Unum, the first unrestricted festival since the pandemic began, takes place this weekend. Here's how - Features - Mixmag

Unum, the first unrestricted festival since the pandemic began, takes place this weekend. Here's how

Unum Festival is set to go ahead this week in Albania despite the rest of Europe being largely shut down. Gemma Ross speaks to organiser Grego O’Halloran

  • Gemma Ross
  • 1 June 2021

While festival fans face fears about the circuit returning safely this year, Unum Festival in Albania will go ahead this week as the first festival back in mainland Europe. Starting on Thursday, June 3, this year’s event is billed as the first legal festival (that isn't a test event) since the pandemic began, running for five days non-stop.

“Once everyone is tested, It’ll be safer among thousands of people inside the festival than it will be outside in the general population,” says Grego O’Halloran, head organiser of Unum Festival. Transferring his skills from the Ibiza mainstream to the Balkan underground, O’Halloran has high hopes for Unum’s safety and security this year as the world watches the first full-scale festival take place, taking notes for a potential domino effect to follow shortly after.

Read this next: Unum, first festival with rapid COVID-testing, will “100%" happen this summmer

Running sold-out events at Space, Amnesia, and DC10, some of Ibiza’s most recognised venues over the span of 20 years, O’Halloran has become a figurehead for the electronic movement moving across the globe. He's now taking up new grounds on Albania’s white sand, emerald sea coastline of Shëngjin. This year, returning for the second ever time, Unum will feature house and techno heavyweights such as Ben Klock, Ricardo Villalobos, Dyed Soundorom and Sonja Moonear.

“We wanted to develop the scene there, we didn’t want people to just come in and leave again - it’s a new location with new cuisines and new sights,” O’Halloran says on the festival destination. With an ethos of inclusion and a focus on bringing together the natural elements in combination with a new wave of electronic music and future-thinking technology, Unum will serve as a pioneer for the Balkan dance music scene.

Read this next: Albanian magic: 10 photos from Unum Festival's debut outing

In order to run the festival safely, O’Halloran will run the event alongside his COVID testing company, Swallow Events. Tests will be distributed before and during the festival as a safety measure. “This isn’t just us going ahead without understanding the situation,” he reassures.

“Although I’ve had the best times at similar festivals, I think the days of travelling to a festival and standing in the same field in the same marquee might be ending,” says O’Halloran.

We spoke to Grego a week ahead of Unum - the first festival back in Europe. Check out the Q&A below.

You must be swept off your feet at the moment, how long has it taken to put this year’s event together? And were you affected by COVID at all?

I’ve been involved with another business working in COVID testing to develop a solution for events like this. It remains to be seen what the UK government says about how events need to run. But effectively, we went to the Albanian government and said that we have a way of testing people and they were like “alright great, well that sounds good!”. We’re the only ship sailing in the ocean really, the only ones who 100% know that their festival can run and have known that since December. Everyone else is a bit unsure currently, you can’t really take the risk of a 50,000 person festival elsewhere right now.

The government over here aren’t doing much in the way of insurance for UK festivals, which means this year’s festival circuit is still very up in the air and most Brits can’t currently go abroad. What will Unum’s mix of nationalities look like in 2021?

We had people come from all over Europe and the Balkans in our first year. It’s not like the festivals you find in Croatia where 5,000 British people will fly over to make it an all-Brit fest. We’ve got a mixture of French, German, Spanish, Italian and all the different Eastern European nationalities joining too.

Read this next: More than a quarter of UK music festivals cancelled due to lack of insurance

Every country has different restrictions on travel - how does that work?

There are no restrictions in Albania outside of travel regulations in other countries, for example, the UK is completely different to the rest of the world. If it was just British people coming we would probably have to cancel, but because we’ve got such a cosmopolitan mix coming, it means we’ve got 10 to 20 nationalities heading over, so we have a lot of policies to work around. In the end, we said ‘look, we’re going ahead with the festival and if you can come, that’s great’. I think there might be a few problems with Italy, and the UK isn’t ideal, but most countries have Albania on a green list which is good.

As you said, this will be the first fully-fledged festival in over a year. What has the reaction been like to the event going ahead despite the rest of the world being shut down?

It’s been great, but obviously, as we’ve gotten closer to the festival everyone is asking, ‘is this still happening?!’. Six months ago it sounded doable, but as it gets closer and reality hits, people get nervous. It’ll be one of those things where one festival will go ahead, then a couple of others, it’s like a domino effect. It just sounds weird that you can be in a field with a huge soundsystem having a rave right now. The reaction has been mixed in some ways - as things have developed and improved and Albania now has a really high vaccine rate, we’re confident that we can put this festival on safely, which we’ve organised alongside the government and the Ministry of Health. In terms of the reaction, people have been super excited as seen by the number of tickets we’ve sold, It’s been amazing. We’ve still got 70 or so artists who are coming, and as far as I know, no one has pulled out just yet!

Why did you choose Albania?

Myself and some friends in Ibiza have a mutual friend in Kosovo, where they’re ethnically Albanian. The guys there run a club in Pristina, kind of like the godfathers of electronic music in the Balkans. They wanted to develop Albania as a destination resort, but not just in line with what the government want in developing Western tourism. As a country, they’re pretty much untouched being in a war-torn region of the world. But it has thousands of miles of beautiful coastline and beaches, the weather is amazing, and it’s two hours away from everywhere in Europe, it just ticks all the boxes. We want to build the electronic music scene in conjunction with tourism where people can come and get a feel for it along with the locals rather than it just being a place for people to dip into for one week of the year. There are very few restrictions there too, no sound or time limits.

Read this next: Irresistible spirit: Albanian DJs are working tirelessly to put Tirana on the dance music map

How did the concept for Unum come about? Why the ‘elements’?

The elements are a key part of it. Despite having the best time at festivals in marquees in a field, we had the opportunity to utilise the amazing nature that was around the location we have there in Shenjin. There are pine trees, so we have a space amongst the trees on a back-to-nature forest stage, then we have the main stage on the beach which is open, so people can dance in the sea. Plus, there’s a backdrop of mountains and some amazing sunsets which when combined, make for all the elements without having to be crammed into a tent. When you look up at the stars and then watch the sunrise later, it just adds to the whole experience and makes you feel like you're in a completely different place.

How did you choose the line-up this year, what did that process look like?

This year was pretty easy because we used the same line-up as last year, but our policy and approach to how we book mostly comes with the style of music that we like and the people we know who want to get involved. We just want to have good quality electronic music. There’s a real family element to the way it’s been booked, they’re our friends too, peppered with new artists and upcoming talent. In keeping with the philosophy of the festival, we’ve also booked local artists not just from Kosovo and Albania, but from the whole of the Balkans. People will bring their crews from Romania, others from Bulgaria or Macedonia or wherever it may be to create this melting pot where everyone can become one.

You’ve said previously that you’d be keen on hosting different events featuring more genres in the future - what are your plans there?

Music-wise, Albania is the starting point. We’re really at the embryonic stage of developing the scene there. Other festivals are happening in the country like Kala and ION which started a few years ago like us, but beyond that, there isn’t much happening in the way of music. We’re discussing with different brands at the minute bringing in different styles of music with anything from Dua Lipa (who’s from Kosovo), through to more trance-based or drum ’n’ bass artists. It’s nice to be involved at the ground floor level because it means we can paint a picture and see how it might look in the future.

Tell me about Swallow Events - how will this run in conjunction with Unum?

We’ve acted as consultants on this one with Swallow Events, but the testing will be run by the government. We’ve provided a framework and consultancy service to give them a real plan of what they needed to do and how to operate for it to work. The government signed that off and approved it, and I think it’s a real shop window for their country to show that this is one of the first festivals in the world to be run this way.

Read this next: A rapid COVID-19 testing service designed for the events industry has launched

How did you end up running a COVID testing company amidst all of your musical endeavours?

When COVID kicked in, we didn’t want to sit around and wait for governments and prime ministers to come up with a plan because we felt like it would take forever. So, we set about finding a solution to allow events to reopen, and have had it in place since about October or November of last year. It included testing, working with a secure app for the NHS, and more. It was part of the momentum built around opening events again, and I’m proud to say that whatever part we had to play in that is what will happen now in the future. Six or nine months ago, we started promoting it and pushing it forward, and now this is actually happening. One of the things that is clear, though, is that testing will be very different in Albania in comparison to the rest of the world.

So how will testing look going into the festival?

There will be testing stations all around the city that you can pop in to, or if you’ve got a negative PCR test arriving into Albania that will cover you for a certain period. There’ll be a double check mid-festival to make sure everything is as secure as possible. There have been some interesting considerations on how artists have had to come in, they don’t want to stand in a testing queue waiting for one, but these are logistical things that you have to deal with as a promoter. It shouldn’t impose too much on people’s enjoyment at the festival, for example, if people had to wait for hours then we would have considered whether we’d even want to run it.

Read this next: Will rapid testing really save UK nightlife?

How has the way that you run events in Ibiza helped the way you’ve set up Unum? And how do the scenes differ?

Everything that I’ve learnt from my experience in Ibiza I’m taking with me to this festival. I’ve implemented the best practice that I’ve learnt, it’s just second nature. Things don’t always go to plan and you may end up firefighting situations, but the experiences you have from those environments enable you to make the right decisions. The difference is that Unum runs for five days non-stop, whereas a lot of the people in the industry are used to working for one big night or a couple of days at a festival. But in terms of how the scenes differ, there are a lot of similarities in what we’re trying to achieve in Albania. For me, one of the best things about Ibiza is that, although it can be a bit exclusive and hasn’t always been the most underground of places, it’s very open. If you have a ticket, there are no restriction on what you need to wear, how you look like or who you are. There’s no door policy and we have the same inclusivity with Unum. If people are willing to come to our event, they’re more than welcome, and it’s exactly in the spirit that should run through dance music culture.

What’s next for you? Have you got any other projects in the works?

Some of the guys I run Unum with want to run some more boutique events, one in South America next year and other stuff in Switzerland and Portugal. The idea behind that is to create small festivals with DJs and brands we like in places of the world where there isn’t much happening like that, and create a new vibrant scene.

Tickets for Unum Festival are on sale here

Gemma Ross is Mixmag’s Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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