dance music may contradict the underground, low-profile nature of its beginnings. But it's no coincidence that once again, in a time of war and recession, people just want to dance.

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