Being an established name within the Hungarian festival scene, Fekete Zaj has been bringing the noise of the underground since 2009. In this interview with Balázs Varga, we discuss various topics, including the Fekete Zaj crew, volunteering, the festival’s position on the scene, and more.
How do you usually prepare the programme for Fekete Zaj?
I have a list of international festivals that are important for me. Checking their line-up and seeing what trends they follow musically helps me to draw inspiration. Furthermore, I attend plenty of international showcase festivals.
My colleague Dani, who joined our booking team in 2019, listens to everything new. We make the programme by combining our strengths. He’s up-to-date on the newest, upcoming bands, and I draw from experiences and trends while checking what other festivals do.
Who else helps you with the organization? How big is your crew?
When we restarted the festival in 2018, stakes were much higher. First of all, we put together a killer line-up for our return, which was of course more expensive. Secondly, expectations were higher as well with our return. So, we needed a strong festival crew.
Since 2018, we have built the perfect crew. We increased the number of our staff, and this transformation had its own difficulties. However, it did pay off, as the industry and festival visitors see us as and consider us a much bigger festival now.
Everyone in our crew does this next to their everyday job. However, they are also part of the organization during the whole year. This means there is enough energy to focus on more things as well as the concerts, so we can offer a more complex festival experience.
This year we incorporated the whole programme of a short movie festival. During the day there are workshops on art and philosophy, you can take a hike or do yoga. There is also a retro gamer and a board game station as well, and a tattoo parlour too.
Off programmes are great, because they occupy people during the day and give a better experience. Also, more people feel involved in the spirituality of the festival, either because they provide the off programme, or because they enjoyed themselves at one of these interactive events.
What role does volunteering play within the Fekete Zaj community?
Since the very beginning of Fekete Zaj, volunteering has been extremely important. We are fortunate that there were people offering their help for free, just to support the festival. Volunteering was present in various forms, from helping with everyday tasks on site to professional works that require expertise.
This meant the world to me, because in the first couple of years, it was definitely a one-man show when it came to the organization. I have done most of the organizational works throughout the year before the event. I had one person dealing with press and communication. But other than that, there were only a few people who were involved in the preparatory work.
This definitely had an effect on site, as I was the one knowing all information and I could not deal with all the tasks by myself without the help from volunteers.
Restarting Fekete Zaj in 2018 came with intensive changes, and our community support campaign played an important role in this too. Within this campaign, someone gave us an amazing offer. He could not help us with money, but said he is a long-time fan of the festival, and he is a graphic designer, so he offered to create a new image for Fekete Zaj. The new public image he has created for us is extremely successful and improved how Fekete Zaj is perceived.
In what ways has the perception of the festival changed?
It was not only our line-up that measured the greatness of the festival any more. It is an important revelation that this is not only a concert series with 10-20 bands. We have become a proper festival where it is important to pay attention to our image, the preparedness of our crew, hospitality, providing off-programmes, and how we communicate with our audience throughout the year.
We get compared to larger festivals because they believe that Fekete Zaj is a large festival, thanks to the professional crew we have built. However, it is very difficult to meet such a high standard and present it to both our crew and our audience.
There are always people who prefer the old ways and say ‘why is it so important to change and improve so many things, this is not the same thing as it used to be’. But you can’t satisfy everyone all the time.
This perception comes with great challenges in comparison to the size of our festival. We are still a small festival in many aspects. Our size and budget are small, we have a 1000 visitors daily. We could have increased the number of visitors this year if we faced no restrictions. However, there are certain limits we do not want to outgrow.
At the time when Fekete Zaj was on hold, we would have had the chance to move the festival to other venues. However, it was not really an option, as Mátra is part of our concept and is an essential element of the festival. (The Mátra is Hungary’s highest mountain range, located in northern Hungary)
Are there any other essential elements in your concept?
We have a specific logic behind how we put together our programme. We do not want to put together a line-up for which everyone is coming to see the headliner at 9pm. People come to our festival to explore.
We want people to walk around the stages and find new music once the bands start playing. We want them to come not just for one bigger name, but to find 4 or 5 new favourites, even in different genres. In our latest poll on this, we asked our audience about their experience. From their feedback, we’ve seen that this is exactly their approach, and they come to Fekete Zaj to explore new music.
Exploration is an essential element of our festival, and it also has benefits for the bands that perform. Some groups are usually just supports, but at Fekete Zaj they can have a more prestigious spot on the bill. This really helps artists. They take advantage of this and their shows are absolutely mind-blowing.
Plenty of bands prepare a special set for their festival show, or two bands come together to play a special show. Some come with setlists they have never played before anywhere else, or they bring special stage decorations. Playing at our festival has become a matter of prestige for bands, and not just for Hungarian ones.
How would you position Fekete Zaj on the European festival scene?
In the last 2-3 years, we realized that we have become a bigger name internationally within the industry. Increasing the number of bands and experimenting with different genres made our line-ups extremely unique in Eastern Europe.
Agencies have noticed this as well, and I also follow plenty of international festivals as inspiration. When I talk with agencies, they find it important which band they are bringing to Fekete Zaj. We also talk about long term plans: if they have played at our festival, we also mention next year to return for a club show in Budapest. Or it can be the other way around: first a club show in Budapest, then Fekete Zaj the following year.
For a lot of promoters, these longer term concepts are important. Even bands are asking their promoters to land a gig at our festival. This could be because of the experiences and memories they get at Fekete Zaj, which I believe is another essential element.
I always get surprised, as we cannot provide the exact same conditions as bigger festivals. Our sound, stage and backline are good, but they cannot be compared with larger festivals and their capabilities. However, bands totally get compensated by the atmosphere of the venue and the audience. Moreover, they have the chance to meet other bands they look up to, bands that are important to them, bands which rarely tour.
Is your audience mostly Hungarian, or do you build on foreign guests too?
The festival’s international prestige has significantly increased, and we have seen that in our audience, too. We had a couple of international guests throughout the years, but their number increased to around 7-8% of total guests. Obviously, it is not extremely numerous, but for us, it is a noticeable change.
They come from further away, not just from neighbouring countries. We are talking about a couple of people, but what we’ve seen is that those who want to hear music on their holiday are usually considering Fekete Zaj as an option. This is something we need to pay attention to, and we need to start building better international communication.
Our line-up and the quality of the festival have reached a level where it is attractive to fans coming from far away. Our accommodation can contribute to this, too. We are a special festival in this regard, as you find hotel rooms, cabins, hostel-like rooms with dunk beds, and of course camping space for tents.
The infrastructure at the camping is well-prepared. There are various charging spots around and the water facility is well-built. Not many festivals in Hungary have such infrastructure. It is a huge plus for visitors that they can enjoy the festival with such clean and comfortable facilities and accommodation on site.
What do you consider the greatest achievement from organizing Fekete Zaj in 2020?
There is something I am extremely proud of. Our budget is really tight, and in the last two years we had to put money into the festival that never returned. Despite all this, we could still make a social support campaign in 2020.
In this campaign, people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic or work within the creative industries could apply. To apply, they needed to write us a letter and tell us their story. We ensured to keep their anonymity. We wanted to offer a chance for people who wanted to make it to Fekete Zaj, so they can get their festival experience.
Those who were successful with their application received a festival pass, a camping spot for their tent, and one free meal a day. There were also many fans who bought extra tickets, so they could give them to others. We’ve seen an incredible cooperation to make the festival work and to have everyone here.
About Balázs Varga
Balázs Varga is mostly known as a club promoter with more than 20 years of experience. He started organising concerts at the end of 90s, mostly focusing on obscure, niche genres. His promotion agency Fekete Zaj – formerly known as Negative Art – organises Fekete Zaj festival and various club concerts in Hungary. Varga has worked with plenty of international artists, including, Soulfly, Katatonia and even Motörhead. Apart from that, he started working with ticket sales in the last couple of years. He manages Tixa, a Hungarian website that sells tickets to around 4000-5000 events a year.