As far as destination festivals go, SXM is young, with only four editions to date, but it’s already setting the bar for other destination events around the world. Music festivals in exotic places like Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Barbados are taking notes.
The ripple SXM Festival makes hits home, too, when those who attend rub elbows in posh settings with international heavy hitters in house and techno. Plus, the natural bliss a person experiences just breathing in the backdrop of the island is enough to dilate the eyes.
Julian Prince is the founder of Saint Martin’s wildly popular but incredibly intimate SXM Festival. The veteran DJ and promoter has spent over two decades creating experiences with which fans have fallen in love.
We took a rare look behind the curtain with Julian. We talked about the trust fans put in festivals, how SXM has become a tastemaker and the multi-sensory island experience of getting around the festival.
Can you tell us how it all got started? Where was the idea for SXM Festival born?
This project had so much in common with my personal history. I grew up in hotels, been DJing since 1997, in studios since then, and throwing parties to owning my own venues. And so, I just felt it was like a natural progression to want to do something bigger. Inspiration-wise, it’s very simple. From being in clubs before I was 18, bouncing my head to that music, buying records, going to the raves, warehouses, and later to Miami, BPM, Burning Man. All these things contributed.
You live your life, and then you get influenced by what you’ve lived. But this project made sense because when I landed in St Maarten for the first time, I saw the quality of the venues and the diversity, and how the island was set up.
It was a matter of being able to understand, and it was quite easy here because it’s a small place, and the party naturally designed itself in my mind. Of course, you can have great ideas, but without a great team, you can’t do much. It was a big adventure from January 2015 to March 2016 to build the right team to be able to deliver an experience that has not been done before.
What can house and techno fans look forward to at the festival?
I think we’re just taking our time because we’ve seen as an organization, we would love to get to a place where people trust who’s going to DJ and how amazing the music will be. I think that it’s great to have a festival built on names. I feel like the word festival is true, but it’s more of an experience. To be honest, it could have been the SXM Experience. And probably looking back, it would have probably been a better name than festival. Because it’s not just music, it’s also cultural immersion.
It’s a trip. It can be so many things that you design for your own experience. And there’s so much to do here that you can really design a different trip every time you come. There’s also the best music ever, great production, and amazing people that show up from I don’t even know how many different cities and countries in the world. We had people as far as Australia and Japan. It went pretty global. And people were attracted to come in and experience the festival with us. And we’re so grateful about that.
You’re so right because when I went, I can’t help but remember—I was always impressed by the lineup—just being immersed in that island culture, sometimes you even forget that it’s a music festival. So, I wanted to ask you, What’s something first-timers were surprised by?
The star of the festival is the island. We’ve been doing this for seven years now. I think we’re to be trusted. We’ve done everything we could in the world to deliver what we’ve promised. And, this is very important, keeping everyone safe. The truth is that. I mean, we would love to get into a place where people trust that they’re going to have the time of their lives and that trust the organization to a point where they know very clearly that will deliver something phenomenal.
We’ve been taking our time. The world has changed a lot. After the pandemic, it’s a different game. Every year is a challenge. Because as an organization, there’s a lot of new stuff happening, whether it’s on the marketing side how algorithms work. We always have to adjust in order to put the word out.
And the music has been evolving. A lot of the talent we’ve been closely following since year one actually became huge stars. So, I think people can understand or trust the fact that, if you read the name of a DJ you don’t really know, to come check him out now because most certainly, we smelled the fact that he’s already a rising star.
What do you think draws a lot of the people, including the musicians, to the island as opposed to so many other exotic destinations where they could go and travel?
St Maarten is just phenomenal, and without a doubt, it is magical. There’s something here with the energy that is unexplainable. I’ve been here for three weeks now back for the winter, and there’s an astonishing amount of rainbows with colors in rainbows I’ve never seen before. And double rainbows! It’s gorgeous and beautiful. There’s a lot of tropical destinations, but not a lot with that many beautiful beaches. And they have all those pretty villas and homes, and the locals are super nice. It’s also very multicultural, so [they] speak Spanish, French, [and] English. It’s really easy to feel at home here. The locals say all you got to do is make them come once. Some say coming twice is better. It’s an easy place to love.
Since you mentioned the pandemic, I wanted to talk to you about that. As you move forward, What are you looking forward to doing now that we can finally find each other on the dancefloor?
I’m not going to be afraid or ashamed to say I’m a sensitive person. And it was hard to go through. I also believe that everything happens for a reason. It was especially hard because a couple of years before, we had a hurricane, and everything was demolished. We’ve had our fair share of challenges. More I guess than can I say 98% of festivals or less, I don’t know, 95. Everyone had [to go through] COVID, but not many had a literally like a natural catastrophe happening. I’m not comparing. I’m just saying that it was hardcore. It was tough. But it’s when you see the quality of your team. It’s an outstanding occasion to witness how many professionals you’re actually surrounded by [and] how lucky you are to work on such a singular situation.
It’s essential to mention the way SXM supports locals and the island community, and the international community at large. The work, you guys, do locally seems to make a meaningful impact there. So, please talk about some of the donations, philanthropy, and volunteer efforts.
Every organization has their values. Kraft wants to make the best peanut butter, you know, that’s good. That’s a perfect value. I love peanut butter. I’m French Canadian, so I’m happy that it’s there. But for the festival, we always had this thing where we wanted to give back. We always had the kids at first in our rearview.
Even the first year. When you start a festival, you don’t have much budget. It was challenging the first year, it’s always complicated no matter what you do on the festival, but we still found a way to get some ping pong tables from this company who donated to us. Another company made beach towels. And then we went, and we put it in schools and gave the towels to the kids. That was year one.
And then year two, it was awesome. We had an activation with Splice, and the kids were taking samples, and we sent it to Splice, and those samples were sold. And we gave it to an organization to take care of them.
And we started also doing green initiatives from year one. We used wherever it was from nature [that] was falling down. We did not cut a leaf. We did not tear anything from the trees. So from the start, we wanted to be challenged on that for the right reasons. When you look at what the first year looked like, it looks so organic, so beautiful. And you can feel the passion. And I think that’s what made a big impact in people’s minds, because objects have an aura in a way, especially the ones that are handcrafted. And I think that our festival is 80% handcrafted. And to handcraft, you need hands.
The hands behind the festival are also important because people see DJs on the lineup. And I’m an artist as well. There are other artists in the back that are humble, and don’t like the spotlight, and are there and that are masters at partying. These guys have a way of seeing the party and orchestrating the vibes with the right visuals and the right objects and structures and art pieces. And those guys are geniuses. It takes everything to make a beautiful party. There’s a lot of passion in this project. Honestly, I love sleeping, and I need something to make me get out of bed. Since I started doing the festival, I sleep six hours a day maximum. So, I’m doing something that feels good.
It sounds like it’s having a positive impact on you.
For sure. It starts with the people we know. When we work as an organization, I always tell people there will be no fighting, no screaming. The vibe starts here. And it’s gonna bleed onto the whole event.
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