Barcelona’s Sónar festival today announced the cities and dates for five separate events taking place in the first half of 2013, including the 20th-anniversary edition of the festival in its home base in Barcelona, where Kraftwerk will present a new 3D show.
In February, Sónar travels to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the first time with a two-night event including James Blake, Squarepusher, Modeselektor, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and other staples of the festival’s history. March, April, and May will see the organization make return visits to Cape Town, Tokyo, and São Paolo for two-night engagements in each city. Finally, from June 13–15, Sónar will take place in its customary venues in the Catalan capital, occupying the MACBA/CCCB museum complex by day and the sprawling Fira Gran Via II convention center by night. Along with Kraftwerk, early confirmations to the lineup include Pet Shop Boys, Two Door Cinema Club, Hot Natured, Lindstrom and Todd Terje, Vatican Shadow, Bradien and Eduard Escoffet, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. (No word on whether a holographic Stockhausen will accompany Kraftwerk, although one can always hope.)
I recently spoke to Sónar co-organizers Ricard Robles and Enric Palau about the development of the festival over 20 years, the political fallout from the Madrid Arena disaster, and the festival’s plans for North America in 2013, following this year’s multi-city tour. Read on for the interview, and check Sónar’s website to see a video presenting the first glimpse of the festival’s visual theme for 2013. It’s unclear what it is, exactly, but calisthenics and Communism both seem to figure prominently.
Are there any repercussions for Sónar after the Madrid Arena disaster?
RICARD ROBLES: At the moment, no. There’s a lot of noise in the media, because behind all of this, there’s a failure of management — both on the part of the organizer, whom they’re investigating now, and also on the part of the government of Madrid. It’s obvious that the city was using a space that wasn’t up to code, and it’s evident that there are problems in the management of the event that implicate everyone involved. So now, with the political situation we have in Spain, any event that creates controversy or reveals corruption on the part of the administration generates a lot of noise and a lot of interest. At the moment, this hasn’t affected the day-to-day life of organizers and promoters in Spain. In part that’s because the laws differ by region, and in Catalonia we already have the strictest regulations regarding event security.
So the fact that the Madrid mayor is prohibiting “macrofiestas” doesn’t affect you?
RR: That’s a municipal issue for Madrid, not something that has to do with the national government.
When Sónar began, 20 years ago, was it difficult to convince the local government that your proposal was different from the rave scene?
RR: No, quite to the contrary. The phenomenon that you’re seeing with EDM, especially in North America, is already well known in Spain. Twenty years ago, commercial dance music was already huge here. When Sónar was born, it was a proposal that was totally marginal and very alternative. There wasn’t really a market or a demand for experimental or advanced music like there was in the U.K. or Germany. But commercial dance music was huge. It sold millions of albums and singles. There weren’t really any raves, because we’ve never had raves in Spain. But there were circuits of clubs that stayed open all weekend long. Rather than a renegade thing, like in the U.K., where they used fields or abandoned industrial spaces, this was totally normalized. Young people went out and did the circuit of mega-clubs all weekend long, very similar to what happened in Belgium. So we already had an ultra-commercial scene that might be similar to what you’re seeing now in the U.S. And the more specialized, alternative offerings, like ours, were presented as obviously cultural in nature — to try to create an event in Spain for new kinds of electronic music on the margins.
Is it difficult to maintain Sónar’s identity in the midst of the current boom in commercial dance music?
RR: It’s interesting, because situating Sónar as an alternative proposition is more a question of the receptor than the transmitter. That is to say, Sónar has never presented itself as an alternative to another scene. What interests us is to show what’s happening in the world of music right now, and then also occasionally to highlight certain pioneers. Sónar’s proposal isn’t limited to its difference from other scenes. It doesn’t bother us to mix with the more mainstream scene. We think that even there, there can be phenomena that are interesting for the evolution of the market in general. We’re not a public institution that has to practice a kind of cultural politics; we’re a private enterprise that has a mission to try to offer an interesting product to the widest audience possible without out betraying a certain spirit, a certain interest in what is innovative.
I thought it was interesting that Deadmau5 played last year, because in the U.S., Deadmau5 inhabits a very different world from that represented by the majority of the festival’s lineup.
RR: It’s important to us that the festival isn’t seen as a snobby kind of thing. Deadmau5 is as important as you make him. There will be people that think he doesn’t innovate, that his music follows a very basic formula, but for another, newer public, he might be the way to introduce them to electronic music. Within 100 or 120 acts, to have one or two examples of what is happening in the world of electronic music that keep that younger public in mind, I think it’s justified. We can’t turn our backs. Those acts are a symptom of where we are and what’s happening in music right now.
ENRIC PALAU: Sónar has been doing this for a long time, and we like to reflect what’s happening in the world. In the same way that we like to reflect what’s happening in South Africa or Japan, we have also always had the United States in mind as well, throughout the whole history of the festival. You had Detroit, Chicago, and right now, the U.S. is experiencing another kind of moment, this thing that’s called EDM. And we’ve tried to reflect this as well. Deadmau5 has played for the festival twice — once four years ago, when he wasn’t so well known, and then again this past year. Steve Aoki played too. The festival isn’t going to change; Sónar Barcelona isn’t going to change because of what’s going on in the U.S. But what is interesting is that there are artists in the middle that have to do with what’s going on in the U.S. but aren’t strictly identified with the EDM phenomenon. We’ve worked with Pretty Lights, Diplo, Major Lazer. These artists are also in this phenomenon that’s happening in the U.S. right now. And they’re artists that, for me, are interesting on an artistic level. Speaking with our friends in Buraka Som Sistema recently, they said that if just 10% of this new public that’s going to the big American EDM events gets interested in discovering new sounds, that alone is positive. In those terms, it’s a significant quantity of new listeners that’s being created, and surely it’s possible that this public will get interested in other sounds beyond the Aviciis and Swedish House Mafias.
Have you seen any changes in Sónar’s audience over the past few years?
RR: We have noticed that the public has gotten younger, more like it was 10 years ago. There was a time when the average age of the audience was rising, but in the past two years it has fallen again. We’re once again bringing in many people that had been absorbed in the indie-rock world over the past few years. Indie rock had taken over a good proportion of youth culture here, but now that is changing, and we have returned to an average age of 24 or 26. This has a lot to do with the rise in numbers of attendees from countries that aren’t historically big music markets, like Eastern Europe and Latin America. It’s worth noting that last year had attendees from 92 different countries. So the public comes more and more from countries that aren’t big music markets, but they come with a lot of curiosity. It’s mixing diverse profiles with a common spirit, and in the end we have an atmosphere that’s really cosmopolitan, and not as homogenous as you might find at other events.
Sónar’s growth is limited, to a large extent, by the venues you use. Would you consider moving to other, bigger spaces?
RR: That is something we’re always looking for, but it’s very hard to find. Sure, it’s something we talk about now and then. But it’s not so evident where we could recreate the spirit of Sónar by Day without losing everything. We don’t mind reinventing, but reinventing means conserving our values while creating a new vision. You can’t abandon your old spirit for a new space that doesn’t have any personality or substance. It’s something we’re always considering, but it’s just not always possible to find a space like that.
You had previously presented a standalone event in Chicago, but this year you opted for a touring model for Sónar North America. Why did you choose that format?
EP: The U.S. is an enormous country. Trying to take the pulse of the U.S. is like speaking of all of Europe. In Berlin you might have one kind of reaction, in Barcelona and Paris something completely different, and I think the U.S. is similar. So the most interesting to us seemed to be to try to make contact with various markets. For example, the shows in Montreal and Toronto were really strong, probably because the public there is closest to Europe, meaning that they had the best idea of the whole lineup we were bringing. In other places, like Oakland, attention was more focused on Die Antwoord. But it’s been really positive. It let us introduce people to artists that may have been new to them, like Seth Troxler and Paul Kalkbrenner. In the case of Kalkbrenner, it might sound strange to say that we’re introducing him as a new artist when he’s massive in Germany and growing across Europe; he’s a really big name. So it was really interesting when in some places, like L.A. or Oakland, you saw how the people were discovering him for the first time. That’s an interesting challenge for everyone.
Will you do more events in the U.S. next year?
EP: Yes, although we don’t know the format yet. Now that we’ve done the tour and seen some of the different markets, we have to decide if we’ll go into one particular place and do a bigger event or maintain the touring format. That’s something we have to study. But the experiment was successful. It’s a very interesting country. We’ve always worked with American artists throughout the history of the festival, and surely our presence in America will allow us to discover more artists that are doing interesting things.