Sound and Enlightenment

Why are dance music festivals in the UK such a damp squib? Isabel Hopwood looks to Barcelona's Sonar event for some answers...

By Isabel Hopwood

 
What’s the best thing about the Sonar electronic arts festival? Could it be the sun? The throngs of good-natured music lovers? Or the depth and breadth of the music itself? The answer is, of course, all of the above, plus two very important points that make Sonar different to any UK music festival: at Sonar they treat sound as an art form, and they treat the punters like adults.

It might sound a tad stroky-chin to call sound an art form, but that’s because the idea usually conjures images of shiny-faced ponces drooling over something bereft of imagination, emotion or both. An art form is a medium of sonic, visual or structural communication – and at Sonar we’re talking about electronic sound.

As with all art forms, there’s the super-accessible mainstream (Venga Boys); the leftfield (Underworld); the fringe (Adult.); the obscure yet influential (Drexciya, Main); and the downright bonkers (Drop Bass Network Records, IST).

In the UK, the electronic mainstream is well represented. Radio 1’s programmers dumped the guitars long ago for Dave Pearce and Judge Jules, One Big Summer showcase tours and live broadcasts from Creamfields. As for the leftfield, Glastonbury and the Essential festivals feature such HMV-friendly proponents as Orbital or the Prodigy, shoehorned between the latest post-grunge and sport-metal combos. But UK festival representation of the other three aforementioned sub-genres – which are arguably the freshest and most exciting – is virtually non-existent, even at such electronic music events as Tribal Gathering. Support for the fringe, obscure and the bonkers falls to John Peel, underground club nights and internet radio broadcasts. Whether you want to hear or be heard, you’re in the electronic music ghetto.

So why are our dance music festivals so disappointing? It’s probably due, in part, to the nature of the festival promoters. The guys who do Tribal Gathering are used to promoting Reading, and therefore used to banking the cash that such a stampede generates. In the interest of guaranteeing sales a very limited roster of artists are invited to perform. And who better to entice the flocks than those self-styled “soundtrack to the weekend” boys from the nation’s favourite™? You might rock the party every week at your residential slot, and your EPs are being caned from Lisbon to London, but you ain’t shit to the bean-counters. Happy promoters = early sales = names the kids recognise; a Clarke or a Digweed. So the seriously creative side of electronica is in a catch-22. If you make or play “proper” electronic music, your reputation must be sealed by attendant baying crowds. If you haven’t achieved that type of recognition yet (or don’t court it in the first place) you’re not a viable option and they won’t risk giving you a slot. And so Bentley Rhythm Ace are picked over Boards of Canada. It’s a cruel world.

The other problem with festival promotion in the UK is that we refuse to differentiate between the terms “electronic music” and “drug music”. To someone who doesn’t dig the scene, they’re interchangeable. Why do people go to Creamfields, Glastonbury, Tribal Gathering? To get off their boxes, while listening to dance music. So what’s the point in programming anything more ambitious than a 16-hour hardbag drug-binge soundtrack? They wont be able to tell the difference after the third pill.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking drugs and listening to electronic music, there is with limiting the electronic music experience to such contemptuous boundaries. At Sonar, the promoters totally get this. To them, an electronic music festival should encompass the entire range – from the bedroom genii on obscure record labels to influential mavericks of the last generation. Rather than suffocating opportunities for new artists by re-promoting the big draws from last year, they invite live showcases from independent labels as varied as Third Ear, Leaf and Tigerbeat6. They also spread the festivities over three days – Sonar Day and Sonar Night. This means more specialist, experimental, poppy or ambient stuff is played in the afternoon, making way for the seasoned turntable warriors to wow the hordes in the evening. And even then, the emphasis is on bringing the creative edge of electronic sound – albeit the seriously bootyshakin’ variety – to the fans.

That’s why you get Christian Marclay (turntablism’s Uncle Bonkers perverts the groove by drilling a second hole in his records, and then makes children cry by playing three at once), next to Kid 606 (DRRRckckBOOM x starship x bassbins go = crazy god of fucked up noise) next to YoLaTengo (post-prog guitar grooves as the crowds go wild for microscopic marine nature film), followed by adored and genre-defining stalwarts such as Mills, Sanchez and Hawtin. Big Love, eat your fucking heart out.

The tri-lingual, 144-page programme for Sonar, which lists every single artist, drips with enthusiasm for each. And there are artists from Peru, Finland, France, Spain, Japan, Norway, Venezuela… a true international event. Compare this to the coked-up drivel in the first Tribal Gathering programme (a folded pamphlet) which ranted on about future music from the “four corners of the world”, only to list headline DJs from the UK, US, and, erm, Germany. (This faux internationalism was exquisitely lampooned by Birmingham’s House Of God, which produced a flier shortly afterwards, trumpeting Surgeon and Regis from “the four corners of the Midlands”). At Sonar, they take their music seriously. And they take your interests seriously as a fan.

Furthermore, they respect you in other ways. Sonar isn’t just a bafflingly wide international range of electronic music. It takes place in the nicest setting. The whole day event is in a modern art gallery in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona – so you can wander out for tapas and beer in between performances, or inside for special exhibitions of installation, video and visual art. No one seems to be scared that you’ll break the exhibits or savage the kiddies in the streets outside. You can get a full meal at the Sonar buffet – real food! Healthy! And if you need the toilet, you get real ones, with real sinks. If you fancy a drink, you can get a Bloody Mary or a beer, and then sit on a chair in the sun to enjoy it. This is so far removed from being herded into an airfield full of burger vans it’s untrue.

How so, Sonar? It’s hard to imagine the goodly burghers of Manchester or Bristol giving up their galleries for a weekend of what the Daily Mail would surely demonise as Ecstasy Music Frenzy. Maybe this kind of event can only take place in a city like Barcelona itself, a stamping ground to the surrealists who built huge, crazy public parks and churches for the ordinary people to view and enjoy. This is a city whose citizens are used to the idea of the challenging being beautiful at the same time, and also of abstract art being a playground for everyone.

The only pall on the whole event comes from a conversation we had with a French professor the day after. He said that the organisers were in trouble with the authorities for letting the last night run two hours over the agreed curfew. While such disregard of the rules in the UK would have sounded the death knell for the event, in Spain we can probably be more optimistic. The Spanish officials might understand that there is more to the last night of a festival than a curfew; just as the promoters understand that there is more to a line-up than the headliner, and more to electronic music than house. Viva Sonar! 
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