Since the last 19 years, to mark the beginning of spring and therefore the music festival season, the Swiss gather in two cities: Lausanne and Zurich to celebrate, discuss and experience music in its’ entirety during the m4music festival.
M4music is a festival started by the Migros Culture Percentage initiative. Migros, being Switzerland’s leading retail company and largest employer, through the Culture Percentage Initiative wants to give back to the community. One of the ways of doing this is through an event the promotes the vivid pop-rock-music scene in Switzerland, and has taken the shape of the wildly successful 3-day m4music festival.
Deemed as the most important platform for exchange for Swiss music, m4music hosts the crème de la crème of the Swiss music industry; from established agents, music festival organizers, labels and government bodies to up-and-coming Swiss artists – it really is the place to be if you are in the music scene.
I was lucky to catch the m4music co-founder – Philipp Schnyder von Wartensee – to get a few juicy insights regarding the festival beginnings, the people that make it happen and its plans for the future.
Philipp didn’t exactly follow the ‘typical’ music festival organizer’s career path: In the early days he studied history, philosophy and ethnology (and also did an MBA since then) – not an obvious choice, it would seem, for a fest organizer. “It was the only thing you could study, if you wanted to have more time to play music. If I were to have studied medicine I would have never had time for music”, says Philipp, who in those years played in a band. “Plus, with history you learn to tell a story – and this is what we are doing with m4music – we are telling a story“.
The story is quite a captivating one. “The music industry is tough and when you start as a musician it’s really difficult to get your foot through the door. I would travel to Popkomm, a gathering place for the music industry in Berlin, to meet promoters and discover trends in the music scene. I knew we needed something similar in Switzerland – a business meeting point for music. A place, where we would bring up-and-coming artists together with the remaining people from the industry – and everyone should be allowed to join. But to have such a meeting point, first you need the key persons from the industry to participate. First we went for the clubs and the bands, then for the industry people, then for the booking agents and promoters of clubs and festivals”.
It all seems so deviously simple. But the beginnings, as Philipp remembers them, were a little bit different. In fact, the vision was quite unlike what the fest is today. “We had a big vision. We wanted to unite all the clubs in Zurich: you were to have one wristband that would allow you to enter all the clubs. At that time it was something completely new in the music business. Initially, we had 13 clubs join but it was quite difficult to logistically handle. And we wanted to be international and have foreign artists and industry people come. But when foreigners come and see that something is ‘just’ OK, they won’t want to come back. It worked pretty well but we needed to learn. We were too small and the idea was too big”.
Philipp and his co-organizers needed to go back to the drawing board. They decided to refocus. “When you look at the Swiss market, it is a dense market. We have a lot of talent here – the Swiss music business is here. So we decided to focus on Swiss music and artists. It’s good to have a dream, a vision, but the realization of the dream needs flexibility. You need to be able to adapt”.
Since the first m4music a lot has changed. The festival now takes place at Zürich’s Schiffbau complex – a theater venue throughout the rest of the year, but for m4music it transforms into the perfect fest location, well equipped for showcasing music and having workshops and conferences.
And the festival goers really do love it. This year the fest had over 6,000 visitors and a number of high profile celebrities gracing the fest with their presence: from Viv Albertine to Everlast, to Martin Elbourne – the founder of The Great Escape festival in Brighton, UK. You could feel the buzz among the participants.
But what goes through the festival organizer when the big event finally takes place? “It is a very good moment. If you think about it, it takes a lot of time to organize a festival. It takes a lot of talks and planning and caring about everything from big to small. It’s not a job for a day or for a month – it’s a long process. And then when the first day arrives you are already so tired. But then you run on your reserves. You’re in a flow. You’re quite surprised – wow this is actually happening and it’s working! You feel like you are floating: no recollection of time: if it’s 4pm it could just as easily be 10pm. It’s a rush – like a drug but without having to take anything. And then BOOM, in 3 days it is over. You actually feel a BOOM. And I think I’m lucky. How many people actually work and never feel the BOOM. I want to help people realize their BOOM”.
For those of you wondering if you need any special powers to become a festival organizer, Philipp reveals what helped him with his career. “I would not have been a festival organizer. I would have been a bank-robber or something else. But people trusted me, I had an idea and all of a sudden I was a festival organizer. And it’s something I love above all. I like to manage, think forward, solve problems, support other people, especially musicians”.
One part of the m4music festival is the Demotape Clinic: a competition for up and coming artists, where they can send in a demo of their music and have it assessed by a professional jury, consisting of the music scene’s big names. “The idea behind it is to bring new talent and old business together. The combination of artists: young talent and energy and the seasoned people, often controlling the production with their money, power, wisdom and experience. We are disrupting the music scene and the process of finding new talent. This year we had to go through over 700 songs and make a pre-selection for the jury.”
Another part of the festival are the conferences, sprinkled out throughout Friday and Saturday. “You need to see what is of interest to the participants. Which positions should be reflected, who should be up on the panels. On the one hand we want to have a strong representation of the local culture, but of course we want to grow and open up more so to the international music scene, so we also invite international speakers. Our headliners for the conference are super interesting. It’s tough to get them to talk though, because they don’t usually have the time. You need to be lucky and find that lucky moment – it’s about the chances you get. With Viv, she’s getting her book translated into German so for her it’s a great opportunity to promote the book. With Everlast we had a good connection through the agency, so we brought up the idea and he said yes. In the past we also had eg Peter Sunde from Pirate Bay – so direct competition to the music industry. So many people were shocked that we invited him, the enemy of the music industry, to the conference. But you need to know what is happening out there in the market. We were the first ones to discuss technology in music too. We put a large emphasis on digital change in our conferences: we discussed mp3s and the Internet. Labels were laughing at us, saying that music was about selling CDs. Now look where we are. Technology and digital is one theme among many others, especially that Zurich is a ‘tech town’ with Google around here and ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich)”.
M4music is a must-do event for anyone who is anyone in the music industry in Switzerland. The festival is growing and looking to also attract international interest, so it’s definitely an event to keep your eyes open for in the years to come.
The buzz, dynamism and BOOM are almost tangible throughout the day events and the evenings bring the much-awaited music from new and also established local and international artists. Mark the date for next year’s event 30.03 – 01.04. 2017 – we’ll definitely be there. Hope to see you there too.
Mags Wyrzykowska would like to sincerely thank Philipp Schnyder for taking the time for the interview – an inspiring encounter of brain-picking.
Photo credit: m4music.ch, Alessandro Della Bella & Eddy Meltzer