Croatia has quietly etched itself onto the international music map over the last ten years and its stunning coastline now provides the backdrop to some of Europe’s most enticing week-long parties. As the sun sets on Hideout, and as Outlook’s organisers prepare for the launch of its new sister event, Dimensions, we speak to a number of the key figures behind the Adriatic festival bubble.
It’s easy to forget that Croatia is a republic of relative infancy, given that it only declared independence from the oppressive Yugoslavian regime in 1991. In the following four years, republican Croats entered into a lengthy battle with Croat-Serbs and Yugoslavians, to maintain this hard earned freedom. Sadly, this resulted in around 20,000 fatalities on all sides and the country’s economy was left decimated, declining by nearly a quarter. The separation from Yugoslavia allowed the newly-formed democracy to throw open its doors to tourists; a decision which had a hugely positive impact on rebuilding the country and its tourism industry.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s climate is one of the biggest draws for clubbers and a growing number of seasoned festival vets are now deciding to trade their sodden wellies and 10 tog sleeping bags for yacht parties and coastal temperatures that rarely drop below 27 degrees centigrade during summer months. This relentless sunshine adds a holiday element to the festival experience; something that’s not so easily achieved when wading through knee-high puddles of urine at a tech-house weekender, somewhere in the Home Counties. As many music fans in the UK continue to feel the pinch of a bleak economy, cheap ticket prices have been a key factor in the growth of the Croatian scene. For example, a ticket to the Garden Festival costs £90 while Electric Elephant will set you back just a penny less. When you consider that the average punter’s pound goes a lot further in Puno than it will at a bar by Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage, it becomes easy to see why thousands are looking abroad for the festival season. The continual rise of entrance fees over in the UK does little to remedy the situation; this year it cost approximately £170 to get into Rob Da Bank’s Bestival and just over £200 to secure a place at Secret Garden Party.
A spokeswoman for Croatia Tourist Board suggested cheaper air travel has encouraged people to look to sunnier shores. She said: “As Croatia is only two hours from the UK it has become an affordable and accessible alternative to the UK festival circuit. With its Mediterranean sunshine, picturesque settings, and reasonable prices, Croatia is quickly becoming a festival haven for people in the know. Forget the mud and endless queues; Croatia is the music scene’s best kept secret!”
THE GARDEN FESTIVAL
The Garden in Petrčane – a tree-laden peninsula near Zadar – acted as a launch pad for some of the country’s most success festivals in recent years, including Outlook and Soundwave. However, in 2012 The Garden was moved to a new location in Tisno, where it continues to provide a home for some of the smaller boutique parties including Electric Elephant. Nick Colgan – founder of The Garden Festival and owner of the current site – was responsible for bringing some of the UK’s best club nights to the original Garden in Petrčane. “I had a friend from Germany who lived here and was forever telling me to come and have a look. Then the war happened and that prolonged things. In 2003 my friend and I came over with our families and we kind of fell in love with the place,” he said. “Then a guy called me up and said he had a venue that was really special. I flew my wife over and we just decided to go for it, totally unexpected. After a lot of hard work we opened the Garden Bar in Zadar in July 2004 and it became an instant hit. But we soon realised that we needed to get people over [to help fund it] and that’s how the first festival started.”
As for many of Nick’s generation in Britain, Croatia remained a mysterious and undiscovered destination, given its status as a no-go area for several decades. “I knew it was a part of old Yugoslavia but I certainly had no idea of what it entailed geographically, with the coastline and the islands etc. About eight years after the war we spent a few weeks here and it had a really nice feeling; fresh with a positive air. So, I just thought it would be an ideal place to start something different,” he added. Following the bar’s prosperous first few months, Colgan stumbled across a unique complex that later became become the venue for the first Garden Festival. “We lived in Petrčane at the time and I was walking the dog one day. I stumbled across the grounds of this hotel and saw this circular building with an amazing terrace on the end of a peninsular. I found out it was a club that was built in 1969 and hadn’t been used since before the war. After asking, we got inside the place and it was amazing; it had this amazing retro feel,” he said.
“Eventually, we took it on and set about getting it back to its original state. Then we did the first festival there in 2006 and had about 350 people over, mainly from the UK. It cost us an absolute fortune but the feedback was incredible. We got about 150 emails saying ‘look, you have to do this again!’”This spurred Colgan on to run the event again the following year, but by that time it had expanded faster than he would have liked. “We thought it was too big so we capped the event at 2500, which we [still] sell out every year. We decided to invite other promoters to spread out the events rather than having one big one. By [doing this] we were putting money back into the local economy. It’s not just about an event making money, it was about [Petrčane] getting something from it as well,” he continued.
However, in 2011, his troupe lost the original site in Petrčane, after a fallout with the hotel’s owner. “It had always been a bit of a dubious partnership really, because we were trying to pigeon hole a music event for young people on the grounds of a hotel that catered for families. But we had always persevered because we got such a beautiful location, with such a remarkable club. Everyone was so incredibly helpful [in finding a new site]. We had the mayors of villages ring us up and say ‘come do it here’. Last year we worked out that the financial input into the economy from The Garden was upwards of €15m.”Croatia’s less bureaucratic approach to event organisation is a boon for UK promoters, who are used to quarrelling with local authorities over draconian rules concerning the licensing and policing of outdoor dance music events.
“There’s a lot more opportunity for us to get things moving here than there is in the UK. There is a lot of red tape in Croatia and it takes a long time, but at least they’ll listen to you. Tourism is the biggest income into this country, so they understand the importance of what we do. We have amazing relationships with city officials, the police and all those people involved. In the UK it’s a lot more of a ball-ache; we’d never get away with what we do here over there!” Many of the other promoters Colgan brought to the Dalmatian coast shared in his success and eventually expanded out in other parts of the country. Was he ever wary that he’d opened to floodgates for hundreds of event organisers to come over and set-up shop? “Every corner I turn round now there’s another festival, which is great. It has certainly opened up a whole new market. I don’t think any of it’s bad because it has certainly got a lot more people talking about Croatia. What does worry me is that everything will get tarred with the same brush.”
One such new festival is Hideout, which has just run from 29th June to 1st July on the shores of Zrce Beach, on the Isle of Pag. Although an infant compared to The Garden Festival, it has already pulled in some of dance music’s biggest (including Loco Dice and the illusive Ricardo Villalobos) despite only going into its second year. Mark Newton, one of Hideout’s founders, spoke to us about the ideology behind the festival and the lessons he learned from its debut in 2011. “I had been doing events in Ibiza for a few years. A friend of mine who had been out to Croatian festival a few years in a row said I should come over with him and look at running something. So, I went to this beautiful place – Pag, the current site – had a look around and decided to go with it,” he said. But given his roots in the White Isle, what kind of event had Newton envisaged for the Dalmatian coast? “We wanted to provide an alternative festival experience. [Croatia] is cheap, outside of the Eurozone and lots of people have never been there,” he suggested. “Last year was a learning curve. We all got together and listed a number of points we could change, taking in customer feedback etc.”
So, what are the difficulties faced by a new promoter to the Croatian market in booking artists to come play at an unknown Eastern European festival?Newton said: “I was surprised at how it easy it was for us. I’ve booked artists before and this was by far the easiest task I’ve ever had because a lot of artists were really excited about playing here.If you cast an eye over the list of UK promoters involved in Croatia, it soon becomes clear that the movement is not purely driven by London; in fact, there is a refreshingly large representation from the regions, from the likes of Birmingham’s Bigger Than Barry; Chibuku (who hail from Liverpool’s infamous Lemon Lounge) and Jaunt, arguably Tyneside’s most forward-thinking house night. Newton suggests that this was not a deliberate move by Hideout’s organisers. Rather, it was just the result of the circles he rolls in.“It was never really a concern to [avoid being] ‘too London centric’. Most of the promoters [we get to play] happen to be our friends anyway and I’ve run events in those cities for a while”.
Historically, Brits don’t have the best reputation for clubbing abroad. In fact, their notoriety has often caused reluctant bar owners and hoteliers, to grit their teeth and turn a blind eye as drink fuelled twenty-somethings invade their once-quiet port towns and sun-kissed fishing villages. While this may only apply to a small minority, it is interesting to know what the Croats make of the Anglo-influx.“They’ve been very accepting and [Croatian music promoters] have been really keen to get on board,” Newton suggested.“Hideout is not just a UK festival abroad – we’ve made a conscious effort to market to the Balkan region and to Germany etc. The local people we work with are really good and the crowd they are involved with [in their respective cities] don’t usually get the chance to see some of those artists play who will be appearing at Hideout,” he added.
THE BOAT PARTIES
Boat parties are now a staple feature of Hideout and involve a record label or headline act taking over a 150ft schooner for the evening, while a few hundred passengers take in the sunset. Newton sees these nautical soirees as an essential part of the experience. “They play a massive part and usually run from early morning to late in the evening. The English crowd want sun during the day and want the night to be a full-on party,” he said. Punters will be glad to hear that these fun-fuelled-flotillas are by no means exclusive to Hideout; in fact, they’re so popular that Outlook run 12.
Set in an iconic fort in an ancient Roman Citadel, Outlook holds the crown for the country’s biggest and most successful dance music festival. This Summer, it celebrates its fifth year and since inception, it has built up a loyal following of vacationing students and under-25s. This success has allowed the owners to launch a second festival, Dimensions, to cater to the deeper end of the dance music spectrum.Gentleman’s Dub Club frontman and Outlook founder Johnny Scratchley,spoke to us about his festival’s rise to prominence. “We were very fortunate and were contacted by the group that had set up Garden Festival. Our first year was full (around 1000 people) and the site was amazing. Working in Croatia was a really individual experience, and I found the festival to be like none that I had ever gone to before. After that, we got kicked out of the village because we made a bit too much noise,” Scratchley added playfully.
In 2009, the Outlook organisers found another venue, Aquarius at Zrće, and doubled the capacity. 2010 saw yet another relocation, but this time it was driven by the feeling that their current spot wasn’t the right fit for them.“We found this stunning place in the North of Croatia, which was a fortress. At that stage we had become a ‘proper festival’; producing the event, building the stages and bringing in the sound system. That was when everything stepped up a level and we reached a capacity of 10000,” Scratchley told us. At this point the Outlook’s audio policy still centred on bass music and ‘anything borne out of Jamaica in the late 70s’. With Lee Scratch Perry, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Max Romeo topping the 2012 bill, it would seem that the curators haven’t strayed too far from this credo. But, were there any disadvantages that came with such rapid expansion?
“One thing thing we did lose was the intimate vibe we had in 2010. We looked at the music industry at the kind of [thing] we were really loving, and then decided to create Dimensions festival. It takes more of a diverse look at electronic music, while still keeping it underground. We’re lucky to be able to put together a list of such credible artists who are all making soulful music. It has definitely given us strong faith in peoples’ music choices. And that isn’t dictated by mass album sales and global domination by – it’s just about people who make really good music.”
Like his peers, Scratchley recognises the importance of working alongside Croats, and last year his four-day festival employed near-on 1000 locals.“We’re very happy with the groups we work with over there and we also work closely with the tourist board to help promote the country, from the ground up. [Because of] the scale we’re now at, we’ve become a very important business within the local area. We’ve built up strong contacts with the local government and with the people, [plus] we’re able to bring a lot of money into the economy,” he said.Another potential catalyst in the growth of Croatia’s festival culture is that many people are becoming disenchanted with the scene back home, where new festivals are now ten-a-penny and often lack clear direction and a defined vision. “Within the UK there has been a big boom in festivals, but people have got on board without having a specific angle on things. It’s about being all-inclusive, but it’s also about putting on the perfect event for the right group of people. For us, it’s really a case that we’ve found a home away from home and it’s turned from a UK festival based in Croatia, into a global event.”
WHERE TO VISIT:
Most people you speak to about where to visit, if you have a few spare days either side of your trip, will point you towards the picturesque seaport of Dubrovnik or Split, the country’s Second City. But there are a number of other worthwhile sights and local events that ought not to be overlooked. From 29-30 June for example, Zagreb plays host to INmusic: a two day festival described as ‘Glastonbury’s sunny Croatian alternative’.A spokesperson for the Croatian Tourist Board told us: “The capital is the country’s cultural, cinematic, and sporting hub, so visitors should spend some time [at] the city’s sites, or enjoy the excellent shopping and laid-back café culture. Visit Zagreb’s nearby Bundek and Jarun lakes, the Mirogoj cemetery or take a ‘Secrets of Grič’ night tour.” Meanwhile, Colgan suggested: “If you’re into sailing, you’ve got to have a look around the islands because they’re something special. Some of the national parks, like Krka and also sample some of the local wines. ” “Bring a relaxed attitude, flip-flops and no pre-conceptions,” Sracthley enthused.
Describing Croatia as the new Ibiza would be to use a misguided epithet, but the Dalmatian coast has firmly established itself as a viable alternative to Britain’s grey skies and overpriced Balearic super-clubs. However, as an increasing number of eager promoters set upon its shores, there is a possibility of over-saturation, which may result in the larger festivals moving on to the next beachside hotspot. So, is the bubble likely to be short-lived and if so, when can we expect it to burst? Nick Colgan thinks it might be, but suggests he’ll be around long after it does. “The difficulty with the bigger festivals is when it comes to booking Djs. They tend to just throw money at it and get exclusives on acts. All these so-called ‘big artists’ are all a bit similar really; they’ve got no individuality and I think that’s the short-lived thing. There’s big money behind these events, but they’ll keep on doing what they do and just move on to whatever the next big thing is. What we (the smaller events) need to do is create something that is different and a bit more special. It’s really about the whole vibe, rather than ‘who played what and where’.
THIS SUMMER’S HIGHLIGHTS:
Garden Festival (July 4th – July 11th 2012): Solomun & David August, PillowTalk, Derrick Carter, Tim Sweeney, José Padilla (Sunrise boat party set) and Nicolas Jaar.
Electric Elephant (July 12th – July 16th 2012): Andrew Weatherall, Lone, Marcellus Pittman, Get Down Edits, Moodymanc, Justin Robertson and Dj Deep
Soundwave (July 19th – July 23rd 2012): De La Soul, Ghostpoet, Submotion Orchestra, Dj Kentaro, Craig Charles, Fatima and Om Unit
SuncéBeat (July 25th – July 31st 2012): Motor City Drum Ensemble, François K, Dixon, Dimitri From Paris and Henrik Schwarz
Stop Making Sense (Aug 2nd – Aug 6th 2012): Jimmy Edgar, Move D, Steffi, Deetron, Sven Weisemann and James Fox
Outlook (Aug 30th – Sept 3rd 2012): Phife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest), Fat Freddy’s Drop, Lee Scratch Perry, Digital Mystikz, Souls of Mischief, The Beatnuts, George Fitzgerald and Disclosure
Dimensions (Sept 6th – Sept 9th 2012): Carl Craig, Little Dragon, Marcel Dettmann, Floating Points, Joy Orbison, Moodymann and Four Tet (Live)
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