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“Today, next to Puskás, Sziget is the one Hungarian name that makes people pay attention throughout the World”—Interview with Norbert Lobenwein

VOLT, Strand, and Sziget Festivals, Balaton Sound, and B.my.lake. Each and every one of these events simultaneously attracts and defines the free time of hundreds of thousands of young Hungarians and foreigners; in Hungary, summer isn’t summer without these events. Recently, Hungary Today interviewed Norbert Lobenwein, who in his twenties made a festival out of house parties, and today is one of the chief organizers of the above-mentioned summer events.

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In the past decade, Hungary has become a so-called ‘festival powerhouse’, both regionally and on the Western European level, in musical, culinary, and cultural fields. What is to thank for this development?

This expression isn’t an exaggeration, since, in the first place, it has become characteristic of the summer months to have festivals one after the other, all throughout the country. Now there are several thousand ‘festival’-type events each year—including village days, gastro festivals, and music festivals as well. It isn’t entirely realistic to lump all of these events together, but almost every single one has its own special purpose: to bring together a community for which even a tiny, one-day festival is up to the task. The events that we organize represent a different order of magnitude, since generally we put together programs with between 150 and 500,000 visitors, meaning that the expectations for us are different as well. At the beginning, in 1993, in the period following the end of Communism, earlier, totally worn-out events stopped being held, and nothing new came to fill their place. At the beginning of Sziget, Péter Sziámi Müller [Sziget Festival’s founder-eds.] expressed the feeling of this new era with the slogan “Neither a World Festival of Youth and Students [A Communist-era youth festival] nor a Woodstock.” We [Zoltán Fülöp and Nobert Lobenwein, chief organizers of VOLT Festival and Balaton Sound], as kids from Sopron only saw that in Budapest clubs were opening, smaller festivals were launching, while outside the capital, where we lived, nothing was happening. This is what gave us the impetus to launch the first VOLT Festival.

Is it true that VOLT Festival began as a house party?

What I would say is that we launched VOLT for the purpose of entertaining ourselves and those in our area, with eight bands and 800 people in attendance. We didn’t plan to make a living doing this, and at the beginning we definitely didn’t think that it would become such a huge event.

If I were to try to summarize VOLT’s life story in a nutshell, naturally there are some important milestones I could mention. When we first started, the number of attendees doubled from year to year, and naturally the festival grew as well. In 2002 we reached the point at which we could move to Sopron’s Lövérek neighborhood, or, in other words, to an open-air space. The size of the festival continued to grow here as well, that has been true of every year since we launched the festival, last year there were more than 150,000 of us in attendance. In terms of personal experiences, The Cult’s first VOLT concert was a dream come true. The reason I mention the first time is that this year, at the 25th VOLT, they’re going to be playing at our festival again—twelve years ago, they were headliners, this year they have an afternoon slot. Now that VOLT’s celebrating its quarter-century anniversary, I’ve thought many times about who we’ve had come here in the past 24 years. Of the biggest acts, the Arctic Monkeys, Motorhead, David Guetta, and Slash come to mind, but I think this year might have a stronger lineup than any before, with Linkin Park, Imagine Dragons, Martin Garrix, and Ellie Goulding. Two years ago, in the Netherlands, we won an award for Best Medium-Sized European Festival. That was probably the most important recognition we’ve received thus far. I would say that we are very lucky, our childhood dream has come true, and neither of us were planning on this career. Zoli was studying to become a teacher, while I wanted to become a photographer.

A Photographer?

Yes. In our family, my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all photographers. The field interested me as well, but over time I became more and more involved with festival organizing, in which I was ultimately able to be successful. I see a relation between the two fields, but perhaps the reason that the festival world interested me more is that there isn’t any topic that I can’t get a taste of, whether that’s organizing a concert, a play, or a photo exhibition.

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At the beginning was there an example in your mind of what kind of event you’d like to organize?

VOLT and Sziget both launched in the same year, 1993, but back then it wasn’t possible to place the two in the same category. While VOLT started as a large house party, even in its first year Sziget already had close to five thousand people. There was no example in front of us that we thought we should follow. In a few days, we’re actually heading to America, first to the Ultra Music Festival, then to Coachella. I’ve been to the latter multiple times, and I like it very much. There are many examples for us among the world’s top festivals, but I also should admit, that often times we’ve been disappointed, and expected more than what we ultimately got. This is true in terms of quality; it’s also certainly true, however, that it’s hard to compare European and American festival cultures.

What do you mean by that?

Coachella is one of the world’s most popular events. Wherever I went in America I experienced this, that going to Coachella is seen as a privilege. The line-up and the location are both fantastic, but from a European point of view it’s hard to understand things like, for example, that the day’s events end at midnight, that you can’t watch a concert with a beer in your hand. If you get thirsty, you have to go into the closed-off concession area. But at the same time, really everyone wants to be there. Two years ago, in the VIP section Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper were eating pizza next to me at a bar. Hollywood stars love this festival. If there’s any example that I would describe as truly founding a new school, that would be the Belgian Tomorrowland Festival. They really brought to life a new genre in terms of the feeling of the experience, ideas, and marketing.

Compared to these, in what was can a Hungarian festival offer something different?

It was very interesting to view these events in light of the fact that the big festivals, which, compared to Hungarian ones could do basically anything, don’t really care about providing the audience with extra experiences or services. Most of the festivals that I attended are first and foremost about global stars, and nothing else. There are no intimate bars or seating areas, no clean restrooms or extra programs. In general, Hungarian festivals—and not just the ones we run—currently are the way they are because we are a small market. For this reason, we had to, and still have to, do everything possible to appeal to visitors, so that even those want nothing to do with traditional festival conditions come to love this lifestyle. I think we have been quite successful at this, considering that today international experts, performers, and organizers view Hungarian festivals as examples worthy of imitating.

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How much time does it take to organize a six-day festival?

The beginning of work on the new festival is coming earlier and earlier. While the current festival is still underway, we’re already getting started on the work for next year: meetings with potential sponsors, performers, and agents. What I really like about our team is the fact that they really are maximalists. Up until the last possible second, everyone is thinking about how it would be possible to bring together one more play, one more street performance, that would make the entire event more exciting. We currently organize six to eight festivals at the same time, so naturally sometimes a particular phase of work will feel a bit “factory”-esque, but we expend a lot of energy to ensure that, at the end, festival-goers don’t experience that feeling.

Considering how many successful festivals there are in Hungary, do you think this knowledge is exportable to other countries?

Readers might already know that, a few months ago, we sold 70% of Sziget Ltd. to a British investment company, Providence Equity Partners. This opens exactly those doors that we would wish, that we could use our internationally recognized successes as jumping-off point of sorts to move into other countries. While we tried this on our own we noticed that, no matter how much experience we have, working at the international level requires more serious investment capabilities, in addition to hard work. The investment group that we came to an agreement with noticed that, in addition to our accomplishments, we have a highly skilled, experienced team; a team to which, if they add their own web of contacts and financial backing, we could achieve some truly great things. But in the present moment we are naturally spending most of our time ensuring that our 2017 events in Hungary are just as successful as they have been in years past.

Reporting by Balázs Horváth

Photos via Péter Csákvári

Translated by Tom Szigeti