Sonar’s co-directors on 21 years as Barcelona’s premier electronic music festival

Marcus Barnes

Sonar Sonar’s co directors on 21 years as Barcelona’s premier electronic music festivalSonar festival is the premier electronic music event in Barcelona. It takes place every June and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. In the past 21 years it has become recognised as one of the most forward-thinking and innovative electronic music festivals on the planet, bringing together established artists with young talents on a huge stage as well as hosting technology-based events, too. During my recent visit to Barcelona I sat down with Sonar’s co-directors Ricard Robles and Enric Palau for a chat…

Sonar is now 21 years old, how does today’s event compare with the very first one?

Sónar still remains true to its essence: creativity and technology. The layout has changed, the festival has grown, but we are still passionate today for the same reason that motivated us to create the festival 21 years ago: to offer a demanding audience the best possible mosaic of the music of our time, current and emerging artists and those creative talent with an unique personality.

Sonar is known for its varied line-ups and innovation, but how do you guys stay one step ahead?

Sonar has a mission to explore and is devoted to the experimental. We keep our ears to sounds coming from anywhere in the world, we work with an extensive network of partners and try not to rely too heavily on the lists of “best of the year”. With these inputs for every edition we create a menu where we like to mix risk and novelty with the most reliable and representative of the current and future times.

What would say is particularly special about Sonar compared to other electronic music events around the world?

The crossover between the music and visual arts is essentially what makes the festival unique, as for example this year with the new show of Massive Attack, the Audion, the worldwide exclusive Plastikman or Daito Manabe, a show of interaction between drones and dancers are expressions of the latest aesthetic and technological advances. This is what the festival is looking for, plus, of course, the best electronic dance music and artists from other genres that have made technology a tool to innovate their musical and aesthetic discourse. The use of indoor and outdoor spaces, as well as different formats and capacities on our stages within the two venues allow us to be able to guarantee to the artists the most interesting working conditions to express their work at their maximum expression. In addition, we are surrounded by a particularly attractive environment, which is the city of Barcelona.

Can you explain a little bit about the location, as last year you started using a new venue…

In practical matters, the new Sónar by Day venue in Fira Montjüic has allowed to improve the comfort, the quality we need to present the contents of the festival and its proximity to Sónar night with the usual shuttle transfer… now it’s just 10-15 minutes away. On another conceptual matter, the unusual use of a venue that was created for other purposes is a very interesting challenge for the festival: it improves the ability to innovate and experiment in formats and embrace new artistic proposals that previously which previously had no place, like for instance Sonar +D .

Can you also fill me in on the various different areas people can experience at Sonar (like Sonar +D for example)?

The combination of this year’s Sonar by Day and Sonar by Night portrays better than ever the character of a festival that mixes entertainment, experience and discovery. Sónar by Day, with five stages, offers a kaleidoscopic tour of extreme and disparate musical trends coexisting with numerous proposals for digital and creative technologies from Sonar+D. Turning into a congress aimed at professionals and also with access for the public, Sonar+D explores and shows the relationship between creativity and technology adding the business component: debates and conferences on crowd-funding, trans-media or new distribution platforms on one side; on the other hand, new large format media installations like Unidisplay or the possibility of hinting the future of the audiovisual sector with the first European premiere of virtual reality goggles Oculus Rift for the viewing of the documentary “Clouds”. It all adds with the great moments of Sonar by Night, with four stages (two indoor and two outdoor) extraordinary technical performance (especially in terms of sound quality) that express dramatically the character of the festival as a celebration with its hedonistic side of the artistic excellence in a massive form.

Has the festival affected Barcelona’s music scene?

Sónar will run this year with over 30 artists from the local scene. Where the festival plays an interesting role is as a showcase and promotional platform in order to visualize a creative level momentum of the city, with an explosion of bands never before seen with a music profile as diverse as Dowliners Sekt, Alizz or Desert. Many of these artists are releasing their productions through international channels or are attached to global aesthetic trends; in turn, they are the protagonists of a local circuit of small events (with increasing numbers throughout the year) or clubs and live music venues in the city. In Sónar they also have the opportunity to compare their work with other artists and show it live to the public and professionals from around the world who attend. The festival is a valuable catalyst and an amplifier that puts Barcelona on the international map and perhaps now more than ever, artists are learning how to harness the potential that implies.

I know it must be difficult to choose, but can you list some of your own personal highlights at Sonar over the last two decades?

Indeed, it is a difficult and highly challenging task. I’d have to say the highlight is the festival itself. There are always some artists that stand out or whose draft or impact is greater at a given moment or over the years, but I think the overall experience is the leading highlight and the main memory that survives: you can only achieve this with the  addition and combination of these. I would say that we have had memorable sunrises and sunsets and many unrepeatable days and nights.

How do you feel about the “off” parties that take place around the city?

It has been a growing influence parallel to the festival’s natural process. Sónar turns Barcelona into the “electronica world capital”, and all the industry and artists wish to be here. It is, however, an unstable, short-lived and rather uneven quality ecosystem, much more oriented to the casual tourist than to the real music fan.

Are there any artists you haven’t managed to sign up for a performance yet who are on your wishlist?

I think that is a question often related to classic myths of music. Sónar has had many from Kraftwerk to Stockhausen, through Beastie Boys, Roxy Music and The Human League. We will keep inviting artists which are referential, but the same or more interesting is also the wishlist for the newest artist, like this year’s Gessafelstein, Evian Christ. The underground youth, at the same time behind the overground big productions with Kanye West or Lady Gaga. It will be interesting to follow their evolution, but we won’t know who will be the next artists of those kind in the future. Still, if you put a gun to my head, I would say Talking Heads, the most unique band of all time and the most unlikely to see again gathered on stage.

In a perfect world, how do you envisage Sonar evolving over the coming years? For instance, how would you like the event to be in 10 years time?

We hope the imagination of the artists and their use of technology will still produce amazing and enthusiastic creations. We wish that Sónar will be the moment and the physical experience for the meeting between those artists and the audience. Challenge and fun, these are the best catalysts for our future festivals. The formats may evolve and the electronic scene no doubt, but Sónar will always focus first and mainly on the talent instead of the market.

You also hold Sonar events in locations outside of Barcelona (in South Africa and Japan for example). How do these events differ from the original and how have they affected the brand?

South Africa in December 2014 and Stockholm, Reykjavik in February and Copenhagen in March 2015 are the next international dates ahead. There will also be news in other cities for next year. In the last ten years the festival has taken place in 23 cities around the world in different formats. We have chosen places with a rich musical scene in which we could integrate with and, at the same time, cities and venues that allow us to transfer the idea of ​​cosmopolitan festival and trends browser. These round trips also lead to influences which shape the programme of the festival in Barcelona: for instance this year we have a significant Nordic presence (Lykke Li, Royksopp & Robyn, Todd Terje, Trentemoller) or South African (Spoek mathambo, Sibot) and of course Japanese talent like Daito Manabe or Nisennenmondai. The different artistic nuances and sound languages ​​of each spot on the planet where the festival travels are integrated into the Sónar values and ​​certainly shape our global brand profile.

Given your years of experience, who are some artists you think our readers should check out?

Considering the philosophy of the festival, which loves extremes,  in the program this year we suggest experimental proposals like Ben Frost, Oneohtrix Point Never, Forest Swords or Oren Ambarchi with the Sinfonietta Cracovia to the new storyline of dance music represented by DJ Snake, Evian Christ or Pretty Lights, not to mention the constant evolution of unique personalities like Four Tet and Jon Hopkins. At the same time, we face a high expectation of the new releases of classic shows like Massive Attack or Plastikman.

A good approach to this is the list we have created in Spotify: An Introduction to Sónar2014 – which you can listen to here.

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  • Matthew Boyle

    sonar is all commercial and crappy now. off sonar is the best, don’t know what they are yapping about saying it is just for the tourist rather than the music fan. I think they have it mixed up. #Dorks.

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