Sónar was established in 1994 by Ricard Robles, Enric Palau and Sergi Caballero. It was the same year 2020Vision started and I have always felt a strong connection to the festival. I have attended every edition since 1996, apart from one time in 2000 when the entire UK Air Traffic Control systems went down and I spent it in a very hot and angry Liverpool airport, waiting for a flight which never departed.
The festival has always been different to all others with a strong emphasis on art, multimedia and new technology. From the outset the curators sought out cutting edge experimental talent and pushed both artistic and genre boundaries. Even the most knowledgeable music aficionados are left scratching their heads when they pick up a Sónar program and find scores of artists they don't know. Maybe that is why so many return every year - for the joy of discovery.
Sergi Caballero departed from using typical electronic music design soon after the very first events. He has created an entire catalogue of thought provoking flyers alongside graphic designers Albert Claret, Angel Uzkiano and Aurelio Sanchez including using; Maradona (above), pictures of beautiful models wetting their pants, people with their eyes cut out, human heads fused with animal bodies and many more.
I have been lucky enough to witness some great avant garde Sónar moments, some unique to the festival itself including the performances of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Matthew Herbert in L'Auditori, the home of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Grand designs on a grand scale.
Sónar manages to book artists at exactly the right time; be it the moment they burst into the public's perception, the absolute peak of their career or when it is time for them to return. The best examples of these uncanny bookings I have attended were; Ricardo Villalobos going back to back with Richie Hawtin in 2004 before the general public knew him, LCD Soundsystem making people cry they were so good, right at the top of their game in 2010 and Kraftwerk playing again finally in the right setting at the right time in 1998 in the Mar Bella.
Other great memories being in the audience for me; DJ Harvey's return to Europe in 2013, hearing WhoMadeWho for the first time at CCCB, The Beastie Boys in 2007, FK mixing dub techno with dub reggae in 2002 in the sunshine, Roots Manuva live in Sonar Lab, 2 Many DJs destroying the Sonar Pub when they had just broken, The Roots and of course Laurent Garnier each and every time.
I first got to play at Sónar myself in 1998 when the venue was the Mar Bella on the beach in Barcelona. I closed the outdoor stage on Sunday morning. The stage was on a terrace directly adjacent to the beach. I remember dropping Moodymann - 'The Day We Lost The Soul' and Galaxy to Galaxy - 'Hi Tech Jazz' as the sun came up around 5am. It was a huge gig for me as no one really knew me in Europe before. After that session I continued to go religiously every year, even if I wasn't playing, to get my dose of inspiration. It also kick started a golden age (literally - the sun was always shining) of gigs in Spain for me. I then got booked for Sonar by Night in the aborted 2000 mission which was kindly carried over to 2001 when we finally arrived.
The next time I participated again as a DJ was for Sonar by Day 2003 at the CCCB, also know as Macba, behind the art gallery. When I arrived there was an ambient DJ playing and people were sitting around in deck chairs. Sonar always embraces the weird and wonderful. I was worried as I thought that playing any beats at all would be destroying their vibe. I remember starting by cutting in the snare drum from Bobby Peru - 'Jack to the Future' and instantly people looked up bleary eyed. When I let the kick drop they all got up and literally threw the deck chairs to the side of the room. By the end of the first track there were over 1000 people in there. I have still never seen such a rapid transformation of one of my dance floor to this day!
We then played twice as the live show 2020Soundsystem in 2005 and 2010. Closing again on the outdoor 'Pub' stage in 2005. This is still one of my favourite pictures of any show I have been involved in.
From 2000 onwards a scene grew up in Barcelona running concurrently alongside the festival, which, until recently, became known as 'Off Sónar'. The 'Off' scene was testament to the huge success of the festival, which had by then moved to it's current Fira Gran Via location to have more than 53,000 people attending itself. Yet there were still at least the same number coming just to go to the record label, magazine and beach parties that grew up in the city. By 2007 The accountants Deloitte calculated that Sonar was responsible for adding €52 Million to Catalunya's GDP.
As 2020Vision we threw 'Off' parties every year ourselves which were largely excellent. But by 2012 the festival had had enough of other organisations using their name and they started to clamp down on use of their brand identity in all promotional material. At first I felt this was a little heavy handed as the 'Off' scene was healthy for the city but I also happened to know the head of PR & media at Sonar, Georgia Taglietti, so I spoke to her about it. She explained that the festival was happy that so many people come to the city during Sónar week, but using the Sónar name for shows that had nothing to do with them was like as another record label using our 2020 name and us having nothing to do with the quality of product they put out. I got the point and along with many others stopped using the 'Off Sónar' tag. There continues to be a healthy electronic music movement in the city outside the festival but it is indeed sad that many people visiting during Sónar don't even go to the main festival.
So now it's time to return in 2014 to Sónar by Night to celebrate 'Content - 20 years of 2020Vision.' Once again we have been given the closing session of the festival on Sunday morning on the outdoor stage of the Sónar Lab. This time it is a 2020Vision showcase with myself, Paul Woolford and Debukas Live. The history, the pressure, the excitement. I am getting goosebumps as I write...