When it started in 1994, only 6,000 people turned up to see a series of concerts spread between an art museum and a dance hall in Barcelona. At that time, email hardly existed in Spain, let alone big electronic music festivals...
The Sónar Festival has grown to be the biggest electronic music festival in Europe, drawing about 100,000 fans to Barcelona for a heady, eclectic mix of art and technology every year.
As it celebrates its 30th edition between 15-17 June, fans will flock to the shores of the Mediterranean city to see top acts like Aphex Twin and Richie Hawtin.
Over the years, the list of stars who have played at Sonar reads like a who’s who of contemporary music over the past three decades. Orbital, Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, Björk, The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sonic Youth, Chemical Brothers, Kayne West, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Beastie Boys, Massive Attack and Rosalia are among a few notable examples.
But despite boasting a wealth of DJs and electronic music in its roster, Sónar is not merely rooted to the genre and has featured musicians as diverse as Roxy Music, The Human League, Nile Rogers and the Pet Shop Boys.
Not content to stay based in Barcelona, Sónar has spawned around 100 festivals in 35 cities in 23 countries.
In order to spread the word to a younger generation, organisers have also launched Sónar Kids in 2009. The idea was to bring creativity and new technologies to a younger generation, meaning loyal festivalgoers could bring their children along for the experience.
That same year, the festival sought to branch out and bring in sounds from other parts of the world.
Konono, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke and Omar Souleyman from Syria were big stars in 2009 - and the late British DJ John Peel played a set as part of an ongoing link between the festival and the state-funded British broadcaster the BBC, which has long sent all its top DJs to appear.
By 2010, Sónar had become almost as popular a tourist attraction in Barcelona as visiting Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, a day spent at FC Barcelona’s temple to football, the Camp Nou, or seeing the paintings at the Miró Foundation.
From 1996, Sónar launched its bold image campaign, which at times has courted controversy. Among the most notable faces to promote the festival are Diego Armando Maradona in 2018 and the founders’ own parents.
During the pandemic in 2020, restrictions meant the festival went online but still carried on.
Sónar’s mission statement is to celebrate innovation, not just on the decks of the DJs or musicians but across other sectors too.
Richie Hawtin, the Canadian DJ who has been hailed as an icon of electronic music, has performed at Sonar since 1997.
“Sónar really created the whole foundation of any cross-disciplinary artists to perform on the same stage or to go beyond their normal practices or to experiment”, he tells Euronews Culture.
“Sónar didn’t just invite you to come and do what you normally do. The message was 'If you would like to do something else, we are happy to hear it, to challenge it'.”
Hawtin, who will perform a special light show during his DJ set on 17 June, continues: “For someone like me who thought there was a connection between the arts, installations and music, Sónar saw that from day one. I think that is the lifeblood of Sónar. It is what has made it so strong over the years. It is still the place where technology and music smash into each other. You never know what to expect at Sónar”.
The DJ will also unveil a new project with a Latvian synth company called Erica Synths with the aim to try to teach teenagers how to use these instruments.
Sónar 2023 will attempt to explore the increasing impact of Artificial Intelligence.
Kate Darling, an MIT Media Lab researcher and expert on robot ethics, will appear alongside the forensic group Forensic Architecture at this year’s event.
Not that this is new ground for the festival, as Sónar has a history of exploring AI through community projects. In 2021, Sónar teamed up with the Cognition and Brain Plasticity unit of Bellvitge Hospital in Barcelona and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies to perform a “live experiment on musical curiosity” with DJ Alicia. The aim was to research memory and apply this work with Alzheimer's patients.
After all these years of evolving, Sónar will continue trying to push the boundaries.
To explain how Sónar has changed the relationship between art and technology, Hawtin should have the last word.
“I do think it is important that people just come into the scene with global festivals," he says. "But to get to this place that music and technology go hand in hand took a long while. I do believe that Sónar was very much instrumental in that narrative."
2023 Sónar Barcelona takes place from 15 June to 17 June.