Twenty-five years have passed since the change of regime – almost as many as since the first Sziget Festival in 1993. Since then, the strangest political events have simply passed by the Budapest island, where for one week every year up to 400,000 music fans have their own special anarchy. It’s anything but easy to resist the pull of this special festival.
“Sziget – Island of Freedom” says one of the many flags that decorate the white, rust-stained concrete bridge onto the Danube island each year. Last August more than 362,000 visitors crossed this bridge to enter the “Sziget Republic”. They passed by the tents of the latecomers who had to set up directly at the entrance because it was the only place left, and then by the stands of NGOs and foundations represented in the Civil Sziget section. Not to forget the Dixie toilets and the Roma tent, where you can constantly here the sound of the cimbalom. From here just a few steps remain to the main stage, the heart of the open-air music fest on the Óbudai island.
The Sziget Festival was founded only a couple of years after the fall of the Iron Curtain by Károly Gerendai and Péter Sziámi Müller, the former an ambitious concert promoter with a talent for business, and the latter a multicultural talent of a more poetic-musical orientation. “Diáksziget”, The Student Island, was the first major attempt at a celebration through music of independence and freedom after the communist dictatorship. The few hundred people who came brought along their own instruments and there was a nice atmosphere.
The event attracted many foreign reports even without advertising on a large scale, so some sponsors started to take an interest. For five years until 2001 the festival was called “Pepsi Sziget”, but as there was enough sponsorship money the festival was given the simpler name of Sziget Festival. Today it is one of the largest music festivals in Europe, and a popular Hungarian product almost up there with pálinka.
Not everything has been plain sailing. Despite its distant location on a Danube island there have been constant complaints by residents in the vicinity, resulting in the heavy-metal stage being relocated into the inner area, with a noise-protection wall built and decibel limitations introduced.
In 2011 the ultimate nightmare of every cultural event happened: the organisers unexpectedly had to pay HUF 2.5 billion for rental after Budapest City Council introduced a fee for public spaces. Mayor István Tarlós justified this by saying the city was making it possible for Sziget to take place at all. The “free ride” was over and because the island belonged to District III and was public property, the fee needed to be introduced just the same as for other public events.
The demand has since been decreased to HUF 50 million, with Gerendai and his partners arguing that it is not in the interest of the authorities to imperil the festival, because of the tourist income. This did not stop the city council from demanding an additional HUF 5 million last year, in line with the consumer price index.
Clarifying the current situation, Krisztina Kovács, the press representative of the Mayor’s Office, said: “According to the recent decision of the city council the Sziget Kulturális Menedzser Iroda Kft. (Sziget Cultural Management Office) has to pay HUF 55 million usage fee plus taxes in the year 2014.” Kovács said the Sziget organisers are also obliged to pay a minimum HUF 100 million for the services provided by publicly owned companies.
Csaba Marinka, PR director of the festival, said: “The obligatory services package together with the usage fee have hit a big hole in the budget of the festival.” An amount of HUF 300 million had been taken out of the total budget of HUF 3 billion in 2012.
In 2013 there were about 20,000 visitors fewer than expected, putting a hole in income from tickets. “We blame that mainly on the weak line-up,” Marinka said. In 2011 Prince gave a two-hour show, in 2012 Snoop Dogg was a headliner but in 2013 there was a lack of such big names. The competition does not sleep either: Gerendai said the number of European music festivals has grown fivefold within ten years.
There is a little trick that could help the problem: Sziget will be organised one week later than usual this year, from 11 to 18 August, making it easier to book international stars who are signed up for earlier Japanese and American festivals. Sziget 2014 will be able to present big names, even if not a very original choice of artists: among others, Outkast, Lily Allen, Queens of the Stone Age and Prodigy. The tactic seems to be working, with German “Szitizens” alone buying more tickets in January 2014 as in the whole of 2013.
The foreign market is the most profitable. “Ninety per cent of all weekly tickets are sold abroad and even 25% of the daily tickets are sold on the other side of the Hungarian borders,” Gerendai said. The majority of Sziget visitors also tour the city, and apparently spend about double the amount outside the “Sziget Republic” as the average tourist in Hungary does.
Many Hungarians find it difficult to afford Sziget on an average gross salary of HUF 220,000 a month, and call the organisers greedy. A weekly ticket that was HUF 16,000 in 2004 costs four times as much ten years later. Tickets tend to become more expensive each year and it’s not surprising that music fans from the Netherlands, France and Germany predominate.
The costs for the organisers have also increased big time. The festival originally intended for students has to be always bigger, better and more exciting. International marketing sucks up large sums but seems to be working, with Gerendai claiming that Sziget attracts twice as many visitors as the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Though it is not the numbers but the atmosphere that counts most at Sziget. “This year there will be more new venues, more common activities and a stronger feeling of familiarity,” Gerendai said. The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be celebrated by setting up a 100-metre-long wall that will be decorated by officially invited street-artists, and apparently amateur painters too. The Magic Mirror tent will again feature, with contemporary circus displays by young acrobats under the name Recirquel.
The Campfire Stage and Community Garden will be new, and Sziget Beach repeated from last year. Inventor Ernő Rubik will be celebrated and the festival will be represented again by the Sziget Eye at Erzsébet tér, which is staying in place until September. The island will have a smaller ferris wheel to offer a view of this important annual Budapest happening.
11 to 18 August