Protests like this occur regularly in Greece's second-biggest city. (As it turned out, the demonstration was relatively peaceful, and the restaurant reopened later that night.) The ongoing problems for young people in Greece are well documented. Most stem from Greece's debt crisis, which exploded in 2008 as part of the global financial crisis. Dubbed the Greek Depression, it led to record unemployment rates, which remain twice the Eurozone average. For those under 25, the rate is 60%.
These are tough conditions for any business, let alone one aimed squarely at young people. The story of Reworks, then, is particularly remarkable. Now entering its tenth year, it's Greece's most prominent electronic music event, and one of the scene's only operations that has remained steadfast despite the country's financial turmoil. Helmed by a small team, the festival is now the only one of its kind left in Greece, surviving one of the world's most devastating financial meltdowns. I caught up with Anastasios Diolatzis, Reworks' co-founder and music director, in the lead-up to this year's festival. Like a lot of people in Greece, he's upbeat and easy to talk to. He's knowledgable about his country's dance music scene, and chats frankly about it. It's clear he's also very much aware of the impacts the economic crisis has had on Greece's young people, which is backed up by one of Reworks' core policies: it should remain affordable for them.
NON's arrival shook things up. Diolatzis says that things started to change in 2000, as more people began putting on events. Bringing previously overlooked European and US talent—Anthony Rother, Michael Mayer, Alter Ego, Juan Atkins—to Greece was one of NON's priorities, helping to introduce Thessaloniki to new sounds. It's something they've continued to do with Reworks. "We try to always present different genres," Diolatzis says. "We invite many kinds of artists. They can be newcomers, they can be legends, well-known acts or unknown acts. I think the audience likes it. They like that we have been consistent with this, and have always tried to present new stuff."
This policy has clearly worked. Reworks is the only long-running electronic music festival left in Greece, surviving in a climate that wiped out many of the country's other established events and clubs. According to Diolatzis, Reworks' longevity has a lot to do with the wants of Greek youth. The large-scale festival experience, like a Field Day or Melt!, never took off in Greece like it did across the rest of Europe. Crowds prefer smaller stages and a more intimate experience. The NON team recognised this and tailored Reworks accordingly.
Diolatzis did research at a range of festivals while living abroad for a few years. A stint in the UK introduced him to mega-events like Tribal Gathering. But it was Barcelona's Sónar that left him and his NON colleagues with the most lasting impression. "It completely opened up our horizons," he recalls. "In the UK, the festivals that we visited were happening in fields in the countryside. Sónar took place in a city. It has been a great influence. We straight away started dreaming about doing a festival in Thessaloniki."
Rework's location has been particularly important since day one. Six venues have been used since it began. These include a portside warehouse, street stages in Thessaloniki's centre, a hotel rooftop and a sprawling, indoor-outdoor complex. The most unique space I saw when I attended last year was the Mylos, a former flour factory transformed into a ramshackle collection of bars, concert spaces and galleries. It's one of Greece's most famous music spaces, and it oozes charm. When Reworks takes over, Mylos feels more like a labyrinth than a 5,000-person festival venue. Last year, it was possible to catch Josh Wink and Steve Rachmad playing back-to-back in a packed, cavernous warehouse space, then walk down a flight of stairs to where Function was dishing out loopy techno to a small crowd outside. Hours before, Paul Kalkbrenner had people going wild at the foot of the open-air main stage, accessible via a short journey through bars, art galleries and stalls. "We have small stages, and that creates warmth between the audience and the artist," Diolatzis says.
Mylos, where Reworks will take place again this year, was the site of its first edition, in 2005. Almost ten years later, things in Greece are much different. In the period leading up to 2008, life was OK. Thanks to continued growth in the decades following World War II, the country's economy was one of the strongest in Europe. Then the financial crisis struck, and things spiralled downwards. While other European countries slowly picked up the pieces in the period that followed, Greece continued to nose dive.
The ongoing crisis is very much in the minds of Diolatzis and his colleagues. It has a huge influence on the way Reworks is planned—the entire festival is organised in a way that keeps costs low for attendees. "It's very hard to find someone in Greece that was not affected by the crisis," Diolatzis says. "I don't want to sound too dramatic, but everybody was. A lot of my friends left Greece.
"We couldn't have a festival and charge €40 to get in," he continues. "Nobody would come. No matter who the acts were, the people simply could not afford it. They need to work for two days to get €40. You know, the average salary for a young person in Greece at the moment is around €480 per month. It's not very easy."
The crisis brought about huge changes to Thessaloniki's nightlife. The large-scale clubs that were booming throughout the '90s couldn't be sustained, and were replaced by smaller, multi-purpose venues. DJ fees also suffered. Pre-crash, Greek promoters could afford to pay touring DJs well. But as money dried up, it became harder to match the money artists could make elsewhere in the EU. "The fees were much different ten or 15 years back," Diolatzis says. "As electronic music was developing worldwide, Greece became known for paying very well. It then slowly went from a good market to get paid in, to a market that simply couldn't pay the same fees that other territories were able to."
International DJ bookings eventually dried up. The smaller clubs that replaced the larger venues mostly booked local artists. NON remained one of the few crews who consistently brought in overseas acts. Even with their offerings—they've thrown over 600 parties to date—Reworks represents one of the year's only chances for Greeks to catch more than a few international acts at one time. "There have been more, but unfortunately they didn't last," Diolatzis says about other Greek festivals. "This is not nice, but things are not easy. Reworks is the only festival that's been operating consistently throughout the years. There are not many events in Thessaloniki anymore. It's only Reworks when it comes to foreign music. So if you don't listen to Greek pop or folk, then apart from some occasional concerts and events, it is only Reworks that happens every year."
During my stay in Thessaloniki, it seemed like every 20-something local I bumped into was a diehard Reworks fan. They enthusiastically explained how much it meant to them and their friends, waving their hands around while listing the acts they were planning to see that year and who they'd seen there in the past. Compared to festivals I'd been to elsewhere, Reworks seemed like it meant that little bit more to its crowd. Two locals that echoed these sentiments were Dimitris and Panos Lilis, who produce and DJ together as the Lilis Bros. They were part of a huge contingent of Athens-based attendees and artists, and, as musicians and label owners themselves, were well aware of Reworks' significance. "Our first Reworks festival was back in 2006," they recently told me over email. "We remember watching Modeselektor performing a heavy, sweaty set, and being convinced that Thessaloniki had a new home for electronic music."
They went on: "The word festival for the Greek audience has been overused lately. Promoters from Athens or Thessaloniki call one-night shows with two international acts and three locals on the lineup 'festivals.' Fair enough, if you think of what the financial crisis did. But here lies Reworks' main difference: the guys have travelled the world enough to know what a festival is. They also managed to put on an event at high-level European standards. Reworks is one of a kind in Greece. It does a lot for the electronic music community here."
Nikola Gala is one of the more well-known names attached to Reworks. He's played several times and, like the Lilis Bros, is quick to tell me about the festival's consistency. "Nothing has changed since the early days," he said. "This is what makes Reworks successful. The people behind the festival are using the same ingredients every year, and it has never failed. Why change that?"
Reworks is a beacon of stability in uncertain times. The festival will return to central Thessaloniki later this month, bringing young people from all over Greece with it. Given that NON have excelled in such difficult circumstances, it's exciting to imagine what could have been possible if Reworks was operating in a different economic situation. The festival has one of the most passionate fan bases I've ever encountered, and when you consider NON's core philosophies and the lengths they've gone through to keep Reworks accessible, it's wholly deserved.