At this point Sónar is an international brand with events around the globe, but it began with the Barcelona festival that remains its core. It grew up in tandem with electronic music itself: editions in the '90s provided one of the scene's first international meeting points, and helped outline a canon for electronic music itself, connecting the dots between artists like Jeff Mills, Mouse On Mars, Matthew Herbert and Goldfrapp. They've kept this up throughout their 20-year history, booking artists in their prime—Daft Punk in 1997, LCD Soundsystem in 2003, Ricardo Villalobos back-to-back with Richie Hawtin in 2004—while also paying respects to the music's roots (this year will be Kraftwerk's second time at Sónar).
"In '94, just the idea of having an electronic music festival was avant-garde," says Georgia Taglietti, Sónar's communications director. "It was really futuristic." Obviously a lot's changed since then: hundreds of festivals have cropped up around the world, and electronic music is not just a genre but a widespread cultural phenomenon, teeming with artists, fans and industry professionals who rally around Sónar like moths to a bulb.
This is what gave rise to the countless parties in Barcelona nightclubs that happen at the same time as the festival—a constellation of events described as "off-Sónar" until use of the term was prohibited this year. With so much of the electronic music world concentrated in the city, outside promoters see an opportunity to make an impression with their own events. As a result, punters are spoiled for choice: there's Sónar itself with its gargantuan lineups, plus hundreds of other smaller events to pick from. Though there's never been any official connection between the two, the peripheral events show how vital Sónar really is.
20 years would be a milestone in any case, but for Sónar the turning point has an added significance. In 2013, it moves on from its traditional daytime venues at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) and the adjacent Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) in favor of a bigger spot, Fira Montjuïc in Plaça d'Espanya. There's more to the change that just physical location: MACBA and CCCB have been Sónar's home since its first editions, so the move represents a full departure from the past. The festival has never been nostalgic, and the move should allow them to keep moving forward, both by providing more space and by heralding a new component of the program: Sónar+D, a series of events that examines the link between technology and creativity. The festival, 20 years in, is on the brink of a new era.
Amidst the chaos that ensues in the weeks leading up to a festival of this scale, Taglietti and Ventura Barba, the festival's COO, gave us some perspective on where Sónar came from and where it might be headed.
Georgia Taglietti: The festival was founded in '94 by Enric Palau, Ricard Robles and Sergio Caballero. It was meant to be devoted to electronic music lovers and artists. It started at the same venue that we've had for 19 years, which is the MACBA in the middle of city. Actually, back then it was still only the Contemporary Culture Centre, which has been the venue for Sónar By Day activities. At first the crowd was about 6,000 people, but by the end of the '90s we jumped to an average of 30,000 each year. In 2001 and 2002 it was something around 50,000. I'd say the growth of festival, in terms of artists and programming, has been organic and true to the growth of electronic music and culture over the years.
How was the idea Sónar first born?
Georgia Taglietti: Well, basically, two of the founders are musicians, one was working in radio. They were very into electronic music and found that no one was doing anything relevant on an international scale, for people to come from different countries to meet, discuss and listen. That is why Sónar is the name, a way to listen to sounds that were unexplored at the time.
How did Sónar develop its programming style?
Georgia Taglietti: The music program is based on a huge network that we have built over the years. It's built not only by us as artistic directors, but also label friends, artists and journalists, who work together and give us their thoughts on what is coming out. It is based on a lot of work together, especially on behalf of Enric, who is the director of the booking department. He listens to proposals and puts together a puzzle that makes the festival work.
Ventura Barba: As you probably know, we have created a new section for this year, which is called Sónar+D. This is a section to enhance the relationship between creativity, technology, innovation, mobility and business. We want to show the relationship between technology and creativity. We have a bunch of activities: panels, art installations, hackathons and so on. We have partnered with some companies and institutions, such as Google+, Berklee College of Music and the new BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Why is it important to have that component to the festival?
Ventura Barba: That's a very good question, because we believe that Sónar+D is not just a section within the festival. It is much more the think tank of Sónar. We believe Sónar+D is what gives Sónar its unique values. We want to focus on this connection between creativity and technology, because this is what makes Sónar a unique festival, completely different from any other festival in the world.
Georgia Taglietti: I also think that the core of electronic culture, electronic music, is based on that kind of technology. So we're complementing the music content with its roots—the methods of production and the evolution of machines. I think that mobility, for example, is super-interesting and probably the future of music distribution. So you know, it's rooted in the very basis of musical creativity.
When you say mobility, what do mean by that exactly?
Ventura Barba: So we always have a focus on technology, but this year we are doing a close-up on mobility technology, how artists use smart phones and tablets, which is at the cutting edge of technology nowadays.
Going back to the bookings, to me something that always defined the lineups is a balance between both ends of the spectrum. For example, this year you have Paul Kalkbrenner on one hand and Vatican Shadow on the other. Is this ever a difficult balancing act?
Georgia Taglietti: Well, the central part of the booking policy is usually balancing the future with the past. For me one of the most interesting things we have been discussing about the program is the balance between, say, Kraftwerk and Skrillex. This balance, as usual, like last year with Lana Del Ray, finds critics as well as supporters. But reading between the lines, it is important for us that people who like Skrillex, whose generation tends to be younger, can be present for a 3-D concert with Kraftwerk. So they understand the roots. It is a very organic merging of the past, present and the future of electronic music.
When I used to give interviews ten years ago, there was not a big history for electronic music. Whereas now, there is a big history, it's a real genre per se, there are lots of referential moments and artists in the past. We never really look back, we more blink back, because we know that we need artists who have been contributing to electronic music through the 20 years that we have been running.
Has there always been such a philosophy behind the festival?
Georgia Taglietti: Yeah, I think that the philosophy is right there. In '94, the idea of an electronic music festival was really avant-garde, if I may use the word. At the time it was really futuristic. It became more conventional, more popular. But I think in quality you always find a straight line into experimentation. It is the way in which people really go through electronica, and mobility and technology, because without experimentation you would never get the real products, that is one of the basis of Sónar+D, to show how young people and core industries are experimenting with technology and mobility to deliver the final products to the public that can actually help you to listen, to see, to experiment, to sense. I think "experimentation" is the word that leads the way through it.
Do you believe people come to Sónar specifically to see and hear new things, rather than to let loose at a festival?
Georgia Taglietti:The daytime has a very important educational factor. People come to discover and hope to be surprised. It's not a question of lights, AV and visuals, it's a question of actually having something to say. The surprise factor is super important and the entertainment is important but not as much. Sónar By Day is about learning, surprising and sometimes obscurity. I remember one example, which was Wolf Eyes, Enric and I thought people might be caught off guard with such a violent act, but it was packed.
Ventura Barba: I believe that over the past 20 years, Sónar has become a prescription brand, so people trust our judgment and some people just come here to discover new acts. That is the beauty of it.
So it seems like the crowd is usually in the right frame of mind for what you're offering.
Georgia Taglietti: Well actually, to tell the truth, it is harder for well-established artists at Sónar because they know it is the place to present something new, so they are worried by all these other artists having new proposals. I think more established names have to think twice about what they present because they know the audience is quite demanding. The median knowledge is really quite high, and you can tell that by some of the headliners, [who] actually ask you, "How is the audience? What should we play?" It's definitely what happens when they come to Sónar.
About the new day venue—can you sum up the considerations that led to the move?
Georgia Taglietti: There was one big consideration, which was that the other venue was too small, it didn't give us much space for growth. We wanted to offer more and better, and we couldn't. It was like when you move to a new house. We are a big family and we are growing, and we need more space in order for everyone to be happy. The Congress Palace, for example, is a venue that we would have never imagined to have. We would never be able to do Sónar By Day as it is today if we didn't have such a venue.
Ventura Barba: I think the reason behind it, is that we wanted to do different things than the ones we have been doing at MACBA for 19 years. It was a personal decision, to go out of our comfort zone, turn everything upside down and move on, and to present our festival in a different format, with Sónar By Day as the main experience. It's not to have more people or sell more tickets, it's about moving forward and presenting a different experience.
Over the years, you guys have mostly cooperated with the other parties happening during the festival in Barcelona. Are they a disruption to what you're trying to do?
Georgia Taglietti: We know this is something that has to happen, because we can't just take over the whole city, with all the promoters that work in this style of music. The only thing we know is that we don't want them to misuse our brand, and that has been intentionally done before, which is not very nice.
Ventura Barba: During that week in June, Barcelona becomes a meeting place for everybody within electronic culture. That is mainly because of us, but the "off-" has a role to play, too. As Georgia said, we don't want to be misleading. Sónar is its own thing. One important factor of the new venue is that we will have more room to fit good things that were going on outside the official venues. Our aim will be that the best things—best music, best technologies—are presented within Sónar.
Georgia Taglietti: And we have to harmonize our communication with those events, which is what we're doing now.
Do you feel any competition with those parties?
Georgia Taglietti: In the past year we had our record attendance, which was 100,000 people over the three days and two nights. The only thing that we don't like is that people think the festival and the parties are the same, because you can't compare the work they do with what we do. It's just a question of misleading people.
Ventura Barba: In terms of production and how you present the music, we are very in control, we control every single aspect of what we do. So we don't want people going to a random party and us actually having nothing to do with it.
20 years in, what long term goals does Sónar have? What is the next phase?
Ventura Barba: Pretty much what we are presenting this year. It is kind of like year one of a new era, moving to a new venue, presenting Sónar By Day differently, this is what we want to explore. It's like doing a new thing—but with 19 years of experience.