After its 2018 edition, which was also its 25th-anniversary edition, and having avoided talking about the subject until then, the news was confirmed: the American fund Providence Equity Partners had bought part of the festival. On one side, this was a very important source of economic income, which is always positive for the development of any brand or event. On the other side, there was a risk that the creators of Sónar, who are still its current directors Enric Palau and Sergi Caballero, would see their criteria conditioned in all senses: when programming, when organising, when communicating… It has been a complicated year, in which the festival has been in the spotlight of the most critical eyes. But it seems that light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to blind us. There are reasons for hope.
Sonar hasn’t been the only one
Like a dog chasing his own tail, the same situation that Sónar has lived has been lived by his -I don’t know whether to call it competitors- of Primavera Sound. Until now, the May festival promoted band music, the most organic sounds, the concert format, while Sónar bet on the most ground-breaking avant-garde, the least seen, the most extravagant shows. However, despite the fact that both management teams deny the influence of the investment fund on their day-to-day at the office (yes, PS also sold part of their festival to the same guys), 2019 has seen the Primavera Sound mainstage surrender to J Balvin, while the Sónar mainstage will surrender to Bad Gyal at the By Day and to Bad Bunny at the By Night. Is it casual? Simple representation of reality? The natural course of the musical flow on stage? Triumph of the urban scene? We won’t be the judges. What is clear is that both festivals converge. Both know that they enter swampy terrain and become an easy objective for criticism. They both know they’re taking risks. But the risk is fun. Hopefully.
Still, the story looks good
After showing the background, we have to be honest: it looks very, very good. It’s true that Sónar no longer talks about “advanced music” (the term was not mentioned even once at the official presentation in June), but they highlight other factors that bring cache to the event.
Sónar emphasizes this year the fact of the exclusivity and of premiering the great majority of its shows. The festival presents 140 performances in total, of which 80 are absolute premieres and unique experiences, which have never happened before and will never happen again. There are artists from 36 countries (it’s not the most international festival in the city, but it’s not far away either), and the local community is the most represented with 22 performances by Catalan artists.
“We are looking for artists who are located in the sound periphery, be it gender, geographical or political periphery. We are looking for artistic radicalism.” With these words, Sergi Palau justified the bets (mostly ground-breaking, whether we like it or not) of this 26th edition of Sónar. Barcelona is the “city of prodigies” and Sonar is the best example of this.
Stylistic diversity, flag of the festival
We’ll dance to the most contemporary urban music. We will be able to see closely the cutting-edge Latin music with Bad Bunny. We will approach British grime, dubstep and R&B music with Skepta or Stormzy (which replaces the still imprisoned A$AP Rocky). We’ll look at the American trap and hip-hop. The dance music will be the protagonist with Disclosure, Paul Kalkbrenner or the Belgian DJ of the moment Amelie Lens. We will also have Peggy Gou or Honey Dijon, house stars of the moment, who have been asked to collaborate four hands with other masters of the clubbing scene as Palms Trax or the great Louie Vega, member of Masters At Work.
Britain’s Four Tet will finally bring its exclusive live performance to Barcelona, for which it has asked for a completely dark stage so that its music can be the absolute centre of the show. The Germans Dixon and DJ Koze promise to host magical moments, as they will be in charge of closing the SónarPub on both nights (or rather mornings). Daphni will extend the music of Sónar by Day in the Village until midnight on Thursday. And we’ll have classical dance music with the long-awaited Underworld concert on Friday night.
No less noteworthy are DJ Krush’s slowed-down hip-hop, the presentation of master Fennesz’s new experimental album, the exclusive show of Arca’s talent, the peripheral representation of the prolific Kenyan producer Slikback or the diversity and maturity of the local scene with Bad Gyal (who jumps to the mainstage after performing in the XS in the past), Dellafuente’s mix of trap, hip-hop and flamenco, Cecilio G’s funny impertinence or Lil Moss and Friends’ set. All this, without forgetting the proposal between hardcore and digital reggaeton by Virgen María, who breaks with the most provocative aesthetics and technological margins.
The AI (artificial intelligence) will have its space on stage during Holly Herndon’s show (she will present Proto, an act that unites a chorus of human voices and an analyzer that will generate a replica in real-time) and Actress’ performance (he will create an artificial alter ego of himself on stage).
On Sunday night, Sónar will once again join forces with the Festival Grec to close, in the Teatre Grec, with a concert by The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band. This is a musical project created with a desire for political and social protests following the Brexit, in which the 50 voices of the Cor Pilot de l’Esmuc will also take part. Once again, Sónar, bordering on the margins of vindication.
Sónar, in numbers
As we said, Sónar presents 140 shows with more than 300 artists from 36 countries. There will be 80 absolute premieres and unique experiences. 89 live shows (of which 12 tech shows) and 51 DJ sets. There is a total of 22 Catalan artists, and 8 Latin American countries and 5 African countries are represented. There are also artists from Asia and Oceania, which makes Sonar 2019 the first edition with representation from the 5 continents.
The total budget is €9,350,000, a figure very similar to that of 2018 (it has only grown by 1.7%). 78% of this budget (€7,300,000) are own resources. 15% (€1,400,000) is private sponsorship and 7% (€650,000) is public aid from the Ajuntament de Barcelona, the Generalitat de Catalunya and the European Union.
One more year, it seems that the sold-out won’t happen (Sonar’s capacity is almost infinite, especially at the Fira Gran Via, the Sónar by Night venue). The figures referring to the audience tell us that 55.4% of the assistants are national public, while 44.6% are foreign public. There are 105 countries of origin among foreign buyers. United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the United States lead the list, in that order.
Tension till last minute with the riggers’ strike
When all problems looked like solved, still one more had to appear. The employees of the company in charge of the installation, UTE Rigging, went on strike. The immediate reaction of the festival was to encourage the hiring of other installation services. The strikers reacted by denouncing the situation, appealing that Sónar and Fira Barcelona were boycotting their right to strike.
Yesterday morning, Judge Santi Vidal ruled that the case will be judged in September, but that no precautionary measures will be applied immediately, which is the only thing that posed a direct risk to the celebration of the festival. Vidal justified his decision saying that the precautionary measures, despite benefiting the strikers, would have harmed not only UTE, but also third parties such as Sónar, Fira Barcelona and many other restaurants, hospitality and transport companies that already had the impact of Sónar in their sheets.
Shoes, T-shirt(s), and let’s dance
As you can see, it’s been a tough 2019 for Sónar. However, when you look at the line-up, review the timetables, read about the performances and compare innovation, technology, performing arts, urban currents, and cutting-edge and avant-garde music, you realise that, despite everything, Sónar is still there, being Sónar, being the same Sónar that, since 1994, places Barcelona in the centre of the map every summer. Dear friends, welcome, one more year, to Sónar Barcelona.