When intimacy and artistic coherence pay off


The model of the big festival is running out of steam. Events are banking more on local roots, embracing their audiences and being creatively daring

David Brun-Lambert - 2020-02-13
When intimacy and artistic coherence pay off - Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine @Francomanias, Bulle, 2019 ©Anne Bichsel
Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine @Francomanias, Bulle, 2019 ©Anne Bichsel

In Switzerland, the number of festivals has tripled in the past 20 years, with over 400 events of all genres. Among them, some are considered key moments in the live music industry, like Paléo Festival in Nyon or Montreux Jazz Festival, attracting thousands of people each year. While the model on which they are based is showing signs of fatigue, smaller capacity festivals are beginning to emerge, betting successfully on the principles of intimacy and discovery.

Saturation of the number of festivals

Damso, Paléo ©Laurent Reichenbach

July 2019: the 44th edition of Paléo ended without the festival selling out, (1,500 tickets remained unsold). A first in almost 20 years. For the largest open air festival in Switzerland, this phenomenon was treated as curious. Why did this happen? First, the extreme weather conditions (heatwave, followed by torrential rain), then the indirect competition of the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey, but also, according to Daniel Rossellat, founder and president of Paléo, because the market of festivals appears to be saturated. "Switzerland is one of the champions in the number of festivals per square kilometre," he explains. "Here, as elsewhere in Europe, the growing number of music festivals leads to a decrease in the attendance of some of them."
Faced with the constant rise in artists' fees and the emergence of powerful booking agents creating their own events, (among which the American giants Live Nation and Anschutz Entertainment Group AEG), the well-established grand-mass festivals that have been around for decades must also face the increasing competition from events like Irreversible in Monthey (Valais), Abyss in Gruyère (Fribourg) and Sion sous les étoiles (Valais) that have recently evolved. "In the face of changes in the music business, each festival must position itself firmly", defends Mathieu Jaton, general manager of the Montreux Jazz Festival. "The future belongs to festivals that remain close to their DNA and continue to tell a beautiful story without having to follow fashion or trends. For both artists and audience, we choose to focus on intimacy and quality first."

 “A certain simplicity"

"Intimacy" and "quality": the two key words for any festival wanting to distinguish itself from its competitors. Daniel Rossellat is convinced that "in addition to the coherence of the programme, having a strong social dimension is what makes all the difference." Paléo is really attached to  the tradition of welcoming people. There is a real care given to the audience’s well-being, to the creation of an original creative vision and a deep sense of commitment to the location. Like no other musical events has Paléo paved the way in French-speaking Switzerland, inspiring other events which, in turn, ensured their durability by defending strong values made of exchange and closeness. Bad Bonn Kilbi in Guin (Fribourg) is one of them.

Aftermovie - Bad Bonn Kilbi 2019


"I see our festival as an unusual place full of new trends where we maintain a certain simplicity", Daniel Fontana, co-founder and programmer of the festival, says. Now firmly established as a key venue for alternative music in Switzerland, Kilbi, which was launched in 1990, has built a great bond of trust with its audience. Tickets sell each year at a dizzying speed despite a line-up of emerging artists. "Our festival exists first and foremost for the music", says Daniel Fontana. "People know this. Here, what matters is to have electricity for concerts, bars that work and above all politeness. Kindness is essential, it’s something we really care about. Everyone is aware of this, including the artists". In 2020, the Bad Bonn Kilbi will be blowing out thirty candles, without wanting to change anything about its setting, its creative direction or its capacity (2,000 people a day). "Our size, our politics, our taste for do-it-yourself – we are just fine with all of it", Daniel Fontana says smiling. "Why expand?"

Bet on differentiating strengths

While Kilbi shows no intention of upscaling, other small-to-medium festivals with a specific target audience are beginning to test their development potential. Their economic survival depends on it. On the occasion of its tenth anniversary in 2019, Nox Orae, a fine contemporary music event at the end of August in La Tour-de-Peilz (Vaud), recently tried out a ‘test’ edition that lasted three evenings instead of just two. "This experience taught us that we are unable to cover our expenses by offering an additional date," says programmer Joël Bovy. "However, we now know that we can count on 3,000 faithful music-lovers over two evenings. The audience is truthful because of our coherent line-up and our delightful setting in the Jardin Roussy. As we face challenging competition, we will continue to bank on these differentiating strengths."

Aftermovie - Nox Orae 2019


Intimacy is also a core value for the JVAL festival in Begnins (Vaud). Maï Kolly, programmer, explains: "We started off in 2005 on a winemaker’s terrace and wanted to organize a party for friends in 2005 on a winemaker’s terrace. This family atmosphere is part of our DNA. To preserve it, we have always favoured the ‘home-made’ approach: a limited capacity of max 750 people, a line-up of Swiss artists mainly and local products that we invite people to taste. This ‘home-made’ spirit now attracts international artists (such as the Americans Chk Chk Chk for example who attended last year) who are delighted to discover that their lodge is in fact an apartment and enjoy to be taken for a swim in Lake Geneva."

Suppression of the stage-centred attitude

Feeling the vibration of the setting, sticking to an identifiable artistic line-up, optimizing the infrastructures, pampering the audience and artists: these are the assets shared by the festivals which, not being able to afford a five-star headliner, rely heavily on the conviviality formula. "Most of the small-to-medium-sized events that have lasted share the same home-made spirit," confirms Jean-Philippe Ghillani, director of Francomanias in Bulle (Fribourg). "We have turned to our advantage the logistical or financial constraints that we all face, creating warm, intimate atmospheres, where audience and artists can mingle". Big result in 2019 when the festival hit the jackpot, with names like Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine and Lou Doillon, usually accustomed to playing in venues larger than Bulle's Hôtel-de-Ville of 800 seats.

A happy experience also shared by the young Geneva-based festival, Soulitude Urban Expressions. Since its inception five years ago, it’s more of a "four-day musical retreat dedicated to 300 curious and passionate people", explain the directors, Djamila Geymeier and Omar Chanan. This ‘pocket-sized festival’ organized in the heart of the old city has excelled in the search for cohesion between audience and artists made up of young talent and well- established soul, jazz or rap legends. It’s not merely a more relaxed approach, but an outright suppression of the stage-centred attitude! "Everyone is on the same level, the communion between musicians and audience is facilitated", says Djamila Geymeier enthusiastically. "To the point that some concerts look less like a festival and more like a family reunion!"