When we reached out to Tamás Kádár, CEO of Sziget, Hungary’s most famous festival with a 30-year history, he was in the middle of preparing its 2023 edition. It was the perfect moment to assess the state of the business, and it sounded like the infrastructure was mostly back up and running.
Hungary having the highest inflation in Europe, as well as being a direct neighbor to Ukraine, where the war is still waging, still poses multiple challenges. One of Kádár’s main takeaways, however, is that Hungary in particular, as well as the wider region, can be considered safe by artists and their teams.
Pollstar: What’s your state of mind?
Tamás Kádár: First and foremost, it’s great to be back. The whole situation during COVID was devastating, not just here in the region, but all over Europe, all over the world. So, to have life back is great to experience. And that was the feeling last year, when we had overwhelming interest in all of our events, because people had just gotten [their freedom back], they wanted to go out, they wanted to party. They wanted the festival, a lot of people kept their tickets throughout the two missed seasons. It was really great to just see the people having fun again.
This year is, of course, a bit different, especially in the region. It’s definitely not easy. We have the war in our neighborhood. Ukraine is a neighboring country to Hungary, which is definitely something we must consider. What is more, the economic situation in Hungary is not really something we can be proud of. So, it’s a mixed feeling: While it’s really great to be back, and to organize festivals again, the surrounding [circumstances] are very different to what they were in 2019.
Can you can you explain a bit more how the war influences your business?
From a business perspective, before the war, we had over 5,000 people coming from the regions of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Now, it is under 1000.
But there is also a personal layer: I have a lot of friends in Ukraine, and seeing this aggression coming from Russia was really hard to understand in the first couple of days. It was really hard to imagine that this could actually happen. And it’s really terrible, I’ve never experienced war so close to us, involving friends, in my lifetime. It’s really something to digest.
It’s been more than a year now, and we’ve been working closely with Music Saves Ukraine, a NGO helping musicians, festival organizers, and promoters in Ukraine. Last year and again this year, we will have them at the festival. We also invite Ukrainian artists, that’s how we as a festival can help, by giving them the opportunity to play, but also the space to raise their voice and and keep this terrible aggression of Russia on the public’s mind. Sziget has always been taking a stand for various causes, one of them is definitely peace.
Speaking to your friends in Ukraine, what do they tell you? How are they coping?
Well, I think the most terrible and frightening thing on the whole, is that they somehow get used to this war. Of course, you have to keep in mind that in the first couple of weeks of the war, Russia was really invading Ukraine, trying to occupy Kyiv. When this was unsuccessful, things calmed down a bit. Now, the war is [mostly located] in the eastern part of Ukraine. They are also somewhat returning to normal life, so to speak, even if there’s no normal if you country’s at war. But we speak regularly, and to me, it seems they somehow get used to it, and that’s really frightening. We do really hope that it will be over very soon.
What’s the economy like. Has people’s buying power been affected? Is that noticeable in ticket sales?
It’s very hard to judge, because the audience of Sziget is really mixed. 50% of our visitors are local, 50% are coming from different countries, mainly Europe, but also from all over the world, including countries like Australia, New Zealand. Local ticket buyers usually buy day tickets, basically cherry-picking the artists they want to see, because they already know the festival [inside out]. But the Hungarian government’s steps, which are causing a huge inflation of more than 20%, are not helping. Hungary is by far the number one in Europe, when it comes to inflation, not the gold medal you want to have. But it also means, that the forint is getting weaker, so a Euro will still get you the same as before. So, for someone coming from Germany, the Netherlands, or France, Sziget is still a cheap festival.
Is the live events supply chain in Hungary back up and running?
Last year was tough, and you could see it in the production. If you were a regular visitor, you could see that, before COVID, the festival was somehow more fancy, more beautiful. This year, we’ve had far less problems with subcontractors and suppliers. From a production point of view, it’s going to one of a kind. We’ve invested in certain areas, including infrastructure and hygiene, which we really stepped up, and which will hopefully be defining for the next couple of years. We found great suppliers for that. So, while it was tough last year, it also offered a chance to involve new players and ideas. Whenever it gets tough, you use it as an opportunity to rethink a lot of procedures, you stop doing it out of routine, and start to be creative again. And I think visitors this year will notice how we’ve elevated some aspects to another, much better, level.
After two cancelled editions, coming back with all those challenges, how do you keep yourself motivated? And how do you make sure that transitions to your team?
What I believe – and maybe it’s not right, but that’s what we tell ourselves – is that the worst part is over. I mean, not doing the festival, just sitting at home is the worst thing a promoter can experience, and that part is over. We can do the festival, and create great things again, we can meet our visitors, we can be together again. That’s really something positive. You could especially feel it last year. Yeah, some things were not the way we were used to, but to be together, and to have this beautiful crowd at the festival, was amazing. And that’s the thing that that gave us a push to go forward, to not complain about things that are now behind us, but to say okay, we’re back in the game. That was very good motivation for us.
Your lineup suggest, artists and their teams aren’t afraid to travel East.
All the neighboring countries of Ukraine to the west are safe. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania are safe countries. In everyday life, you don’t see that there is war, so it was never an issue for any artists or agents, that we’re a neighbor to Ukraine. What is more, Sziget is 30 years old. We have a good reputation among the agents and artists, they trust our world. One-off live shows are doing well in Hungary, too. Last week, we had Guns N’ Roses, they just announced Coldplay for next year. I don’t think safety concerns are an issue.
Anything about this year’s Sziget you would like to highlight?
We took a huge step up in terms of hygiene and general infrastructure of the festival. The campsites, showers, and toilets, [were] a totally different experience.
We are also really proud of our, let’s call them, smaller venues, even if the second stage at times hosts 12,000 people. If you look at the lineup of the second stage, which is called FreeDome, or the Colosseum, which is dedicated to alternative electronic music, or the Party Arena, which this year [hosted] Tale Of Us, who would be headliners on the main stage at another festival – key to understanding the musical structure of Sziget is to look at all these venues together. It’s not only the main stage, there’s a lot of other really strong names on the lineup. Besides these venues, we have a lot of daytime activities, he have a beach, we offer yoga classes all over the place, we have theatre, and even a circus on site. It’s a very strong cultural lineup.