As it all began
Sziget, like many other important Hungarian innovations, was born as a result of the free and open-minded spirit surrounding the change of the political system in the early 90’s. The general idea was simple: socialist summer youth camps were gone… and there was nothing instead.
That was the time when musician Péter Müller and manager Károly Gerendai started to discuss the necessity of a big festival, something that could provide the opportunity for young visitors to have a summer holiday, while checking out concerts and generally having fun together. The timing was quite right, as the nostalgia towards the 60’s and 70’s – highlighted by Woodstock - was easy to feel. Müller and Gerendai turned to the city of Budapest with the idea and got a supportive answer.
The first task was finding the right venue, possibly a central location that is easy to guard and more or less separated from the neighborhood. The solution was clear, Óbudai Island turned out to be the perfect place. After teaming up with some friends, the group of organizers was still without experience, office and financial support. But they had a very dedicated circle of helpers, also good advisors and soon they even got a room in a friend’s flat that they could use as headquarters. The spring of 1993 saw the formation of Sziget Ltd, based on Peter Müller’s connections and Károly Gerendai’s managing skills and savings (mainly an amount he got from his parents to buy a small flat). Lack of funding was always an issue, so creativity had to be the major capital of the team.
1993 - Student Island
The first Sziget (at that time called Diáksziget or Student Island), basically organized by enthusiastic amateurs and volunteers, was an instant success – almost against all odds. The president of Hungary became the patron of the event and in the end 43 000 fans came together to celebrate music and freedom. Of course this was the number of paying guests, but the tickets were easy to fake and the surrounding fences were also not very protective, so the real figures were surely a lot higher. The first edition offered 200 concerts on 2 stages and 80 movies shown in the open-air cinema. Besides these, a total of 40 theater productions entertained the guests, mostly Hungarians at that time. The only bad news was the financial balance of the event, a deficit luckily recovered thanks to the quick help of Budapest’s city council.
1994 - Eurowoodstock
After the success of Student Island, Müller and Gerendai immediately started with the organizing works for the 2nd edition. Also realizing that 1994 was the 25th anniversary of the legendary Woodstock event, they decided to pay tribute to the mother of all festivals by inviting not just Hungarian, but also international acts. The fans were more than happy to participate, so the total number of paying visitors was precisely 100 000 more than a year before. And there were some big names in the line-up, as Eurowoodstock was headlined by Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Frank Zappa’s Grandmothers of Invention, Jefferson Starship, Birds, Blood Sweat and Tears and Eric Burdon. The success of Eurowoodstock had a great feedback also abroad, as the international media – including MTV – was mentioning the event as a great initiative, while the official Woodstock memorial party at the original US venue was far from being popular in the press. The problem was again money, more precisely the lack of it. Costs were sky high, the budget was almost tripled compared to the first year, but the balance was once again not positive in the end. Luckily this didn’t stop the enthusiastic organizing team to immediately start working on the 3rd edition – in fact they needed a financially successful event to cover their losses and debts of the second year.
1995 – 1998 Breakthrough with Pepsi Sziget
Beginning with the 3rd edition, Sziget became a more professionally organized event. In 1995 this already meant that 3-4 people worked full time throughout the year on organizing, joined by a massive crew of 4000 helpers just before and during the festival. Visitors started to get used to the fact that Sziget presents some international headliners, so the success was evident: in 1995 a total of 173 000 visitors joined the event, while in 1996 this figure was already up to 206 000. Thanks to the sponsorship of Pepsi – even the name of the event changed to Pepsi Sziget – the organizers had a financial safety, not comparable to the continuous budget troubles of the first years. And the quality of the programs also projected this calm and professional attitude, with international stars like Slash, Iggy Pop, The Prodigy and Therapy? entertaining the main stage crowd. In terms of program 1997 was also very strong, featuring David Bowie, Motörhead, Rollins Band, Chumbawamba and Faith No More. This was the clear breakthrough year, as the total visitor number reached 260 000, total number of programs reached 600 and even MTV was on spot to cover the event. And the international spirit of Sziget started to show: more and more foreign guests discovered the Budapest-based event, while the organizers became founders of the Yourope festival association.
’99 – 2000
The machine was rolling fine, helped by a new 3-year sponsorship deal with Pepsi. The last 2 years of the old century saw bands like Asian Dub Foundation, Faithless, Guano Apes and Kool and the Gang headlining the Pop-rock Main Stage, while Sziget also introduced the World Music Main Stage. Organizers managed to stay true to their original ideals of an artistically colorful festival, also appealing to a huge number of fans. In 2000 the total nr. of audience already reached 300 000 and the great attendance also gave the chance to achieve a Guinness world record in the category of group kissing, with the participation of 1592 couples.
This year saw the first sold-out day in the history of the event. Already the first day was a record and in the end the weekly fan-count stopped at 361 000. The Faithless show itself attracted a crowd of 40 000 in front of the Main Stage and other headliners like Guano Apes, Placebo, or Morcheeba enjoyed similar successes. Politicians started to discover the festival as well, many of them visiting the event to build a cool image before the general elections of the next year.
Pepsi quit as main sponsor, so Sziget became an individual brand in 2002, celebrating the 10th edition of the festival. And this celebration was a fine one, with the peaceful atmosphere that by now became a trademark of Sziget, with 355 000 participants, entertained by more than 1000 programs, including 80 international all star acts. Strangely enough, the only bigger safety issue happened in the backstage, with a small fight between Kosheen’s members and Iggy Pop’s bass player, quickly stopped by the security staff. And this year also saw the first visit of a Hungarian prime minister, namely Péter Medgyessy to the festival – using his chance to capitalize on the already mentioned PR possibilities, but also showing that Sziget became a serious player and one of the biggest attractions of the country.
2003 brought about many records. Not just music recordings, but also a record quantity of rain and still a record number of audience on Saturday. Plus another Guinness Record, this time with a huge painting called the Festival Cyclorama (with the gigantic dimensions of 80 meters length and 390 square meters of surface area) produced by the audience. This was 9-times bigger than the earlier record and in the end more than 6000 fans took part in the painting works. Another success was brought about by the new TV show of the festival, TV Sziget, covering 8 days with live coverage, presented by Hungarian celebrities.
Peace, love and party – as always at Sziget. Again a new overall crowd record of 369 000, and already more than 100 international acts, joined by 400 Hungarian bands amongst the 1000 different program possibilities. The internationality was ever-growing, easily reflected by the fact that performers came from more than 30 countries. On the fourth day of the festival, visitor nr. 3 million was celebrated, while the Sziget Wedding Tent happily assisted a fan who decided to marry the Main Stage itself – love is blind as we all know, but surely has the right ears.
The 2005 event started with a special Day 0, featuring the unforgettable farewell concert of Hungarian stars Illés, who were the most popular local band in the 60’s and 70’s, with a similar impact locally as the one Beatles achieved worldwide. The regular festival days became more and more international, featuring 170 foreign acts form 50 countries. And records were broken once again: Saturday’s daily attendance reached 70 000, while the world’s largest living heart was created by 3000 red-shirted participants. Headliner Sean Paul – himself a water polo player – invited the Hungarian national water polo team, highly popular after their back-to-back Olympic victories in 2000 and 2004 (and later also in 2008). And this year also saw a strange kind of family reunion, with a quick meeting between György Habsburg and UK band Franz Ferdinand, who were named after the tragically killed Habsburg crown prince.
The already well known Sziget spirit was evident in 2006 as well, underlined by some key stats: 76 hectares of fun, including 66 program venues, 3500 square meters of stages, 30 000 square meters of indoor venues - covered with giant tents - and 200 programs daily. By then it was a truly global event, providing 250 foreign performers and welcoming guests from 44 different countries. Total audience numbers were once again massive, reaching 385 000 and there was once again a world record set up by Sziget fans, creating the biggest picture ever made of a cow (with an area of 1700 square meters, helped by 1700 participants)
On the 15th edition of Sziget a total of 56 countries were represented by performers. Besides them Hungary was also running strong, with 500 bands and many other cultural productions. The weather was the only non-supportive factor, as heavy rains kept some of the expected local crowd at home (the total visitor number was still more than 350 000). Musician friendships were made, as Manu Chao borrowed a guitar from the frontman of Hungarian stars Quimby, followed up by a great jam session together in the backstage, lasting until dawn. Another headliner, Pink also had a relaxed time at Sziget, even ordering a cocktail on stage during her gig, then publicly thanking the quite embarrassed waiter with a theatrical bow – still in front of 40 000 fans. And Sziget visitor nr. 4 million also arrived that year.
Iron Maiden made sure welcoming was hard and heavy on Day 0 in 2008, followed up by the five regular days. Audience numbers were once again rocketing, breaking the daily record during the R.E.M. show, so Saturday was officially sold out. And Sziget was already on the international cultural map, proven by the fact that French minister of culture Jack Lang also visited the event.
In 2009 visitor numbers reached 390 000 – once again breaking the earlier records. Sziget started with a special day called ZARE - Music Against Racism, providing dedicated shows of a huge number of local bands. Another success story was provided by the Arcadom wall, a 50 meters long, 2 meters high construction, set up in memory of the Berlin wall and decorated by street artists from Hungary, France, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine. The French artist was Honet, who already counts as a celebrity in the field of street art.
Star headliners have already compared the high standards of Sziget to Glastonbury, while 2010 also saw the representatives of the international media responding accordingly. A round table discussion took place amongst others with journalists of New Musical Express, The Guardian, Mixmag and The Telegraph, just to get an idea of how they see Sziget. And they saw it very positively, highlighting the uniquely friendly atmosphere and the professional organization. They pointed out that Sziget is special, because the visitors can see big names, but also other smaller, many times non-musical program features are provided, which are quite rare on events of this scale. Stages sound great, as they said – and this is another key point.
With fans from 61 countries, Sziget had a strong reason to claim the title ‘global village’… or even ‘global town’ in 2011. Exclusive cashless payment was introduced and worked without any problems, while the Sziget-Budapest Citypass opened up the touristic side of the city for all fans. Jeremy Irons was there to watch the Prince show on Day 0 and he made the prefect choice: that concert was just amazing and lasted more than 2 and a half hours. Prince also returned the next day to check out the concert of Ana Moura. Deborah 'Skin’ Dyer, frontlady of Skunk Anansie showed us stuff we have never seen before. In the heat of the gig, she jumped „on top of the audience”, sang while walking on the hands of the fans, and then let the crowd make her swim back to the stage. The performance of Skin was not just appreciated by the audience, but also all the musicians and crew greeted the singer with a standing ovation in the backstage.
The year started with a great news: in January Sziget won the Best Major Festival title at the European Festival Awards – a massive vote of confidence from fans all over the world. Besides this the event also got a top 5 ranking in the Artists’ Favourite Festival category, showing that fans and musicians clearly agree about Sziget’s qualities. Another important acknowledgement came from Glastonbury’s founder Michael Eavis. Answering to a question from New Musical Express he said that fans who are looking for an alternative to Glastonbury (not taking place in 2012) should simply go to Sziget. We have to agree :)