Festivals jubilee notes



Festivals and the citizen in digital times: audiences building and the digital media*

The appearance of social media fully changed the biorhythm of festivals and festival organisers. That rhythm used to be similar to the life of bears or plum trees even in the recent past. Full blossoming – the actual festival season – was preceded by preparations, becoming increasingly sophisticated and digital after the millennium. Most of that, however, happened off line: the general public saw the product only, whether in the form of classy web sites, video trailers or e-mailed promotion pieces and news flashes. Between these marketing thrusts there were days of relative tranquillity, and indeed weeks of hush usually in winter. (Joining bears and plum trees.)

The workshop on Audiences building and the digital media (under the motto Festivals and the Citizen in Digital Times) proved that with social media all this is gone. Once you start you must remain in permanent alert, up to the point of tweeting from the audience to the stage. This literally happened during the workshop, and no festival is exempt of the phenomenon any longer.

Some, probably even most, are excited by the horizons opening for the shaping and the executing of festivals. Authentic and true communication can be realised with the audience, involving groups that were previously beyond reach. The division between provider and customer may give place to shared creation.

As the workshop revealed, the game is not one between two halves, the festival and its public: other stakeholders – artists, sponsors, co-producers etc. – enter the scene with their digital pieces that can be incorporated into the flow of information, and can add further angles to the communication cluster.

The excitement is coupled with anxiety, too. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the new media, it is a natural urge to feel nostalgic about devices, eyes and minds shut for periods of quiet replenishment. The anxiety is also fed by the speed of technological changes, which represents a strain to learn ever new skills – when quite a few relatively new skills become obsolete together with the device or brand behind them.

The issue of artistic integrity and rights was also touched upon during the discussion, which sometimes represents a minefield in the maze of interactive digital communication. This being one of the many challenges that the festival organiser in the second decade of the 21st century is facing. Confidence and joy over mastering the new media was nevertheless the prevailing mood among the festivallers that attended this session of the jubilee conference.

*Note recalling the discussion in Working Group 3: Audiences building and the digital media at EFA 60, the 60th anniversary celebrations of the European Festivals Association on 23-25 May 2012 in Bergen, Norway.

  • Kick off: Tony Lankester, National Arts Festival Grahamstown
  • Input and reaction by Kerstin Schilling, former Berliner Festspiele, EFA
  • Further comments and rapporteur: Katherine Heid, Access to Culture Platform, RESEO
  • Moderator: Péter Inkei, Budapest Observatory.


The battle for quality festivals is ongoing*

"Si c’était à refaire, je commencerais par la culture" – no, Jean Monnet, did not say so. (In 1998 the former president of the University of Paris, Hélène Ahrweiler claimed to be the inadvertent source of the apochryfal phrase when one of her remarks was misinterpreted.) Others, however, did begin the long tow with culture (among others). By establishing the European Association of Music Festivals in 1952, together with Geneva’s Centre européen de la culture (CEC), and a little later the European Cultural Foundation, Denis de Rougemont, the famous erudite and partisan of European federalism, argued forcefully that culture had a key role to play in European integration.

That year the Cold War was at its coldest and the Iron Curtain at its thickest. Venice, Vienna and Berlin were the easternmost outposts of the new Association. Even today, when about one out of five EU citizens lives in a post-communist country, the European Festivals Association is right in helping to address historic imbalances tackling challenges in times of crisis requires twice as much effort from festival organisers in east and central Europe. EFA does not provide financial aid, but it does help the flow of experience, connections and values across Europe.

Why festivals as early as 1952? For the founders, music festivals seemed the most obvious way of connecting people across Europe. In the eyes of de Rougemont and his associates, social engagement of festivals was also among the ideals to strive for. 

True to this federalist and engaging legacy, EFA has rightly broadened its formula: a festival today does not mean the same thing as it did in the 1950s; festivals are no longer simply places of interaction for the cultural and social elites. EFA is now in charge of a much broader crowd of stakeholders, indeed the tens of thousands of cultural festivals in the European Union and its immediate neighbourhood.

Can EFA handle such an enormous constituency? Broadening its scope does not necessarily mean more members – it does, however, require familiarity with new kinds of festivals, such as rock, folklore and even gastronomy festivals.

Aren’t we drifting into “events” and commercial entertainment?

To prevent this from happening is less difficult than it appears. The nature and degree of a festival’s cultural and social commitment tells us whether or not EFA should be involved, regardless of the festival’s label. Instead of aiming for exclusiveness, the attitude should be generous and democratic, coupled with efforts at identifying excellence, for instance by creating categories and awards.

Ironically, the sixty years have not brought about the full emancipation of festivals. Compared to other actors in the cultural arena (theatres, museums, libraries, orchestras etc.) festivals are often neglected when it comes to cultural policies, legislation, strategies and budgets. Even statistics ignore them: the word festival isn’t once mentioned in Eurostat’s booklets on European culture. Thus EFA’s mission and responsibility must also involve meetings with the European institutions, with important implications at national and local levels.

Research also has a useful role in this fuller “emancipation”. For me, festival research and European integration have always been tightly connected. On the first of May in 2004, the day of the accession of Hungary and seven other new members to the European Union, I took the early morning flight from Budapest to Brussels (every passenger received a blue ball point pen with stars on it) and attended the first meeting of the European Festival Research Project (EFRP).

Initiated by Dragan Klaic, hosted by EFA, progressing via workshops and seminars, EFRP has over nearly eight years mapped a number of important features about festivals in Europe. Before EFA turns 61 we hope to complete Festivals in Focus, based on the findings of the project conceived by Dragan, chapters of which he finished writing a little before his death in August 2011.

An outstanding intellectual, Dragan was also a charismatic leader of the festival research project. He was not, however, a great friend of empirical surveys. The first such international undertaking in the field of European festivals therefore was devised outside the EFRP – also supported by EFA. By the time EFA’s jubilee forum takes place in Bergen, hundreds of European festivals will have been interviewed by the consortium led by FranceFestivals. I am disappointed that I failed to bring in festivals from the eastern half of Europe – proof of what was written above about prevailing inequalities. Still so much to be done – to echo the title of one of the publications of the Association.


*Entry by Péter Inkei in the jubilee publication of the European Festivals Association 60 Years On: Festivals and the World. The publication is available on the EFA eShop.