August 9, 2023, the temperature is around 75 F, and a total of 12 hours of sunshine against a spotlessly blue sky awaits more than 50,000 carousers from all over the world who’ve huddled in Budapest for Sziget, (one of) Europe’s largest and most versatile music-cum-entertainment events. It’s an outrageously pleasant day in Hungary’s breathtaking and still affordable capital. Ceaseless postcard views of regal architecture, countless parks with dogs and children playing, cartoonishly green grass, and food of such all-around quality that you’d welcome a stomachache just to be able to taste a bit of everything, and we haven’t even gotten to the thousands (literally) of impeccably decorated cafes and bars offering aperitives as early as 8 AM.
Budapest’s unique geological properties boast 200 caves underneath the city and more than 100 thermal springs that have been a spa attraction since Roman times. Best of all, you can (still) get a room at a four-star hotel for under $100 or a five-star meal for $20 tops. Budapest has been and remains the stuff of dreams for visitors from all walks of life.
None of this is a secret; the tiny central-European country of Hungary boasted 14.2 million visitors in 2022, a number likely to be surpassed by some margin this year. Strolling around the city center left me with a strong impression of even greater numbers of visitors, especially families with small children and older couples. Small surprise there, given Budapest’s beauty, central European location, the convenience of getting around, the countless activities for all sorts of folks, and especially the still manageable prices, a rare occurrence among European metropolises nowadays. Mix all that with a six-day A-list extravaganza of pop music, party, and related cultural programming on a self-contained island merely miles from the city center, and you’ll know why Sziget, about which we’ve written extensively over the years, is an event not to be missed.
From August 9-15, on Budapest’s Óbuda Sziget (“sziget” means “island”), a 188-acre site, which took three weeks to set up, will host up to 90,000 spectators each day. Over these six days, Sziget and its so-called Szitizens will make up the 10th largest city in Hungary. The numbers only get more insane from there. More than 100 catering outlets, pop-up supermarkets (with barbecue goods sold at retail prices and prepared free of charge), 200 doctors and nurses in dedicated health centers, nearly 40 miles of decorative lights, and some 8,000 light bulbs spread across the island’s many trees, giving the impression of a fairy tale, tens of thousands of free and paid camping spots and venues with various levels of services… is just the beginning of what you’ll find on the Óbuda island during Sziget. Some 50 venues with carnivals, yoga lessons, workshops, art installations, drag shows, game centers, and a massive beach on the Danube are all a part of this gloriously escapist wonderland. No wonder most of the 20,000+ campers don’t leave the island for the duration of the festival or even worry much about the music.
Speaking of music, with 200 artists from 62 countries, Sziget puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to international diversity but leaves a strong genre focus on radio-friendly pop-rock and electronica, i.e., the stuff that sells tickets. After all, one likely would book a week-long vacation just to camp and stretch out in the sun, which is why we have Billie Eilish, Florence + the Machine, Imagine Dragons, David Guetta, Mumford and Sons, Macklemore, Lorde, Sam Fender, Bonobo, Moderat, and many more keeping the spirits high. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – there’s nothing quite like Sziget out there, not even Coachella or Glastonbury. It’s been a greatly revered experience and, yes, brand for 30 years now, most of which have seen steady growth in spectatorship and revenue right up to the island’s limit of 90,000 attendees a day. Remember this for later.
The day before and the first day of the festival are usually hectic and start off with thousands of campers rushing around the city center to buy large packs of beverages and supplies before relocating to the island. Cues in stores like Aldi and Lidl are massive; those fortunate enough to have swindled their friends to wait in line for them lazily frolicked in the many patisseries, boulangeries, and other establishments with conspicuously haute names, mixing high-end coffee with low-level alcohol such as Aperol. The more gentrified, the better, but such is the face of Sziget and most traveling nowadays.
The festival organizers are acutely aware of the international brand strength and the mostly positive mayhem Sziget has been generating over the decades and play this to their and the city’s strengths. Having co-opted the city’s cultural offering, thus equating Sziget the brand with Budapest itself, volunteers and PR staff smilingly lurk in most congregational points, from shuttle and accommodation coordination right at the airport, to “city party” organizing teams, tirelessly recruiting Szitizens and other tourists to join one of the many “land” extravaganzas serving to generate hype about the main event.
On Wednesday, the day before the festival, complementary kickoff starts as early as 10 AM, with a daytime beach party at the magnificent Lupa beach (also on the Danube), some 15 minutes north of the Óbuda island. White sands, transfer to and from, and top local DJs are promised to all who’re eager to secure a beach bed – for some $30 per person. Given that the party lasts for 12 (!) hours, the ticket price is fair, but bear in mind that even at the wonderful wonderland that is Sziget, monetizing content is as important as the “art of freedom”.
The Lupa Beach daytime party isn’t even the only one. For those who arrived later in the city, the A38 boat party on the Danube is waiting downtown from 9 PM. I’ve been to those parties before, and they’re a great if rowdy, way to get to know Budapest; on Thursday and Friday will even be castle parties at the astonishing medieval Buda castle, overlooking the entire city from atop the Buda hill. Having come alone to work and relax, I don’t even dream of these events anymore, but I see plenty of eternal adolescents who are more than happy to jump on board (literally). Sziget PR has, as per usual, delivered; the festival atmosphere has electrified all of Budapest.
On Thursday, as the sun glides, I stroll toward the overground station heading straight to the island, which is a mere five train stops away from the city’s epicenter of happening. Over the past 16 years that I’ve made my pilgrimage to Sziget, the short commute has always been a hoot: hordes of people of all profiles, ages, and appearances, many already drunk or otherwise unhinged, all would squeeze against one another to make it onto the train, then chat with whomever, “spreading the love”.
This year, at least on Thursday, the train was practically empty at 5 PM, despite the main programming having kicked off. After seeing a visitor dip from 530,000 in 2019 to 450,000 in 2022, the first “post-pandemic” year, festival chief Tamás Kádár has promised Sziget will “go back to its pre-pandemic splendor”, announcing unprecedented ambitions for both the scale and scope of the event. However, what I saw on Day 1 was far from the grandeur of Sziget that has been its staple over the decades.
In short, having passed the welcoming K-Bridge, the much beloved “portal” into the Sziget wonderland, with greetings in various languages, it was impossible not to notice the sheer emptiness of the vast open spaces across the island. Where once were endless – and I genuinely mean endless – crammed stands with all types of food, drinks, and trinkets, vintage and new, a sizzling Sziget bazaar on both main island pathways, now stand but a few isolated booths here and there. In principle, there’s still a kind of a bazaar, and one can yet hope to purchase illustrated postcards and vintage clothes or secure a henna tattoo, but the number of posts has been reduced dramatically, so much so that the place seems windier from the lack of bodies moving around. The mayhem of hundreds of food stands has also been replaced with food courts; international cuisine is still present, but not to the degree it was before. Now, $15 burgers and $7 pizza dominate.
The promised 50+ stages mostly really aren’t “stages” at all but rather bars, installations, art pop-ups, or different kinds of meeting points. To be clear, there still are a dozen stages with music, but this now includes the tiny tribute band and chillout spots, once a mere footnote in the hundreds of events hosted on the island. Sziget’s musical diversity of the (long-defunct) metal stage and even the greatly loved world music and opera stages are gone. Many of the NGO activities that included dozens of well-visited TED talks are now mostly reduced to documentary screenings and informational points. Most of all, on Thursday at least, the promised 90,000 escapist enthusiasts are nowhere to be found. The city itself has never been more bustling with tourism, but at least on Day 1, Sziget did not follow suit.
There has been plenty of debate in the local media about why this is happening. Most of the assumptions have to do with the steep increase in prices (more than 30 percent on average from the last year alone). While a portion of six-day full festival tickets were sold at an affordable €299 (€50 or $55 per day), the majority of passes ended up costing €389 (ca. $440), with daily tickets offered for as much as €115 (ca. $125). From the above, one wouldn’t know they were traveling to a culturally grand but economically modest, tiny Central European country. The escalation in food and beverage prices, in particular, has been so grave that Kádár and his team had to order the vendors to offer at least one “budget” meal, that is; a dish priced at 2,500 Hungarian Forints (ca. $7).
As I traversed the food courts, I was shocked to see that one serving of churros with a side squirt of low-grade industrial “chocolate” was €10.5 (ca. $11). The reality of the abovementioned “meals” wasn’t much better – an average dish just about anywhere was €13-15 (ca. $16), and the de rigueur “budget” meals, at least in the case of one Mexican cantine, featured a mere handful of dry mass-produced nachos with a pinch of tomato sauce. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds.
More importantly, the often-cited logical fallacy of “prices being just as high or higher in Western Europe and the US” isn’t true, let alone reasonable. Even in the most expensive European countries, such as the UK, Germany, and Belgium, festival food and beverage prices aren’t higher than at Sziget. In countries such as Spain and Italy, where we visited Primavera Sound Madrid and I-Days Milan just weeks prior, onsite edibles cost considerably less. In any case, I’ve already noted that Hungary is a small, central European country with modest GDP and meager salaries. It’s not to be economically compared to most of the global Northwest. More than a decade has passed since the local media noted that Sziget is no longer a happening oriented toward Hungarians, but judging from this year’s prices, it doesn’t seem to be oriented toward anyone except the highest of crusts.
Then there is the, you know, general falling apart of the postmodern world at the end of the neoliberal era. Without getting metaphysical, last year Sziget founder and long-term general manager Károly Gerendai and his cohorts sold the last of their minority stake to the American Providence Equity Partners, an investment fund managing dozens of music festivals that bought the majority of the Sziget company in 2017. The sale occurred at a third of the share price they had gotten some five years prior. Couple investment fund interests with soaring inflation, ludicrous air traffic, and accommodation prices worldwide, and you get a nasty mix of dubious business viability. This year, Sziget’s budget has been close to €40 million, but despite a reduction in content, the organization’s expenses have still risen by 25 percent due to higher staffing costs. Volt, Sziget’s lovely sister event in the north of Hungary, is going on a “hiatus” for cost-cutting reasons.
Finally, there’s plenty of polemic regarding the music itself. For more than two decades, Sziget was celebrated around the globe for its unprecedented musical and cultural variety, with an earnest emphasis on genre diversity. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the slashing of the World Music Stage, such a unique source of good vibes with ethno performers from every corner of the Earth. That being said, the proverbial times have, indeed, changed in just about every way. Genre-mixing is no longer a viable business option; 15 years ago, Sziget was headlined by acts ranging from Nine Inch Nails and Tool to the Chemical Brothers, P!nk, and the Killers. There was something for everyone, and in the newly liberalized Hungary and surrounding countries, so many were eager to experience star performances of any kind.
Nowadays, Hungary is as regular a tour pit stop as any other place, and with concert ticket prices easily reaching €100 ($110) against an average salary of under €1,500 ($1,630), thematization had to take root. By now, we know that most people won’t buy a six-day ticket for a festival where they are only interested in a couple of headliners, especially if those headliners aren’t party-starters. There are still half-assed attempts at genre-bending, but this year Mumford and Sons and Moderat are about as alternative as you will get there. While it hurts indie, rock, and even electronica fans to see a Billboard Hot 100 lineup only, in some ways, this is for the best. Barely four years ago, the National, one of the rare indie rock headliners, played in front of an embarrassingly small, impressively uninterested crowd. The data supports the claim that Sziget today has the best chance of success as an escapist party wonderland, and Kádár’s team follows this maxim almost religiously.
However, on Thursday, August 10, it turned out that Florence + the Machine, despite countless chart-topping pleasers, was just about too indie to draw in more than maybe 30,000 people. The wonderful English pixie, still on the Dance Fever tour, which started last year, delivered a brilliant rock ‘n’ roll headlining set, much like the one at Berlin’s Tempelhof Sounds last summer. It was more than enough for those present, myself included, to have a cathartic blast.
Those present could not have been more diverse – ecstatic women aged 15 to 65 who sang every lyric, groups of proud and glittery gays happy to stan their fairy mother, and, believe it or not, astonishingly solid numbers of dudes and gym-addicted, topless party maniacs shouting the words to “Dog Days are Over”, “Shake It Out”, and “Kiss with a Fist” (?!) on top of their lungs. Behind me, what could be illegitimate sons of John Stamos (in Ray Bans, no less) and Woody Harrelson get carried away to the point of making a human knot with some ladies around them and jumping in unison. Mere hours before, Foals and Sam Fender gave greatly energetic performances, but their (tiny) crowds were not on point in terms of response. Ms. Welch certainly didn’t suffer such a fate.
At one point, she even proclaimed that the shows performed on this tour are some of her all-time favorites, further prompting the masses to shriek and salute her glory. The 19-song set was only slightly shorter from her standalone shows this summer and incorporated as many as eight tunes from her latest release; one must always make compromises with 90-minute festival slots, but some older classics and hits alike were missed, especially dance-friendly “Spectrum” and “Sweet Nothing”, the latter of which was produced by Calvin Harris, one of Sziget weekend regulars.
As Welch’s stellar show drew to a close, the majority went straight for the exit, leaving the island rather empty before 11 PM. This wasn’t surprising for a Thursday, taking into account some 50 percent of visitors are locals, many of whom have to work the next day. Those who stayed, however, were treated to two fantastic gigs by Bonobo and Parra for Cuva, late into the night. At 12:30 AM, Simon Green aka Bonobo, still high on his Fragments tour, again dazzled the many devouts and newcomers alike with his unique blend of moody electronica and gentle, vocally resplendent melodies. Just five years ago, Green actually co-headlined the Main Stage, where he brilliantly stood up to the task of wowing and igniting a 35,000-strong bunch, slyly ramping up the tempo and adapting fully to the demands of a giant party venue.
This time around, in line with Fragments’ delicate soundscape, much like what he’s been doing in the past several years with Migration, Green focused more on the mood, allowing for protracted downtempo outros and melancholy intermissions from his excellent brass and string-heavy live band. Old playful favorites like “Kiara” and “Cirrus” made the cut, but the performance overall was a mostly after-hours affair, appropriate for the A38 tent, Sziget’s designated refuge for major-label alternative acts.
Into the wee hours of the night, German pianist-cum-producer Nicolas Demuth, aka Parra for Cuva, took over from Bonobo for an eclectic set of his house and downtempo tracks fused with piano and occasionally string armature. Having praised Bonobo over the years as one of his main sources of inspiration, Demuth was, indeed, the best possible choice for a late-night succession. The crowd barely dissipated before 3 AM, the majority mesmerized by the hypnotic yet unrepetitive mix of the up-and-coming German artist. As is always the case, there are a couple of dozen intriguing shows at Sziget each day, but one can only manage so many, and the decision to stick with the A38 tent paid off.
The second day, expectedly, saw a major uptick in the number of party enthusiasts, though the house didn’t sell out. Last year, the weekend was practically full, with the VIP zone, the latest monetization ploy devised to segregate the few from the many and kick the press and industry professionals out (it used to be a relatively small invite-only area where reporters could see the Main Stage easily and work in peace) sold out, but this year there are still tickets available for all days and areas. The official numbers are still not in, though I’d say that we’re looking at under 450,000 in attendance over six days.
This is not to say that Sziget is not an enormous bash. Early in the day, the 10,000,000-th visitor, a 32-year-old local woman, entered the island, only to be greeted by Kádár’s team, promising her a lifetime free entry to the festival. This time around (August 11), formidable crowds gathered in the sun early on; at 5:30 PM, Carson Coma, one of Hungary’s most popular pop-rock bands, already had some 20,000 fans waiting to jump and clap.
Their energetic, if too brief, set was followed by a rapturous triumph by UK’s Dominic Harrison, aka Yungblud. The 26-year-old punk-pop-rocker delivered an appropriately hyped up, 13-song set in front of mostly younger crowds, many of whom were already waiting for the stars of the night, Imagine Dragons. Knowing what he was up against, Harrison never flinched; instead, he kept running, jumping, and prompting the folks to do the same with him without letting up. “Tissues”, “Lowlife”, and more of his snappy, punkish hits were enough to ignite the island and keep the field sizzling.
Not that Dan Reynolds needed anyone to keep anything for him. Having taken his top off to show off his impressive physique not 15 minutes into the set, the Imagine Dragons frontman kept raving about how much he loved Sziget and how the crowds there were “amazing”. And indeed they were. With more than 50,000 people, mostly lustful girls and dudes alike, nary a pin could drop anywhere in the vicinity. It’s been nine years since Imagine Dragons co-headlined at the festival, and the decision to have the Nevada quartet as weekend headliners was a sound one. Say what you will about the band’s musical or lyrical prowess; they always know how to give everyone a damn good time.
One after another, their billion-listener hits drew out breathless singalongs. “Believer”, “Whatever it Takes”, “Top of the World”, “Bones”, and especially “Radioactive” and “Demons” left the masses gasping for air and water. Of course, there was confetti, too, as well as emotional ruminations on mental health and relationships. Having separated from his wife of ten years recently, Reynolds barely held back tears before “Bad Liar”. “Your life is worth living, take care of your mental health,” he said to a gargantuan applause. Trite as this may sound, Reynolds seems earnest, and in any case, I will always stand up for those sending messages of love and comfort, especially when it’s jacked-up dudes empowering other, often repressed and reticent, jacked-up dudes.
The 17-strong set ended on a high note with “Walking the Wire”, though what followed was far from wonderful. Having closed the K-bridge (Sziget’s main entrance) for “security reasons”, the organizers had to deal with tens of thousands of people who waited more than an hour to leave the island. There’s been plenty of debate on how security across the island’s bridges should be handled, and though I want to remain respectful, I am bloody tired of hearing contradictory information year after year. Last year there was no issue with having thousands walk over the bridge in succession; neither was this the case five or ten years ago, back when we had a taxi stand on the island, which worked impeccably from a logistical standpoint. This year, the wristband exchange and administrative points have been moved from the mainland onto the island, with taxi stands moved out and access points somewhat rerouted. How the organizing team will solve this in the future and if they will resolve the issue of insane congestion on most-visited days remains to be seen.
For personal reasons, I had to miss Saturday (August 12), but I’ve been informed by colleagues that the Frenchman David Guetta, practically a Sziget (and related festivals) weekend centerpiece, gave another epic blowout for a crowd almost as strong as that on Friday. Sunday (August 13), we will return to a more pop-indie atmosphere with Mumford and Sons, with Macklemore, Lorde, and Billie Eilish taking over on Monday and Tuesday. It’s been an intense few days, but the weekday performances are usually more relaxed, so expect more on the daytime activities and dynamics of Sziget, assuming I get enough sleep the nights prior.