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Sounds Of The Future: How Sónar became the world's leading festival of electronic music and art

Sónar Festival founder Enric Palau looks back at the event’s first quarter of a century with DJ Mag’s Sónar veteran Ben Osborne...

From 17th from 20th July, Sónar, one of the world’s leading festivals of electronic music, art and technological innovation, will return to Barcelona for its 25th year, and 26th event. The Spanish city’s annual celebration of electronic sounds began life as a bijou party in June 1994 at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), both legacies of the 1992 Olympic Games.

From the start, it featured an impressive line-up of celebrated electronic acts that, although world stars today, were less renowned in Spain at the time. In the early ’90s, mainland Spain’s electronic music scene centred around the hedonistic clubs on the Valencia coast, and a small scene dedicated to more cerebral machine-made noise.

There was little on offer that promoted experimental or alternative beats, let alone anything on the scale envisaged by Sónar’s founders. “Electronic music was popular in Barcelona when we started,” says festival co-founder Enric Palau. “What Sónar did differently was to treat this music as an important cultural asset — programming artists in the context of a museum as opposed to in a nightclub or a rave. That’s why Sónar By Day and Sónar By Night have existed since the first edition. We wanted to show that this music could exist in both contexts.”

Like many good ideas, Sónar began with a chat in a bar. Here, Enric Palau, an electronic music expert, Ricard Robles, a film buff, and the artistically minded Sergi Caballero were bemoaning the lack of an event representing their combined interests. Soon after, they began putting Sónar together. From the outset, Sónar attracted the support of Barcelona’s municipal council, which was looking for initiatives to continue the city’s cultural programme after the Olympics. Sónar not only fitted these ambitions, it gave them an innovative, world-leading form.

The festival prefigured later electronic music events by putting DJs on a stage and treating them as artists. It also ushered in the now familiar practice of including combined arts and film, as well as music, in the heart of the event. French and German techno giants Laurent Garnier and Sven Väth played in 1994, with Richie Hawtin featuring in 1996 and Jeff Mills and Coldcut appearing in 1997. These artists have stayed connected to Sónar, with many professing a bond that runs deeper than simply being on the line-up a few times. “There are definitely a number of artists we’ve built a special relationship with,” says Palau. “Laurent Garnier, Richie Hawtin, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Modeselektor, Matthew Herbert, Arca, Daito Manabe, Carsten Nicolai and Lorenzo Senni, and also, in the past, Jeff Mills, among others.

These are all artists whose sound and output have evolved considerably over the years, and who in many cases have progressed from fans of the festival to artists on the lineup. They consider Sónar the perfect platform to present their latest work. It’s so interesting when you’ve heard their first thoughts on a project, then seen it taking shape in the studio, and then experience the final version on stage at Sónar.”

This year, the festival is moving from its usual June slot to mid-July, a change caused by the venue for Sónar By Night being double booked (the festival will return to June next year). Sónar has also transformed Barcelona into a thriving techno economy, but as impressive as the sums are, Palau doesn’t see this as Sónar’s most important contribution to the city. 

“The last independent report in 2015 put the financial impact of the festival at 126m euros; a 226% increase over the previous decade, with a net value to the city of 559.7 euros per attendee. 

“Although admittedly harder to quantify, we’d like to think that the cultural impact of Sónar is much more important than this. Not only is the festival an annual meeting place for the industry, but through the Sónar+D congress, that runs in parallel to Sónar By Day, we’ve forged links with companies and institutions that affect every level of culture — from design to video games to digital art and music technology. Having that amount of talented people, all connecting with one another and in the same place, is an invaluable cultural resource.” 

In 25 years, Sónar has expanded massively, outgrowing its original homes. Sónar By Day now resides in the cavernous Fira Montjuic. Sónar By Night is at the even bigger Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet. 

“It was a tough decision to move,” says Palau, “but having the extra space really allowed us to push the boat out in terms of being able to offer a bigger variety of unique spaces, while conserving the special atmosphere of Sónar By Day. This extra space also allowed us to launch Sónar+D, a home for the creative technology and professional aspects of the festival that had always been a part of the event, but which really came into its own thanks to the venue.” 

Sónar features headliners that appear at other festivals. This year, they include acts such as Skepta, Disclosure and Underworld. But it’s the artists tinkering at the edges and pushing the frontiers of sound and technology that form the bread and butter of Sónar. 

“The Sónar programme as a whole is thought-out to encourage discovery and risk-taking, both for the artists and the festival goers,” says Palau. “The fact that you can take in a three-hour house set from Theo Parrish and see Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper re-imagine the works of Philip Glass in the same venue is definitely one of the things that makes Sónar unique.” 

The late additions to this year’s line-up on the Sónar dome stage are a case in point. They include experimental neo-trance producer Lorenzo Senni performing as Stargate, a new futuristic synth music ensemble. Iranian avant-garde R&B singer Sevdaliza will present her self-directed show The Great Hope Design. Push 1 stop & Wiklow are performing Membrane, a digital artwork merged into an audio-visual performance and art installation, and Hauschka will be taking electronic music back to its roots, with a live prepared piano performance. 

The festival has also created a new stage to ensure they can continue presenting more experimental acts. 

“SónarXS, the stage at Sónar By Day that we launched in 2017, continues to host some of the most exciting and urgent music in the world,” says Palau. “It’s a relatively small stage, but with one of the best atmospheres, in part thanks to the fan-bases of the artists that play there. There’s no one genre represented — this year, we have everything from the deconstructed club music of PAN Records’ Bill Kouligas, through to FAKA’s queer take on the hyper-masculine South African gqom scene. If there’s one common theme that they share, it’s that they’re all artists who’ve grown up with the internet and digital technology.” 

The eclectic roster of Sónar By Day also includes acts such as Fennesz, Ross From Friends, Artwork, Maya Jane Coles, Dengue Dengue Dengue, Sebastian, Actress + Young Paint live AI/AV, Red Axes live, DJ Krush and Erol Alkan, to mention but a few. Sónar By Night will also feature new shows from A$ap Rocky, Bad Bunny, Lil Uzi Vert, DJ Show, Paul Kalkbrenner, Kaytranada, Dixon, Vince Staples, Amelie Lens, Louie Vega & Honey Dijon, Daphni, Four Tet, DJ Koze, Jlin, Deena Abdelwahed, Lotic and Acid Arab live, as well as six-hour sets at SónarCar by Floating Points and Body & Soul, among many others. Matthew Herbert will present his Brexit Big Band on Sunday. 

Sónar’s long connection with the Red Bull Music Academy will see new acts make festival debuts, with punk rappers 700 Bliss, Perel (a recent signing to James Murphy’s DFA label), Mexican duo LAO & Wasted Fates, the South African DJ Lag (key producer of Durban’s gqom sound) and Afro-pop futurist Petite Noir. 

The festival has always nurtured Spanish talent and local musical movements. This year, it includes five figures who are shaping the present sound of Spanish popular music: MC Dellafuente, Dano, and three participants of Red Bull Music Academy Berlin: Ylia, Shelly and Nistra, the electronic alter ego of Novedades Carminha guitarist Anxo Ferreira. 

“Giving exposure to local artists as well as international names has always been part of our mission,” Palau says. “That said, the concept of ‘local’ isn’t really the same as it was. Music travels fast, and is no longer limited by where in the world you are geographically. What really excites us is how new artists are soaking up inspiration from everywhere and creating unique music as a result. 

“Another thing that’s still as important to us is to create links between international and local acts, supporting the local scene through exposure to their international counterparts. This year, for example, Za! (a duo from Barcelona) will be performing with Ouchhh, the digital arts studio from Istanbul. The show will interpret their brainwaves visually while performing. That kind of international and cross-genre collaboration was much more diffi cult a few years ago.

“Back in the ’90s, the only way for local electronic music fans and artists to come into contact with Aphex Twin or Laurent Garnier was at Sónar. This is still true today with the trap and musica urbana scenes.”

Another important side effect of Sónar is the citywide party that erupts around it, with a sprawling mass of extracurricular parties taking place. But it’s not all about music, and the non-music aspects of Sónar have also grown, with its film, arts and Sónar+D programmes exploring technology and culture. Last year, this saw Sónar broadcasting into space. This time, Sónar+D will look into the impact of artificial intelligence and quantum computing on creativity.

It will also explore the future of the internet over the next 30 years, and present world experts in the design of audio-visual experiences.

The conference will feature nearly 200 technologists, cyber activists, researchers, scientists and artists, all leading practitioners in music, video game and immersive creation. Aimed at exploring the intersection between technology, creativity and business, it will be attended by more than 20,000 delegates and nearly 5,000 professionals from 2,100 companies, arriving from 60 countries. Sónar+D will also partner with 4YFN (4 Years From Now) to launch the Startup Hub, an exclusive new programme for start-ups, investors, mentors and companies. The startups will be chosen from an initial open call that began on 7 May 2019 (information at Só

The EU has recently placed a new emphasis on the creative economy as the key to the future of European industry. Sónar’s strap line — “music, technology, creativity” — could be lifted from a European Commission policy document. Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner For Culture, who’s responsible for art and music, recently explained to DJ Mag why he’s currently emphasising the importance of music and festivals.

“Music to me isn’t just entertainment,” Navracsics says. “It has a huge social role. Firstly, in the integration of society. Music, as a non-verbal form of communication, can be a first step in integration. On the other hand, music and festivals play an important role in democratic socialisation and inter-cultural dialogue. Also, educating in mutual tolerance and mutual understanding among communities.”

He also says festivals are, “meeting points for young people that educate them in an informal setting to be tolerant and mutually open to each other”. It’s a sentiment that Palau embraces. “I think the nature of culture, and especially music, is to make you want to forge links with people. Your instinct is to share it with as many people as possible. In that sense, culture undoubtedly brings people closer together. In our specific experience, closer collaboration with like-minded festivals as part of the We Are Europe project over the last four years has been an incredibly positive experience, both in terms of how we approach programming certain artists together, and in terms of being exposed to new trends, ideas and creative possibilities.”

Sónar’s relationship with fi lm has continued to flourish, and this year, a Sónar Films production, Je Te Tiens, directed by festival cofounder Sergio Caballero, was selected for presentation at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors' Fortnight. Sónar has also grown to become a truly global operation, with events taking place around Europe, China, Japan and the Americas.

Since 2002, Sónar has organised more than 50 events in different parts of the world, adapting the Sónar philosophy to new venues and environments, and highlighting local talent and scenes in different cities. These have included Reykjavik, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, New York, London, Cape Town, Frankfurt, Seoul, Lisbon, Lyon, Hamburg, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Osaka, among other destinations around the world.

Among these one-off events, Sónar has also set up regular annual events, alongside its original Barcelona festival. “Right now we’re doing annual events in six cities around the world,” says Palau. “These are Istanbul, Hong Kong, Bogotá and Buenos Aires, with Mexico City and Sónar Athens taking place for the first time this year. We’ve expanded a lot, but the core motivations haven’t really changed. It’s really important for each event to be Sónar, not just another identikit festival, so when deciding on a new city we look at everything, from what the local scene is like, to interesting and unique venues, to make sure we can do something special.”

 For more information on Sónar 2019, visit the festival's website