By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - When it was launched more than a decade ago the Ultra Music Festival was a low budget, one-day affair for a few thousand electronic dance music fans.
It has since grown into a massive, two weekend-long party expected to attract 300,000 participants from around the globe paying $300 for a three-day pass.
The lineup of the festival, which opened on Friday afternoon, includes dozens of the world's top DJs, including David Guetta, deadmau5, and Swedish House Mafia, some who are paid tens of thousands of dollars to play for as little as an hour.
Electronic dance music, known as EDM, has become one of the world's most popular genres as DJs and pop artists collaborate, drawing massive crowds to live shows as well as the attention of investors and companies eager to tap into its money-making potential.
It coincides with the annual Winter Music Conference, an EDM industry gathering of DJs, producers and concert promoters, for a weekend of seminars and pool parties. The two events create one of the world's largest dance music gatherings.
An economic impact report commissioned by Ultra's organizers claimed it supported nearly 1,000 jobs and injected $79 million into the Miami economy.
Ultra in recent years has also launched several satellite festivals around the world, including ones in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
"In 2006 we got some interest to take it to Brazil," said Russell Faibisch, co-founder of Ultra which launched the first festival in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in 2008.
"Now we're focused on doing the festival in Sao Paulo every year." Ultra has since also expanded, staging events in Argentina and Chile.
Along with rising into the mainstream, electronic music in Latin America has also become popular due to the Internet's growth and the ability for would-be music producers to do on their laptop what once required expensive studio equipment.
"The bedroom producer is more enabled than ever," said Diego Martinelli, co-founder of Safe, which produces electronic music events in Miami throughout the year.
Promoters and event producers have also been staging larger shows, with eye-popping production that includes powerful, multicolored lasers, strobe lights and smoke machines.
ANYONE SEEN MOLLY?
The rising popularity of EDM has also attracted the attention of law enforcement due to its association with amphetamine drugs such as Ecstasy, which fans say enhances their enjoyment of the music.
The latest innovation dubbed 'Molly,' is a refined form of Ecstasy, and gets its name from the MDMA molecule, which creates feelings of euphoria and gives partiers the energy to dance through sunrise.
At last years' Ultra, pop diva Madonna made a surprise appearance causing a stir when she called out to the audience; "How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?"
Despite claims that it's the "purer" form of Ecstasy, researchers at the University of Miami say it's no safer than Ecstasy tablets, which can be adulterated with various other chemicals, including the powerful stimulant methamphetamine.
It "can cause hemorrhages in the brain in young healthy people that have no other conditions that would predispose them to having hemorrhages," said Dr. Ronald Benveniste of the University of Miami's medical school.
Patients who suffer brain hemorrhages after using drugs often do so due to mixing substances. Yet with Molly "the drug itself is sufficient to cause hemorrhages," Benveniste said.
Miami police Lt. Dan Kerr said there will be undercover officers in the crowd during Ultra as "it's a natural draw" for drug dealers.
Labeling Molly as "pure" is misleading, he warned. "They think it's better and gives a better, cleaner high," Kerr said. "It's an unregulated and unlicensed drug, so you don't know what you are getting."
(Additional reporting by David Adams; editing by Andrew Hay)