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Vlad Yaremchuk on the ‘unbelievable’ return of Atlas Festival

The programming director tells IQ how the Atlas team is pulling together the biggest festival Ukraine has seen in years

By James Drury on 04 Jul 2024

Vlad Yaremchuk, Atlas Festival

Vlad Yaremchuk, Atlas Festival

Ukraine’s Atlas Festival is set to take place for the first time since the Russian invasion, it was announced last month.

Rebranded as Atlas United, the fundraising festival will take place in the capital city of Kyiv from 12–14 July after three years away.

Over 70 Ukrainian artists and several international acts will perform across six stages installed in Kyiv’s Blockbuster Mall, with the underground car park to be used as a shelter in the event of an air siren.

Here, programming director Vlad Yaremchuk tells IQ how the Atlas team is pulling together the biggest festival Ukraine has seen in years.

How have you managed to bring Atlas Festival back under such challenging conditions?
Vlad Yaremchuk (VY): I still can’t believe that we’ve announced it, because Russians are bombing the country every other day and the [power] blackouts are back. But it was important for us to run the festival. We wanted to make sure we could make it safe to a degree we are happy with, where we wouldn’t be putting people in danger, even though that’s an incredibly relative term here. The festival will be held at Blockbuster Mall, which has the largest certified bomb shelter in the whole country.

It has an underground parking that is bigger than 50000m2, which can hold well above 100k people and that would be our shelter, which is a must for a festival in Ukraine. Our maximum daily capacity will be way smaller than what the shelter can fit, so we have the confidence that we can evacuate people quickly. It’s still a big challenge to organise; like every festival, we have safety and security procedures, but we hope we never have to use them.

With blackouts, curfew, air alarms and the constant threat of Russian aerial attacks, it’s not easy. We will close at 10 PM every day, which means everyone has time to get back home using public transport by midnight, when the curfew starts. We’ve also had to schedule stage times to finish by 9.30pm, to give us 30 minutes of emergency time, in case there’s an air raid alarm at any point, which might eat into set times. We’ve told artists they need to prepare two set lists – one for a normal set and one in case it has to be truncated due to air raids. Obviously, we hope that if there is an air raid alarm, it won’t be because of an attack on Kyiv, but even if nothing is flying towards Kyiv, just the fact that that alarm is there means we need to evacuate everyone and wait until it’s over.

“We’ve told artists they need to prepare two set lists – one for a normal set and one in case it has to be truncated due to air raids”

What’s the demand for live music like among Ukrainians?
VY: As previously reported in IQ, there have been shows attracting 10,000 people at a time, which shows just how strong demand is for live music here. I hope that our festival can set a precedent because music has been active here from the very moment that it was possible. There are so many concerts in Kyiv and Lviv, there are festivals happening, even though they are smaller. There are small events happening even in the frontline cities because people there also deserve to have access to culture and live music.

All these shows and festivals raise funds in one way or the other for the army and humanitarian causes, but on the morale side, these shows unite people. We hope the festival will let us show to the world that music is happening here, we want to show that we are ready to welcome people and artists no matter what. Of course, coming to Ukraine now is not your normal, usual trip to make, but if you are an artist and you do come, you get the most hospitable reception and the most grateful, inspiring audience you can imagine.

International acts have performed here – Bono came, The Tiger Lillies have played a few times. GusGus and IAMX played Lviv. [Drum n Bass producer] London Elektricity and a lot of his peers came, but none of these shows were noticed outside of Ukraine enough to highlight the fact that we are ready to welcome artists. We hope to show people that it is safe enough to visit cities like Kyiv, there are risks, but we’ve learnt to manage them here. The demand and the infrastructure are all here. Acts can go to Lviv if they are particularly worried, it’s close to the Polish border, so it’s an easier trip and it is safe enough there. We consider Kyiv safe to come as well, as long as you follow the basic safety protocols.

“People have this picture that Ukraine is all ruins, so normal life isn’t possible here – but it’s only partially true”

Of course, you would never want to put artists at risk, right?
VY: Of course. One of the main challenges is that agents might not be interested in these shows because we can’t offer the same financial guarantees as other countries in Europe, and we can only insure so much. But people have this picture that Ukraine is all ruins and everything’s been bombed, so normal life isn’t possible here – but it’s only partially true. Due to the sheer size of the country, you get varying degrees of safety and normality. I’m hoping we can get that across. We need to normalize coming to Ukraine now, not after the war ends.

What’s the infrastructure like for concerts?
VY: Most of the venues that go up to 10,000 capacity have been working for some time now. Our 1,100-capacity Atlas club reopened in September 2023, but others have been open for even longer than that. Most of them have a shelter, either in the venue itself or very close nearby. Since the winter of 2022-23, when there were many blackouts, most of the venues now have a generator for backup power. And it’s going to be the same for our festival. This became the new normal for the event industry here, we have adapted to all these challenges so that we can keep going, raise money and give people great music and a feeling of unity.

“We have a stage in our shelter, which will work no matter what, even if there is an air raid alarm”

Tell us more about the festival.
VY: We will have two big open-air stages, including the main stage. Then, there are three stages inside the mall itself, two of which would be free for everyone so you can check them out even without a ticket. And last but not least, we have a stage in our shelter, which will work no matter what, even if there is an air raid alarm, so people would get music even when there is a threat and everyone’s been evacuated.

The shelter is very easy to reach from every stage and point of the festival, there are multiple wide entry points, so we can get large numbers of people in very quickly. We are aiming at about 25,000 daily capacity, which is way less than what Atlas usually is, yet larger than other festivals of 5-10k cap that happened after the invasion started. But we wouldn’t be doing it in Kyiv and with a capacity like this if we didn’t have this venue with its shelter and could not ensure quick evacuation.

A big focus for us is to make the festival inclusive and comfortable for people with disabilities, the number of which rose significantly because of the war. They can come to the festival for free and we have ensured they get the best experience possible with specially-equipped taxis available for transfer to and from the festival, a great view of all stages, comfortable navigation and all the support they might need.

“We want to make sure we can help the country in a noticeable way that justifies doing such an event in such circumstances”

And then, the part that is as important for us as safety is fundraising. We want to make sure we can help the country in a noticeable way that justifies doing such an event in such circumstances. Our main goal is to raise at least UAH 100 million (EUR~2.3mln) for the army and also raise significant funds for various humanitarian initiatives and we hope to raise even more than that. Everyone will be involved in the process – our sponsors and partners, responsible businesses, our artists and our audience. For each part of the festival, we think how it can contribute to reaching our goal. This is the only right way for us to do it.

On the artist side of things – it is, of course, a predominantly local line-up of 70+ acts of all sizes, but we are also lucky to have some international names. Our main international headliner is Sharon Den Adel – leader of Within Temptation. She was in Kyiv earlier this year to shoot a music video for the song they released with a Ukrainian artist, so she was comfortable with the idea of playing a show in Ukraine.

We are truly grateful for that kind of trust. She is a big artist and she is leading by example and hopefully, more acts follow in her stead. She won’t come with a band, instead, she’ll do a unique programme consisting of the band’s hits with an orchestra and a choir. This programme was created for the festival and will be played for the first time, closing off the festival. It is created by a young Ukrainian composer Maria Yaremak. It is not an easy performance to put together in the current situation, but I guess we just have a knack for challenging ourselves ever more, otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing the festival in the first place. We’ll also have the Lithuanian act Beissoul & Einius, who played multiple editions of our festival, including the first and also a Japanese act called heavenphetamine.

“Music for us is an act of defiance”

How important is music to the Ukrainian people?
VY: Because of the war, people here feel life way sharper. The stakes are so high that whatever experiences you have, they are sharper, for better or for worse. Music events here are not for entertainment – there’s a deeper purpose to them. They foster a feeling of unity, they facilitate the development and re-discovery of our culture, which Russians are trying to erase. They raise much-needed funds. They give people a break and bring them together, reminding them that we are all in this together. We shout the lyrics together and the music flows through us. Music helps us live through this crazy reality we all share. Whether the songs are about sorrow, the feeling of unity, or the energy to continue the fight and maintain your resilience, they are all needed. So the concerts that happen now are unlike any other.

But also, zooming out, music is so very precious to us. We now sing the same songs that the generations of Ukrainians that came before were singing and they ring differently now. Those generations were dreaming about having an independent country where we could finally just live peacefully in our own land. And now we have the privilege of living in that country, but we have to protect it. So music for us is an act of defiance. It’s about who we are and who we strive to be.


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