Ihno von Hasselt on the Berlin Jazz Festival
Producing, promoting, booking, and ticketing a music festival is, of course, challenging. In this issue, we look afar into the heart of Europe, where journalist and distinguished teacher Fred Bouchard interviews the producer of Germany’s premier jazz festival. If music is a product of culture, then the business of music cannot be the same everywhere. Please read on to find out more.
Q: What’s your model for a jazz festival– your organizational structure?
A: Our parent company is called Kultur Fahrensteitungen fur Berlin. It is a cultural events organization run by federal government as a state-operated business. It’s hard to explain in English, because, frankly, I cannot explain it in German! As a non-profit, we’re exempted from most taxes.
Q: The state organization that funds jazz also funds Festspiel Hall’s classical events, correct?
A: Yes, and we’re partially funded – about a fifth of our income — by selling radio recording rights to the public radio organization, a little bit like the USA’s NPR. All in all there are about nine radio stations – for example, SWR in Stuttgart — in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig; every county has a designated radio station. Ticket sales account for a little less than 50% of revenues.
Q: Are grant monies available to BJF?
A: Usually not, because we are a short-term operation, and grants have to be applied for 1-2 years in advance.
Q: Isn’t this a major difference between running a jazz and a classical festival?
A: Of course, my colleague who runs the classical side is already booking 2013.
Q: Do you have a hard time convincing the Powers-That-Be of this discrepancy?
A: I try to keep a low profile and be satisfied with the monies I get. If I stick my head out too far, I make myself a nuisance. Then they’ll start asking themselves why are we spending so much on culture that isn’t German, or even European. So, I hide myself a little bit. …And since BJF developed a good reputation artistically through the Berendt and Gruntz years, the thinking is ‘well, if it’s been around for 47 years, it can’t be all bad.’
Q: Candidly, have ticket sales been satisfactory this year?
A: No. For example, I think the decisive factor for the Saturday night sellout was Moss [American vocal quartet out of New York Voices] rather than Joachim Kühn [famous modern German pianist, an icon in Berlin, who followed Moss with an intriguing Moroccan Berber project.] But that’s a judgment call.
Q: If some acts from abroad are government subsidized, does that help much?
A: A little bit. Scandinavians put money behind exporting their musicians, and sometimes take over the travel costs. French businesses like record labels working through the Bureau des Exports, which convinced some bands not to ask for too much money.
Q: Any partnerships with airlines?
A: Non-existent. They’re not interested because I cannot guarantee them exclusivity. I had a band coming from Skopje, Macedonia, and we had to use Hungarian Airlines.
Q: Nothing like UmbriaJazz’ good old days with all air-tickets paid by Alitalia!
A: No, and we don’t have much in the way of an organized volunteer group of ushers or other help. That works well in smaller towns with a strong grassroots organization.
Q: How has the organization evolved during your stay?
A: Well, the festival was founded in 1964. The model was a little like the festival that George Wein founded in the 1950s [Newport Jazz Festival]. At that given moment in our classical festival -which presented classical music and theater- there was a kind of emphasis on exchange between Africa and Europe. Music-wise, one of our pillar figures in jazz conception after the war, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, was asked to create a festival that then became a jazz festival in its own right.
Q: So Berendt’s idea was quite successful and sprung other shoots and ideas.
A: Berendt was musical director until 1972, then [Swiss bandleader] George Gruntz took over, and guided and guarded the festival for 23 years. I came in during that time, and we worked together a couple of years. In 1993, the [Berlin] Wall had fallen down and money became tighter, so Gruntz made his retreat. Albert Mangelsdorff [experimental trombonist who developed multiphonics] came in until 2000, and [frequent changes] until today we have Nils Landgren [Swedish trombonist], until at least 2011.
Q: You’ve been steady at the helm as production manager through all these changes?
A: I started out as a driver during my college days ; I always had this job and watched the festival develop. In 1978 I was hired to run the Berlin office, because a private enterprise was out in charge when there was a fight between George Gruntz and the guy I worked for. Since 1981 I’ve been production manager of the festival.
Q: As the hand that guides the ship, does production include financial operations?
A: Ja, I manage the money. And I handle negotiations. Of course, I must discuss things with Nils Landgren, and I bring my experience to guide him a little bit when he’s overdoing it from the musical side. Your President Truman said, ‘The buck stops here?’ So, the buck stops here. [hits his desk, laughs]
Q: So this year Nils decided to spread it around, hire a bunch of European big bands and skip the expensive super-stars, like Herbie Hancock [2008 finale performer].
A: As long as we work with public money, I think we have a certain responsibility to not only serve the market, but add something to the market. Private enterprises, agencies and concert promoters could easily make a buck with the Herbie Hancocks, but if they don’t fit in at that time or in that program, then it’s not worthwhile. Of course, Herbie Hancock deserves it, but if it’s public money, you have to be more careful and make things happen that otherwise would not happen. And Pat Metheny and Herbie are happening always, everywhere. On my side, it’s always easier to sell music from the original source, and that is the United States.
Q: But today Europe offers so many satellite sources to choose from for jazz.
A: Exactly, and why not concentrate on them for a year? Next year it could be West Coast cool, New Orleans funk, or the growing Brooklyn scene.
by Fred Bouchard