Barcelona: a thriving cosmopolitan city with a rich history and vibrant culture. The city has hosted the Olympics, is home to arguably the world’s greatest soccer team and has become a world mecca for music of all genres and styles. I’ve loved electronic music for some time now and this year was finally time to pay a visit to the infamous Sónar Festival to feast my eyes and ears on the world’s premier musical talent in electro, house and techno.
Founded in 1994 by Ricard Robles, Enric Palau and Sergi Caballero, the festival is divided into two parts: Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night, based in two different parts of the city. The event has built a reputation in recent years as a global pioneer in its field, now attracting many of the world’s finest DJs, producers and electronic artists. With the influx of brilliant music talent comes the influx of brilliant musical lovers… from all around the world.
In 2013, the music festival attracted 121,000 visitors to Sónar by Night, 59% coming from abroad and spending an average of €725 each over 4 days, with a total of over €50 million contributing to the city as a whole. With such a mass influx of like minded global tourists each year, the city has experienced a ‘social gentrification,’ affecting not only the music and clubbing scene, with many new venues popping up to support the ‘Off-Sónar” party week, but also services, which have seen huge changes too. Hotels, ‘party-style’ hostels and Airbnb in Barcelona have all had to up their game in recent years to cater for a specific type of holiday maker. Barcelona has always been a tourist hot-spot — there’s no denying its pristine coastline and cloudless skies have been on people’s radars for sometime — but it is this specific demographic of young people cascading to the streets for one crazy week per year which has really changed things up for good, and led to numerous other music festivals, nights and standout events developing alongside it.
Sónar’s emphasis on creativity and experience is what really made the event stand out for me. Unlike many festivals in the UK or similar events in Europe, the festival champions local and international creatives in a fashion I have never experienced before. Take a walk around the Sónar by Day site and you’ll see what I mean. Yes there is an outdoor music stage for people to nurse their hangovers during the day, but the crux of daytime affairs occur inside. Here there are industry professionals, leading experts in digital technology and companies on the very cutting edge of ground-breaking musical direction available to demonstrate how they operate. Coupled with this area were secluded zones for art and futuristic concepts to make your mind boggle from 2pm onwards. It really was a mass collection of passionate musical creatives and is something I have never experienced before.
So is Barcelona the European capital for culture? It certainly has the capacity to run for it. In the post credit-crunch era where economies are still looking to reinvent themselves, it is culture-led initiatives and tent-pole events like Sónar which seem, at least in the case of Barcelona, to be truly paying off. The idea of ‘festivalism,’ where “the feeling of effervescence allows the construction of a situation totally separated from the alias of daily life,” helps to create a collective identity — one which is flourishing through social outlets such as Sónar or Primavera Sound.
So economically, culturally and socially, Sónar has helped change the city but how has this tent pole event helped construct and form a new musical direction for its inhabitants? By playing host to and inspiring local talent. Barcelona-born Iván Ramos — a.k.a Coyu — played the main stage at Sónar by Night this year and the tech house DJ was received with mass applause following his trippy visual show and technically superb set. Alongside this, the rise of the electro scene in general has led to an explosion of emerging local talent including Paco Osuna, Art Department, Henry Saiz and many more. To be sure, the emergence of an underground electronic scene, driven largely by the introduction of Sónar in the early 90s, has paved the way for what we are experiencing today and has truly put Barcelona at the forefront of the global music circuit.
So would I return to Sónar festival? Absolutely. There wasn’t one thing I could fault about the event and its passion for creativity was truly inspiring. The impact it’s had on my impression of the city and the fact that I would return again goes to show how culture-driven regenerative strategies can work. So for anyone looking for something new and exciting to do next summer, why not head over to Barcelona for a taste of Sónar? The festival takes place in June, and you certainly won’t regret it.