Neo Sala is the founder and CEO of Spanish promoter Doctor Music, and the man behind Doctor Music Festival, which became iconic despite only taking place four times between 1996 and 2000. After all, it was the first proper greenfield festival in Spain. The event returns for a one-off edition this year, and Pollstar asked Sala about it – but not before diving into the promoter’s own history.
Neo Sala fell in love with live music in the summer of 1976, when his parents took him to see The Rolling Stones play Barcelona’s famous Bullring, officially known as Plaza de Toros Monumental.
The concert sparked Sala’s desire promote live shows himself. The first band he promoted in Spain was a local group from Barcelona called Suck Electronic Enciclopedic. Sala was 15 years old.
He continued promoting shows while studying pure math at university. “After two years I realized my future in pure math would either be the crazy scientist or working as a professor,” said Sala, “and I looked at my teachers there, and they were all looking very pale white and a bit crazy.”
So, Sala decided to turn his hobby into a career. In the beginning, he mainly worked with U.S. and U.K. jazz musicians, such as Stanley Jordan, Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin and Al Jarreau, and thus developed a particularly good relationship with U.K. promoter legend Barrie Marshall.
“In 1987 [Marshall] had Tina Turner’s ‘Break Every Rule’ tour, and he decided to give it to me. I was a 25- or 26-year-old guy, and I got Tina Turner,” Sala remembered.
And so it happened that Neo Sala, eleven years after witnessing his first live concert, returned to the Bullring as promoter of the Spanish leg of one of the biggest tours at the time. And he did such a good job marketing the event that a second date at the 25,000-capacity venue had to be added – unheard of in Spain at the time, where people used to buy tickets at the last minute.
To understand how remarkable that feat was back then, one has to imagine the state of Spain’s concert business in the ’80s – and it doesn’t take a vivid imagination since there was virtually no business to speak of.
Sala recalls meetings with agents in London in the early ’80s, who didn’t even consider touring Spain or Italy because there was no infrastructure. “We had to build everything from scratch, including our credibility with international agents and managers, to show them Spain was not only a good market, but also a professional one,” he said.
Tina Turner changed everything. “People realized, ‘Wow, Tina Turner went to Spain,'” Sala recalled. “The year after, I got a call from Michael Jackson’s people who were working on the ‘Bad’ tour. I was like, ‘Wow!’ Suddenly we were on the map.”
The idea to launch a festival was inspired by one of America’s great impresarios, Michael Lang. “When I promoted Joe Cocker in the late ’80s, his manager and tour promoter Michael Lang and I became good friends,” Sala said. “When [Lang] put together the second edition of Woodstock in 1994 he invited me. I said, ‘Wow, we need to do a proper festival in Spain’, a real festival, you know, three days, three nights, camping, different stages, everything.”
And after doing some more research, which consisted of travelling to Europe’s flagship festivals like Glastonbury in the UK, Roskilde in Denmark and Lowlands in Holland, Sala launched Doctor Music Festival (DMF) in 1996.
Doctor Music – Doctor Music Festival
Scene from one of the previous editions, showing the scenic Valley d’Àneu
Sala and his team had chosen the scenic and remote Valley d’Àneu as the location. “At the time, honestly, we were young, lots of illusions, we didn’t think much about it. We thought, ‘The site is great, the local people are very friendly.’ I was from the area, so we said, ‘Let’s do it,'” said Sala.
Thirty thousand people showed up to the first edition, which featured David Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Blur, Massive Attack, Moby, Suede, Bad Religion, Neneh Cherry, Sepultura, Slayer, Underworld and more on the lineup.
The festival returned for three more years, but did not work economically. “We were facing very high production costs. The concert industry at the time had been established, but the festival industry not yet. Everything had to come from Central Europe or the UK: the tents, the portable showers, everything. It was crazy expensive,” Sala recalled, adding that “at the time there were no sponsors, people weren’t used to high ticket prices, it just wasn’t working. We were prepared to lose some money on it, but after four years of losing money we decided to stop it.”
Today, Spain hosts some of the world’s biggest and most famous festivals, including Primavera Sound, Sonar, BBK and Mad Cool, and there is a local industry that caters to them.
Underworld returns for the reincarnation of DMF, July 11-14, which will have a capacity of 50,000 visitors. Other confirmed artists include The Chemical Brothers, Christine and the Queens, Greta van Fleet, The Prodigy, Behemoth, Anathema, Charlotte de Witte, James Bay, Jimmy Cliff, Mando Diao, Parov Stelar, Opeth, Primal Scream, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tom Walker and many more.
Sala is mostly looking forward to bringing back the spirit of the original Doctor Music Festival. “I have not done a proper festival in 20 years, so it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I guess you can compare it to what an artist feels that hasn’t been on the road for many years and gets all the band together to come back. The team we have now is mostly the same as 20 years ago, so it feels like getting the whole family together and doing it again.”
Doctor Music – Doctor Music Festival
The team involved in the event gathered around a Sacred Menhir last summer to celebrate twelve moons to go until the festival returns
Another artist returning to the valley after being part of the 1997 edition of Doctor Music is not a musician: Albert Adrià, one of the most renowned chefs of this day and age.
He was instrumental in developing Barcelona’s El Bulli into one of the world’s best restaurants until it closed in 2011, and today runs the elBarri restaurant group, which includes several Michelin-starred establishments.
Adrià will prepare his signature dishes at the festival, including olives that dissolve into liquid once in the mouth, strawberries filled with a campari gel, the famous spanish jamón and edible cigars.
“I’ve always loved good food. Going to a festival doesn’t mean you have to eat poor food,” Sala said.
He revealed that he was open to the idea of bringing Doctor Music Festival back for good, depending on how the reincarnation went. “We are open, but not in 2020, and we are not thinking about doing it every year. I don’t know if it’s going to take another 20 years after this one, hopefully it will be less.”