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Pocketmoney for culture

July 22, 2009

Summer festivals are in full swing across Europe, with many events proving to be as popular as ever despite fears that the economic crisis would keep people away.

Haitian hip hop singer Wyclef Jean performs on the Stravinski Hall stage during the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, July 12, 2009
The Montreux Festival in Switzerland was an even bigger success than last yearImage: AP

At the 43rd Montreux music festival, prices of up to 315 euros ($448) per seat did not prevent tickets for two concerts by Prince from selling out in eight minutes. Organizers said the two-week event on the banks of Lake Geneva was "crowned with success," attracting 10,000 more visitors than last year.

In France, summer festivals have flourished over the past two decades, partly the result of a policy drive by the Socialist Jack Lang when he was culture minister in the 1980s. Many events are still thriving despite the recession, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

Good promotion including the odd online discount ensured that a full house made for a fitting climax to the "Jazz a Sete" festival. The organizers have been pleasantly surprised to find that the economic crisis has not deterred music fans.

"Many people told us that they decided to come because they wanted to have some fun and forget their financial and economic problems," said Danielle Dumontel from the Tourist Office in Sete. "Many tourists came at the beginning of July, which is not usual, so it's a good sign for the summer season."

Youssou N'Dour
Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour was a draw last yearImage: AP

The region sees a wide variety of festivals in the same period - from classical music in Montpellier, to a celebration of Occitan culture at Beziers, to world music at the Festival de Thau.

Not enough room for everyone

Perhaps inevitably there is not enough space for them all. Just down the Mediterranean coast from Sete, the Destination Soleil festival at Marseillan drew 6,000 people last year to see artists such as Youssou N'Dour of Senegal.

However this year's event was cancelled.

"The number of pre-sales was very weak, to the point where the producer would have gone to the wall, which would have been dramatic for everyone involved," explained Jean-Michel Le Courthezon, responsible for tourism and culture in the resort.

He believes fans shunned the festival, not because of the economic crisis, but because organizers were forced to schedule the event earlier than usual, and there was simply too much competition.

"In July there are so many other well established festivals in our region," he said. "We're like the little Gaulois village in Asterix, surrounded by larger communes with big resources."

Emmanuel Negrier, a specialist in cultural policy at Montpellier University, said that in hard economic times a festival's reputation and relationship with its traditional supporters is crucial.

"There are events which have built a relationship with their public, who feel morally obliged to participate to manifest their solidarity," he said. "Other festivals which did not have this kind of empathy with the public are more in difficulty."

Disappointing pre-sales for some

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and Marina Poplavskaya as Desdemona on Juli 29, 2008, during a rehearsal of "Otello" by Giuseppe Verdi in Salzburg
The Salzburg Festival opens on July 25Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Even for well established festivals, success is not guaranteed. Since its birth at the end of the 1980s, the Eurockeenes at Belfort in eastern France has become one of Europe's best known rock festivals. This year's line-up included Peter Doherty, the Prodigy and Cypress Hill.

The event was a success, attracting 95,000 music fans over three days in early July. But the outcome was uncertain: Far fewer tickets were sold before the festival than in previous years, and it seems that many people only decided to go at the last minute.

Elsewhere in Europe, other events are also reporting disappointing advance sales. The Salzburg Festival, which starts on July 25, will feature new productions of works such as Handel's "Theodora" and Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." But organizers said that advance corporate ticket sales were down 11 percent from last year and overall sales down five percent.

In Scotland, organizers of the Hebridean Celtic Festival revealed fears for the future of the Western Isles' internationally renowned music event, because of a dramatic downturn in local ticket sales. Many visitors come to the Outer Hebrides expressly for the Festival, and the economic impact of its loss would be devastating. A three-year funding deal has been struck with local business to stave off bankruptcy.

Cultural events make for good distraction

In general, however, the crisis means that sponsors may become reluctant to invest. According to Negrier, events will increasingly need to use social networking tools like Facebook to develop ties with the public.

Amadou et Mariam
Malian musicians Amadou et Mariam are performing in Sete, France, in AugustImage: Marie Dagnaux

He said festival organizers can be encouraged by the findings of a tourism survey which found that people tend to put money aside for cultural events.

"I think that people will spend money less in restaurants, and on programs, and on that special book of the spectacle," said Negrier. "But I think that culture can be considered as a way to forget the grey aspect of contemporary life."

In Sete, festival organizers hope for a sell-out again in August when the Malian singing duo Amadou and Mariam top the bill at Fiest'A Sete, a world music festival. They are boosted by the fact that the recession is prompting many French people to take their holidays at home rather than abroad.

The evidence suggests that they are indeed determined to put their everyday worries to one side and make the most of the summer culture on offer.

Author: Alasdair Sandford

Editor: Kate Bowen

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