Jan 13, 2020
Festivals & Conferences


A conversation with SXM Festival’s Julian Prince on social responsibility and the power of music

Technology is in constant evolution. The global landscape has changed more in the last decade than in the five preceding it. Disruption is not simply a buzzword to us here at The Advance; to disrupt an industry is to bring innovative solutions to problems in a way that is not only creative but bold and forward-thinking. Stand-out companies like Tesla are providing industries and communities with new ways of approaching long-standing challenges by leveraging technologies that help streamline and simplify processes, creating more time, space, and efficiency.

But disruption isn’t a concept of the digital era. In the mid-twentieth century, advancements in tools and technology granted access to nature otherwise untouched, causing a surge in US wilderness travel. What was 30 million visitors in the 1950s quickly grew to 170+ million by 1970. Today that number is close to 330 million. Land managers were faced with the daunting task of balancing finite resources and preservation with recreational use and cultural experiences. While regulations would be somewhat effective, the cornerstone of these efforts became clear: education and awareness.

The live entertainment industry is uniquely positioned to bring awareness to the masses. Recent years have seen “Leave No Trace” practices adopted by forward-thinking events like Burning Man in the US, Glastonbury in the UK, and Wonderfruit in Thailand, the latter creatively calling it “sustainable hedonism.” 2019 saw the Global Citizens Festival attract tens of thousands of attendees, raising billions of dollars for their cause. Headliner Alicia Keys declaring, “We are the power of the collective. We are the power of beautiful sound.” There is a festival in the Caribbean which is aligning itself with this declaration and ethics: The SXM Festival of St. Martin.

SXM Festival

In the world of large-scale events, the SXM Festival has established itself as a proven thought leader in eco-consciousness, education, and awareness.  The experience of founders Julian Prince and Driss Skali after the hurricane of 2017 has been widely reported, providing personal insight on their resilience and dedication. The Advance recently caught up with Julian for a more in-depth look inside the festival’s founding ethics, its commitment to both the local and global community, its unique partnerships, and the undeniable power of art and music.

“It’s been our intention to give back from the start because it is in our DNA to do so. Never underestimate the power of the community,” Prince begins. “It’s never just a festival in our opinion, and ironically the most interesting thing about a festival is what gravitates around it. Our organization Two Bunch Palms was founded after year one, not after Irma like everyone thinks. We will always use the foundation as a non-profit that mediates between the community and the attendees. We will keep on using the foundation to finance actions that translate our intention to give back.”

“Attending SXM post-Irma in what we called The Year of the Phoenix gave festival-goers the opportunity to feel like they were not just going to another music festival,” Prince continues, “but also helping thousands of families get back to their normal lives. Last year we sent out a survey before the festival asking the following question: ‘What is the main reason you want to attend SXM Festival 2019?’ The answer was incredible. 83% said it was to help the island get back on its feet. It was amazing to receive that feedback in a world where headliners are the usual answer at 80+%.”

While natural disasters are acute in their destruction and resolution, they are an indication of a larger problem that is not lost on Julian, the festival, or their partners. “Saint-Martin is no stranger to natural disasters; It is just part of life on the island and they have been happening for millennia. There are many hypotheses and they are probably right; we’ll have more fires, more hurricanes and more earthquakes until we figure a way to be so many on the planet but to be more respectful towards nature. Aside from doing our best to address climate change, rebuilding better and stronger is the only solution. Nothing is stronger than nature and I hope real changes will come.

2019 and the start of 2020 have seen catastrophic fires wipe out massive parts of the Brazilian Amazon and the Australian Bush, reportedly promising to contribute to the acceleration of climate change. “It is often that feeling of helplessness that is so upsetting about these kinds of events.”  Prince comments. “To that point, we are a small team and we try to focus on what we can do to try and make a difference and lead by example.”

A small team making a large impact, the SXM leadership has established unique partnerships to raise awareness and educate using their platform. The festival set for March 2020 will offer a unique experience in the form of virtual reality. The project is a collaboration between SXM, The French Initiative for Coral Reefs, Hommage Hotel, La Réserve Naturelle de Saint-Martin, and Blue Finance, the project’s developer. It promises to be a stunning 3D virtual experience called “The Sea Sensorium”. 

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Blue Finance is a social enterprise NGO that implements solutions for coral reef conservation in the Caribbean, SE Asia and Western Africa, acting under the umbrella of the United Nations. CEO Nicolas Pascal gives us more insight into what 2020 SXM festival attendees will have the opportunity to experience. “The project develops a solution to inspire the support of local marine conservation efforts through an educational & entertaining VR experience,” says Pascal. “It will permit people to discover our marine life legacy even if they are unable to deep-sea dive.”

“A key component of natural resource conservation is public support which comes via awareness and understanding; a sense of connection with the flora and fauna that make up ecosystems,” Pascal continues. “For the underwater environment, an additional challenge is posed for face to face encounters due to the technical requirements involved in diving. The media: Chasing Coral, BBC ́s Planet Earth, and Netflix ́s Our Planet, for example, have all helped to bring the plight of the underwater world into people’s living rooms. In this project, we ́d like to go a step further and invite the public to immerse themselves in the underwater world via Virtual Reality and 360°".

It will be an experience at a music festival the first of its kind. The experience collaborating with the festival and its team has been very positive, Pascal tells The Advance. “We hope this is the start of a long term relationship.”

Some have argued that using art or entertainment as a platform may be asking too much, or may cause a deviation from the art itself. Julian Prince thinks otherwise. “It doesn’t at all, it amplifies the art! We decided since year one to take two months for the build and to use 95% recycled materials. We used building artists that had the creativity and skills to give a second life to materials that were sent to the dump. We also decided to use leaves on the pallets we took from the port or leaves from the ground, never from a live tree. It's complicated and more extensive but we believe that this is why on year one, no one talked about the nonstop monsoons we had in March, but how the vibe was so magical.”

Working together with other leading figures in the industry whose conservation efforts are also well known, SXM unites with artists like Blondish and her effort Bye Bye Plastic, involved with the festival since year one and advising them on how to become more and more eco-performant. They support Francesca Lombardo’s Life of Releaf project, an artist who has been musically and emotionally involved with SXM from the start.

“Art is a medium of mass communication with the power to unite people,” says Prince. “It is the universal language that breaks barriers that would otherwise keep us apart. At a time when the social landscape has become polarized and fragmented, art is uniquely able to turn the focus to our common interests and love. To positively affect human consciousness is the ultimate measure of art’s worth.”

“This goes for all art forms including the music of course. All artists hold this big mirror to the society we live in. As a festival, we enable the artists to express themselves and we try to create the ideal environment for them to do so. The event in itself is a vessel for us to express and convey our morale and values. The message behind it and this example that we show changes people's views and ways. We also see the power that music has over people as the event is going on, the joy on people’s faces and the somewhat transformative and life-changing connections that music events create.”

SXM Festival is a 5-day experience beginning March 11, 2020, held on the beautiful island of Saint-Martin in the Caribbean. Phase Two of their lineup has just been announced; tickets can be purchased here. If you are undecided, we caution it may only take about 15 seconds of the video below to persuade you.


The Advance began with the intention of creating community and dialogue around what the future of live entertainment looks like, how we are pinpointing places for growth, streamlining processes, highlighting advancements, and shaping it as a collective.  Get in touch with us at theadvance@gigwell.com

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