Punk, Folk & Free Flowing Rakija – Reliving the Balkan Music Conference PIN 2023

Marko & Milica at PIN Conference 2023
Marko & Milica at PIN Conference 2023

Tales of punk rock, urban folk and unlimited rakija – we relive three days of our first Balkan music conference at PIN 2023.

PIN is an intimate music industry conference taking place in Skopje, North Macedonia. Every year they invite music professionals, unique talent and legends of the trade. This was their 10th year, and a record-breaking one in terms of attendance.

Run by the same organization as Taksirat music festival, a 15,000-person event taking place the following week. Think of PIN as the smaller pre-party for music professionals.

And how did four members of UgS end up in North Macedonia? It all started with Marko’s idea to attend this music conference in Skopje, organized by a guy he met in Cuba called Login – why not? The trip starts with a direct flight from Malta on the evening of the 28th of November…

Underground Sound goes to a Balkan music conference

Ian in front of Skopje International Airport
Ian in front of Skopje International Airport

“Did you bring the business cards?”

“Yep, got ‘em.”

We’re already pros.

Malta International Airport is completely empty except for us. The flight to Skopje is the last one of the evening. We pass through the passport check, the Maltese customs more interested in telling his friend a story than profiling me. We all get through and hop on the plane.

Only an hour and a half later, and we’re on the European continent. The temperatures drop, the fog sets in and we are rolling in the cold… hot. Best of all, we’ve got the A-Team on our side.

Meet the A-Team

Left to right: Milica, Ian, me and Marko at PIN Music Conference 2023

Our four-person delegation is eager to see what PIN is all about. It’s our first music conference and our first time jet setting as a team, after all. Allow me to introduce the finest:

Marko Micić – AKA Jazzy Marko, the fun loving, music professional who directs Merak Festival and the founder of Megafon multimedia portal. It’s not his first rodeo, as he’s been to the conference before.

Milica Micić – likely the team’s biggest source of energy, Milica is an SEO specialist who writes in the English language better than most English people. She’s our musical guide to the region and a journalist by trade.

Ian Hinksman – AKA The Hinky, is the highly enthusiastic co-founder of Underground Sound, an alternative marketing professional and a covert ginger. Give him the right amount of tea and he’ll come up with the best, worst marketing stunts that Madison Avenue hasn’t thought up yet.

Then there’s myself, hungry director of our sweet little company, ready to break bread (and burek) with the best of the Balkans.

A “hello” from the director of PIN Music Conference

Reception at PIN 2023
Reception at PIN 2023, a tight knit Balkan music conference

First impressions? The organizers are a humorous bunch.

The reception starts at the main entrance of the Youth Cultural Center. A projector plays a video of the Macedonian National Football team scoring against England. The same video repeats about five times. The brilliance is that we aren’t sure if it is a mistake, or if the organization is trolling us.  

Next, we oversee a brief award ceremony. One of the awards goes to advisor and booker of Glastonbury Festival Martin Elbourne, who actually calls in to salute us.

Afterwards we get a fun little speech read off a fast-scrolling text, recalling a Star Wars-esque intro text, but only more Balkan.

Head of PIN Music Conference, Login, is invited by the speaker to say hello. Walking along the gangway and down the stairs towards the microphone, he proceeds to say “hello,” and just that, before taking off again. It’s this brevity, lighthearted behavior and fleeting moments that makes you smile, totally setting the tone of this musical meet up.

Suddenly, food appears on the tables behind us, and the alcohol is free flowing. Marko mentioned before that delegates are treated very well at PIN, marking the food as a big plus. I spy a large plastic container filled with a suspicious liquid. After further investigation, it turns out to be what I thought: rakija, the spirit of the Balkans.

Running for good music

Conspiracy playing at PIN 23
Conspiracy playing at PIN 23

Opening the conference app, we look to see who is playing. However, it is no use. I have no idea who is who and second, Marko takes off beckoning in his direction. We trust his intuition and set off to the auditorium.

Aforementioned rakija in-hand, we find seats in front of the Flying Nomads from Bulgaria, a couple playing traditional acoustics and drums. We ease into our seats and realize we’re about to hear some damn good music at this week’s showcases. From sitting down, we go to jumping up and down to the heavy metal sounds of Conspiracy.

A showcase event is essentially a teaser that bands offer to a specific audience to present – or showcase – their musical talent. UgS team member Milica Micić worked it out like this: artists play at conferences for the delegates and fans. The delegates discover new music and use the audience to gauge the reaction to determine if the band or act will be worth working with. The theory makes sense to me at least.

Hearing a cultured selection of music

CURA I DEČKO performing live at PIN 23
CURA I DEČKO performing live at PIN 23

Frenetically running around this Balkan music conference with Marko tight in the lead, we continue to experience acts from the region.

Just as we are getting into Transylvanian urban folk from Koszika, Marko takes us to a left field electronic performance of Croatian CURA I DEČKO. The selection of these acts has been done by a serious professional – every act exhibits a specific talent or ingenuity. It also gives them a space to be discovered by artist bookers or managers.

Contemplating discovery at a Balkan music conference

ILÆY playing live at Cinema stage of PIN 23
ILÆY playing live at Cinema stage of PIN 23

Milica, Ian and I briefly disengage from our Serbian shepherd, and we end up at the Cinema stage for ILÆY’s performance. It’s amazing to see artists in their experimental prime. She is a great example of this. A full vocal range and multilayered synth cake, her voice is heavy, oriental, backed by electronic signals.

My question is: what would happen if someone “discovered” her? What if that voice was cultivated, nurtured and promoted? It risks losing the experimental, but also bargains on becoming something truly great and appreciated by the masses.

This thought pervades my mind as we continue into the night.

Power to the people of PIN

If the first day was marked by music, the second is defined by people. Ice broken, we spread our wings and begin to feel confident.

Despite the setback of forgetting to register for the networking sessions, we are encouraged to go anyways and connect with the people we want to meet. Our publication has been defined by persistence, so there’s no use stopping now. This leads us to meet with a contact who just opened a new venue and is looking for writers. Yes!

Over the day, we encounter a melting pot of new people that we never really had exposure to in the past. This means booking agents, music managers and artistic directors.

For the first time it really feels like we are amongst our people. And while a similar sentiment can be felt at a festival, it’s not so apparent for people working behind the scenes. Finding your people is important to the development of your project.

Hearing it from the best of the business

Balazs Weyer speaking at a panel at PIN 23
Balazs Weyer speaking at a panel at PIN music conference 23

When we are not in the hallways, we are in the auditorium. Here we listen to those who walked the walk and are now talking the talk. By this, I mean people who have experience bringing culture capitals to their cities, like Sara Vuletic and the European Capital of Culture 2022 in Novi Sad.

Not long after, we enjoy a conference panel run by Ruth Koleva who organizes SoAlive Music Conference in Sofia. The best part is, after the on-stage discussion, you can speak with the people you saw face-to-face. At PIN it feels like all delegates interact as equals, with no pretention.

There are also festival organizers who have been building brands for years. Think Michal Kaščák from Pohoda Festival, the most prestigious annual festival in Slovakia (who’s punk band we were moshing to at the toilet stage).

It’s dizzying to think where we are now. To think of how fast we shortened the distance to our objectives that seemed so far away. Again, surrounding yourself with people like you is so vital, and PIN Music Conference was our portal to this universe.

It was all about the people

Looking back at the time spent at PIN, we certainly jumped through the portal. The first day Ian and I had coffee on the delegates balcony with Orhan Maslo Oha, director of the Mostar Rock School and member of Balkan power band Dubioza Kolektiv. It was a reality check for us, realizing we had a great opportunity to meet people with unique perspectives in the music industry.

In the meantime, Marko engaged with new potential business partners for bringing acts to Malta. Being based on our lovely island drew a lot of attention – I’m more than certain we were the only ones repping the rock.

We even met people like us! Such as Marco Canepari, director and ethnomusicologist of Rhythm Passport. It’s great to finally speak the same professional language with people that know the trade like you do. We knew we were never alone…

So is it a Balkan music conference? A festival? What even is this thing?

Kitchen stage at PIN 23
Kitchen stage at PIN 23

Again on the the delegate balcony, I contemplate the meaning of PIN with Dremiza, djembe and congo player of Afriquoi, London band fusing African music and live electronics. We had just seen their showcase earlier in a packed concert hall. We both agree that PIN, like a multi-genre band, fails to fit into any labels.

There is no doubt we are levelling up. With every encounter, conversation and interaction, we are learning fast. There is a mutual understanding in the team that this will not be our last music conference.

Whatever this feeling is, we just know we want more of it.

Written by Luc Rouffaud

Luc Rouffaud is the founder of Underground Sound and has six years of experience in the music industry, particularly running a music publication and marketing events.

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