Skip to content
The article is more than 10 years old

Jazz fests struggle to balance art and business

Jazz was born in the bordellos and roadhouses of Louisiana a century ago. Somewhere along the way, though, this music gained a reputation as a posh, elitist corporate partner. How do Finland’s jazz festivals balance artistic ideals and commercial pressures – while attracting fresh audiences?

Japanese keyboardist Hiromi drew a packed crowd at April Jazz.
Wif Stenger

Pop and rock festivals have been blatantly commercial ventures for decades. Classical, folk and world-music events mostly manage to attract enough funding to get by financially without pressure to “sell out”.

Yet Finland’s 20 or so jazz festivals fall somewhere in between. With straight-ahead jazz itself only attracting a marginal audience, most have expanded to include other genres loosely connected or overlapping with jazz. These range from blues and R&B to cabaret, funk, soul, Latin, African or even reggae.

The giant of Finnish jazz fests, Pori, has gone furthest down this route, bringing in mainstream pop stars with only the vaguest link to jazz. Tellingly, Pori is hosting the greatest old-school jazz legend scheduled to visit Finland this year – 74-year-old pianist McCoy Tyner – but lists him far down in the fine print in most of their advertising.

Finding your own segment

One of the festivals that seems to get the balance right is April Jazz Espoo, which ended on Sunday in Tapiola. The five-day event, which kicks off the annual festival season, attracted around 8,000 people this year -- about the same as last year. This makes it second only to Pori, which has suffered declining ticket sales in recent years.

Nowadays it’s hard to find jazz legends. The audience wants big names, but we’re running out of those. – Matti Lappalainen

“We’re not as huge as Pori; we have to find our own segment to manage," says festival director Matti Lappalainen, himself a former professional trombonist. "Nowadays it’s hard to find jazz legends. The audience wants big names but we’re running out of those. This year we had saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who is one of those. You’ve got to find your own thing. We’re trying to stay in rhythm music and jazz, blues, roots, Latin, bossa nova. If you book somebody who’s totally pop, then that’s a different festival.”

April Jazzin toiminnanjohtaja Matti Lappalainen ja vakioesiintyjiin kuuluva Iiro Rantala.
Festival director Matti Lappalainen and pianist Iiro Rantala stopped by Yle's breakfast show. Image: Yle

“There's still a lot of room for innovation in making art and business meet,” says Matti Nives, who DJ's at April Jazz and promotes various events and artists with the Helsinki-based We Jazz collective.

We Jazz
Eero Löyttyjärvi & Matti Nives of We Jazz spin classic vinyl late-night. Image: April Jazz Festival

Organizers need to find new ways of making ends meet without overtly commercializing and compromising the spirit of the event. -- Matti Nives

“Of course events often need to get backing outside of the public funding bodies and ticket sales, so the basic dynamic remains. But there's bound to be some new initiatives in event sponsoring in the coming years, at least I hope so,” he says.

“Brands increasingly want things beyond the basic logo on the flyer or the batch of VIP tickets, and organizers need to find new ways of making ends meet without overtly commercializing the aesthetics of their venues and visual presentation, and thus compromising the spirit of the event.”

Meet-and-greets gain popularity

April Jazz Espoo, which attracted around 8,000 people this year -- about the same as last year -- experimented with VIP packages this year for the first time. One ticket -- priced from 75 euros and up -- included a show, dinner, a CD and a meet-and-greet with the performer.

“We can definitely say that there is clearly demand for services that add value to the concert experience,” says April Jazz producer **Pedro Herrero. “**This is something we are going to develop a lot for 2014. People want to see concerts and eat, drink, dance and have a good time in general. There are always people who want to meet their idols. We were able to make that dream come true for some of our guests.”

The most in-demand stars at the festival included Japanese keyboardist Hiromi (see video above) -- a former student of Tyner's -- as well as American soul-jazz vocalists Gregory Porter and José James.

Genre-bending James packs the tent

The latter attracted the all-time record audience at the April Jazz Marquee. James recently released his fourth album on the iconicBlue Note label after being voted Best Male Vocal Rising Star by the top jazz magazine, DownBeat.

James is no stranger to Finnish festivals. He has appeared in recent years at both the Pori Jazz Festival and Helsinki’s Flow Festival along with Finnish saxophonist Timo Lassy, also making a guest appearance on his album Round Two.

Lassy is an alumnus of the now-defunct Five Corners Quintet, who along with groups like Oddarrang, RinneRadio and Quintessence, pushed Finnish jazz to a new level in the past decade or so. These outfits have attracted new audiences at home and abroad by mixing in elements of funk, electronica and post-rock -- just as James has done.

I’ve been to a lot of jazz concerts where it wasn’t really clear if the musicians knew there was an audience or not. – José James

José James esiintyi Timo Lassy Orchestran kanssa.
José James appeared with the Timo Lassy Orchestra at Helsinki's Flow Festival. Image: Tomi Mikola

“Festivals like Montreux in Switzerland, North Sea in Holland, and the festivals here do a really good job of balancing the quality acts with some pop things – not that that’s not quality but you know... we’re talking about jazz jazz. That’s just the way it is. I think jazz musicians have to acknowledge the realities of the market too, and make some contemporary changes. Not necessarily in the writing, but in the presentation. I’ve been to a lot of jazz concerts where it wasn’t really clear if the musicians knew there was an audience or not... so it’s a very complicated thing.”

Two sides to the coin

“This is a big topic now. I’m doing the Montreux Festival for the first time this summer and a lot of people are commenting on my Facebook page that it’s not a jazz festival anymore,” says James.

“But I understand that there’s two sides to it. I know how hard it is to sell tickets. To get people out, you need an Erykah Badu or a Foo Fighters or whatever. They need to spend, whatever, 200,000 euros to get that artist and know they’re going to get X amount of people. That’s how you get funding and sponsorship. It’s the reality of it. There’s a lot of pressure on promoters, because the corporate funding is disappearing. But the fans don’t think about that. They just get mad and say ‘I want it to be all unknown jazz people.’”

Baby boomers bored with rock?

For middle-aged music fans who have outgrown most rock and pop but see classical as boring, jazz is often an appealing middle road. Companies, too, see investing in jazz events as a safe bet.

Corporate sponsorship of many festivals, with firms buying up big blocks of tickets for clients, has brought a welcome financial shot in the arm and potential new listeners. All too often, though, it also brings many who are more interested in drinking and networking than paying respectful attention to the musicians onstage.

Pori Jazz
A glorious day in Pori last July, Image: Jari Pelkonen / Yle

“That’s really been the case ever since the late ‘40s when Norman Granz started the Jazz at the Philharmonic series," notes James. "He really took it and presented it a different way, in concert halls. The most important thing is keeping the music alive and having places to play."

"Dizzy Gillespie once said when be-bop changed and the big bands started fading, he didn’t get nervous. And then when be-bop went away, he didn’t get nervous. Music goes where it wants to and we just have to follow it,” he muses.

“On the other hand, I think as an artist, it’s good to get corporations involved. I mean, they have to spend their money on something anyway. So they might as well spend it on art, hang around and see this stuff and sometimes really cool collaborations can happen. Sometimes!”

High culture in the islands

Bosse Mellberg on Korppoon Jazz ry:n puheenjohtaja
Bosse Mellberg of Korpo Sea Jazz sticks to the pros. Image: Yle / Jorma Tuominen

There are dentists and other people who also play jazz and they come for free, and you can get bands from Russia very cheaply. – Bosse Mellberg

Among the crowds in Tapiola was Bosse Mellberg, director of the much-smaller Korpo Sea Jazz in the archipelago south of Turku. His intimate island event books only professional artists from Finland.

“We want to give an opportunity to Finnish musicians who have to earn a living by playing jazz. So we’re trying to give them gigs. Because there are dentists and other people who also play jazz and they come for free and from Russia you get bands very cheaply. We have another strange policy: we have the same salary for everyone,” says Mellberg.

“We don’t go into the grey area of trying to attract audiences with big pop names. We’re doing a high-level cultural happening. So that means we need as much money from the government as the opera does! It’s high culture," he says, before firing a dig at Pori: "We don’t have people like Paul Anka there!”

Video: Emeli Sandé at Pori Jazz, 2012

Video: Questlove of the Roots at Pori Jazz, 2010

Latest: paketissa on 10 artikkelia