30 Years of Sónar

Philip Alexandre Livchitz in conversation with Enric Palau and Ventura Barba

In the early ʻ90s, if people were asked what Spain was famous for, the most common answers would’ve probably included tapas, wine, its artists (Picasso, Gaudí, Dalí), and football—very few people would’ve said festivals. This, however, changed after the summer of 1994 when Enric Palau, Sergio Caballero and Ricard Robles organised the first Sónar Festival in Barcelona, featuring the likes of CAN’s Holger Czukay and current electronic music greats Sven Väth and Laurent Garnier.

Held annually around mid-June, the festival quickly gained popularity by tying its By Day events—consisting of live concerts, DJ sets, talks, artist performances, and record label showcases—to its By Night events, often going on until 7am. On top of celebrating its Catalan roots, Sónar has become a blueprint for global electronic music festivals, having been held in 35 cities worldwide, including London, Lisbon, Istanbul and Tokyo. In the wake of Sónar’s 30th anniversary in 2023, we had the pleasure of speaking with one of its founders, Enric Palau, and its CEO, Ventura Barba, about the festival’s origins, its subsequent growth, its cultural significance, the importance of creativity and pushing boundaries of electronic music, technology and innovation.

Philip Alexandre Livchitz – What were your first encounters with music growing up? And what influenced you to pursue a career in music?

Enric Palau – I was making music with Sergio, one of the partners and co-founders of the festival. I was interested in aesthetics linked with an avant-garde spirit related to technology. I was influenced by pop, experimental, and dance music; my focus was on the ’80s and early ’90s. Our experience in making music and being ourselves is what got us started. We were commissioned to think of an event that would bring different elements of electronic culture together, which didn’t involve just music but aesthetics and visuals. So we worked on this from ’92 until the first Sónar took place in 1994.

Ventura Barba – I joined the project in ’09, but I’ve known Enric, Ricard and Sergio since I was a trainee copyright lawyer at The Spanish Society of Authors and Publishers. So, I met them when they discussed the Sónar project. I started my career in the record industry working for BMG Sony Music and then moved into the IT world, being one of the first employees of Yahoo! in Europe. I ended up running Yahoo! Music International, which became sort of a pioneer of streaming. But, at the time, I was covering plenty of regions for Yahoo!, so I told my boss that I couldn’t keep up with all the travel and quit. Half an hour later, Sergio called me to ask if I would like to come back to Barcelona and work for them as, back then, I was based in London—it was serendipitous. I’ve had the luxury of being both the client and the employee at Sónar.

P.A.L. – My question to you, Enric, is: As Sónar has become a global blueprint for electronic music festivals while also having organised more than 100 festivals with 76 editions in 35 cities around the world, where did the idea for Sónar come from? What is the festival’s origin story?

E.P. – Well, there was a lot of work and passion involved. Sergio and I came from music while Ricard was a music journalist. As an expert on music, he was very good at organising the ideas we shared and discussed. We were excited about it as artists; we had been in front of the stage and had travelled to other parts of the world to experience music. But we also knew what it was like being behind the stage, i.e. producing something in the best possible, the most fun, and the most exciting way while also making it professional enough so that people could enjoy themselves. We were fascinated by the opportunity to work on this. I mean, we were pretty young—28, I think. The idea was, “Wow, we can build the car and drive it, too” [laughs]. That was the fun part, including all the complexities we had to learn. But it was also fun bringing iconic influences over, like Holger Czukay from CAN, who took part in the first edition, or the rave movement from Germany. It was also about how electronic music integrated everything going on through all the genres and visual aspects; the artists weren’t just in front of the stage but merged with the audience in the middle. And there was a lot of desire to build something that would allow the music industry to interact in a very open way, i.e., connecting the music labels and the manufacturers of new software. From day one, the biggest challenge was to turn Sónar into an international reference point. And it’s something we succeeded in.

V.B. – It was one of the first electronic music events in a cultural space, which was very unusual at the time. Also, it was one of the first events with a Pan-European appeal, as it wasn’t common for people to take planes to another city and attend festivals back then. It was unheard of to have a daytime music event at a museum, then go to your hotel and shower, followed by a night event—it was shocking at the time!

P.A.L. – Given Sónar’s meteoric rise in popularity, what contributed to its growth, considering the festival passed its 100k visitors mark in 2013? How much did the proliferation of different social media platforms influence the festival’s growing visitor numbers?

V.B. – I think growth has been very organic. After the first year, we consistently doubled in size but eventually reached a number we felt comfortable with: around 120,000 attendees. But that’s a number we don’t want to break. I think that’s where we can observe the experience and select the things we want, not only driven by the need to sell tickets but also by the luxury of putting together a bill that is both interesting and appealing to us. Regarding social networks, we began with CD-ROMs and are now doing things from TikTok to everything in the middle, including Second Life. Social media is a tool we use, a place where we discover, share, and have conversations. So technology is always present.

P.A.L. – Yes, Sónar has had a strong tech aspect from the very beginning. In fact, 2022 saw a rise in festival companies partnering with NFTs, including Sónar, which partnered with the Tezos NFT art community. What are your thoughts on festival organisations deepening their relationships with blockchain, NFTs and technological advancement in general?

E.P. – The relationship we’ve had with technology has always been exciting. We’re billed as The International Festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art, meaning that music evolves parallel with technological advancements, especially in how artists create and use technologies. Lately, we’ve been getting deeper into different technology and research collaborations. One of those collaborations involved Matthew Herbert making music with a 22-piece big band and sampling while, at the very same time, a chef was cooking a meal onstage. For our 25th anniversary in 2018, we created a project named Sónar
, which had a few artists compose a piece of, I think, eight seconds of music to be sent to an exo-planet by a radio radar system which would take maybe 25 years to reach that exo-planet. In truth, we take our distinctive creative approach to the world of new knowledge and our audience; it might be astronomy, exo-planets, or technologies applied to outer space. More recently, it has been artificial intelligence, whether it’s Holly Herndon or someone else whose use of technology as an artist surprises us. For me, NFTs and Metaverse are just extensions of that. They’re probably not the most exciting chapters at the moment, but lots of businesses are drawn into these worlds. I’m more interested in the artistic result or experience; I’m still waiting to see what comes of this.

V.B. – I think Web3, as a whole, is something exciting and we are seeing how it’s developing. As a former copyright and intellectual property lawyer, I think blockchain is fascinating. It’s changing how creators disseminate their work and is a complete game-changer. I think it’s a great way for creators to make a living—or another layer for them to make a living—so we’ll see how this will develop. Anything that empowers creators and rewards them for their work is a fantastic tool. So we are exploring that more from the creators’ side and seeing how it empowers them while still trying to avoid the more superficial aspects of it. That’s what interests us.

P.A.L. – When it comes to creators, contributors, and the current environment of collaborations and the idea of mixing music, art, film, and even fashion through such partnerships, what have been some of the most significant partnerships Sónar has entered? What are your criteria for partnerships and “collabs”?

E.P. – We’ve been working with The Barcelona Supercomputing Center, probably the second biggest monster computer in Europe. I mean, we can always learn something from a partner, even if they come from a different world, as long as it’s something that will inspire us and help us bring more information and knowledge to our audience. I feel that’s the most interesting part, whether we collaborate with the Department of Geology or the Department of Architecture.

V.B. – We like to form groups with people from different backgrounds. And this approach needs creators because we believe that creators as agents of innovation are as good as engineers, scientists, or technologists; that’s our motto. Over the past year, we’ve done some incredible things like partnering artists with scientists from BarcelonaTech University so that they could collaborate using artificial intelligence while creating whole universes, e.g. when a machine was improvising with a pianist.

E.P. – We aim to be the platform and the place that explains those processes and experiments, sometimes coming from very different genres. Even from a purely artistic side, we like to be seen as the place where people present us with crazy ideas they feel could work at Sónar, whether it’s adding flamenco into the mix or merging it with electronic music. I mean, Rosalía made her first appearance at the festival. Even Israel Galvan, an amazing avant-garde flamenco dancer, had his dancing converted into a percussion instrument in real time, while at the same time, Niño de Elche sang on top of it—that was kind of crazy. But moments like these, where there’s the risk of experimenting, even if those experiments fail, matter to us; we like taking those risks. Another aspect that I feel is very important to our audience is: We don’t want to be seen as a laboratory or just a university as these places already exist. We bring the results of these experiments to a crowd that looks to be inspired and wants to have fun.

V.B. – Yeah, Sónar can act as a lab or a sandbox but still be fun; we’re not snobbish.

E.P. – A great experiment can become a great party. That’s the best thing.

P.A.L. – Considering that Sónar has become a global phenomenon, with international editions in Lisbon and Istanbul, how important is it to still have a strong Spanish and Catalan angle to Sónar and to promote Spanish and Catalan culture?

E.P. – We’ve always been a platform for our local music or creative scenes in Barcelona and Catalonia; it’s been fascinating. We think the scene has genuinely grown and has provided some great examples, such as Rosalía, who we just mentioned. But one of the great things about the scene here is its diversity. Unlike the French touch in Paris or techno in Berlin, the Catalan and Spanish scenes have more variety. Regarding what we’re showing in terms of the Catalan and Spanish creatives, it’s the diversity. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget about John Talabot. We’re excited about the resurgence of new ways of thinking and new trends in Spanish electronic music.

V.B. – Yes, Sónar is the preferred platform for local artists to present their work and connect with their peers and fans—that’s a fact. And when we say local, I’m talking about local talent from here or people who work in Barcelona. Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city; we have people from all over the world, and you don’t have to be born and raised in Barcelona to be considered a local act. And when we go abroad, it’s the same. As you’ve mentioned, we’ve had the luxury of visiting more than 35 cities spanning from Reykjavik and London to Cape Town and Tokyo. Wherever we go, however, we’re not a franchise product in the same way as, say, Coca-Cola is, right? So we try to explore and discover acts. When we were in Reykjavik, we had the pleasure of seeing new things, which made it possible for us to present established acts like Sigur Rós in South America. That’s kind of the beauty of being able to work with local talent.

P.A.L. – Considering how Sónar has developed over the past 30 years, how do you think Sónar has influenced the wider Spanish and global festival landscape?

E.P. – Well, we were pioneers in creating an urban festival that used institutional spaces. Nobody was dancing and having a beer inside a museum in 1994. We’ve also seen things happening at MoMA PS1 in New York and Tate Modern in London. I think they were watching what we would do in Barcelona. That’s probably one aspect. I mean, popular music was not considered art at the time. And that’s why it was taken out of the museums. I think we’ve seen that change. Another aspect is the presence of digital culture, not just music, in museums and cultural institutions. It’s still relatively recent and something these places don’t know how to handle yet.

V.B. – One of the successes of Sónar is probably considering music as art or as part of the culture but, at the same time, not forgetting that it should be entertaining and fun.

E.P. – Of course, we come from a country that never had traditional festivals. If you look at the UK, Glastonbury has over 50 years worth of history and Woodstock took place in the US in the ’60s, so outdoor festivals existed before us. What we did differently was organising Sónar in a place where electronic music and culture felt natural, that is the city centre.

P.A.L. – What have been some of the most memorable milestones over the past 30 years that have, in your opinion, solidified Sónar’s place as the go-to electronic music?

V.B. – One of the highlights was when we moved from a purely cultural venue to where we are now: A place which not only incorporates culture but also the wider industry, technology, and business. That was another step forward in what we were doing. We decided to move into a more professional direction with Sónar when we realised there was space for doing that. The other year, when we deliberately dropped the title ‘festival’ from our name, we decided that ‘festival’ was no longer a word that incorporated everything we were doing—we were a different beast to just being a festival. So there have been significant moments through which we have defined ourselves and shown our fanbase the direction we want to take.

P.A.L. – Which direction would you still like to explore with Sónar that you already haven’t? How do you see it evolving in the near future?

V.B. – One thing that we should keep is curiosity. We should strive to be curious about the different spaces we want to conquer. After 30 years as a brand, we’re still very curious about what’s going to be the next big thing, what’s going on in Barcelona and Berlin or Cape Town. That’s something that is going to define Sónar in the future.

E.P. – Personally, one of the best things about doing Sónar is hearing about the experiences of others who’ve discovered something new, such as Modeselektor. Gernot and Szary from Modeselektor told me that they used to drive to Barcelona with the band before making music or becoming artists; they used to drive a van here and sleep in it while going to the festival. Whenever someone is going to be inspired by the work you do, that’s the best thing. At Sónar, a lot of the things only happened because someone creative enough came up with an idea, and we provided the facilities for that idea. We’re determined to have the curiosity and the tools while being in the right place for these ideas.

Leave a Reply

You must be registered to comment

Philip Alexandre Livchitz in conversation with Enric Palau and Ventura Barba