Having begun 20 years ago as a village rave in the German countryside, this annual festival is now among the most beloved in the world. Will Lynch hears how it got there.
From there it explained that, in keeping with the theme of friendship, many of this year's acts were rare collaborations, "often dating back much longer than the individual careers of their members." It went on to introduce each act, eventually landing on a mysterious passage. "[Saturday night] features the phantasmagorical meeting of secret project MON with the legend that is Jeff Mills. UNREAL."
This "phantasmagorical meeting" took place at a particularly nice moment in the weekend. The night was totally clear, with a custard-colored moon low over the tree line that encircles Schullandheim Olganitz, the GDR-era holiday park that's long been Nachtdigital's venue, known to its attendees as Bungalowdorf Olganitz. Sometime after sundown, the festival's finest bit of handmade deco revealed itself: a long string of balloons, each carrying a flickering light, that rose along the perimeter of the lake opposite the main stage. On the far side of the lake, a circular art installation, alternately called "Stargate" and "Gloryhole" by the crew who built it, caught video projections that made it look like a cosmic wormhole. And then MON took the stage.
To the casual observer, it might have been confusing. In the slot just before the weekend's most anticipated act (Jeff Mills), two guys showed up, neither of them a recognizable DJ, and embarked on a hit parade that, while definitely not a joke, felt somehow less than serious—at one point, they mixed Plastikman's "Spastik" into Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." Some people seemed perfectly in tune with what was happening, sending up whoops and whistles from the sandy dance floor, while others watched from the side, a little confused.
You'd have to know Nachtdigital pretty well to know that MON was Leo and Michel, the festival's main founders. In the spirit of the 20th anniversary, this set was a highlights reel of all the biggest tracks they remembered from this dance floor over the past two decades. It was also the first time they'd played together in more than ten years.
"For me that was one of the craziest moments ever at Nachtdigital," Leo said recently. "We had this idea last year and started maybe eight months ago to select our records and find out what are favorites are, how to play them in a good order. The whole period when we prepared this was full of energy and love and memories, and then to finally do it on the main stage at our own festival was... like an explosion."
This kind of thing is typical of Nachtdigital, a party thrown "by the children of farmers, for other farmers' kids," in the words of its booker, that now attracts people from as far afield as Tokyo and LA. Many people come for the music, which ranges from unpretentious party jams to excellent ambient and avant-garde, by way of house, techno, electro and the odd bit of live music. But what they find onsite is a more unusual blend of sensibilities, refined enough to book Kara-Lis Coverdale on the main stage, but rowdy enough to reliably include crowd-surfing. When it's all over, many people will tell you their favorite part was the ambient stage, a lounge of cushions and hammocks that looks out onto a green, rolling landscape. For others, it's the bizarre daytime activities, which range from surreal games of musical bingo to something called "Speed Dating, Emphasis On Speed."
This quirky personality is the product of the festival's DIY spirit. Every year, Nachtdigital is produced entirely by some 200 volunteers, many of them lifelong friends, led by a core of some two dozen organizers who meet every month to discuss the next event. Last winter, I tagged along for one of these meetings, which Leo and his wife, Jenny, who works on the festival as well, host at their home in Leipzig.
To the untrained eye—or a non-German speaker—it might have looked like a PTA meeting: 20 or so men and women, at or approaching middle-age, working through a list of talking points, occasionally interrupted by a young girl (Leo and Jenny's daughter) popping into the room. Everyone was gathered around a long wooden table, helping themselves to beers, radlers and sparkling water. Leo cooked frozen pizzas and served pickles and rolls. I sat on a couch away from the table, as I was only observing this meeting, but once they sat down the group beckoned me over.
I took a seat and noticed everyone was holding hands. Leo was looking at me: "We have a little tradition here before we eat." I was embarrassed—I'd just taken a large bite of a pickle. I put it down and clasped hands with the people on either side of me. Faces down, hands clasped, the group said in unison: "PEEP-PEEP-PEEP. WIR HABEN UNS ALLE LIEB. GUTEN APPETTIT." (That second verse is "we all love each other.") This was a tradition that began at the early Nachtdigital parties, and on the eve of the festival has connected hundreds of people spread across the festival site. Everyone bit into their pizzas and the meeting got underway.
The process behind Nachtdigital is almost surprisingly mundane—meetings planned on Doodle, minutes sent around on Word docs, mood boards on PDF. But in a way this is the most extraordinary thing about it. By now Nachtdigital is bracketed in with slick festivals like Dekmantel or Dimensions, but however skilled they may be, the people working on it are not exactly professionals. They all make a living some other way, and find time for this project at night and on weekends, in many cases devoting a chunk of their vacation time to what is itself a lot of work. When the festival rolls around, most of them have so much to do they barely get a chance to enjoy it.
"I sometimes think, Why do people do this?" Leo said. "If they like the festival, they can just buy tickets. But they are working all the time with us, all year. We're getting older and older, Michel and me, we are near 40, and you always realize that your power is getting less and less. But you just keep doing it, and always trying to find out why you're doing it. But really the only explanation is that we feel like a family. I know a lot of people in the crew feel the same. We are not able to pay them, we are not able to give them jobs, but still they work so hard all these years."
"It's super emotional," said Steffen Bennemann, the festival's main booker. "This whole ritual of living together on the site for a whole week, completely out of your everyday life, surrounded by people you like, it feels like it has a meaning, a benefit to the audience, or our community in general, just by making people happy. That feeling is really strong."
Half a year after that night at Leo's, I took a train to a tiny station out in Saxony, then rode in a cab through corn fields and forests to Bungalowdorf Olganitz, arriving roughly 24 hours before the doors opened for Nachtdigital's 20th edition. The festival site is simple and idyllic, just a few clusters of bungalows (simple houses with bunk beds, small kitchens and small porches) clustered around a lake, with a single-story building that serves as the festival's backstage.
I felt a little sheepish as I let myself in. The whole place was buzzing with people absorbed in their tasks. Forklifts beeped, drills buzzed, hammer strikes echoed across the lake. Everyone was sweating, literally and figuratively, stressed and exhausted as they paced the venue. I ran into Leo near a water fountain and asked if I could help in any way. He gave me a dazed look and said something noncommittal. I took this as a cue to hang back for a while.
This year was the most ambitious edition yet—a bit too ambitious, it was later decided—and it left the crew spread thin. Many volunteers had been onsite since the previous Sunday, building the bars, stages and the festival's many bits of deco. Perhaps the most complicated of these was the Stargate / Gloryhole, a circular structure, crisscrossed with wooden panels, each with white bedsheets on one side and reflective foil on the other. These could be rotated so that during the day the reflective foil faced outwards, then the bedsheets at night—the first mode reflects the sun, the second forms a screen for film projections. It was the kind of thing you'd take for granted as an attendee—you expect trippy shit at techno festivals. You might not guess it took a week of work from eight people dedicated completely to this project.
At least one person collapsed from exhaustion the day before the festival began. Another, working during the festival, got heatstroke and was rushed to hospital, missing most of the event he'd been working on all week. There were grumbles, short tempers and various mini-dramas. But the main spirit of the thing remained upbeat. Even the guy who'd collapsed told me this story with a smile and a shrug.
Of course, the company makes it all much easier. At night, with the day's work done, friends gathered on the porches of bungalows, chatting beneath a sky dusted with stars that glimmered on the lake below. It's a different crowd than you'd get in a big city. Many of them are artists or longtime ravers, but even many of the younger ones are married or have children. In these moments, they resemble the German families—albeit with more tattoos and weirder jokes—who'd come here for modest vacations, spending a quiet week by a lake in the woods.
That final night before the festival, as the countless tasks scrambled toward completion, a dozen or so people sat around in the ambient tent, silent for the time being but still rich in atmosphere, its overhead canvases lit by peach-colored lamps. Supine on one of the tent's many cushions, Bennemann explained the concept of this year's timetable, which he referred to as "Nachtitime." Long story short: instead of traditional numbers, the times for this year's performances were noted in the program using a system of diagonal and lateral lines, which together made up that year's logo, XX (for "20"). The system was explained in the booklet ("...48 hours divided by 8 equals 6, resulting in 6 periods of 8 hours each..."), but anyone confused about where they stood in Nachtitime could refer to a cluster of neon lights visible from the main dance floor, which lit up to indicate the current time.
"It's quite simple, really," Bennemann deadpanned as he accepted a joint from the person to his right, but of course it was hard to see this as anything other than a way of trolling the crowd.
Bennemann joined the crew 16 years ago, for their fourth edition, after attending the first few as a teenager. Back then he was their press guy, a job that, at the time, consisted of drawing up a sheet with ten fax numbers, all for local radio stations in cities like Dresden and Leipzig, and convincing them to announce the party during their Saturday night program. "Then came email," he said, "then blogs. I did their first website." Four years ago, Bennemann handed over the press job to his younger brother, Jan, so he could take over bookings, a role he had no experience in, but to which he was the best suited out of anyone in the crew.
"I got into the booking just by spending a year in the US as an exchange student," he said. "When I came back, I was the only person who could speak proper English. Leo and Michel were doing the booking at the time, and would ask me to translate their communications with English-speaking agents. Then I got into DJing and started going out and seeing a lot, and they realized, 'OK, this is a young guy with his fingers in the scene, who knows who's good and who's not.' So they started to include me in the booking and then handed it over to me, because their work got bigger and bigger and bigger. Now it's like running a company. Just the accounting alone has become a huge thing."
Nachtdigital began in 1997 as an open-air for 800 people. Leo and Michel had been playing records together at the youth club in Michel's village, at times luring in kids from nearby towns. Eventually they decided to do a proper party, which became Nachtdigital #1.
"It was like, OK, we are a bit isolated, but we try to present music we like to our village," said Leo. "Back then, 90% of the people were not interested in this kind of music, but they were happy that there was something going on. It could have been heavy metal, people were just happy to have anything at the weekend. There was a lot of energy because of that."
Albrecht Wasserleben, cofounder of the Dresden label Uncanny Valley, remembers attending Nachtdigital as a teenager. "Back then festivals were not a thing, especially not in Saxony," he said. Hard-tech raves were common in the area, mostly in left-wing youth centers, but Nachtdigital offered something totally different: an open-air with a more laid-back vibe. "We came from Döbeln with cars and motorbikes and paid for a night, then waited to go back home when the police switched their shifts, between four and six in the morning when the possibility that you would meet a cop on the streets was really low."
Sooner or later, cars began rolling in from Berlin. Maybe ten years ago, Dutch people started showing up, forming what is now a key contingent of Nachtdigital's audience. From there the crowd grew more and more international. Though the crowd remains primarily German, in the last few years Nachtdigital has become a destination for people from all around the world.
The festival grew organically year on year, without ever following a long-term plan. The main thing was always simply to make it happen again next summer, which at times was a pretty ambitious goal. For five festivals in a row, it rained all weekend, and in those years Nachtdigital never broke even. With the end in sight, Leo took out a loan to save the festival. Nachtdigital #9 was a resurrection of sorts—the T-shirt that year read "#9 lebt!" ("#9 lives"). In a way that was the year Nachtdigital became a story unto itself, a cause célèbre that went beyond the music and the party.
"ND 9 was the first in years that broke even," Bennemann said. Ricardo Villalobos played that year, drawing in a new wave of attendees, including artists and crews who would themselves become regular performers at Nachtdigital. From then on, the festival had real momentum. "For ND10 we'd been requesting the big names, Michael Mayer, Carl Craig, Mouse On Mars, but the agencies never wanted to send anyone to us because we couldn't pay the regular fees, and we weren't yet well-known. Then suddenly at ND10 we got all of them, they all said yes. We could afford one of these big names, but we had a go from all five. So really the ND10 lineup, when you read it now, it's crazy, it could be Pitchfork festival or whatever."
But even as the festival matured, it never fundamentally changed. The capacity maxed out at 3,000, and the budget never grew enough to change what kind of artists they could afford. In terms of resources, it's still a shoestring operation compared to its peers, something that can be hard to reconcile with its global reputation.
"People see 3,000 people, €100 tickets, they assume there will be a normal festival fee," Bennemann says. "When you start to work with someone new it's always a long process of explaining, deconstructing the myth. Nachtdigital frequently shows up in these favorites lists, people have in their minds that it's one of the established big ones. Then again, we're also not this super-tiny, super-specialized event, we have a broad music spectrum that tries to make a lot of people happy."
Ultimately, Nachtdigital's limitations are part of what makes it distinctive. In the minutes from one of their meetings, there is a bullet point that reads "ND must ponder how it remains interesting." After that: "The question is how ND can survive without taking part in the madness," referring to the rat race of chasing artists with big fees. Later, the festival's main strength is summarized this way: "Not in the competition to win the coolest names, but rather in the peculiarity of the artists who do not play everywhere."
This means drawing from the many talented artists in the communities surrounding Nachtdigital. First and foremost is Leipzig and specifically Conne Island, whose core artists are staples of the lineup—DJs like Neele and OneTake, as well as the festival's unofficial resident, Manamana. Then there's Hamburg's Golden Pudel crew, a backbone of the ambient tent in particular, with regular appearances from Nina and Ralf Köster. ://about blank in Berlin and its resident DJs are part of the family as well. Then there are the many artists from around the world who are simply underrated, and don't mind playing a small festival for a modest fee. In the past few years, some of the most exceptional sets have come from acts like Solar, Gabe Gurnsey, DJ So, and, before he was big, Job Jobse.
And yet, even Bennemann is quick to admit that music is quite secondary at Nachtdigital. Most important is the festival's role in bringing people together, especially old friends who might have otherwise drifted apart. "It's not so much the music, it's more that you see your friends from school and teenage years," said Wasserleben, who's attended Nachtdigital ever year for over a decade, even after the constrains of adulthood reduced these sessions to one night at each festival. "In Saxony nobody really stays in their hometown because there's not much opportunity there. Everybody moves away. So besides Christmas, Nachtdigital is the one time you meet everybody again."
Attend Nachtdigital once and this aspect of it might be lost on you, but for many regular attendees, even those with no personal link to the artists or the organizers, this family vibe is perfectly clear, both within their immediate circles and in the festival at large. This year it reached a kind of climax in the final moments of the weekend, as HW Rhapsody played the second to last set of the festival. Five years earlier, in this exact spot with this same duo playing, one of Nachtdigital's core crew first met his boyfriend, a DJ who's since become very close to the festival. Now, the DJ dropped to his knees and proposed on the dance floor. Backdropped by the glittering lake, the two of them hugged and cried while the crowd cheered around them. In a way that felt quintessentially Nachtdigital, the intimacy of that moment was woven into the party, the experiences of the people there and the overall story of the festival. A bit later, one of the newly engaged marked the occasion the only way he knew how: he crowdsurfed.