Festivals: what’s the recipe for the future?


To survive in a hyper-competitive environment, musical events must come up with lasting solutions and innovative ideas.

David Brun-Lambert & Olivier Horner - 2020-02-13
Festivals: what’s the recipe for the future? - Mac DeMarco at Montreux Jazz Festival, 2019 © Marc Ducrest
Mac DeMarco at Montreux Jazz Festival, 2019 © Marc Ducrest

"There has been a decrease in festival attendance across Switzerland and Europe", claims Daniel Rossellat, president of the Paléo Festival in Nyon. "We are perhaps in a market that has simply reached maturity, but in order to last, everyone has to make adjustments". But of what kind? After four decades of music events bringing together a young population united by rock and counter-culture, festivals today constitute a world market in which, in order to advance and stand out, it has become crucial to come up with simple, but attractive formulas.

Sticking to your DNA

"The cycle has come about due to the exponential increase in the number of festivals in Europe and a constant increase in artists’ fees that show no sign of slowing down", states Mathieu Jaton, director of the Montreux Jazz Festival. "In this difficult context, the question that everyone must ask is: on which strong and clear choices to position themselves? " For its part, the prestigious Vaudois festival has decided to stick to its glorious history, preserve its keen sense of hospitality and offer famous artists the sumptuous setting of the Stravinsky Hall (4,000 seats). "It's simply in our DNA, there’s no question of giving it up", says Mathieu Jaton, whose event staged the first open air concert of its long career when Elton John performed in 2019. A sign of a future development towards an indoor-outdoor formula? "We did it once, why not twice", says Mathieu Jaton, hinting at an idea to be continued. But for the overwhelming majority of musical events that have neither the artistic heritage nor the funding capacity of Paléo or Montreux Jazz, answering the question of their sustainability is vital.

Looking after hospitality and programming

"Whereas major festivals are forced to ask the question of how to position themselves at a time when major international players are shaking up the market, ‘niche’ festivals are less faced with this problem", points out Joël Bovy, programmer of Nox Orae, a festival of contemporary music at La Tour-de-Peilz. "Our audience comes for the music in a human-sized setting. Great hospitality, intimacy and an irreproachable programme is what constitutes a major asset today."
Bad Bonn Kilbi, a cult festival of alternative music in Guin, doesn’t pretend to be anything else. As programmer Daniel Fontana explains, "a festival, should first of all be looked upon as a poetic endeavour. It’s a question of human relations, an exchange between people and artists. Instead, there are festivals that don’t even know why they exist. They set up a clubbing tent or book a Trap artist to attract young people, but mixing things up randomly doesn’t ensure diversity! On the other hand, staying curious and discovering new trends is what pays off. The artists feel this too, some of them even make financial sacrifices to come and play for us."

Showcase your natural assets

When live music became the main source of income for musicians, the growing increase in artists’ fees became a headache which every festival learnt to wrestle with. While some choose to join the auction race, others prefer to avoid it at all costs. "We set a maximum amount for each artist", explains Gilles Pierre, director of Chant du Gros in the Noirmont region. "For our 2019 edition, we terminated ten negotiations that were too high." Other festivals highlight their strengths in order to attract famous names. "Our financial means being limited, we especially accentuate the beauty of our surroundings and our sense of hospitality", defends the JVAL festival, an engaging event organized in Begnins (Vaud) on the wine terraces. "For years, we used to run after artists who were being courted by other festivals", says Jean-Philippe Ghillani, director of the Francomanias festival in Bulle. "But this policy was causing us problems, so we opted for other methods and styles, highlighting instead the warm atmosphere of our venues that the artists so appreciated."
The PALP festival in Valais knows that taking care of their musicians means that some will be delighted with the originality of the settings where they are invited to perform. "Some groups want to live new experiences during a tour", explains Sébastien Olesen, director of the Valais event. "They sometimes let themselves be seduced by our unique approach". For example, the live gig by Gossip, distinguished guest of the PALP 2019 edition, who played a memorable concert at the foot of the Mauvoisin dam.

Pooling certain resources and promoting exchanges

In the middle of all this festival competition, it can be difficult to establish collaborations and exchanges. However, a few examples do exist. Antigel in Geneva which last year co-produced two of its concerts with M4Music in Zurich (Icelandic artist Asgeir) and with Kilbi in Guin (Irish in Girl Band). In 2016, Gurten festival, Montreux Jazz and Paléo exceptionally got together to host the Muse ‘Drones World Tour’ that everyone wanted to book. On a European scale, the association De Concert! aims for this type of pooling within the sector of emerging artists. Officially born in 2008, De Concert! regroups 28 festivals from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Canada and Japan, aiming to better defend the interests of members, share their organizational/economic concerns, discuss ideas and programming, as well as concretizing when possible common artistic projects. For example, the first initiative in 2010 featured a selection of emerging artists made up of De Concert! members. The artists selected (among which the Canadian Ariane Moffatt, the French Chapelier Fou & Gablé and the French-Swiss Solange La Frange) were selected to play at one or more of the festivals belonging to the network. Sadly, few of these types of initiatives exist.

aftermovie - M4Music 2019


An increasing concern for ecology

Innovative in terms of the territorialisation of its event spaces, the PALP in Valais, like Antigel in Geneva which partners up with local producers, also embodies this new generation of festivals for which organizing a festival of either low or high capacity is necessarily accompanied by an eco-responsible policy. Sébastien Olsen admits that "by definition, a festival is not ecological. However, we strive to minimize our carbon footprint by working as much as possible with local people and facilities. Having become very aware of the urgent ecological issues, the audience is very sensitive to this rigorous environmental approach", he adds.

Greatly absent from the organization of festivals twenty years ago, respect for the environment has since become a factor that no festival can neglect. "Paléo drew up its first environmental agenda in 1990", recalls Daniel Rossellat. "We didn’t communicate our efforts until we were among the first five events in Europe to obtain a ‘Green'n'Clean Award’ (given by Yourope, the European Festival Association) in 2007." 
Two years later, the pioneer festival was recognized by WWF for its environmental protection policy in 2009. Since then, it has always been one of those places where the public can be "made aware of major environmental issues without being preached to", underlines Daniel Rossellat. Before concluding: "From now on, both audience and artists are expecting festivals to be fundamentally eco-responsible."

Aftermovie - Paléo Festival 2019