Photo: Sziget Festival

Sziget Festival Offers More Than Any Music Festival Out There

Budapest's Sziget Festival is anything but the majority of music festivals, and for it's infallible determination to keep art, social activism and ingenuity alive amid the necessities of business, it deserves all the praise one article can muster.

The music festival landscape, an event production universe in its own right, has changed drastically over the course of the past decade and a half, or so. What had begun some half a century ago as a naïve, albeit admirable attempt at youth liberté and rebelliousness, turned into a global-scale business undertaking some time in the ‘90s, only to, perhaps inevitably, become a gargantuan money-making machinery in the ‘00s, abandoning any semblance of ideology or topicality.

In short, if you’re a music lover, you already know that the majority of the largest music festivals globally have embraced the ugly side of capitalism, offering a just high enough number of the most popular MTV-esque acts and shoddy logistics, just to milk several hundred US dollars out of you over the course of three or four days of blissful abandon.

Budapest’s Sziget Festival is anything but the majority of music festivals, and for it’s infallible determination to keep art, social activism and ingenuity alive amid the necessities of business, it deserves all the praise one article can muster.

Aptly described by Wikipedia as “one of the largest cultural festivals in Europe”, sitting comfortably on an entire 108-hectare island (“sziget” means “island” in Hungarian) just five railway stops away from the city center, Sziget offers such an abundance of sensory feasts and mental blowouts that it doesn’t come as a surprise it takes place over an entire week. Last year the festival hosted more than 441,000 visitors from 95 countries. This year, between August 10 and 17, the festival will boast its capacity of more than 90,000 people per day, and the fact that the weekly passes have been sold out is the best testament to the magnitude of this event.

So, what sets Sziget apart? There are several equally paramount factors in play.

Firstly, Óbudai (Old Buda) Island is a fully detached-from-the-land, self-sustainable surface, into which you step by crossing a lengthy bridge which reminds you that you are about to exit the grimness of civilization as you know it for an entire week. This marvelously colorful parallel universe is so full of life and purpose it is likely you will not be reemerging throughout your stay (that’s not to say Budapest, as a city, isn’t astonishingly beautiful – it is). It is also the only major festival where there is no designated camping area – you can place your tent anywhere (where permitted), blending and meshing with your surroundings seamlessly. This hippie-esque, commune-like setting is enough to propel you to a different dimension; on the Island everyone is radiant with joy, glistening and exploring the enormity of the Island and its contents by day, and savoring dozens of music and art performances by night. In case you were wondering, yes, the many trees on the island are illuminated with a million lights and lampoons by night, aiding to the idea of an enchanted forest.

Secondly, it’s ridiculously cheap for what it offers. Over the course of seven days, for the price of about $250 (camping included), you will see shows by the likes of Rihanna, Muse, David Guetta, Sia, the Chemical Brothers, Hardwell, the Last Shadow Puppets, and about 400 other relevant pop, rock, electro, and world music acts; you will listen to more than 50 specialized TEDx talks, visit one of more than 50 otherworldly, interactive Art of Freedom installations (see for yourself), drink large draft beers for about two Euros, eat anything from Lebanese to local Hungarian cuisine for five Euros — the rest is up to you.

Surely enough, when it started in 1994, Sziget was called “Eurowoodstock”, and was headlined by the original Woodstock performers. Those days of niche entertainment are long replaced with a more cunning and all-encompassing business model but, surprisingly enough, not at the expense of art, or rock and roll, for that matter. Besides the more commercial pop and dance (is it house?) acts on the Main Stage, Sziget truly offers a melting pot of music styles across a dozen of well-distributed stages, accessible only once you traverse one of Island’s woods. The A 38 tent, officially festival’s “second main stage”, will see to it that you get a heavy dose of world’s best electro, sligthly-less-mainstream rock, and avant-garde music. This year we will witness the live glory of UNKLE, Crystal Castles, Editors, Róisín Murphy, Bloc Party, M83, CHVRCHES, Travis Scott, Boyz Noise, and many more. Telekom Arena and Colloseum (yes, it’s shaped like one) are venues almost exclusively dedicated to electro sensationalism, with Nicky Romero, Fedde Le Grand, Afrojack, Sharam, and Sasha as headliners. These are also the only music venues which draw large crowds until dawn – the Main stage performers are done at 11 PM, so as not to disturb the residents who can hear the music across the Danube. For those unimpressed by the grandeur of the pop or electro acts on these stages, rest assured Sziget has a whole stage for everything – World Music Stage, Europe Stage, Afro-Latin-Reggae village, Blues Park, Tribute Stage, the list goes on.

This is also where the music starts to coalesce with the unimaginably complex art and cultural offering of the festival. In addition to all the musical stages, Sziget has an opera and jazz (!!!) stage with live opera, A “Cirque du Sziget”, with live circus acts and acrobatics throughout the day, a theater and dance tent which also offers yoga lessons, and the Magic Mirror tent, filled with drag shows and other LGBT-friendly programs. Sziget’s mission to entertain, educate and empower, however, doesn’t end there. The efforts by the organizers, who work full-time throughout the year, extend to the aforementioned TEDx talks, a Tent Without Borders, which offers panels and lectures on diversity and migration, a gathering of several dozens NGOs, whose mission is to educate the so-called “Szitizens” on burning social issues, and the brilliant Sziget beach, where you can compete in darts, chess and poker, play board and online games, and even attend a contemporary Indian dance workshop. By now you get the picture. Bonus points for the wedding tent for those who also discover true love, in combination with true art.

Lastly, but not least importantly – Sziget’s logistics are unmatched by any festival in history. The Island is but five miles from the center of the city, a cab ride downtown will costs you about 10 Euros, and the festival coordinates the cabs so that the wait, even when the line is 500-people strong, doesn’t last more than 10 minutes. Summer stench is ameliorated by endless rows of sprinkles, unfurled across the island, while mud is made bearable by large plastic hexagonal panels carefully placed wherever possible. The crew really do everything in their power to make people feel comfortable – there are hundreds of “real” toilet cabins with toilet seats, soaps and running water, countless benches, hammocks and chairs for people to rest, ATM machines and food stands always just a spit away – the friendly security even lets you bring your own food and drinks (limited to one bottle of alcohol) to the festival, proving that not everything is just about the money and that those who had to work summer jobs to fill up their piggy banks enough to buy a ticket needn’t fret that they won’t be able to afford the food on site. The overall positive experience is just amplified by these small gestures.

With Sziget Festival, the trite, almost banal “Island of Freedom” slogan, turns into an indescribably wonderful amalgamation of a music festival, a kaleidoscopic art installation, and an impromptu social experiment. Sziget’s “freedom” isn’t just entertaining, vivid and augmented play on reality – it is a reality in its own right. If you can’t get to the festival now on such short notice, better save the dates for your 2017 calendar and I’ll see you there.