Transformative times have the habit of being quite unpredictable. Some people – Germans foremost – rather prefer a clear outcome, no surprises and an outlined map on what’s next. Of course, a transformation isn’t necessarily interested in these things. It needs a certain amount of vagueness, open answers and partly also the absence of ideas in order to create them. This is the state we’re in as a society right now and it’s totally fine to question your own part in this right now and how to move further – the global pandemic gave us the much needed hint to do exactly that. The music industry is part of that change and as a key player in this field, Hamburg’s annual Reeperbahn Festival comes with a special role here. And judging from those past days it’s quite questionable whether they’ve found their place yet or simply lost touch with the reality of the world that surrounds them. While the first (almost) post-pandemic get together on the infamous street on St. Pauli offered much needed moments of win on a social and personal level, it colossally failed in terms of logistics, planning and the understanding of its own audience. And Corona only played a minor part here.
Let’s start with the good part, alright? The social aspect. After I’ve been part of the national music industry for almost a decade now, Reeperbahn Festival has become a steady regular date in my personal calendar every year with last year making a rare exception (although NBHAP author Henning attended the 2020 edition during the high times of the pandemic). Every Reeperbahn Festival can be experienced differently depending on your current profession, priorities and even the place you’re staying. From AirBNBs, to other people’s couches, from hostels to hotels – I had it all. I went from the little one-man-blogger-army who watched as many shows as possible (and grabbed as many free drinks as possible) to the head of NBHAP who was lucky enough to have a small team around supporting me during those turbulent Hamburg days. I went there for my agency, I had panels, hosted a stage, receptions plus we had two years packed with our Palms & Circumstances show prior to the pandemic. Every year was different and for the restart I heavily focussed on my current role as part of the German branch of Music Declares Emergency. We got invited to be part of the Future Playground, a place to showcase innovative, sustainable and future-focussed concepts that actually wanted to show a potential path for the industry. So, it was less hanging around on the Reeperbahn Festival and the clubs (although that had other reasons which I’ll extend in a bit) this time and more around our cosy container, talking with the team (after months of digital work), other initiatives, artists and industry people who managed to walk passed it.
Well, if that happened at all.
The festival village on the Heiligengeistfeld (next to the officially entry but not directly part of the Reeperbahn) has a short history of not getting the same attention as all those longtime venues around the Reeperbahn. People get their wristband, might grab a snack and that’s it. This year, two additional open air stages helped to attract a few more people but the Future Playground was still pretty badly placed behind one of those stages and right in front of the backstage. It’s nice to give these young, sustainable and progressive ideas a space – but well, you can clearly see where the priorities are set. I had a good time anyway. Especially due to the people and that was basically the big plus of it.
Reeperbahn Festival was a reminder why the music industry is actually a people’s business and why you need those analogue encounters to find joy in an otherwise often quite frustrating business.
Although not every dear colleague was already willing to return, it was a joy to run into people I haven’t seen in almost two years or only via tiny Zoom frames on my computer. I spontaneously joined others for drinks, ran into the great Martin Kohlstedt, met emerging Luxembourgian artist Florence Besch (more from her in 2022, I’m pretty sure) or was joined by Novaa for the global climate strike on Friday along with the rest of the Music Declares Emergency gang. What a joy. By the way, the fact that the entire festival ignored the strike ahead of the General election last Sunday is another testament of not seeing the signs of time. Running around the Reeperbahn felt almost normal again, despite still having a few restrictions (no selling of alcohol beyond 11 p.m.!); especially since most venues in Hamburg were already offering 2G entrance (which means “only for vaccinated and recovered Covid patients” and no masks, social distancing and capacity limitations). The official RBF aftershow party at the iconic Molotow club was the only-festival related thing that went 2G while the entire festival decided to stick with 3G (which offers non-vaccinated but tested people entrance but forced everybody to stick with masks and limited capacities). There are reasons why that happened, I’m sure … but nobody I spoke to understood that.
How different the vibe would have been showed that Thursday night at the Molotow backyard. I’ve been there and those who were as well might recall that night forever. It was the first crowded party for many of us in 17 months, the DJs delivered hit after hit, drinks were spilled, and people constantly hugged each other (amongst other activities that were anything but social distancing, I can tell you). We all imagined how the end of Covid might feel – that came pretty close to it. But the question remains: did it actually need the Reeperbahn festival for that? Well, the final night after I’ve finally given up to get into any venue we celebrated the festival’s end following the teardown of the future playground in private. So my answer is a clear “nope” … it only needs the right like-minded people, good music (from a bluetooth box) and whatever is left of the drinks. Society is about people… but where does that leave the actual event?
Well, not in a good position, actually.
Listen, I can only imagine what a hell ride it must be to organize a music festival in the middle of a global pandemic. The rules change every other week and it makes planning quite tough and – I’m sure – also chaotic. While I do appreciate the fact that Reeperbahn Festival made it work for the second time in a row (now being one of the few festivals that didn’t have to cancel at all in 2020 and ’21) last year’s most burning question still hung upon those four days: Should a festival in a time like this happen just for the sake of happening after all? Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should and that feeling still lingers although the circumstances changed over the past 12 months. There’s now a vaccination option for everybody in Germany (and most parts of Europe), we also got Covid-tests and the experiences of living with a pandemic for many months. From a personal experience I have to admit how stress-relieving this is. My two vaccine shots are the main reason why I decided to attend in 2021. And I think many others – although still partly a bit careful – followed a similar feeling. Unfortunately, that’s the part where Reeperbahn Festival failed to live up to those expectations by simply overselling the festival while simultaneously underestimating audience crowds and ignoring broader adjustments.
All in all, the festival was conceptualized for a little more than 20.000 people this year (before Covid we were already close to 50.000 people which is a different tale of absurdity). Despite lots of delegates, artists and crew members the majority of tickets was actually sold. On top of it there was also the chance to overwrite 2020 tickets for the new session (for those who didn’t want to go this year). So, lots of people, right? But due to the restrictions all venues only had a capacity of around 40% percent. Listen, I wasn’t good at math in school. Otherwise I would have made it a bit further in the capitalistic rat race but that’s not much, right? Only a small number of people could actually attend these shows at all. The result: long lines and lots of frustration. Both exponentially grew over the course of the festival. Which was still okay on Wednesday turned into blank frustration (and partly resignation) once the weekend started.
Don’t blame it on the Covid
I only saw 5 gigs, so I literally can’t do a “10 great acts we saw on Reeperbahn Festival” feature this year. I saw C’est Karma whose songs were a great proof why she’s an artist to watch in the future; another Listen Ahead alumni in the form of THALA (who just released a great debut album). Then I witnessed the first William Fitzsimmons show in two years (although he’s anything but a newcomer), accidentally saw Irish post-punkers The Clockworks (as I lined up at the wrong Molotow lane) and last but not least – the triumphant Working Men’s Club although I was really, really lucky here since I sneaked in through the delegates line and grabbed a spot before it was closed. I think only 80 people were allowed at the Gruenspan, the line went all around the block. The band was brilliant, quite physical and I almost cried due to the emotional overload of what turned out to be my first indoor club show in 17 months. I wish more people would have had the chance to see that. And that was it.
Any further attempts to get into the smaller venues were failed ones. 40 people were allowed at the Molotow, around 60 at Nochtspeicher. Of course, the festival didn’t communicate that, I had to ask the security folks. Especially Saturday was chaotic. Can somebody explain to me how creating huge lines on an already crowded party street is preventing any sort of Delta variant from spreading around? These problems were already there before Covid hit the planet (our recaps from 2018 and 2019 already showed the issue) but now it has gotten significantly worse.
And even worse: a sense of “delegate shaming” was in the air. Securities actually advised us to hide out batches because the regular festival audience was justifiably questioning why there’s such a thing like a delegate lane at all for people, probably assuming they didn’t pay for their tickets which isn’t true at all. They usually even pay more due to the conference. However, as a guy with a free press accreditation I felt horrible. Those people were totally right but I can tell you – that batch didn’t help me that much (except for that happy little Working Men’s Club accident). On Saturday the festival decided to ditch that system but it was already too late by then. I talked with people who paid 60 to 100 Euro and didn’t see one gig.
One person called the 2021 Reeperbahn Festival the most anti-social event he attended in twenty years. People were pissed, they had nowhere to go.
And the organizers of Reeperbahn Festival?
They decided to not address the issue. The shitstorm that quickly occurred on their Social Media profiles was answered with a standardized “Sorry, please send a mail” reply. All posts were uplifting “Hey, it’s awesome here, isn’t it?” posts. People were looking for guidance and information and all they found was “So many great programme parts, right?” marketing communication. And as someone who works in that field I can’t stress out how cringe that was and still is. A person from the industry I ran into said that it feels like the Reeperbahn Festival now fully lost its connection to its roots. They stopped caring about the audience and how they think. It all felt very greedy The fact that it’s 2021 and there’s no such thing as an “awareness manager” on the festival ground is a not so subtle side-note here.
Instead, it partly felt like the festival organizers are stuck in their “ivory tower”, ignoring the problems of the audience that’s paying for the event.
The worst part: all those issues didn’t come out of the blue . So, yeah the Major of Hamburg attended the opening ceremony and so did the minister of culture. All saying how great things are. And on top of it they booked Sting for the opening. It feels like an odd choice to invest in a has-been popstar whose last relevant hit was … well, when exactly? The fact that today’s official press release continues to ignore those problems underlines that questionable communication strategy.
Pop and politics are still looking for a proper groove
Additionally … I know the whole ANCHOR Awards thing means a lot to the Reeperbahn Festival and we all love Tony Visconti BUT was it the right sign to invest in these things in 2021? Wouldn’t less be more right now, especially after the pandemic? The majority of industry people I met were lucky enough to be there, have a few drinks and meet each other, even if it’s just for a beer on the Spielbudenplatz. But well, maybe I’m living in a different bubble now. It not only felt like the Reeperbahn Festival didn’t learn things from the past years but also forgot basic organisational aspects. Why weren’t there more outdoor stages? What did they expect with those capacity limitations? And why the hell didn’t they invest in a 2G-concept that allowed full capacity. Ahead of the event they explained it was too difficult to manage but that feels like a lame excuse. In terms of checking in/ checking out the logistics were already there. Having a “fully vaccinated” wristband checked would be possible. I’m pretty sure a bit of that precious Sting money would have helped here. And yes, it might have led to the cancellation of a few artists and maybe a few audience members would have protested but I think the result would have been more rewarding for the audience and the event’s reputation. I’m pretty sure no politician has seen the insanely long line outside the Mojo club. With a still way too unknown concert winter season ahead of us this could have been a much needed sign for the industry. Because let’s face it: the “only vaccinated people”-thing will probably become the standard for the next 7 to 8 months.
Of course, there’s only so much you can do when politics isn’t on your side. The final weeks of Merkel era have been crippling, without any perspective for the Cultural sector following the pandemic. Reeperbahn Festival happened right before the election, during a time when no politician dared to even make a bold decision. But of course, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t addressed at those official meetings. From what I heard in the industry a few people might even agree with me but there’s an overall “we don’t talk about that”-vibe. In an ironic twist, it currently looks like former Hamburg major Olaf Scholz will succeed Angela Merkel. He’s an old friend of the festival and even attended the event a few times in the past. That might result in even bolder attempts to connect culture and politics.
While it’s nice to have a good connection to the chancellery, those last days leave a bitter aftertaste, making me wonder who would benefit from that connection – the actual audience or the people who run the festival?
Reeperbahn Festival has the clear ambition to become the continent’s most important music industry event, Europe’s very own SXSW. That’s an open secret, right? I can’t blame them and I generally think they’ve done lots of great work for artists and the music industry, especially due to their connection with politics. But since Peter Parker became Spiderman we know that great power always comes with great responsibility – and that means: adjusting to changed circumstances and actually listening to the audience. It’s decision time. Should it all be about delegates and the industry? Then so shall it be. Or do they want to bring culture to everybody in the city? Also cool. But you can’t dance on two weddings with such a concept
But the 2021 Reeperbahn Festival was the opposite of an inclusive event. That obviously also goes for accessibility itself at many venues and all containers of our Future Playground. The event lost its touch with the people and you seriously have to question how long they are willing to follow. Sooner or later alternatives will arise, also for the music industry. Through my work at Music Declares Emergency I see a new generation of industry people. Diverse, driven by passion and values and a certain ‘fuck it’-attitude towards capitalistic temptations. Those folks surely didn’t vote for Mr. Scholz. They will work on things to shake up an industry that’s been struggling for years when it comes to that aspect of transformation. And I’m happy to allow me to swim within their current for a bit. The future is right here and Reeperbahn Festival needs to be quite careful right now but could also see the transformation as a chance to actually sustain its repuation. Having said that – I still love the festival and the crazy St. Pauli vibe a lot. I mean, you can’t write an article like that if it wasn’t based on a general feeling of affection. Parts of the Music Declares Emergency team had a little quite philosophical yet entertaining talk about the utopian Reeperbahn Festival 2036 and it was full of inspiring themes. I know, I’m slightly biased here but I’ve decided to stick around as long as I can, to see it happen. And the change needs to start now. If anybody from the festival reads this little blog piece, you know where to find me. It’s transformation time, baby!