Robin Ebinger of Sonus and Time Warp on What it Takes to Last in the Festival Industry
Robin Ebinger is the Managing Director of the companies behind acclaimed underground festivals Sonus in Croatia and Time Warp in Germany, Brazil, and New York. Both are known for their world-class techno offerings, next-level production, and community crowds.
Only the last few tickets remain in the lead-up to Sonos on Pag Island from August 21-25 so get yours to see the likes of Ben Klock, Joseph Capriati, Sonja Moonear, Ricardo Villalobos b2b Zip, PAN-POT, Richy Ahmed, Patrick Topping, William Djoko, Sven Väth, Reinier Zonneveld live, Stephan Bodzin live, Dixon, Rødhåd, Chris Liebing, and many more.
Here we speak to Ebinger about how he started his journey as a promoter, what he does daily and what he thinks makes a good festival.
How did you first get started in the music industry? Did you always want to be involved with electronic music?
I was infected with the virus called electronic music in the early 90s after attending underground events here in Germany and traveling to raves in the UK. Pretty soon after, it became clear to me that I wanted to promote events and present my vision of what a perfect party looks like. So, a kindergarten friend and I started an agency in the mid-90s. The first show was a Drum & Bass/Jungle rave, soon followed by a multi-floor concept with a selection of eclectic sounds representing almost all facets of the underground dance music scene of the time. I then took a short break and felt I was done with the scene. However, by chance, we founded Cosmopop in 2003. With Steffen Charles and Frank Eichhorn, I have two very valuable and inspiring partners, so I couldn’t dream of any other job.
Specifically, what is your current role with Cosmopop? What is an average day in your life like?
My job is diverse and has a lot of variety. I am the Managing Director for Electronic Events, the company behind Sonus Festival, and the Marketing Director at Cosmopop, the company behind Time Warp. There are a multitude of different tasks, and each day Is different from the day before. From marketing-related tasks to financial matters, from new business to politics, you name it.
A typical day at work involves a lot of communication in both English and German. I look at numbers and talk to my business partners [to see] if any new opportunities are presenting themselves. The past two years, I have been splitting my time between office hours and remote work from home. Since the beginning of this year, I've started traveling again, and we were able to produce Time Warp in Brazil and Chile this last May.
What critical skills are required to be a professional and top promoter for large events and festivals?
Apart from the obvious, creativity, abstract thinking, and so on, diplomacy and negotiation skills are more important than you might think. For large events such as these, you need to be able to talk to a wide variety of stakeholders who all have their say in the procedure of the event, such as politicians, neighbors, the police, the fire brigade, the press, etc., most of whom will all also be present at the event itself. Apart from that, I would say certain characteristics or personality traits, so not skills per se, are also vital. The courage to tackle such a large task, tolerance for the inevitable frustration, the perseverance to keep going in spite of these inevitabilities, and the improvisational talent to work around them if necessary. You need to be able to really listen to your coworkers and colleagues and hold on to the shared passion for electronic music that binds you all together to push yourself forward. And, of course, a healthy dose of madness is also in the mix (laughs).
How much effort goes into keeping your finger on the pulse musically? Do you frequently check on DJs who are hot and up-and-coming?
We have a lot of talented and dedicated people on board who are constantly observing new trends and keeping an eye out for artists making waves in their respective scenes. You need to keep on top of these things to stay relevant, even with an established name such as ours. Having young colleagues on our team who are passionate about the scene and live and breathe the zeitgeist of their generation gives great insight. But of course, it's not only about booking these up-and-coming artists, but also about welcoming them into the Time Warp family and maintaining that relationship. We've built many long-term friendships with artists that way, which has contributed to our success over the years.
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The pandemic was incredibly difficult for everyone, especially events and festivals. How did you manage this time, and were you able to improve any other processes with your festivals?
Yes, the pandemic was a huge challenge, especially as it was unprecedented for our generation. The most frustrating fact was that no clear perspective or prediction could be made. Promoting festivals is a high-risk industry, so we are normally used to finding solutions and being flexible. The pandemic, however, gave us much less maneuverability. Nevertheless, I don’t want to complain. I love my work. We made the best of the past two years and focused on everything that was still sitting on our desks. There were also some support programs for our industry which we made use of. We looked into new business opportunities. Most of all, we put a lot of energy into rethinking our processes and rebuilding our office infrastructure, the hardware, and the software. We are ready for new challenges!
Looking back to your favorite memories at Sonus, could you recall something that has stood out positively in the past, what would that be?
There are many mind-blowing moments. Sonus is so multifaceted, from the various parties in the clubs, the boat parties, the empty bays, the extended DJ sets, the energy of the place, and the vibe from the crowd. Though one moment really stands out:
On the last night of the first Sonus edition, when the festival was coming to a close in the early hours and the afterparty was about to start, a heavy storm hit the island. So, we moved into the small inside area of Club Kalypso, which was essentially just a small, roofed shed (this was before Kalypso was rebuilt). However, the roof was not 100% rainproof. The porous cabana roof was leaking onto the DJ booth below, dripping water all over the vinyl. We organized a plastic tarp but couldn't really fix it anywhere to the booth, so me and a second organizer were holding this tarp by hand above the DJ for quite some time. Standing against the rain and the wind in the name of music really made for a special moment and an amazing story. Everybody who witnessed it still gets so emotional when talking about the atmosphere in those fated morning hours.
What have been the biggest challenges in promoting Sonus and Time Warp over the years?
Planning and producing events is always a challenge! This is mostly due to the complexity of its nature and the business environment. But no matter where we are, we don’t see it as a difficulty but rather as challenge, even in Croatia, because this is our job, and we have burning passion for it. However, I would say that the first Sonus year was pretty tough. It was a new venue and festival format with five consecutive days and nights, with two clubs and boat parties happening at the same time. There was hardly any sleep and a lot to learn. There’s a different language and culture and, of course, we had to match the German mentality with that of the Balkans (laughs). On the last night, we had heavy weather conditions. Weather is always a huge issue for open-air events.
As for Time Warp, the biggest challenge is to match the high expectations your fans have year after year, creating the unforgettable experience of a perfect marriage of music and technology on the dance floor and also creating those memories in each new generation of ravers.
What are the key things to get right with a festival to ensure longevity and festival-goer’s satisfaction?
Constantly striving for improvement and innovation in every regard is key. Authenticity, you need to want to provide your guests with the ultimate party experience, and that dedication and love for detail needs to be felt on the dance floor. You also shouldn't be afraid to change and reinvent yourself to keep things fresh and relevant. And of course, listen to the very young audience - they are the future and will dictate upcoming trends.
Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at this year's Sonus Festival?
I am especially looking forward to welcoming many different guests to Novalja from over 75 countries. Some of them have taken a long journey upon them just to be there. Also, the moment when the sound first exits the speakers and the first of many parties sets off. And the many special Sonus experiences - some planned, some spontaneous. The highlight of Sonus is definitely its set-up: Electronic music in open-air clubs right on the shore, huge mountains in the background, like-minded people dancing into the sunset coloring the mountains in many vibrant shades. And you just keep on dancing into the sunrise and the morning light. What more do you need?