Researching (jazz) festivals – 10 things learned from a day of discussion and ideas at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival – Emma Webster

To celebrate the launch of our new report on the impact of British music festivals, we held a day of ideas and discussion around jazz, festivals, and jazz festivals at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on 29th April 2016. The following are ten things learned from the event, which brought together leading jazz and festival researchers, and festival directors, from around Britain and Europe.

  1. A book bringing together the history of jazz in Europe is currently being coordinated by Francesco Martinelli, partly to overcome the tendency towards ‘last chapter syndrome’ in other books on jazz, in which non-American jazz is included as an afterthought at the end of the book. There will be 35 national chapters, from Portugal to Azerbaijan, Russia, and the Baltics, and seven general chapters on topics including Jewish and gypsy musicians, jazz and film, and jazz festivals. Francesco hopes that the book will be published in Spring 2017 so watch this space for what we hope will be an essential contribution to jazz history.
  2. Jazz festivals and heritage are being examined by Tony Whyton as part of the major European project, CHIME (Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Festivals). A useful typology to help understand the ways in which jazz festivals ‘use’ heritage includes jazz within historic towns, buildings and stately homes (e.g. Cheltenham); ancient places/archaeological sites (e.g. Nice amphitheatre); heritage and cultural tourism; post-industrial spaces and city regeneration (e.g. Glasgow Jazz Festival and Merchant City); and landscapes and the natural environment (e.g. Jazz on the Waves, Sardinia).
  3. Jazz festival directors John Cumming (EFG London Jazz Festival) and Steve Mead (Manchester Jazz Festival), and programme advisor Tony Dudley-Evans (Cheltenham Jazz Festival) spoke on a range of issues, from programming decisions to the impact of place on festivals to the changing funding landscape. Steve explained that 25-30% of his programme comes from artist submissions – he receives over 500 each year, in case he misses something. Tony explained that the jazz festival was set up partly to try and develop the notion of Cheltenham as a place, to expand the image of the town as being than just about horse racing. In considering the current state of funding for the arts, John commented that things are tough at the moment but they’ve been tough before. ‘Are they going to get better? Probably not. Are they going to get different? Yes’. But as he said, the Festival is part of a very big and resilient community that is used to finding ways of doing things.
  4. The number of festivals in the UK grew dramatically in the first decade of the 21st-century, and doubled between 2005 and 2012, according to Chris Anderton. However, 2012’s multiple events (Golden Jubilee, London Olympics, etc.), exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis, means that this growth has now flattened out; established festivals are doing quite well but it is now more difficult to start new ones than before 2012.
  5. Festivals can have a high environmental impact – 80% of which comes from travel and energy use, according to Matt Brennan, who quoted the adage that ‘the greenest festival is the one which doesn’t happen’. The Fields of Green project on which he is working examines both festival-goers’ attitudes to sustainability issues – some see festivals as an opportunity for a ‘responsibility holiday’ – and artists’ paradoxical attitudes to touring – on the one hand feeling guilty about their carbon footprint whilst simultaneously feeling that a successful career in music is marked by international touring and a high carbon footprint.
  6. Intense competition has meant that festivals are having to diversify their offer and some, inspired by Burning Man’s ‘No spectators’ policy, now include participatory activities planned by and/or including festival-goers themselves, according to Roxy Robinson. Examples include the Dance Off at Secret Garden Party and the world record attempt for most number of people wearing Superman costumes at Kendal Calling, the PR from the latter stunt apparently worth its weight in gold.
  7. The Glasgow Jazz Festival played a key role in finding and campaigning for the Old Fruitmarket venue in Glasgow’s Merchant City, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between the festival and the city as a jazz centre, and the impact festivals can have on urban regeneration. According to Alison Eales, jazz festivals can act as a locus for change within a city, but her research also highlights the importance of local authority investment and support, particularly if the focus changes, as it did in Glasgow, from culture to retail, which has had significant impacts on the Festival.
  8. Cheltenham Jazz Festival was the site of a new pilot project, J-Hive, run by Nick Gebhardt. The project is intended to capture the experience at a jazz festival via a digital diary and mapping of how festival-goers move around the site. Questions to be asked include: how do people get to the festival? Who are they going to meet? What do they expect when they get there? The intention is for J-Hive to take place at other (jazz) festivals and so begin to build a picture of how festival audiences engage with such events.
  9. ‘You can’t listen to jazz without a drink’ was one of the findings reported by Stephanie Pitts in her research into the audience for jazz festivals and jazz clubs. Another finding is that jazz listening is a social act which can engender feelings of belonging but which also requires learning conventions such as when to clap or when to be quiet. Thirdly, the spaces in which live music takes place are very important to audiences, who can become very loyal to particular venues.
  10. Festivals are at the heart of British music and at the heart of the British music industry. They form an essential part of the worlds of rock, classical, folk and jazz, forming regularly occurring pivot points around which musicians, audiences, and festival organisers plan their lives. To find out more and to read the report (and accompanying annotated bibliography), check back in next week as the report will be published online – sign up to this blog or follow the project on Twitter to ensure you don’t miss it!
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