It was August 2005 that I first set foot on the Óbudai Island (“Old Buda” in Hungarian). I, still a minor at that point, had obtained written permission from my mother to travel and cross country borders on my own, with the intention of finding out exactly what the unprecedented hype surrounding Budapest’s Sziget Festival, then the only major festival in the Central and East European region, was about. The weeklong music event — even back then headlined by a genre-flexible alloy comprised of the biggest names in music — was somewhat akin to a mythical creature, usually described by platitudes and abstract exaggerations; “magical”, “free”, “unique”, “incomparable” were among the most overused words. As a sophomore in high school and traveling alone, I couldn’t really stay for all seven days, nor did I want to, after all, the first day was headlined by Sean Paul, yikes (I’ve grown and matured to bitterly regret the decision not to see him live).
Google kindly informs me that, in 2005, I was at Sziget on 13, 14 and 15 August. I went there specifically to see Korn (don’t judge, I was a teen), Franz Ferdinand, who were the hottest stuff of the moment, and Nick Cave, the grandmaster of art I was unable to fully understand back then, but could still appreciate and look up to. Truthfully, music-wise, I don’t remember much. There was a prominent Hungarian rock band on the Main Stage each day. I saw Skinny Puppy and remember feeling a profound sense of discomfort caused by them throwing raw meat across the stage… I think. I remember thinking Jonathan Davis’ voice sounded a lot better live and thoroughly enjoyed his bagpipe stint. After having spent five hours in the front row on the second day, I managed to snag a guitar pick from FF’s Nick McCarthy and was on top of the world. Finally, I recall thinking Nick Cave was dazzling in all the transgressive, inappropriate ways. That, and Warren Ellis’ violin strings, possibly the bow too, breaking. That’s all.
On the other hand, I vividly recollect everything else, most of which had little to do with music. I remember thousands of smiling faces, the myriad languages spoken, everyone’s inexplicable friendliness and enthusiasm, the affordable food, the countless shops scattered all over the Island, the beach on the Danube where people rested during the day and played beach volleyball, the earrings made of Lego cubes I started collecting that year, the idea of, however fleeting, true freedom. And love. And ambition. But more about that later. The love for music, travel, and friendship I had seen there, almost single-handedly prompted this former wide-eyed teenager to become a cultural critic that same year. The immersive quality of this unique island, one on which you can truly experience an alternative reality, one full of love, joy, and support, for an entire week, got me right there and then, for good. I have been reporting on the event since, without skipping a single event. I love it with passion still.
Some 12 years and several lifetimes later, much has changed. Founded in 1993 by Károly Gerendai as a student-run event, called Diáksziget (Student Island), it featured Hungarian artists only and saw 43,000 attendees. In 1994 the headliners were the original Woodstock performers. It took the festival four years to repay the debts incurred after the inaugural edition. In 2005 the attendance was 385,000 over the course of seven days, nine times more compared to the first edition. Everything continued to expand exponentially from there. The ambition to develop Sziget into one of the largest rock and pop festivals globally morphed into the aspiration to create a gargantuan cultural event, a singular entertainment behemoth with an educational and avant-garde edge. In 2006 a new, a blues stage and the World Music stage, were unveiled, along with a jazz tent and many more programs to accompany the mainstream pop-rock musical lineup.
The budget grew to $12 million, then to $16 million, $17 million, and so on. Several difficult years, caused by the economic crises, were sustained and overcome between 2011 and 2014. The organizers barely managed to break even, though the number of stages and programs kept doubling year after year. NGO and TED talk tents were introduced with the purpose of advancing cultural discourse, circus and acrobatic performances were established to embellish the atmosphere, standup comedy, film and theater programs were set up to diversify the content offered to the tens of thousands of campers who would seldom leave the Island after they had moved in there for the whole week. The chess, darts, board games and poker tents quickly got good traction among the numerous students looking for something to do in the early afternoon — those interested in the list of all activities Sziget offers should examine the Sziget “passport”, a 78-page booklet outlining everything there is to do during the event.
Fast forward to 2016 — as a result of the zealotry of Sziget Cultural Management Ltd. employees, most of whom work full-time in festival production, the numbers had officially gone from impressive to outright incredible: 496,000 visitors from 102 countries, with more than 1,500 music, art, sports, and educational programs across 50 stages plus about 60 art installations from aspiring local artists. The event had secured its spot in cultural history and the plans for the quarter-century anniversary were underway. By then the organization has grown into the largest independent festival-organizing company in Europe, managing a total of seven festivals.
“All this must be little more than great business,” skeptics, and especially those who haven’t been to the event, would say. The reality is, and Gerendai is particularly emphatic about this — his organization barely makes any profit from Sziget. In the history of the festival, the profit never exceeded some three- to four-percent, while some years the organization barely managed to break even. Yes, in 2016 the budget was $20 million, yes, the revenue had grown to 2.25 billion Hungarian Forints (approximately $8.6 million), but consider the inconceivable expenses, the 16,000 people working on the Island throughout the festival week, the bookings, the logistics. In the end, the profit was barely 50 million HUF ($192,000). So much for getting rich while doing what you love.
The latest development does provide a bit of a plot twist, so to speak. In January this year the US-based private equity firm Providence Equity Partners bought a 70 percent stake in the Sziget Cultural Management Ltd. Gerendai, Sziget founder and owner, said his team would retain a 30 percent stake in the company, as well as management rights and operational control of the festivals of the Sziget brand. It seemed as though a new era has begun.
This year the Island opened its gates on Wednesday, 9 August, for its sold-out first day, with P!nk as the headliner. The festival has become famous in the past five years or so for bringing one of the biggest pop/rock stars to baptize the event on its first day. In previous years those people have been Prince, Robbie Williams, and Rihanna. Now it was up to Alecia Moore to astonish either with her vocal skill, or her world-class scenography, or the “x factor”. Hopefully, all three.
Given that the first festival day is reserved mostly for the “moving-in” procedures for tens of thousands of campers, all of whom are invited to make camp wherever possible (there is no designated camping area), it comes as no surprise that the majority of the bigger stages are still inactive. The only program worth checking out is on the Main Stage, and it starts with the local pop-jazz-funk sextet, Lóci játszik, followed by the Bosnian hip-hop-reggae-dub-rock septet, Dubioza Kolektiv. Lamentably, the lines for the ticket-to-wristband exchange are overlong, and both these shows were watched by modest crowds, measured in mere thousands.
It’s 7PM and the “clapping stick party” commences and thousands flock instantly. It’s but one of the silly “parties” offered daily at the festival, usually around this hour in front of the Main Stage. Colorful? Yes. Loud? Surely, irritating, well, to a degree, but its makes for some mean drone shots. At 7.30PM the Canadian pop-punk band, Billy Talent, takes to the stage to open for P!nk. While energetic and earnest, they simply don’t have the hit power to sustain the crowd’s attention for nearly an hour and a half. Finally at 9.30, P!nk runs out in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 60,000 and gets the party started with the lead single off her sophomore album, Missundaztood. In cargo pants, sporting a buzz cut stylized with some blond locks, the 37-year-old American singer is neither a diva nor a pop sensation — in fact, she’s a genuine rocker, and a rare bird in the 21st-century pop landscape.
Effortlessly maintaining a high tempo by moving on from one hit to another, Moore proves that some 15 years of a mainstream career have taught her how to put on a spectacular show without catering to the basic instincts of raving teens. With a real band, lead by the 28-year old guitar prodigy, Justin Derrico, she brings out more than half a dozen dancers and gymnasts, male and female, to entertain with wacky, offbeat choreographies. Candid and cheerful, she possesses the famed “x factor” in copious amounts and amazes at every turn.
“Try” and “Just Give Me a Reason” are particularly well-received, and prove beyond any doubt that the physically tiny artist owns a mighty pair of lungs. In fact, easily the best part of the show is the acoustic session midway through, starting with a rendition of “Who Knew”; tears are shed on every corner of the stage. Funnily enough, even with a portfolio like hers, the two most impressive songs of the night are covers of “Me & Bobby McGee”, and especially “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, by Joan Baez. The latter quickly turns from a heartfelt ballad into a rock ‘n’ roll spectacle, with Derrico astonishing with his guitar prowess, and Moore sparing no breath to demonstrate her love for the song with a powerhouse performance.
The show ends with a hilarious performance of “So What”. For the grand finalé, Moore takes flight across the jam-packed Main Stage, suspended with metal wires, improvising somersaults to the best of her ability. The crowd is absolutely thrilled, cheering and enjoying every aspect of the show. People go back to their tents happy. Sziget is officially on.
Thursday sees, surprisingly, a much smaller crowd. Due to scorching heat (possibly the reason for fewer people attending the shows during daytime), we make it around 5.30PM to see Tom Odell, who has been promoted from performing at the A38 tent, the second-biggest stage, nowadays reserved for rock, punk and high-end electronic music, to a slot on the Main Stage. This was a solid judgment call, and more than 15,000 fangirls push one another to get closer to their idol. The 26-year-old Englishman looks dapper in a suit and sounds fierce live, incomparably better to what we get on his glossy, polished records. This is mostly due to his vigorous piano playing and jazz improvisations, but one shouldn’t neglect his vocal skills, either; Odell isn’t necessarily a better singer live, but he certainly is more loose, vulnerable and honest.
The 13-song set is well-paced and laced with hit singles, though the culmination arrives during the fifth song, “Can’t Pretend”. All worked up, blushing and sweaty, Odell loses it by the end and bashes his piano with force, screaming. As cute as “Another Love” may be, even live, where Odell provides an intro by improvising Beethoven’s “For Elise”, the reality of Odell’s performances is much rawer and satisfying than anything we’ve ever gotten from him through post-production. Girls scream while the middle-aged festival partners in the VIP area are unphased.
Next up is Biffy Clyro. The Scottish hard-ish rock trio is impeccable live, and global festival favorites for a reason (they also already performed at Sziget, in 2013). The sheer energy of their tunes draws a large enough crowd in and jocks from some 105 countries are already inebriated halfway through. Simon Neil is customarily topless, with sweat dripping from his shoulder-long hair and blue sweatpants and the crowd does their best to follow his lead, many taking off their shirts and mumbling to whatever lyrics they knew (not many).
On the other hand, Wiz Khalifa is somewhat of a letdown. The proud owner of the song featured in the second most-watched YouTube video in history fails to consistently engage the 40,000-strong crowd by inarticulately roaming the stage, mumbling his own verses, and relying heavily on playback. A proper band and a different arrangement of tunes would do him good. Still, the crowd, by now in full festival swing, responds well, clapping their hands and replicating sounds coming from the stage whenever possible. Using “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as an intro to “No Sleep” works well, and “Black and Yellow” makes the audience berserk. Tabloids report Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Justin Theroux and Luke Evans are all on the Island, but nobody really sees them. No wonder that Sziget festival logistics are famed worldwide.
As expected, “See You Again” ignites a massive singalong, and one could say that the rapper did satisfy at least a part of his audience. Elsewhere at the A38 tent, the Vaccines are a delight. Perpetually irked, snappy and kinetic, the English indie rockers manage to cram a total of 19 punk-rock tunes in under 75 minutes. What started as a half-full concert turns into a full capacity, sweaty and fuming gig, within minutes. Even the majority who don’t know the lyrics to “Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”, “If You Wanna”, “Teenage Icon” and “Bad Mood”, dance like they are hearing their favorite band play at a homecoming for the first time. While the singer Justin Hayward-Young is a bit of an overkill, sneering at the crowd and overdoing the “rock star” pose and enunciation (“Yeah, baby!” – really?!), the band themselves are glorious, and a rare example of radio-friendly punk-rockers who don’t substitute edge for clicks and views.
After the gig is done, it is already 11PM and we are tired (old?), so we head home, lamentably, off the island. There’s abrupt movement in a tent nearby, someone heatedly jumping up and down. Turns out it’s a sole attendee, trying to open a can of tuna to no avail.