As the Head of Music Program and Alternate Director of Europe’s leading club festival and conference, Reeperbahn Festival, Bjørn Pfarr is a wanted man in the music industry.
Coordinating more than 450 live acts on more than 30 stages over four days each year, Bjørn Pfarr welcomed around 37,000 visitors from 42 nations to the Hamburg festival last month, all to experience a programme with his tick of approval.
Acts including Portugal. The Man, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The Drums, performed at over 70 venues across the city – including temporarily converted banks, buses, boats and churches – while arts programs, conference sessions, networking activities and award shows attracted over 4,400 professionals.
Next month, Pfarr will speak at Face The Music in Melbourne to share his wisdom with local and international delegates.
TIO caught up with Pfarr as he prepares for Reeperbahn Festival 2018. He took us through the planning process for the event, how and why the conference element came into play in 2009, why he doesn’t want the festival to grow too much in size, and more.
You book an event for over 450 acts each year, where do you start when putting an event of this size together?
Planning, booking and programming a club Festival like Reeperbahn Festival with such a massive number of acts is very complex. For the club festival first of all, we evaluate the occupancy rate of the clubs of last year’s edition. With those results we define an initial number a clubs we will look at for next year’s edition.
This results in a more or less concrete number of slots we need to book/schedule. These decisions are made on a day-by-day basis as we raise the capacity from day-to-day.
Starting from here, right after the festival we begin to negotiate with agents, promoters, managers as well as partners (for the showcases).
In the curated strand we first of all look mainly for bigger names (we run many bigger venues where we cannot schedule newcomer acts) and try to keep a foot in the door on the really hot-tipped ones and personal favourites.
Furthermore we try to nail down cooperations with our broadcasting partners (with whom we do some recorded nights) as well as start booking acts for special venues like the new Philharmonic Hall.
What comes next? Take us through the major cogs at work to piece Reeperbahn together.
It’s important to point out is that there are two ways acts find their way into our line up: on the one hand there is the curated part of the booking. Nearly all of the bigger acts come via this strand. In 2017 slightly more acts dropped into the line up via the curated booking process.
On the other hand we had 47 showcase (nights) that we dealt with various partners like export offices, labels, regions or booking agencies.
Booking and programming Reeperbahn Festival is a big, big puzzle. The next step is to attend as many showcase festivals as possible, in the end and in the beginning of the year to see as many acts live as possible and to meet people like agents, label reps, managers and all the german promoters (for the curated part we do nearly all bookings via the German promoter – if there is someone in charge already).
Plus, we do listen to hundreds of new acts we’re getting on the table from all over the world (Reeperbahn festival does book all kinds of music and acts from everywhere), checking out blogs, specialist magazines and talking to our wider – and from year to year bigger – network of people we trust. So it’s always a mixture between our own ideas and acts we did not knew before until someone approached and convinced us.
Watch an aftermovie of Reeperbahn Festival below
Broadly speaking: While finishing all bookings and knowing about all evenings created with partners (like radio stations, other media partners or brand/sponsoring partnerships) the programming takes place. The puzzle finds its way and, bit by bit, all acts get their day, then their venue, and finally their stage time.
What was the push that lead to the conference aspect being added to Reeperbahn?
Due to our very innovative and future thinking booking, with tonnes of up-and-coming acts, we had a few hundred business people at Reeperbahn Festival looking for the next big thing.
Having SxSW as our native benchmark we knew the infrastructure of having many, many clubs next to each other and the special atmosphere at the famous Reeperbahn is very seldom and a great gift. And a perfect playground to bring the industry together as well.
When the Festival itself was established after a very successful edition 2008, in 2009 we knew the time was right to offer a real structure with a proper programme with elements like keynotes, receptions and panels for all the business people attending Reeperbahn Festival.
Aside from size and scope, how has Reeperbahn Festival changed over the years?
Over the years, more people accepted the concept of discovering new artists and wandering from one club to another. During the first years, people where mainly focusing on big names. Although big names are still a driving force, we see a great interest in “gold digging” and discovering new artists.
Sure, people still like big clubs, but lots of them enjoy visiting small venues and look for locations which are sometimes converted into a stage only for Reeperbahn Festival (eg. a bank, bus, or a theatre). Also people are looking more and more for assistance and suggestions due to the massive number of acts. To get advice people attend various formats on site like Ray’s Reeperbahn Revue.
Reeperbahn Festival Conference today is the only music industry meeting in Europe that with nearly 5,000 delegates from 55 countries has a really intercontinental appeal. You meet people from all parts of the music industry – recorded, live and publishing – plus many representatives of other creative industries like film or advertising.
How has your Cultural Studies degree been useful in your job?
Studying “practical cultural studies“ was actually more a “general study” study path as we had about 20 different subjects with some emphasis like music, media, economy and justice.
Organising Reeperbahn Festival with so many complex tasks, issues and dealing with so many diverse people (people from ticketing, media, booking agencies, production companies) requires a wide range of skills and a flexible approach. I think not being focused and limited on a special subject or field at the university and learning to be well organised in general was helpful to handle all these different tasks organising a huge clubs festival and music conference.
Is there any danger of the festival becoming too big?
Interesting question as we always talk a lot about the size (and of course quality) of the event and about the capacity (number of live shows at night).
In terms of the live shows, as well as for the arts programme – and of course regarding the size and quality of the conference – the answers are quite diverse. But in general we do not want to grow at all costs. As for the concerts we are actually naturally limited due to the existing venues. And as we take care of the fact that one of the benefits of attending Reeperbahn Festival is that all venues are in walking distance and that the clubs are of high quality (in terms of backstage, stage, PA etc.) – we can’t (and do not like to) grow too much.
Plus, we love to run exclusively at proper live venues with a set and high quality infrastructure (backstage, stage, PA etc.) as well as special venues (churches, theatre, a bank office or a boat). We do not want to make a live stage out of every garage only to increase the number of venues / slots / capacity. Also economically speaking it’s tricky to run non-established live venues as this is mostly very expensive.
In the future we probably will raise the capacity on the weekend days only slightly. On the first two days of the festival we have various possibilities to grow as we run our venues only rudimentary.
Regarding the growth of the conference part it’s more that we need to keep an eye on the balance between the number and possible panels / keynotes on the one hand and receptions / parties on the other hand. But at the moment there is enough space to grow in terms of popularity / capacity.
How have you managed to successfully scale the event without it losing its focus?
I think on all relevant aspects and parts of the festival (music, arts, conference) we still act and decide in a strongly sensitive way always keeping the core of the festival in mind.
The whole staff is working with a high passion for detail (which means a lot of work). In all cooperations, in all our media and social media activities as well as calculating ticket prices, production and booking aspects. All people working for the festival are real music lovers and do not want to just produce another random music event. Reeperbahn Festival is very special and unique. And so are the people working on it.
This awareness in treating this event very well and with a lot of love leads us to keep the focus on what we like to present the people: an outstanding and unique event for a wide range of different people – public as well as professionals. Also the fact that Reeperbahn Festival is still an event run by independent companies with many people on board having been part of the team since the beginning.
Bjørn Pfarr is headed to Face The Music next month (November 23-24) at Melbourne Music Week Hub