Malta’s Power Players changing the music scene in Malta
Over the past 20 years, Malta has seen a complete transformation with regards to the number of large-scale events hosted on the island. That’s mostly down to the perseverance of the masterminds behind one of the country’s most prestigious events companies, 356 Entertainment.
Trevor Camilleri and Gerald Debono boast decades of industry experience, having produced countless electronic music festivals together under Fresh Music Events before uniting with Nicholas Spiteri under 356, and changing the way events have been received across the archipelago ever since.
Malta has quickly become one of the most sought-after festival destinations in Europe as 356 has established a reputation for its high-quality events across the summer months. Drawing in A-list names and partnering with top-level international brands such as Cream and the BBC, Trevor and Gerald have also succeeded in attracting thousands of partygoers to the island from abroad. Continuing to seek innovation by branching out into other genres of music and other event sectors, their commitment is unmatched.
That has been the case with one of their most recent exploits, SummerDaze Festival. As Malta’s largest annual festival, it brandishes an expansive and eclectic music programme, which took a new direction this year, inviting some of the world’s biggest pop stars to the island, the likes of Anne-Marie, Bastille, G-Eazy and Jason Derulo, among others. Ahead of this month’s magazine, we took the time to sit down with the organisers, to gain a more detailed insight into the company’s origins, the many thought processes behind event production and the future of 356 events in Malta and beyond…
Firstly, tell us a little bit about 356, its history and how it started, and why you felt that Malta needed these events.
356 is an evolution of what Trevor and I used to do many years ago under Fresh Music Events. The aim back in the day was to get international standard events to Malta as it lacked them. Some events were happening, but we came up with the idea of building high-production events, during a time when there weren’t strict technical riders yet. So we were free to build the shows we wanted to build, and even book world-class talents such as Armin van Buuren, Paul Van Dyk, David Guetta and Tiësto, so we went straight to the top! We used to do other events too but we went straight into arena shows as they were our speciality. Then as things progressed, we acquired Malta’s biggest open-air venue and festival tourism became our focus, starting with Lost & Found. We took some risks in the early days, but without those, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have, and that’s how 356 was born. We realised there was a huge potential for festival tourism and from there we became more creative and ambitious about the projects we were going for. I would say we were the first to take things to a different level, let’s say so because there were the other promoters before us, but they were still just promoting techno. When we started doing events, we introduced trance and house to Malta.
Did you face any challenges considering you were one of the first or if not the first to be doing this in Malta?
The risks we faced occurred to us in organising our first event, which was Lost & Found with Annie Mac. It was the birth of festival tourism in Malta, having joined forces with UK promoters. Before, it used to be a dream for our company to attract foreign customers to come to our events, and once Lost & Found arrived, it sold out at 8000 people in a day. We thought it was a fluke. The risk at that time was more the culture shock, and the Maltese people and residents seeing 8000 clubbers at one time. Apart from that though, it was the start of something very big as it drew in a significant number of younger people, whereas Malta had had this previous reputation as being somewhere for the older generation due to the history of the island. To add to that 94% of the people that travelled to Lost & Found were coming to Malta for the first time. It had a multiplier effect in relation to the economy, with the focus put on taxis, restaurants, and hotels, and it started stretching the summer season longer and put Malta in the spotlight. From a promoter’s point of view, it’s nice to see these festivals give a lot back financially to local businesses and communities, and to the country itself.
Was the aim to bring more tourists in general to Malta, or was there an intentional focus on drawing younger crowds in?
20 years ago Malta was for the older demographic, as it was sold as a sunny island to come to with nice beaches, nice churches; a very relaxed atmosphere. However, focusing on good festival tourism, we have created extra appeal and brought awareness of the island to the younger generation, even though there’s a very good nightlife scene happening here as well.
With regards to general tourism, a while back when we did arena shows, we would be selling the majority of tickets to locals. Now, they make up about 2% of our audience as most of the festivals we put on are made with foreigners in mind, as the artists we book are targeting more of a UK market than a local market; they are very different.
How did you come to be able to work with big event brands such as the likes of the BBC, Creamfields and people like Annie Mac for example?
Well, we started doing Cream shows back in the late 90s or early 2000, then we escalated it to Creamfields festival, in 2004 or 2006. Back in the days we also used to do Cocoon and Renaissance shows, which were also big brands at the time, but that might be us showing our age as that was quite a long time ago! But at that time it was more that we’d pay a brand fee and organisers for the local circuits. Nowadays, we need our partners to be involved. We wouldn’t just pay for a brand fee, and just come up with an event, we would want the support to be ready and want to work together.
It almost became a policy that if we’re partnering up with someone, it had to be one of the top international players such as the BBC, Cream, Defected, DLT, Abode or our UK partners for Lost & Found and even other brands from other sectors that we deal with.
Are there any other significant event collaborations we can maybe look forward to in the future?
To be honest, we have a long list at this stage for next year, but we know that we can’t do all of them, so we will have to make a shortlist so that we don’t oversaturate the next summer season. Lately what we realised is that we can branch out beyond house and techno and bass music and like we did this year, we’ll branch out into different genres like rock, for example, to make it more diverse.
Tell us a little bit more about SummerDaze, because that seems to be solely your concept that you have developed.
From the brand name to the production, to the artistic direction and bookings, it’s an in-house event but with the support of BBC Radio 1 and Creamfields. This year is only the third edition since we had to cancel one of them due to COVID. Months of work go into organising a festival of this size, and we were literally on the verge of launching the lineup two days before we cancelled it which was a bit of a setback at first.
The SummerDaze programme is quite diverse, how do you go about piecing the lineup together?
This year we changed the direction slightly and headed more towards live pop acts for different reasons. One is that you can become quite limited with DJs as there are four or five really big DJs you can book at that level, but we still took on a few of them and were glad to have them. With the first two editions, we felt like we played it safe when we built the event with DJs like Martin Garrix and David Guetta coming over, but there’s also a lot of hype around the live acts. The other reason is that not many live acts come to Malta compared to DJs, so there is more demand there, the market is much bigger, and pop is very euro-friendly. It’s very different from what we do, but we try to have a diverse spectrum of events happening for us as much as possible. It is unique because, in reality, we don’t have any other event that is similar to SummerDaze. The big pop and hip-hop acts and rappers don’t usually come to Malta, so it was a good opportunity to come together with the MTA (Malta Tourism Authority) to book such talent.
In terms of the different days here this year, we wanted Day 1 to be very focused on the British market helped by BBC Radio 1 and Cream. And on the second day, we wanted to draw in the Italian market with acts like Corona. The event is very much a marketing stunt, as in August there is an increase if Italian tourists in Malta along with the usual high numbers of Brits on the island.
In looking to attend the festival, visitors don’t have to purchase a GA pass, instead, they can offer a small donation and essentially attend the event for free. What is the thinking behind this?
The first two editions were also free entrance. We organise the event for the MTA and it is mainly because we are trying to introduce a new brand and a new concept to Malta. It’s a good few days, it brings the feel-good factor, people enjoy it and it’s added value to the tourists coming to Malta. After the first two years now, it’s becoming a progression and now we can start to be able to charge a fee. This year it went from zero to three euros. It’s a small transition but as we build throughout the years, people are starting to trust the event and the level of entertainment and production that they’re coming to see. The aim is obviously to have an increase in price going forward but that is at the discretion of the MTA.
With the association of BBC Radio 1, in the first years, we didn’t charge for the event like the BBC didn’t charge for their events as they put on state events. So with that in mind and the fact that BBC Radio 1 are always keen to collaborate with SummerDaze, the approach was similar this year.
Looking ahead to the next few years, what are your plans for 356 in the near future?
Apart from what we are doing right now, we are also focused on family entertainment, which is also an important part of 356. We are partners with Cirque du Soleil and do their shows here in Malta. We realised that family entertainment is also an important sector after having kids ourselves, so we are looking to build brands for the youngest people. In doing that we have already built a concert experience alongside BBC Radio 2 and an orchestra for example. Aside from that, we are also looking to improve our international reputation, as we have several exciting projects in the pipeline for the years ahead.
Header Image Credit: SummerDaze Festival