Thirty years of BAM and Sónar: two festival models, a common driving force for culture

Audience at the 2010 Sónar festival. © Vicente Zambrano

Festivals have become the ultimate popular spectacle of our times. They have built themselves from scratch in just three decades. In Barcelona, we have gone from a tentative and very primitive model, in terms of concept and, above all, structure, to today’s shows of sophistication, which act as a mirror for other events all over the world. It has been a journey that, notwithstanding the passing of the years, has flown by.

Two cornerstone events on the city’s festival calendar, Barcelona Acció Musical (BAM) and Sónar, celebrate this year their thirtieth anniversaries. Although many people may not realise it, festivals have not always been around. In fact, these two festivals are the oldest, and despite coming into being less than one year apart and under very different circumstances, they have constituted two key events for the cultural development, not only of the city, but also beyond its borders. At some point, they have even gained prominence on the international stage.

Both emerged in the first half of the 1990s, in a city still buzzing with the after-effects of the Olympic Games. BAM was the first to make an appearance, in 1993, spearheaded by Jordi Gratacós, who was its editor for the first fifteen editions. Gratacós, a keen advocate of change, with the support of the recently created Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (ICUB), laid the foundations for a disruptive model in a changing musical scene, with the growing development of the alternative scene. That first success earned Barcelona tremendous prestige, while also inspiring and encouraging many professionals and organisations in the sector, whether record labels or venue planners, who became organisers of other festivals all over the country. One year later, Sónar arrived, a private event that, in the space of just a few years, brought about the necessary changes thanks to the visionary spirit of its mangers, Enric Palau, Ricard Robles and Sergio Caballero. It placed Barcelona on the international electronic music, digital creation and contemporary art scene.

Both organisations have evolved steadily over the last thirty years. BAM, as an offshoot of La Mercè festival, began as a kind of showcase for emerging talent and a meeting point for an up-and-coming independent industry. It gradually grew and gained popularity in iconic venues in the old town, such as Plaça del Rei, Plaça Reial, Moll de la Fusta, etc., with a top-notch programme thanks to the wisdom of its artistic directors. It even enjoyed a spell in which it played in the big league of the major events of the day, such as the Benicàssim International Festival (FIB), Primavera Sound and Festimad (Madrid), with a line-up brimming with big names in the unrivalled setting of the Estació França train station, which had become the hub of musical activity.

Performance by the rock band Viva Belgrado on the BAM stage in Plaça de Joan Coromines during the celebration of La Mercè festivities in 2021. © Xavi Torrent Performance by the rock band Viva Belgrado on the BAM stage in Plaça de Joan Coromines during the celebration of La Mercè festivities in 2021. © Xavi Torrent

Sónar, on the other hand, after its nomadic beginnings, in which it was even held at the Poble Espanyol, was finally able to become a regular event in fixed locations and was able to run its heterogeneous programme in a unique two-fold format. It comprised daytime events at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and today’s Arts Santa Mònica centre, which revolved around future trends in contemporary digital and artistic creation, as well as a wealth of music generated with technology of every conceivable aesthetic orientation, and night-time events, at the Mar Bella pavilion, centred on club music.

Throughout the 21st century, each of these two musical events followed its own path. BAM has consolidated its position as a key catalyst for emerging talent and Sónar has become an essential hub in the world concert of electronic music. Furthermore, through Sónar+D, it has also become a driving force for creation from disciplines such as technology, art, thinking and science. Every year it attracts more than 120,000 visitors to its current venues at the Fira de Montjuïc (daytime) and the Fira Gran Via de L’Hospitalet (night-time).

The past that was the future

During the six years I worked on Sónar, I furthered my knowledge of musical epistemology, as well as my organisational skills. And I learned two main principles: first, evolutionary processes are not necessarily linked to an unlimited capacity for growth; and second, we must never lose touch with what is happening on the street, which implies a constant vibrant curiosity. By way of contrast with this second aspect, the festival has retained its management, a triumvirate formed by Ricard Robles, Enric Palau and Sergio Caballero. I asked the first two men about the context in which that first Sónar emerged: “In 1994, there were artistic proposals, but they were few and far between, and the distance from Europe was huge.”

Even so, they took a gamble and embarked on an unprecedented project, devoid of points of reference. In fact, the artistic side, through film, design, installations, video-creation, etc., has always played a major role in Sónar. Its powerful image has set it apart from other festivals, but was this aspect part of the roadmap from the very start? Sergio Caballero, the initiative’s artistic director, replied: “It started with the third edition, at Sónar 96. The festival’s image has allowed us to explore new languages far removed from the codes of the music industry and overall trends. What’s more, you can reach huge audiences beyond your public, with campaigns that are seen all over the world. The 25th anniversary video, Sónar Calling GJ273b, was even retweeted by NASA.”

The present is now past

Sónar has always been characterised by a marked futuristic vision, which has helped it interpret the sound constellations and look through the crystal computer, shining the spotlight on everything that now seems anecdotal, but which tomorrow will be the norm. As a matter of fact, this year’s image has been created with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Sergio Caballero explains that, to create the 30th anniversary image, AI was trained with the 29 images that defined the previous editions and generated a multitude of trial/error images. “It was in the beauty generated from these errors that the graphic image of Sónar 2023 was found.”

The festival has contributed many things to the city of Barcelona. But what will it be remembered for? “We have created an event in a category of its own that has been able to attract, engage and excite people from all over the world, from artists to professionals and audiences,” claims Robles y Palau. Their role in the music scene has of course played a vital role. “We have encouraged the emerging artist to have a natural space in which to express themselves in front of large audiences. We are a festival that the music industry and the public choose to discover talent or find inspiration.” When I ask them about its current form, they declare: “The festival has always striven to respond to the interests, concerns and ideas of its time. When it started, thirty years ago, and today too. Sónar carries on with the same spirit, constantly reinventing itself without ever losing its original essence.”

Rara avis

The BAM festival has long been one of the lynchpins of the city’s music scene, a gospel for those of us waiting for the indie manna at the end of the summer. It’s a totally different kind of festival, with an artistic direction that changes roughly every four years. This year L’Afluent is at its helm, a cultural services cooperative made up of Ikram Bouloum, Miquel Cabal Guarro, Aïda Camprubí, Sergi Egea and Artur Estrada, with a clear commitment to its cross-cutting nature to lend visibility to the largest number of collectives in the city. BAM is a 100% public festival and this is certainly unprecedented, considering the prevailing model in the festival ecosystem.

Concert by Asmâa Hamzaoui & Bnat Timbouktou as part of BAM, on the Rambla del Raval, during the celebration of La Mercè festivities in 2022.© Víctor Parreño Concert by Asmâa Hamzaoui & Bnat Timbouktou as part of BAM, on the Rambla del Raval, during the celebration of La Mercè festivities in 2022.© Víctor Parreño

“How have you managed to maintain it for thirty years and what is your mission?,” I asked its current directors. “We do not focus on the same aesthetics or communities every year, but we adapt the discourse throughout the editions covered by the contract. Each edition has its own character, but there is a cross-cutting keystone that allows us to offer a visible and appropriate space to the greatest number of groups in the city,” they answer. And they add: “We are thinking of a plural and inclusive BAM that gives visibility to all possible groups, especially those that have historically been excluded from the festival stages. We propose a programme with artists from diverse backgrounds and origins, whether local, national or international, offering a variety of styles, clearly feminised and featuring non-binary artists, and with special attention afforded to emerging and new musical formats.”

The alternative of the alternative

BAM’s spirit is alternative from the word get-go, and that may seem a contradiction if we consider that it is part of the city’s festivities. How do the current artistic directors see it? “BAM is the alternative branch of La Mercè, it fits in with our previous work within the independent circuits. In formal terms, we are delighted to be able to organise programmes on large open-air stages and in public spaces. We are also happy to take into account the plurality of tastes of Barcelona’s diverse populations.”

Yes, but where do the respective music programmes of La Mercè and BAM begin? How do they manage to avoid stepping on each other’s toes? The members of L’Afluent emphatically agree: “We have absolute freedom, but we always try to follow certain style directions depending on the venue, to ensure that the line-up is at least equal in all senses and that there is linguistic representation. We have an excellent relationship with the management of La Mercè, and we capitalise on each new edition to meet and complement our respective production approaches.” BAM’s strength lies in the fact that it has always invested in emerging talent. How does L’Afluent see it today? The five answer: “Emerging local talent is what will shape the discourse of the future; consequently, its inclusion is fundamental, and it is always well-represented in the programme. The fact that groups like Catàrsia, Don’t Hit a la Negrx, Jokkoo, Toro, Sunkusi, Sin Sync and El Bloque TV, which are part of the city’s active music scene, took part in the 2022 edition by curating some of the spaces on these big street stages, demonstrates how these conventional circuits can be conquered.”

In short, Sónar and BAM are two different proposals in terms of format, evolution, content and thinking, but they share many other points, such as their passion for discovering new talent and their roots in the city, the indispensable framework of these thirty years. It remains to be seen how their paths will continue, and even more so in a world as unpredictable as today’s. What is certain is that they will continue to be necessary and fundamental driving forces of local cultural ecosystems.


Jordi Turtós
Music journalist

In terms of the development of the city’s musical ecosystem, BAM has been a reflection on the concepts of triumph and success and on music as a mass musical product. It is, even today, a romantic idea of the enjoyment of live music. And it continues to be a showcase for emerging local talent.

Nando Cruz
Journalist and author of Pequeño circo and Macrofestivales

The music festival model as a revenue-generating tourist attraction came into being and grew with Sónar. With everything that this entailed, not all of which was positive. BAM achieved two things: it broke with the traditional town festival model, where the music offered was made up of three macro-concerts by well-known artists, and it opened the doors to a new independent scene.

Santi Carrillo
Artistic co-director of BAM (1995-1999). Director of the magazine Rock de Lux

We recovered spaces such as Plaça Reial, Plaça del Rei, Moll de la Fusta… and it was a resounding success. Many people from the industry came from all over Spain, especially Madrid. BAM was a pioneer in this independent scene, which later developed in many other places.

Ángel Molina
DJ and A&R for 30D Records

I still remember my first DJ session. I was so nervous. Sónar was my first big milestone at the time. I played a daring and dizzying set, which ended with a minute of noise followed by silence, broken by the audience’s applause. It’s impossible to describe that feeling in words.

Miqui Puig
Singer and presenter of Pista de fusta on iCatFM

In the nineties, my role was very strange. Musician and discoverer. Young and eager for everything. The first Sónar was like a first trip, we knew it was new, but we didn’t know how far it would go. BAM, on the other hand, was like a town festival, but more modern, tailor-made.

Óscar Abril Ascaso
Curator of SonarMàtica. Head coordinator of Club9

SonarMàtica was the festival’s theme-based, collective exhibition which, despite being only three days long, was a great showcase for the advances in the digital arts. Free software, data landscaping, augmented reality... We were always the first.

Jordi Gratacós
Director of BAM (1993-2007) and of the Master’s Degree in Music Industry at the UB-IL3

Looking back thirty years later, you realise how generational desires and needs have changed. Ours was highly energetic. We were the driving force behind it, but with boundless enthusiasm and without any expectations other than those of a social and cultural nature. With live music.

Antònia Folguera
Curator of Sónar+D

At Sónar+D we zoom in to showcase the most interesting artists, projects and ideas of the day. We seek to reflect their technological, artistic, scientific, industrial and often philosophical side. We then zoom out to see how all these themes and aspects connect with one another.

Jordi Martí Grau
Councillor at Barcelona City Council

BAM grew by adopting the same festival identity and generated a community around it. With Sónar and BAM, Barcelona acquired the status of an exhibitor of what is not readily apparent in musical and artistic circles. Giving a glimpse of trends that will eventually prevail.

Sónar de Nit atmosphere during the 1998 edition. © Sónar Sónar de Nit atmosphere during the 1998 edition. © Sónar

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