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Live streamed festivals: Moers Festival (Germany) and Bel Jazz Fest (Belgium)

Live streamed festivals: Moers Festival (Germany) and Bel Jazz Fest (Belgium)
Henning Bolte By

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These days, calls/invitations for live streaming pop up in overwhelming high frequency via a diversity of media. It has become a challenging bombardment, challenging to connect to coordinate with your own course of the day and the night. It is more and more difficult to cope with it. Maybe only aleatoric approaches or abstinence remain as way out for the time being. Live streaming is no doubt running wild at the moment in all manner of varieties. Can live stream be an eventful, productive alternative, is it not more than an emergency measure, or is it a detrimental absurdity? It has to be seen if some solid survivable forms evolve that can serve productive functions without leading into self-devaluation. ow can it be aligned and tuned to the potential addressees and how can it be financed and exploited?

In this second article on festival live streaming (see my earlier article on Polish JazzArt Festival Katowice here I will inspect and compare to different recent live stream festival events on the basis of my "attendance": the 2020 edition of long-established Moers Festival in Germany and the on short notice newly initiated Bel Jazz Fest at Brussels' prestigious concert hall Flagey. I will deal with this new festival substitute, especially with the aspects of access and framing, with its embedding and interactional shaping, its atmospheric quality and its audience binding. More about these issues can be found in freely accessible webinars of Europe Jazz Network.

Merits

Some positive effects are evident immediately: both events provided work for a greater group of mostly indigenous musicians, in the Belgian case for two nights and in the German case for four days. The Belgian event was ticketed for Euro 15 and the concerts were accessible on demand for a week for ticket holders. Moers Festival's live streaming was freely accessible at the music platform of German-French ARTE TV station, the best known and used concert platform in Germany that is used to televise a lot of jazz festivals (live streaming and on demand). Moers Festival 2020 concerts are still accessible on ARTE TV on demand.

The Belgian event that sold about 3000 tickets and possibly had even a higher number of viewers, was meant to be an emphatic exposure of a choice of Belgian jazz musicians to give acte du presence in 'covided' times. In the case of Moers it had to be shown that the festival was able to face Covid-19 and cope with it offensively. While other spring festivals peu a peu postponed or cancelled the event, Moers always held on to go for an in situ happening of the festival, with a greater part of the musicians planned and announced before the measures of Covid-19 became a reality. That was without doubt a sharp, calculated, high-risk approach. Actually, the festival happened with musicians on location in Moers the first weekend of increased permission for traveling and group gatherings in Germany.

The run-up

Back in February, Northern Italy was the first part of Europe that was caught in a devastating grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, the pandemic quickly, but in steps, spread via Austria to other European countries. Soon a far-reaching lockdown of society and work was installed by governments. As a consequence, all public (and even private) concerts and mass gatherings were prohibited. All came to a sudden, abrupt halt with a highly uncertain longer-term perspective. Early spring festivals and events such as Jazzahead! were at stake. More and more festivals were postponed or cancelled. Moers Festival, however, appeared to be an exception. Against the expectable and imaginable, it cheekily persevered to claim that the festival would take place. This heightened tension and curiosity: what of the impossible would become possible and reality? Moers Festival, at least, is not just a festival. It is a way of being and experiencing, a 'Befindlichkeit.' Moersheads have an urge to experience the extraordinary, the provocative, the fluctuating, outrageous and weird. And, by the way, the theatre of uncertainty has a long tradition for this festival, it has been part of its folklore in the past.

From Moers Festival's point of view, it was only clear that programmed musicians from abroad could not be transported immaterially to Moers, to resurrect there and after physical appearance could not disappear disembodied to return to their far away homes. Hence, they would be there only in spirit. There was one splendid exception, percussionist Maria Portugal from Brazil. As this year's Moers Improviser in Residence-a one-year-tenure-she had been in town already since the beginning of the year. The big question then was: would the remaining units of the planned program reach Moers physically in the Pentecost weekend from May 29 to June 1 and would they play there in some way (or another)?

For the Moers Festival organizers, it seemed unimaginable to postpone or cancel the festival. They held onto the spirit behind it, encouraged by the magic survival capabilities of Bambi and the energizing voodoo around it. It had to take place—no pausing on the way to its 50th edition next year—and it finally DID take place as one of the first festivals after the loosening of the decreed lockdown. The organizers took the highest risk. A week earlier, and it would have been impossible.

The 2020 edition took place under the sign of Bambi as patron in a telegenic, pimped up facility with unfolding music on location and the spinning of a narrative of its own laid down by the moderators, Lena Entezami, Maëlle Giovanetti and Jacques Palminger plus a flittering Miss Unimoers, a space vagant, a lost utensil from Sun Ra's intergalactic luggage. Together they, and the rest of the festival staff under the lead of theatrical experienced artistic director Tim Isfort, were providing hands, feet and wild minds to that provisional version. It secured an attractive embedding with witty, inspiring and inciting introductions and agile brain teasing announcements of the performances. Bassist Tim Isfort (1967), who, as it happens, grew up in Moers, is a busy orchestrating musician that roams the field between small group free playing to genre-defying big acts as Einstürzende Neubauten.

Access/Information

Both events followed different access routes. Brussel's Bel Jazz Fest was ticketed via internet outlets and Moers offered free access via ARTE TV. ARTE TV's live streaming would have happened anyway, but the set up was adapted to Covid-19 circumstances.

During the last two months the online navigation towards live streaming events revealed itself as a more general major obstacle. Too often the user is confronted with buried links, confusing chains of links, non-working links etc... Also, the information of line-up and concert schedules is often not organized and offered in an intelligible, comfortable and functional way. It seems to be, presently, silently accepted as a 'natural' side effect of the online ever wildly expanding and multiplying layers of information. Having noted that, it must be said that ARTE tv and especially ARTE-alerts (when having logged out or after an intermission you received an easily to operate reminder) worked satisfactory well over a longer run, a crucial detail.

For Bel Jazz Fest a personal ticket code had to be bought that gave access via different routes to the concerts. After having reached the live streaming site after some wanderings it was easy to switch between stages. The line-up of the performing group was—just as on ARTE TV—faded in regularly. In both cases the concerts remain accessible on demand: for Bel Jazz Fest ticket holders for a week, for Moers Festival on ARTE TV for a few months. Both cases had a well-directed excellent lighting and visual quality, apt for longer watching sessions to attend. Moers took place on a main stage in the festival's own hall with a series of animations and a cabinet for the talks. Bel Jazz Fest took mainly place in a club and large concert hall sphere in the Flagey concert building.

Embedding/significance

Bel Jazz Fest came about as a joint initiative of 11 Belgian festivals (BRAND! Mechelen, Brosella, Brussels Jazz Festival, Brussels Jazz Weekend, Jazz à Liège, Gaume Jazz Festival, Gent Jazz, Jazz Brugge, Jazz Middelheim, Leuven Jazz and Tournai Jazz Festival) under the severe restrictions of the Belgian lockdown. It bundled musicians and groups of the vibrant Belgian jazz scenes of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels to give them extra emphatic exposure to its audience under Covid-19 conditions. The speed and unity of this endeavor is all the more astonishing in a country that is not highly in agreement at the moment (it took 10 months to come to a new, temporary government in March). It consisted of 24 streamed concerts in high quality audio and image, televised from Flagey concert hall in Brussels comprising the younger generation musicians and groups:

De Beren Gieren, An Pierlé Quartet, Nordmann, Jean-Paul Estiévenart Quartet, Bram De Looze, Compro Oro, DJ AliA, Tuur Florizoone, Esinam, schntzl, Antoine Pierre Urbex Electric, The Brums, Mâäk Quintet, Manuel Hermia Trio, Anneleen Boehme, Eve Beuvens, Casimir Liberski Trio, Lubiana, Commander Spoon, Kurt Van Herck Trio, Glass Museum, Karen Willems, Nabou and Bert Cools.

Bel Jazz—as an ad hoc initiative—aimed at keeping the excellence of the home scene visible, and at reinforcing the active alliance with its audience. It clearly serves promotional purposes for which the platform Jazz.Be will be kept active also after this online festival, in order to promote Belgium's rich jazz scene nationally and internationally. It is as far as I know the only country in Europe having done this that emphatically at such an early point of time as an answer to Covid-19. It also means that the Belgian spring/summer festivals did not put themselves in the foreground but clearly the indigenous musicians. It is both a gesture of trust and care and a strong statement of cultural policy.

Moers Festival on the other hand as established festival of an outspoken character, was striving to satisfy the experience hunger of its dedicated audience, this time by a special choice from the home scenes, mainly from the Berlin, Cologne and Ruhr Area scene (for the fairly extended line-up with more than 30 groups/soloists and more than 200 musicians see below). While the music at Moers Festival was embedded in a spun out, fanning narrative, for Bel Jazz Fest the music had more to speak for itself. The performances were partly introduced by functional announcements of the musicians and the circumstances of presentation in Flemish and French. There was no central place to return to for short talks but there was a chat room that was used frequently for audience feedback. Considering that the festival was an ad hoc initiative and considering the purpose a more neutral embedding and functional perspective and spirit was expected.

Exchange/communality

It is clear that the online live-streaming mode not only lacks essentials of the experience qualities of real live music. It also constitutes a differing virtual reality with some "caught" echoes of real live music. The listener is mostly separated from other listeners and on distance also from the source of the music. Nonetheless it might under certain circumstances be experienced as a tv-show being watched by members of a virtual collective audience. This can be a projection launched by identification with a spirit. It can be supported and reinforced by implicit and explicit means referring to a spirit in the medial shaping. Except for the isolated reception, the viewer is forced to follow the script of the streamed pictures and music or to decide to take a break or to leave. In the live situation the concert attendee has his/her own script. Compared to the concert attendee of a live concert, the viewer in the live streaming situation gets both less and more.

For the Moers 2020 live streaming dedicated followers organized (small) group viewings at home and also smaller public viewings—a déjà vu to old times tv evenings or still older living-room radio listening sessions. It was also reminiscent of the 80s, when Moers Festival was broadcasted integrally by Dutch VPRO radio station (it was destroyed and since the 2000s nothing is left of that cultural connection). Those fan-viewings were fed back to the moderator (mc) of the live streaming talking about it and fueling a certain vibe. The moderating crew also brought in and read aloud e-mails of viewers. Thus, in this case, an active form of dedicated communality was initiated and maintained through the four days.

For Bel Jazz communality was presupposed and affirmed by buying a ticket, but in the course of the event it was kept more implicit and on the background. More explicit expressions could be found only in social media posts by musicians, agencies and audience members afterwards and via the chatroom. Thus, certain aspects were highly centralized, while others concerning the social side of reception and acknowledgement were lacking or turning up on satellite channels.

It would be worthwhile also to review the music and evaluate how different musicians and groups coped with this special performance situation. That would need a separate article to further elaborate on.

Essentials

The case of the live streamed Moers Festival substitute showed a well working interplay of a well-known, easily accessible media platform of high audiovisual quality with a media-fitting design of the actions on location in a casually perceptible imaginative space, all lead by a personalized interactively shaped narrative. In the multilayered heterogeneous something of the narrative down-to-earth parts mingled loosely with trippy fiction, sweet small talk alternated with time traveling, bon mots, everyday life curiosities and little philosophical digressions. It is this dynamically functioning ensemble that counts, not my personal preferences or aversions.

What turns out as crucial are the layout of the material, key visuals and framing. Essential is an interconnected triad of INTERACTIVITY, NARRATIVE and recognizable/projectable HOME FEELING.

Remarks on live streaming perspectives

ARTE TV has a well-known, highly appreciated intercultural profile, offers easy access, broad spreading, high audiovisual quality and on demand availability. It has a long tradition as a forceful platform for live music with productive partnerships with a.o. Jazzahead! and Berlin Jazz Fest and it proved worth also in the case of live streaming as online substitute for a whole festival as in the case of Moers Festival—a pleasant stroke of luck and a great possibility for certain festivals in Germany and France.

The trap of free access

Taking refuge to 'free' digital online media became an obvious and understandable reflex under Covid-19 lockdown circumstances. What else could have been done to stay present? It seemed the only thing left, and it seemed better than to be absent from the public space. I do and did the same. This however presupposes that you only exist through clear presence on social media. Going online into social media has become inevitable, almost like breathing meanwhile. We know it ends up in an overwhelming unchanneled, chaotic bombardment of information overwritten and supplanted in high speed. As a consequence, the attention span is very short and recollection depth shallow. That keeps a closed cycle going. We are forced to post at high frequency in striking ways. This way a tangle of visuals and voices/texts is created at high speed and with endless cognitive overload and overfeeding. Delivered content is devaluated at high speed and mostly superficially processed by viewers.

This is only partly inherent to the media tool as such. Every tool however can be used in different ways. The enslaving 'free' access mode of power giants as FB etc. is the dominant model nowadays and with every posting and use as channel for your own free access online event you reinforce this machinery whose aim is not in first place mediating and facilitating qualitative social interaction but making big money with our data and delivered content. A time ago when FB was under fire, the company considered a transition to a paid mode that should have been orientated to serve users in their self-determined shaping of social interaction and social networks. FB never made serious efforts for realizations for obvious reasons. The income would have been dramatically lower.

Following and imitating THIS free access mode as incomparably weaker party, competing IN this system seems not very wise. If you want to use online media as a tool for stable and truly content oriented presence and transmittance you have to build on more syndicalist like platforms (σύνδικος = caretaker). Exposing elaborated high value content in the free mode, devalues it and makes it prey to existing powerful parties to swallow for exploitation. This way a weak party will be weakened even more as we could experience in the music industry in the last decades. It is an ongoing economical process along a specific economic approach and strategy. The Covid-19 crisis has hit performing arts the hardest and it is almost satirical that performing arts were driven into the arms of big players on the internet that profit hugely from the crisis and will not really give things in return. Another point is that now is the time for Europe to built up own platforms and networks.

Platform

Festivals in other parts of Europe have to find their own solutions as Bel Jazz Fest did in its premiere attempt. Better than an accumulation of isolated attempts in the internet jungle however would be a European platform based on multilateral cooperation. Europe Jazz Network has an important role to play here. Such a platform should be placed in a broader perspective of more music genres and performing arts. It is needed first to secure a solid, recognizable and easy to navigate and operate place and second to prevent that players from the US or China again take over this field. It also offers a unique chance for cooperation of nationally oriented and operating organizations in the jazz field.

Quality enhancing

There is not only the issue of live streaming of festivals, additionally or as substitute. There is the—longer existing—live streaming connected to and operated by certain venues and there are uncountable individual and collective live streaming of all shapes, sizes and qualities on the internet that were caused by the pandemic: a vast ocean whose waves hit the coasts in a wild way day by day, an ocean that will not ebb away in the near future but will expand instead.

Musicians

After having worked one's way the last two months through an heavy overload of live streaming as concert substitute or as (cheerful, crazy, playful or desperate) signs of artistic life it becomes clear that it is a format in progress that needs to be lifted to a higher level of sophistication qua design, artistically and financially to serve a productive function for musicians especially given the uncertainty about duration and reach of the pandemic restrictions. In order not to fall into the hands of Spotify type of organizers and exploiters collaboration is needed to build community-based platforms and breathe life into them, exchange, develop and spin out narratives and let audiences participate. Already existing collectives of musicians as in France or in Germany could function as carrying basis. Lifting online formats to a higher level to bridge a longer period of no or much less live concerts could mean that online representation could grow into more dynamic, interactive versions (in contrast to often quite static websites). Instead of pure quantitative expansion with lowering of audiovisual quality as often in the past, this time more focus and qualitative improvements could and should result.

Venues

Live streaming connected to and operated by certain venues did already exist for a longer while as e.g. at Moods (Zürich), Nasjonal Jazz Scene (Oslo) or Bimhuis (Amsterdam) and was done in various ways. It was a safe refuge and an obvious way to cope with the sudden abrupt stop of concerts with physical presence of an audience on location. While real life concerts went to zero, streaming increased. During the lockdown some venues as Nasjonal Jazzscene in Oslo started to do and present their planned regular program through live streaming and paid musicians for it. Of course, this was and is possible only within the range of traveling allowed for participating musicians. For example, Nasjonal Jazzscene in Oslo did it with free access for the time being but will in the future charge for it to cover running costs and pay the musicians. Moods in Zürich already have a lot of experience with paid live streaming. Easy access and easy operation of the payment is crucial. The Covid-19 crisis has clearly revealed that a transparent requirement of payment is a crucial feature for the future of the sector.

When building up a highly attractive paid live streaming component you also have to redesign real live concerts and events to keep it attractive. There is not only the issue how to make/present it in attractive ways but also the issue which kind of music is suitable to which way and format. Also, live streaming well presented, could lose its in attractiveness in the longer run. There is a productive tension between both forms and attractiveness for both has to be re-balanced in the long run.

In the near future there are several online live streaming events / festivals upcoming. It will be important to view these critically in a broader context. And to end, an innocent remark about economic priorities, influences and belief systems. Airlines are not bound by the 1,5-meter rule in the air/cabin. Maybe it means that concerts should be organized up in the air. As long as that is not realized we have to get used to a public life and concert halls that more and more resemble the organization of airports.

Photo Cavana Lee-Hampel by Henning Bolte

Many thanks to Martyna Markowska for elucidating discussion and encouragement.

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