Spain's Sonar music fest expanding to U.S.

Inaugural Sonar Chicago set for Sept. 10-11

MADRID -- Barcelona, Spain-based electronica/dance music and arts festival Sonar is out to prove that Chicago is its kind of town.

On September 10-11, the Windy City will host what's intended to become Sonar's third annual festival franchise, the inaugural Sonar Chicago -- part of an international strategy of staging events that can also raise the profile of the original festival.

"In Europe, we have London, and in the U.S., we'll have Chicago," Sonar director Enric Palau says of the brand's two current offshoot festivals, adding that other annual events are under consideration in Latin America and Asia.

Sonar launched in 1994 in Barcelona, capital of Spain's Catalonia region. Palau says this year's Barcelona festival, held June 17-19, drew some 87,000 paying customers who attended various venues around the city to see performances by such acts as LCD Soundsystem, Roxy Music and the Chemical Brothers, as well as DJ sets, movies and modern art exhibits.

Since 2002, Sonar has also staged some 25 smaller events overseas, from Hamburg, Germany (2002-06), to Seoul, South Korea (2006). Palau says they've been used to scout out possible permanent bases and set up a "two-way stream" whereby Catalan acts gain overseas exposure and vice versa.

Such shows, some of them free, are largely collaborations with the state-funded Institut Ramon Llull, which promotes Catalan culture. IRL's 2009 New York event, Catalan Days, for example, featured a Sonar day of free showcases in May, while a ticketed Washington, D.C., show later that month was held in conjunction with IRL, the Spanish Embassy and the Mexican Cultural Institute.

Sonar's most enduring international event is London's Taste of Sonar, launched in 2002, which Palau calls "a very effective warm-up" for Barcelona. This year's event, held March 5-6 at the 3,000-capacity Roundhouse, featured U.S. hip-hop innovator Doom and French DJ Laurent Garnier as headliners.

Palau says that most of Sonar's overseas events have been successful, without generating enough interest from local partners and sponsors to justify long-term commitments.

Sonar opted for Chicago as its long-term U.S. home, despite positive experiences in Washington and New York, because "so much -- avant-garde, experimental jazz, house music -- was born there," Palau says.

Although the long-term goal is a financially viable paid event like the one in London, what Palau calls Chicago's "discreet first-year launch" will be built upon free shows.

The 2009 New York and Washington events attracted 900 and 300 people, respectively, but Palau anticipates higher attendance at the Chicago Cultural Center's various rooms and galleries, which range in capacity from 50 to 800.

In addition to the Cultural Center shows, events will take place at the 400-capacity Empty Bottle and Millennium Park. The initial lineup unveiled July 27 included Canadian DJ Kid Koala's new electronic act, the Slew; Australian experimental music artist Ben Frost and Los Angeles-based electronica/hip-hop act Nosaj Thing.