Debuting in 2016, SXM has been through what every other festival has been through recently; before that, their host island St Martin suffered the sharp end of Hurricane Irma back in 2017, inspiring their founder, Julian Prince, and his team to step up and step in with initiatives to aid recovery, whilst growing a brand. We had questions.
How has the festival operation improved sustainability wise over the years?
We always try to be more conscious of everything we do. Whether it’s the quality of production, sustainability, or the people we want to come to the festival, things have improved year on year. It’s not a matter of will, it’s a matter of style and determination. Every piece of bad luck we’ve had and everything that’s happened has just made us more resilient and more intense in our work, we never stop.
When the festival was launched the design aesthetic was built around reusable/recyclable materials, the direction was about found objects. We tried not to import or waste stuff, so the original builds were stuff we found on the island. The first main stage we built was made entirely out of pallets. We found a sail at the dump and we cut it in half, put it on top and stapled it to make the stage.
We have done a lot of initiatives with Good-Bye Plastic, trying to reduce waste and keep plastic consumption down. Then there was the hurricane, and it went from a festival to kind of a relief organisation. My family were here and locked in their hotel during the festival, they lived it and went through the absolute worst of it. They raised a lot of money to help with the relief effort and beyond that a bunch of initiatives, including local community initiatives such as rebuilding a basketball court. From an ecological view, the hurricane took out a lot of the palm trees and vegetation on the island, so they’ve been planting trees over time, around 3,000, to try and re-grow the island. Through the pandemic, we created a nursery where we cloned plants and re-planted them for the past few years, over 400 Papaya trees.
It’s a small island, there’s an ecology here and a wide range of nature, but also people have to be conscious of living sustainably here. Even without the festival, that’s part of the culture and my family have been here for 20 years, many years before the festival.
We tend to say that the most interesting thing about the festival is not the festival itself, but everything around it. Also, we can use the festival to promote the values of the organisation. We were shy in the beginning to promote sustainability as people had to fly here, and we all know planes are not sustainable. However, at the end of the day there’s always experiences that we all need in order to escape, and we use the festival as leverage to promote the right values.
With people flying in, there are obviously issues with climate change. However, travel, people coming together, and community, especially after the pandemic, it’s important.
Do you feel that the attendees are more aware and engaged with your efforts both during and after the festival?
This is why we do it. We have a platform to share our vision and values. I believe that we have a lot of goodwill and great intentions. People do take it back with them. Let’s take Burning Man as an example, how it created a really powerful community of very forward-thinking people which promotes care and community. Experiences like that and other experiences in your life, you take some of this back in your daily routine.
We’ve got to be realistic. People come here for a good time, to be part of a community and to enjoy themselves. You’re not going to win this battle overnight. The whole dance music scene originally was about community, and they became more conscious. So, they come here to have fun and see their friends, but we’re definitely making a difference. Even if you don’t understand the situation, you get what’s happening as it’s going on all around you. If you’re around this kind of environment, you feel it and take it with you.
How are you tackling the missions related to audience travel?
On the website when attendees book their flight, there is an option to offset your flight. I would like to think there will come a time when we can offset the flights ourselves in our budget. However, in the context of the hurricane and the pandemic, it’s not been financially possible.
People getting here is the only way this festival can survive. We’d like to aim for an aspiration where all flights are offset within the next 5 years.
It’s astonishing how people view the SXM brand as like a really big festival, whereas actually it’s a very intimate property and very personal. There’s a feeling to it which attracts a certain kind of person. One thing that I hear every year is how people connect and communicate, the energy that flows between the attendees, which is the biggest compliment I can hear. It’s so flattering to know that we’ve created something that brings that out of people and attracts the same kind of people.
We concentrate on our thing, every festival has its own thing and different functions. We raise the bar extremely high on all levels to deliver something at the quality of an international event with limited resources, not just in terms of budget but very little sponsorship compared to what it should be.
Does 2022 signal a return to pre-pandemic sales?
This festival has a very bizarre growth due to the series of unfortunate events. Usually, you sell a little and then you sell more and then sell out. We had an amazing start but then we were hit by a hurricane. People of course remember the Fyre festival drama, and we were promoting the same Caribbean lifestyle. I should have called the team and told them to re-direct their flights to here! We had the planes, we had the villas, we had the boats, just change the location. At the same time, it was heart-breaking as it really hurt our festival and every property in the Caribbean.
In the lead up to the festival, it was a nightmare. But once we did it, it was amazing and the amount of press we got as the ‘Anti-Fyre festival’ was cool.
At the same time, the damage was done. It was a tragedy what they (Fyre festival) had done. They did everything that they shouldn’t have. The number 1 thing as an organiser is to earn the trust of the attendees and your priority is their safety, not money.
Who’s more up for it this year, the audience, the organisers or the artists?
This year we only had half the time to build the festival, and we had to show even more resilience and we’re still more determined than ever before. It’s never been easy to build this festival, but with half the time we’ve still managed to deliver double than what we usually have. All of that is because of the people who came and broke their backs, not taking a day off to build the festival. Over the past 2 years, we’ve done things ourselves that we’d normally pay people to do as we had no more staff.
It’s been hell for a lot of people, but especially in the entertainment industry and at our destination where tourism is 90% of the economy. Everyone on the team this year has outdone themselves, I’m so proud of them and it’s great to come together and celebrate. These are stories we will tell our kids and grandkids, it’s a legendary time and the timing is incredible.
I don’t think I’ve ever known a festival where artists want to come and attend so much, it’s a family thing. Every time it goes on sale, I get around 50 calls from DJ’s asking to play. Artists are most up for it but they also want to attend the festival. We wanted to build the perfect setup for artists to feel comfortable and to perform. It’s all about the environment you create, we designed something personal for everyone.
The UK has seen a lot of strain on the supply chain, how have you found this in your corner of work?
I think we’ve coped pretty well. It’s an island so almost everything has to be imported, so there’s a lot of challenges in general. There’s a lot of issues like everywhere else but they always get it done.
Making some money at some point is good, but I do this for love, and I’ve been in the scene for so long so I hope it really shows.
What were some of the standout moments for you at this year’s festival?
Upon talking and absorbing everything, the Raresh & Ricardo Villalobos B2B set was something spectacular. It was amazing and agreed upon as one of the standout moments. I heard they played until like 11am and they were going heavy, the variety of music was incredible. They dropped old school, cutting-edge, modern, sexy, acid, techno, minimal music. Also, stuff like the Armand Van Helden remix of ‘Professional Widow’ by Tori Amos. They played the Funk Phenomena or a Raresh re-work of that. A lot of people were raving about that set.
Another highlight was the Mighty Dow and Ebony Steel Orchestra. We had been working on this project, adapting these house and techno tunes with the steel pan. The version they did of ‘Rej’ by Ame was amazing, and they also did ‘Cirrus’ by Bonobo and Ninetoes ‘Finder’. For me that was incredibly special because it was a genuine melding of the local musical culture with the SXM Festival underground house and techno vibe. Also, the musicianship of the kids and the personality of the Mighty Dow who is a St Martiner born and bred. He’s had a prolific career, runs the school and the level of excellence was just amazing.
Do you have any dream artists that are yet to play at SXM festival that you would love to book for next year?
As for the dream artists, I wrote this piece about how the Caribbean was the home of electronic music and talking about King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and how their experimentation with sonics and using the mixing console as an instrument. This was basically the foundation for house music, hip-hop, post-disco, all these kinds of different genres. We’d like to resurrect Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and have him play, something like that would be interesting.
If you had to some up SXM festival to someone who’s never been in 3 words, what would they be?