They Were Planning Ukraine’s Biggest Music Festival. Now They’re Trying to Save Lives

Atlas Festival calls itself the biggest music festival in the Ukraine. The annual Kyiv-based three-day festival had been gearing up for what would be its first full-scale event since the pandemic shuttered live music, with a lineup set to include Twenty One Pilots, Alt-J, Placebo and Two Door Cinema Club. But as the country faces Russia’s ongoing invasion, the 50-person team has diverted all of its resources from its planned July festival to supporting the Ukraine however it can. (Organizers have yet to decide if the show will proceed.) 

The festival has donated almost all its supplies — including water, raincoats and gloves — for humanitarian and military efforts. Through Music Saves UA, a coalition and fundraiser kickstarted by the All-Ukrainian Association of Music Events with assistance from Atlas and other groups in the country, the promoter turned its year-round venue in Kyiv into a humanitarian center where hundreds of people are sifting through supply boxes to send around the country.

Atlas’s offices at the same Kyiv building are serving as temporary dorms for students. A few of Atlas’s team members are serving on the front lines in Ukraine’s army or territorial defense, while others are contributing more indirectly. Some of Atlas’s information technology team members are trying to combat Russian websites spreading propaganda, while the social media team has been making infographics and charts to share online. Several members of Atlas’s team have partnered with the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1 to try and produce an international fundraising TV marathon, set to broadcast in English from Poland. They’ve reached out to major artists from around the world to raise further awareness for the event. 

Vlad Yaremchuk, Atlas’s booking manager, spoke with Rolling Stone about the efforts he and the Atlas team have initiated to support their country during the wartime. Usually a Kyiv resident, once the war broke out, Yaremchuk went west to his home town of Andrushivka to get to safety.

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Two days ago, he arrived in Lviv — a Ukrainian city about an hour and a half from the Polish border — where he’s working and staying with several of his colleagues in a makeshift office/home. He came to Lviv to work on the marathon project with the Atlas team, and he’s sleeping on a mattress he brought from his hometown along the way. Yaremchuk also worked with several friends to produce the 134-track Together with Ukraine compilation album featuring unreleased tracks from hundreds of artists and record labels. The record raised over $100,000 for the Ukrainian Red Cross society, Yaremchuk said. 

As soon as the war started, any semblance of our normal lives was gone. We don’t know what we’re going to do with the festival, and we haven’t thought about it once.

I haven’t really talked about the business yet. No one’s reached out to discuss the festival or a cancellation or what we’re going to do. Obviously some artists canceled Russian or Ukrainian gigs, but the people have been understanding that the show isn’t something people want to talk about right now. Knowing how the music industry is, I was half-expecting someone to ask about getting their deposit back or trying to argue about a force majeure or something, but that didn’t happen. 

Hundreds of people have reached out looking for a way they can help us, asking where they can donate, doing whatever they can. So we aren’t sure what’s going to happen with the concert, but we’re using all our resources right now to help the country. It’s a huge system where everyone is trying to help in their own way and that’s how it is across the country.  

I’m pretty sure we’ve given away almost everything we had. Everything we had in our warehouse from year to year, we gave out. That includes all the drinks; our carbonated and clear water. We gave away everything that had to do with festival infrastructure — anything used to feed staff, hand sanitizer, gloves, raincoats, sleeping pads. Anything you can imagine, we donated. There was no use for it right now, and if there’s no Ukraine tomorrow, there’s no use for it then either. I think that’s the mentality everyone has right now in Ukraine. If you have something lying around that isn’t being used, it’s being wasted.

“I have no idea if my girlfriend’s parents are alive right now; I cannot even check.”

We’re currently working on an international TV marathon that will be broadcast in English from Poland. We’re hoping to [air] it around March 26. It’s going to hopefully be rebroadcast in any country we can possibly reach in Europe and outside of Europe as well. We want artists participating with video messages or recorded performances; we want many Ukrainian artists, important political figures, local heroes. We want to reach as many people as possible and raise some good money for the humanitarian help in Ukraine. It’s us, other Ukrainian promoters [and] promoters in the UK; we’re casting a wide net.

There’s a group here called the All-Ukrainian Association of Music Events, which we’re members of, and they kickstarted a fund called Music Saves UA. As a part of that, our venue in Kyiv has been turned into a humanitarian center for the project. We have hundreds of people some of them from our Atlas team, some are members of the association, some from other volunteer groups — but we find all kinds of humanitarian supplies that arrive there. There are hundreds of boxes people sort through getting prepped to send where they’re needed, whether that’s to Kyiv or other hotspots. Seeing the videos with our venue like that, it blew my mind. Separately, our main office is in the same building as the venue, and it’s being used as a temporary dormitory for students at one of the Ukrainian universities. Since we don’t have many people in the offices themselves, we basically gave them away to the university for students.

When agents reach out to me asking how to help, I suggest they donate to Music Saves UA because it’s locally-based so we can work quicker than the Red Cross right now.

“When agents reach out to me asking how to help, I suggest they donate to Music Saves UA.”

We’re happy with what we’ve been able to achieve because it counteracts some of the awful things like what’s happening in Mariupol right now, where people are trapped with no heat, no water, no gas. My girlfriend is from Mariupol, and her parents are there. It’s been extremely difficult; we’ve heard from them maybe three times in the past two weeks. We see the news of hundreds of people dying, but the brain gets used to everything, and it’s sad to think we’re getting used to that. I have no idea if my girlfriend’s parents are alive right now; I cannot even check.

I have huge survivor’s guilt because I have been safe through all of this. So we’re doing everything we can because first, it helps you concentrate and stops you from doomscrolling and falling into complete dismay. Second, you want to do your part because there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting in bomb shelters not seeing the light of day. And there’s hundreds of people fucking dying every day.

Reading the news of world leaders reiterating they won’t join this fight is disheartening, but seeing how rallied the world is really helps.

“Russia has basically turned into a terrorist country because they couldn’t occupy Ukraine. It’s putrid, pure evil.”

This war is absolutely horrific; it’s grim. Russia has basically turned into a terrorist country because they couldn’t occupy Ukraine, so what they’ve been doing for the past two weeks is basically try to destroy as much of the country and kill as many civilians as possible to make us surrender to make us scared of losing more. It’s putrid, pure evil. What people are doing here uniting around Ukraine is unprecedented. It’s enough to keep one believing everything will be fine and we will eventually win. We will win this fight at some point and that will end, but I think the way we’ve united will stay.

I cannot begin to comprehend the general impact this war will have on Ukraine. I don’t know what the economy will be like. Are there going to be events? Is there a need for them? Is it ok to have an open air festival when people are scared of any fucking sound? I hear a car going by the window and every time I twitch knowing it’s something that could kill me. Culture is obviously very important. On one hand, half the country will have PTSD of some sort, but we’ll also have to teach each other how to live again. And I honestly believe once this war ends, everyone is paying attention to the Ukraine. I believe that as soon as the war ends, the Ukraine will be rebuilt and the whole world will help.

As soon as this place is relatively peaceful again, we want people to experience Ukraine and tell the world about it. I hope we can still stay on that mission and thousands of music fans can come to the festival to see what a wonderful place this is.