The first two days of Budapest’s famed Sziget Festival were business as usual. The business of granting yourself permission to be liberated from the incessant shackles of reality and savoring a full week of art and entertainment bliss, that is. P!nk delivered a worthy, rock star performance, and Wiz Khalifa was underwhelming, yet entertaining. The first day was sold out, while the second day saw a bit of a decline in attendance. The Vaccines were enticing and, with the price of beer staying under 774.57 Hungarian Forints ($3US) for a pint, the atmosphere was as elated as ever.
The first day of the weekend is upon us, and we kick it off with Mando Diao. The Swedish alt-rock quintet is hugely popular with European festival audiences, especially due to a decade of marvelous consistency in producing radio-friendly, yet distinctly rock tunes. Though their 75-minute set is explosive and everyone present seems to be enjoying themselves immensely, there were but several thousand people at the Main Stage. Those not present should regret not hearing “Dance With Somebody” live. Even after eight years, it’s still, appropriately, a dancefloor killer.
By the time Rudimental are on, the crowd grows significantly, to more than 20,000 people. The English drum ‘n’ bass wizards truly put on a killer show. Regardless of what one’s prerequisites for a “good show” may be, the necessary cause is always a live band, a set of musicians who will reproduce the beats and melodies right there and then, as opposed to providing musical backdrop via playback. Rudimental know this all too well, and show up with a massive band, several back vocals of different ranges, keyboardists and percussionists, a mandatory trumpet, and an assortment of guests vocalists, all of whom set the mood of ecstasy for the weekend.
Their crazed rhythms and beats work well with the crowd, and even those who don’t know them must dance because the frenzy never lets up. As always, it is “Waiting All Night” propels the show to its climax and, boy, does the trumpet sound good live when in skillful hands. The show is done and we are already tired, even though it’s not even 7PM. We walk around for a while, which thrills and exhausts us at the same time – the island is vast but can be overwhelming (positively) for already tired feet. On one corner between two pathways with hundreds of food, clothing, and accessory stands, there are buskers. On another, a Hungarian culture village with a Ferris wheel set up exclusively for Sziget. Down the “street” there are gigantic chairs and a massive table. Down the street there are gigantic chairs and a massive table. We climb into the chairs and snap photos of ourselves imitating Alice in Wonderland after she drank the shrinking potion. Luckily, we’re sober. The sensory overload the Island provides would be too much to digest otherwise.
Between shows, we take the time to walk around the Island and soak up the atmosphere. We are hungry and look for food. There’s cuisine from virtually every corner of the Earth, and no dish costs more than about $5-6US. There are many stands belonging to downtown restaurants and franchises, and the prices are either the same or five- to- ten percent higher. Budapest is still the most affordable major European metropolis and you cannot help but applaud the organizers for not taking advantage of Szitizens, securing affordable food and beverages instead. We look for dessert and find it in a — wait for it — pop up supermarket, which is set up specifically for this occasion (that is, the festival, not us having a sweet tooth). We buy cookies that cost literally 50 cents (US). They’re pretty good, too.
By the time PJ Harvey comes on stage as a co-headliner, it’s all but clear there have never been fewer people present on a weekend day in recent festival history. The crowds, up until now teeming with joy, have thinned. Only several thousand are left and the space in front of the Main Stage, capable of hosting up to 60,000 people, appears eerily desolate, an insult to the magnificent English chanteuse.
Polly Harvey is as brilliant as ever, a rare musician who has not compromised her artistic integrity once, even after more than 20 years in the business. Always chameleon-like, Harvey provides a subdued, yet powerful performance, with her more recent material in focus. Her ten-strong band is impeccable and Harvey, herself a multi-instrumentalist, pulls no punches and her contralto soars throughout. To her credit, nearly everyone in attendance is transfixed, and the songs from The Hope Six Demolition Project and Let England Shake demonstrate this rare woman’s ability to observe and pass judgment gracefully in her lyrics, without ever descending into blind rage or despair.
The show is over and we begin roaming again. The Island appears to be as full as usual, implying that it’s not that there was no one to attend the PJ Harvey show; rather, it’s that apparently few wanted to. This brings us to the issue of placing alternative acts on the Main Stage, which, for years now, places a strong emphasis on pop acts and DJs, sprinkled with some rap and rock, here and there. This is nothing to be angry about, the festival organizers have made clear their intentions to survive and grow, and with the event landscape of Europe growing fivefold in the past decade, nobody can blame them for making a paradigm shift in order to secure better ticket sales and festival survival. It’s a known fact that the festival has never managed to generate more than some three- to four percent of profit, so the decision to secure the A38 tent, the festival’s second-largest venue, as a stronghold for rock, punk, and high-end electronica, seems to be a sound one.
The night ends with Kasabian. The proud authors of history’s greatest English Premier League theme song are among the world’s greatest festival bands and an ideal headliner, anywhere. Though the crowd remains modest compared to how full the Main Stage usually is during a headlining performance on a weekend, their show blows everyone away. The cocky front men, Tom Meighan and Sergio Pizzorno, are in high spirits, laughing and chatting among themselves through the entire 90-minute set. The audience is lured in with bombastic guitar riffs and explosive choruses — even the newer singles, such as “You’re in Love With a Psycho” and “Comeback Kid”, taken from their latest release, For Crying Out Loud — are met jubilantly. Meighan’s confident singing and triumphant demeanor effortlessly demonstrate that there’s more to a great show than just great music, the unquantifiable “X factor” is something his Leicester brethren possess in copious amounts. Nearly every tune is extremely well-received, but it’s the early singles, especially “Club Foot” and “L.S.F”, that demonstrates the band’s musical prowess and their fans’ loyalty: even though Kasabian have been spawning rock hits for 13 years, people still sing along with every song in unison.
Saturday sees a full-capacity of 90,000 again. While both Rita Ora and Clean Bandit canceled their performances, Iggy Azalea proves to be a good enough replacement, while the Swedish electronic dance music duo Galantis ignite a massive crowd waiting for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Everyone’s favorite white rapper turns out to be a lot more than a two-hit wonder and produces another amazing performance (he first performed as a headliner in 2014). A positive young man with a positive attitude, Macklemore is an overall decent person at first sight; unimposing, casually dressed in jeans and a Mets dress, and without an ego. His flow is great and particularly impressive during the outstanding “Can’t Hold Us”, his lyrics are, somewhat uncharacteristically for rap, peaceful and preaching inclusiveness. He even disses Donald Trump in a lengthy speech about love and diversity. Sounds like your typical “artists gone responsibly wild” banter, but honestly, one shouldn’t take issue with this — it’s not like humans, anywhere in the world, don’t need to hear these messages and take them in. The crowd is smitten.
After the show, a special acrobatic performance starts at the Giant Street Theater nearby. Appropriately called Instrumentarium, it’s a 12-strong acrobatic act, in which a dozen performers spin and move to the beats of four musicians, producing tunes live, inside separated cages, in front of the crowd. Hundreds gather and gasp with excitement. There’s even a light show.
Sunday is concerned with young pop-rock bands. Metronomy and White Lies are good but play to a small crowd. My colleague interviews White Lies and asks them to describe themselves in three words. “Very polite boys,” they quip. The Chainsmokers pull in another giant crowd and it’s evident that younger Szitizens come to the Island to party and explore daily activities. The A38 performers such as DJ Shadow and Bad Religion give staggering performances and draw in capacity crowds, but this is about 15,000. The rest are clearly there for escapism and thrills. Sziget Festival has, in a way, succeeded — it has become more than a music festival, it’s now a social and cultural phenomenon.
The last two days are also all about partying; Major Lazer and Dimitri Vegas bring the celebrations to an adequate climax. I wasn’t there, but a colleague tells me Vince Staples “slayed” alone on stage against a large orange backdrop, partly concealed by fog. I’m told the crowd was immensely happy with his performance. Good job, Damon Albarn.
After a full week of bliss, much is learned. Final attendance numbers are 452,000, a ten percent decline compared to last year. In their official press release, the management blamed this on an “unlucky lineup”, however, the future of Sziget may not even lay in music. On the last day of the event, founder Károly Gerendai noted that the booking situation is becoming increasingly difficult each year since the fees demanded by music stars are becoming ever steeper. He said the exorbitant costs of booking performers is all but impossible to compensate with ticket sales and related income, and added that the new owners are aware that Sziget has no choice but to strengthen what separates it from competitors: namely non-musical cultural programs.
About 1,000 people working in security made sure there were no incidents, a staggering accomplishment for an event this big. More than half of all visitors were foreigners, speculative numbers vary between 55 and 85 percent. “Festravel” is officially “a thing”; last year, about ten- to 12 percent of all visitors to Budapest came because of Sziget, and the city saw a profit of about 100 billion HUF (nearly $400 million). Sure enough, the accommodation hosts also saw a lucrative business opportunity — in the past two years, the prices of hostel and Airbnb accommodation during Sziget have gone up two- to three- times compared to other weekends of the year.
Finally, after 25 years of being in charge, Gerendai stepped down as the commander-in-chief. Tamás Kádár, CEO of Sziget Kulturális and the person taking over the role of Gerendai, will “lead the festival into its next quarter-century”, and promises to have major changes in place as soon as next year.
“The 25th festival is a turning point in Sziget’s life: an era has ended, where we built a unique and popular multicultural festival, differentiating it from other festivals with its amazing atmosphere, cultural diversity, colorful program, high level of services and spectacular visuals,” said Kádár in a press release sent to the Budapest Business Journal. “Today Sziget is seen as a great leader among other festivals and because of this we also have to change, so we don’t become just one in a million,” he added.
We can’t wait to see what he and the new crew will have in store for us next year. Here’s to another 25 years of love and freedom.