It's the silliest festival in the country, but it's also the only one that might actually benefit Croatia.
There's never any point in doing something half-hearted. If you're going to commit, you need to go all in. Ultra Europe - Croatia's first (and one of Europe's first) EDM stadium festival - is a prime example of this philosophy. Screaming into Split in 2013, the European chapter of the Ultra franchise is a no holds barred, three-day monster of fireworks, drops and barriers packed to bursting point with some 150,000 people, and all inside the Cold War spacecraft vibes of Poljud Stadium.
Its line-up is a whose-who of chart-hugging DJs, including Aoki, Guetta, Garrix, Alesso, Tiesto, and, er, Example. It's played on Croatian national television. Its afterparty in a five star hotel in Hvar attracts all of Croatia's celebrity elite. It's the biggest, loudest, most garish thing to come out of the former Yugoslavia since Russian ski-wear, so THUMP donned a pair of luminous sunglasses, threw a shit-faced girlfriend onto our shoulders and went to investigate.
THIS WASN'T REALLY "ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC"
For everyone involved, this is an immensely relaxing realisation. Now we can stop worrying about the "EDM destroys all!" hysteria, and the Mccarthy trials every time an artist releases a track which proves to be unusually popular. Ultra Europe was nothing to do with music in the sense that no one was there to be lost in the moment, eyes closed, feeling the vibe. This was a social event. This was 150,000 people checking-in, pouting, taking selfies, and being able to say they'd been caked by Aoki.
And, actually, there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. In fact, for those of the crowd that did intend on seeing serious music, Carl Cox absolutely smashed it in four-deck, multi-loop, smokey, fizzling build, and hair-raising drop madness in the Ultra Worldwide Arena, which was situated where a techno party should be (bar the club) - out in the car park. Meanwhile, back in the zoo, there were screams when everyone's favourite seven foot sociopath Afrojack decided inexplicably to march up and down the photo pits after his set, not actually communicating with anyone, with his hood pulled up.
There were girls on shoulders. There were ornate banners, signs and costumes. There were people getting to the barriers at 8PM, tapping them and screaming "We made it! We made it to the front, right? Let's get a drink!". There were people stopping mid-dance to carefully pose for group selfies on Go-Pros that had been fitted with rods for precisely this purpose. This was less of a festival, and more of a mid-summer national holiday.
AOKI ACTUALLY DID SMASH IT
If you're going to have an Instagram-streaming hype fest, you may as well give the people something to gawp. In the spirit of this, and to his credit, Steve Aoki absolutely killed it. Tiesto's set was odd - starting nice and proggy, but eventually going down a slightly awkward EDM route - David Guetta's was one, big long, drop, and Example was just really Example. But Aoki did indeed deliver: with new material, a well put together set and, yes, throwing an abundance of cake.
IT WAS A BLOODY MEDIA CIRCUS
Apparently, 20 million people watched Ultra Europe worldwide, so much like the hypochondriac child monarch surrounded by hundreds of sinister doctors, there was a definite feeling that the Croatian media were going to get the absolute most out of this. There were three different levels of press accreditation, and everywhere you looked someone was shoving a camera in some girl's face, or some ambitious young TV reporter randomly plucking people from the crowd, barking questions at them from behind a spotlight.
We can't talk - hell, we were there with our camera and our rainbow wristband collection too - but between cracked, sleep-deprived arguments in the press room, and photographers shouldering each other despite the massive photo pits, there was certainly a sense that an awful lot was being extracted from the marrow of the crowd.
EVERYTHING WORKED, EXCEPT THE CHANGEOVERS
So, this is odd. Ultra Europe is one of the only festivals we've ever been to where there are no DJ changeovers. The music just stops. In these interim moments, the crowd waited patiently and talked amongst themselves while the stage remains empty, with only a sound technician or duct tape-covered arm appearing from beneath the decks every so often. But that's okay, because we had this guy.
The man himself, nicknamed "The Voice", had a voice straight out of an action film cinema trailer. "The Voice" would come onto stage at every changeover, and talk at the crowd with the following script: "How y'all doing out there! My, my, my. I travel all over the world, but I have never seen a crowd like this. You guys are crazy. I see some flags. I see Australians, Turkish, British. I see Greeks, I see South Africans. Ultra, are you feeling it? Just remember we love you guys. We want your photos, your check-ins, make sure you hashtag Ultra, hashtag Ultra Europe, Hashtag Ultra Cro-". You get the idea.
THE VIP WAS PRETTY EXTREME
Festival VIP is now a thing. The kind of people that frequent festival VIPs in the UK are mostly harmless: a mixture of guys and girls working in "med-yah" normally called Rory or 'Tish, and for the large part regular folk who just thought ,"Fuck it", and spent an extra £30 on the ticket.
Ultra Europe's VIPs were kind of intense. When they weren't buying bottles of Grey Goose and finger-banging each other on the white leather couches in the raised VIP, they were nonchalantly marched into the photo pits, making life somewhat stressful for the sweaty, sleep-deprived photographers as they posed for selfies.
They were a mixture of very rich Croatians, quite rich French and Italians, affluent Americans and a couple of lost-but-regal Brits. We tried to talk to them, but they weren't too hot on us taking their picture. You know, in the photo pit. The place photographers stand to take pictures.
THE AUSTRALIAN'S WEREN'T SO INTO IT
Terrible things can happen at sea. In 914, the Viking invaded Europe. In 2014, we have Yacht Week. This is a week where Australians all have sex in floating caravans, before going to the nearest bar and yelling. Dogging meets Waterworld, if you will. We've met brilliant Australians before. They're kind of an extreme version of Brits.
Unfortunately, the ones we met at Ultra were pretty insular. They locked themselves into the Yacht Week Clique, and more or less refused to interact with anyone outside of it. There were only a small group at this year's Ultra, but there were plenty at Hvar and Split's pre-game bars and impromptu after parties. Interestingly, at the festival site proper, they were mostly cordoned into the VIP as this was apparently sponsored by Yacht Week. Wise move, Ultra.
Ultra Europe showed us that if you're going to brand an EDM festival, you've got to brand the living shit out of it. Ultra badges, sunglasses and home-made tee shirts were everywhere. This is a lifestyle statement, it would seem. There was also an Audi A6 in the middle of the crowd. There wasn't even any explanation for it. Just an Audi A6, chilling.
There was also Heineken branding everywhere, but since most of it was plastered onto good looking Croatian girls, no one really seemed to care. Also, Heineken had a free VIP bar. This was harder to get into than Lady Gaga's last album but, once you were in, it really was free beer all night.
BUT THE CROATIANS DEFINITELY WERE
This was a very international festival, but who from Croatia actually went to Ultra Europe? Everyone, by the looks of things. The age range was around 18 - 40. There were broke students, rich kids, people that - judging from the bar conversations - seriously knew their music, and people that - judging from the bar conversations - seriously didn't. The Croatians we spoke found it all a bit daft, but they were there because all their mates were there - and they all though it was a bit daft, too.
There were Croatians positively shaking with excitement at the prospect of seeing some of the acts. There were security guards recording footage on their own phones. This was a very, very big deal. There was no air of novelty, either. Clearly, this had been in most people's diaries for months. The atmosphere was electric. Mainstream music, wonderful lights - it was profoundly cheesy, but everyone having an awesome time. There was also a fair bit of hooking up, too, but it all seemed pretty innocent. A sort of July variant on Christmas, if you will.
THE POOL PARTIES WERE PRETTY FULL ON
So, EDM's approach to pool parties is a bit different. Gone are the lounge vibes, beautiful people tanning and mellow music from midday to sunset. Instead, the likes of Diplo took the fight to several hundred people at the five-star Amfora Hvar Grand Beach hotel, playing bass-rumbling, full speed EDM from about 3PM onward.
The general party had a good smattering of gorgeous socialites and Croatian celebrities, but the pool was almost exclusively massive, tattooed, waxed-chested blokes, who at every drop would smash the water like crazed toddlers. Meanwhile, a smattering of Europeans gathered at the bars, most of them inexplicably holding signs from the night before. There was much talk of sex. but there was, it appeared, very little sex. The pool party concept may need some work.
THIS COULD BE CROATIA'S FUTURE - AND THAT'S MAYBE A GOOD THING
Amongst the glittering hype, crazed music, often ridiculous clientele and the vast, garish scale of Ultra Europe is one very important fact: there are at least a dozen international music festivals in Croatia, and this is the only one run by Croatians. Sure, it's a franchise, but it's owned by three investors: two of which are Croatian and the third, incidentally, Slovenian. It works well and it'll be back next year - no doubt even bigger, louder and brighter than this year - and that's great, because, in a country that's rapidly beginning to feel like one gigantic venue for hire, Ultra Europe may be the only one that directly benefits Croatians.
All images by Ally Byers.
You can follow him on Twitter here: @ByersAlly
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