In September 2017, the Caribbean and southern United States were ravaged by two catastrophic hurricanes – Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria. The two caused billions in damage, killed thousands and devastated communities in ways many we haven’t seen in decades with winds up to 180 for Irma and 175 for Maria. One of the islands devastated by Hurricane Irma was St. Martin, which has started to see a turnaround from the hurricane, but the scars are still there. SXM Festival has called St. Martin home since 2016, but in 2018 it had to cancel the festival because the island was not ready to host an event of that magnitude and they felt it was better to focus their time and resources on the recovery. 2019 will mark the return of the festival and we chatted with founder Julian Prince to learn more about that, their commitment to the environment and his recommendations on how to start a destination festival.
SXM Festival will take place March 13-17 and will feature the likes of Marco Carola, Guy Gerber, Francesca Lombardo, Apollonia, Archie Hamilton, Atish, Audiofly, Enzo Siragusa and more.
What steps did the festival take to help rebuild the island?
When we were forced to postpone the festival to March 13-17 2019, we founded the Two Bunch Palm foundation. The foundation was able to raise 45K USD through two Go Fund Me initiatives. First we used the money to clean two very popular beaches popular to kids and locals so they could swim safely. Kids weren’t allowed to swim for months. We also threw a kids party to celebrate. We then bought a container and filled it with water sports gear and gave a key to the school directors so all the kids could benefit. We took a class of 12 year olds last week and planted palm trees that will symbolically grow with them. We are also sending two young photographers to Patagonia in association with the Peace Boat. We are also discussing with a generous American donor for a similar amount to fund the build of modern children’s playgrounds and to fix all the basketball courts on the island as this is the most popular sport among the youth.
How much does the festival rely on the island for local vendors / expertise for food, drink, grounds crew, security, production etc?
St-Martin is a European country being half French and half Dutch and the authorities have the same law structure as their respective countries. We have the same security committee that an event in Paris would have. Therefore, we have a lot of the elements we need to be able to throw an event at the caliber of an international festival. On the island we source local vendors for the market and the food and beverage program. We hire many local artists to paint and decorate. We also source most of the bar staff, grounds crew and we have the best security I’ve ever had at any event. For the production, we hire all the drivers, welcome staff and the logistics crew. Our technical director and production manager are local have 30 years+ experience in the business. Saint Martin has more than enough talent to cover the big picture. Although creating a niche festival also implies having a crew with special skills. The stage managers, photographers and videographers (that have electronic music festival experience), DJs, video mappers, builders and decorators.
Climate Change is something that directly impacts your ability to host festivals with strengthening hurricanes in the Caribbean. What are you guys doing to mitigate your impact on the environment or be carbon-neutral as a festival?
Every initiative we plan takes into account our eco-footprint. From eliminating straws and using bio cups to planting indigenous trees, our goal at SXM Festival is to leave no trace. The experience we deliver to our guests is harnessed in the unique treasures of the island. Our art installations, stage, cabanas and more are inspired, designed and manufactured at 95% recycled materials we find on the island. It is not just about reducing, reusing and recycling, but about reinventing and giving a second life to wasted material. To ensure that we maximize our sustainability, we consult with specialists every year.
Recently we have partnered with Parties for Peace, a non-profit event production and fundraising organization that hosts music and art events to support various global initiatives focused on education, sustainability, equality, and disaster relief. For our first initiative, we are sponsoring two Saint Martin | Sint Maarten locals to set sail this February on the Peace Boat US in Patagonia. They will share their experiences in sustainability, community development, environmental awareness and the resilience of this beautiful island. This experiential study program focuses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.
Do you see a future where you would have to leave Saint Martin because of potential consistent Hurricane damage?
Not at all, the island is being rebuilt with higher quality standards. This is why the reconstruction has been slower. The authorities are being really strict on the construction permits to make sure the IRMA fallout doesn’t happen again. Historically, hurricanes like that happen once every 20 years. The odds of a storm hitting us like that so precisely are very low but if it happens again, we’ll be ready and back on our feet fast enough to not have to skip another edition.
Destination festivals have earned a mixed reputation over the past few years. How do you convince potential newcomers that the festival will be as you say and there won’t be any major issues?
Yes, we saw that coming. This is why we rushed for the first edition in March 2016. We worked hard, humbly and honestly enough to earn festivalgoers and their trust. The mistake new organizations make is to promise too many things that are, in the end, impossible to deliver. We feel exempt from that situation because we delivered a festival successfully twice. We have been blessed that this has not been an issue. Our strength is actually in the fact that we are a trusted organization and that we have had thousands of people who came to experience the festival and loved it! Read the reviews of the media and of the festivalgoers and returning artists. Of course, nothing is perfect in the first couple years but we always look to improve as the years go by.
What goes into booking the artists for the festival? How much attention does the festival pay to gender and non-white artist balance?
Our first criteria for booking an artist is talent. If we don't think they are going to bring something special to our party, we won’t book them - regardless of race or gender. That said, we understand that as in most areas of society around the world, there is still gender and race bias in many walks of life. General equanimity and respect for all people, not just in music, are values we that resonate both with the SXM Team - which is both multi gender and multi ethnic, hailing from places as far and wide as Canada, the UK and North Africa - and our festival audience. As such, we endeavor to book as wide a mix of talent as possible with many female headline and upcoming DJs already playing at SXM, including Blond:ish, Honey Djion, Julia Govor, Kate Simko, Sonja Moonear, Francesca Lombardo, Nina Kraviz, Lauren Lane and more. We also have deep roots in Saint Martin's local Caribbean musical community and work with many regional DJs and collectives. We, like many other festivals, are not perfect when it comes to these issues. But we are conscious. And we are trying.
How did you get into music business?
I come from a family who valued music education. We were fortunate to have music lessons. In the living room we had a piano, a harp, a sax, a flute, some tam-tams and would sing and play with my sisters. My sister Krystel brought me to a rave NYE 1995. At the time Montreal's underground scene was brilliant. Then we raved more. My sister was buying me records since I was 13. At 16 I worked all summer to buy my SL 1200s and mixer. I spent much time in the studio and toured Quebec with my hip-hop band. My sister was still buying me house and techno records. Hip-hop was fun for clubs but when I wanted to really party, I chose raving. My sister and I organized our first rave in 1998. The following years I promoted in clubs, bought a sound system and threw parties in lofts, warehouses and held many residencies in nightclubs. Never stopped making music. My passion for music took me into every sphere of the scene.
If you weren’t in the music business, what would you be doing?
I do other things as well. I understood young that building loyal teams and partnership would enable me to do more things. Over the past 10 years, I founded, built and operated many businesses. From managing real estate to flipping properties, operating bars, nightclubs, restaurants. I own a yoga studio and a dance studio… all of that experience I was able to use and express in the festival.
How do you see the dance music festival industry evolving over the next three to five years?
We noticed many years ago that for a festival to thrive, it was going to need provide more than the latest EDM flash-in-the pan playing to 40,000 kids in a barren parking lot. No offense to the guys who pioneered those big EDM raves - and definitely respect for introducing a new generation of fans to dance music - but it seems obvious by the disappearance of many of these events that fans have matured and they want more from their festival experience. When I first dreamed of SXM,
I wanted to provide North America with some of that Ibizan, Balearic magic of old - a destination where you can dance with sand in your toes, chill by the beach, eat great food then dance again until sunrise. And while the rest of the world may not have a the beauty of a Saint Martin, it seems obvious by the plethora of new boutique or destination festivals that fans want a deeper, more pleasant experience than a sterile out of city mega rave. Long may it continue.
If I wanted to start a dance music festival in the Caribbean tomorrow, what would be the first steps I should take to make sure it was successful?
It takes a lot of courage to start a new festival in the Caribbean as a new organization. The main elements to look at are infrastructure, topography and the culture. Some of them are more conservative than others. How is cannabis not legal in Jamaica? Cultural realities are present on every islands. St-Martiners are very open-minded. The restraints may be as simple as the law not allowing you to have a company with a majority shareholder that is not local and having 35% taxation rate to non-residents. Some islands have insane taxes for artist performances. It is also a question of local currency. English islands are made for English tourists so their local currency is paired with pounds. It’s like Iceland, the plane ticket is cheap but a steak dinner will cost you $150 a head. Others have high crime rates and you have to stay on the resort the whole vacation and you can’t live the local way. In SXM we suggest to rent a car and explore and to not spend time at your resort. Some islands simply do not have enough flights to accommodate guests. Saint Martin does, not just on paper but also in practice.
Before announcing the festival, we did an extensive market study. Be responsible and understand that you measure success with the degree of satisfaction of the people. Honor it.