This week is a massive one for electronic music, with Electric Daisy Carnival lighting up its ferry wheels in Las Vegas, and Sónar returning to its hometown of Barcelona. But while the former has spread to nine states in the US as well as Mexico and the UK, that's nothing compared to Sónar, whose passport is justifiably battered. Since the music and new media festival went global over ten years ago, it has expanded into 50 cities from Rome to Reykjavik, Seoul to São Paulo. But as Sónar has grown exponentially, it also struggles to keep true to its experimental ethos.
In the early 1990s, the small electronic music scene in Barcelona was balkanized. Industrial ruled a few small clubs. Electro-acoustic academic types holed up in the ivory tower making weird sounds à la IRCAM, the Parisian new music research center. Acid house was busy exploding off the coast on Ibiza—just a ferry ride away—but made less of a splash on the mainland than it did on another island, Britain.
"The scene was isolated and not connected," says Enric Palau, a musician and visual artist who co-founded Sónar. "What we did was connect everything to be very open minded and democratic to invite all these communities to participate, enjoy, and discover."
The first Sónar took place in June 1994. The three-day festival, headlined by the likes of Laurent Garnier and Sven Väth, was divided into a daytime and nighttime portion—a tradition that holds today. It also included the Record Fair and Technology Fair, a precursor to SonarPro. Gat, Guillem, and Glòria, the heads of the Barcelona-based experimental music label G33G, recall what the festival's debut was like. "Our group was the first to play on the first night of the first Sónar. The first fair at the Barcelona Center of Contemporary Culture was a meeting of independent labels, basically from all over Spain. And there we were, helping set up the tables." Palau and fellow Sónar co-founder Sergi Caballero later contributed to RAEO's first record, part of the cross-pollination the festival helped to encourage.
Sónar's DIY approach attracted 6,000 people in 1994. Today, that number has ballooned to over 100,000 visitors who will shuttle between two massive, professionally staffed venues— Fira Montjuïc expo center by day and Fira Gran Via L'Hospitalet convention center at night—along with gear demos at SonarPro, new technology at Sónar+D, film screenings at SonarCinema, and multimedia art at SonarMàtica.
The festival's explosive growth wouldn't have been possible without serious support from the city, which came early and often. Before settling into their current mammoth venues, organizers partnered with cultural institutions to bring electronic music into museums and concert halls, foreshadowing events like MoMA's PS1 Warm Up.
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"Sónar is in essence an urban phenomenon that innovated by doubling down on the center of Barcelona when the tendency with festivals was to go to the countryside or the beach," says Mateu Hernandez, Barcelona Global CEO and a former adviser to city hall. "It's difficult to understand the global attraction of Barcelona without Sónar," he concludes. (Ultra organizers take note here and maybe you can salvage your relationship with the City of Miami.)
After a pivotal transition from bootstrap operation to mega-event between 1997 to 2001, Sónar's first overseas edition was in 2002 at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The UK was a logical choice, given the droves of Brits who have spearheaded a festival crowd that is now a 50/50 split of Spaniards and foreigners. Since the Sónar armada landed on British shores, its empire has staked claims across Europe, the Americas, and Asia. "Over the years, we've been going to places where the music scene was powerful, interesting, and special," Palau says. "Places like São Paulo, Tokyo, and Reykjavik." For those keeping score at home, Sónar's US appearances include Boston, Chicago, DC, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland.
But it's south of the border where Sónar envisions its El Dorado. "South America is a very interesting area for Sónar," Palau says. "Brazil's music heritage is amazing but it's very conservative. Its known worldwide, but we're talking tropicalia and bossa nova. For experimental and electronic musicians it's not an easy place."
Read: "Here's What I Saw (Well, Survived) at This Year's Sónar Festival"
This year the festival is making a big push on the continent, an avant-garde Reconquista with back-to-back events scheduled in November for Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and São Paulo. The latter was Sónar's first South American port of call back in 2004 and returns for its third edition this year after the 2013 edition was canceled "due to instability in the Brazilian entertainment market" according to a press release at the time.
"We are witnessing the arrival of great festivals in Brazil, but Sónar is different," says Duda Magalhães, CEO of Dream Factory, the company producing Sónar São Paulo. "It has a clued-in public, willing to try new artistic experiences and even be the content provider for the festival itself."
Sónar's band of advanced music conquistadores is also excited to raise a flag for the first time in Santiago, on the native soil of Ricardo Villalobos and Nicolas Jaar. "Chile is a more rock-oriented place but the scene is very connected with Berlin," Pelau says. "Bogotá is one of the new young capitals in South America going through a sort of freedom for a country that has been suffering."
All empires must worry about imperial overreach, however, and Palau is quick to point out, "It's not a franchise, it's not like we open a store somewhere and sell a license to do the event." Sónar HQ retains involvement with booking and makes sure that visual arts and technology, now core components of the Sónar concept, are given their due. "We pay special attention to the local scene and check with the partner about what to present in terms of local artists," he says.
Sónar's metamorphosis into a global brand has also left some by the wayside. "It's been years that we haven't participated in Sónar because it's become a victim of its own success," the G33G crew says. Headliners this year like The Chemical Brothers, Skrillex, and Duran Duran are a far cry from indie labels trading obscure records in the early '90s.
DJ /rupture (Jace Clayton), who performed at Sónar in conjunction with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and his live band Nettle in the 2000s, remembers how the festival's energy would course through the city's veins every June. He played to packed crowds at a parallel mini-event called Wrong Festival and even threw a €1-cover party at La Makabra squat, a backbone of the city's anarchist community.
Although he is complimentary about the festival, Clayton is ambivalent about the city whose image it has shaped. "As organizers and curators, Sónar's team had a prescient vision," he says. But the reality of local artistic life is more complicated.
"Barcelona's electronic music reputation is based on outsiders coming to Sónar and optimistically assuming that because of the great high-profile festival, things are hopping there the rest of the year, which has never been the case, then or now," he says. "For the rest of the year, there is precious little infrastructure or support networks for weird music; it's like the opposite of a place like New York City, with countless DIY venues, and where there's never been a long-running music festival."
A small but strong roster of artists does make Barcelona their home, however, and the powers-that-be hope more will join them. "The challenge now is for Barcelona to be like Sónar year-round, so that the avant-garde talent that heeds the call of Sónar once a year see the city as an opportunity to develop their technological and creative talent," says Hernandez.
With experimental music in the vocabulary of big business civic promotion, the Sónar set is now decidedly mainstream. But as the festival reaches the apex of crossover appeal by featuring a headliner like Skrillex, its three days of programming still feature plenty of Catalan and Spanish talent. Plus, the political tide is turning in Barcelona. A new mayor named Ada Colau, who came out of the Indignados anti-austerity protest movement, took office on Saturday. Already she has called for making the city more hospitable to locals through initiatives like slowing the tourist onslaught every summer, which kicks off with the tens of thousands coming to Sónar. As Barcelona seeks to reclaim its own identity, perhaps Sónar will do the same.
Greg Scruggs is a freelance writer on music, culture, and cities with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter.