EJN Staff Exchange Programme

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Previous participant: STEVE MEAD

From: Manchester Jazz Festival (UK)
To: Molde Jazz Festival (Norway)
21 - 24 May 2017


Exchange Report

The opportunity presented by this new EJN exchange programme was incredibly exciting, despite emerging at fairly short notice and at a point that made it challenging for me to be away from the mjf office for any length of time.

I admired the reputation Molde has built up over the years, its programming choices, and how it celebrated both indigenous and international talent with a welcoming programme in spectacular natural surroundings. I wanted to spend my time there outside of the festival period, rather than during the event itself, as I knew there would be far more opportunities for deeper conversation – which indeed turned out to be the case. Molde operates with some similarities of scale to Manchester: both the number of staff, and in terms of how it uses the public spaces in the town - albeit with fewer events but far more higher-profile international programme content. I anticipated that there would be several parallel challenges and considerations to explore between us that would make the exchange stimulating for both of us.

I was really keen to take part in the exchange scheme: it is a fantastic idea and just the kind of project that EJN should be operating for members, in order for them to learn, share and grow. This is especially resonant, as I think the arts have such a major part to play in promoting positive attitudes to other cultures.  This was driven home half way through my time in Molde, when news came through of the Manchester attack on May 22nd. Naturally, this event steered some of the conversations I had with members of the MIJF team and, to an extent, overshadowed my visit.
What did I hope to achieve from the visit?
I was interested in exploring with Hans-Olav, the Artistic Director, how he programmed the event and used the various spaces in the town, how MIJF built upon their reputation but also didn’t just rest upon it, how they thought the event should be marketed to new audiences, how they developed young talent (both artistic and production) with their activities, and how they developed relationships with their funders and supporters. On an operational level, I was also interested in their staffing structure and governance, and which software systems they use to run the organisation and the event itself. 
Who did I spend time with and what did we learn from each other?
I met the whole team straightaway in their modern, centrally-located office within the town’s theatre and was struck with how friendly, relaxed and welcoming they were. One of the first things that interested me was the team structure – both Therese and Cecilie are Producers, and the responsibility for marketing is spread across the senior team. The former arrangement was the direct result of Hans-Olav’s desire to reflect more accurately their responsibilities for delivering the entire festival in all its forms. This is something we too have undergone recently at mjf, replacing the historic role of single Producer and creating two separate roles of sites director and production manager for our main temporary venue, and introducing a Director of Operations to sit alongside the AD role. We discussed job responsibilities and, in particular, the strengths and weaknesses of operating this structure, which can be hugely beneficial, depending on the dynamic between those individuals.

I spent most of the first day with Hans-Olav, exploring our approaches to programming and discussing what we believed were our USPs. For around 9 years now, MIJF have been running an Artist in Residence scheme and we have developed mjf originals for commissioning new work - both supporting audience and talent development. We discussed the challenge of how best to market simultaneously to the jazz audience and the non-specialist audience; about diversity issues and how we tackled the apparent shortage of artists from non white-male backgrounds, and how we made use of different space and time when programming; we were also amused to discover that both our festivals are importing and building a Spiegeltent as one of our outdoor venues this year, to help attract new audiences and provide a bespoke immersive experience for them.

Therese, one of the two festival Producers, amongst her many other responsibilities, explained the ambitions and successes of her Young Producers scheme. This exciting and forward-looking programme gives local 18-25 year olds - via open application – the chance to form their own team to curate a festival event between them from scratch – learning at first-hand about budgeting, programming, production and marketing. I found this very inspiring, as we currently struggle to provide an infrastructure for jazz producers and programmers in the UK – of all ages, but especially for those younger ones entering the profession. It has been well-received and is now an annual valued opportunity for these young scenebuilders. It’s something I’m keen to develop in Manchester, and – looking to the future – there might be an opportunity for both festivals to offer an experiential exchange for participants from both locations. Dinner with the team that evening, generously provided by my hosts, provided a more informal environment in which to chat and make connections.

On my second day, we paid a visit to the Production Manager’s store. He gave me an overview presentation of some of the sites that are built for the festival, and gave me a tour of the store room, where he holds MIJF’s impressive collection of instruments and equipment from across five decades. We then moved on to visit one of the outdoor festival locations on the beautiful grounds of the museum, to give a context to the atmosphere and scale of audiences – around 12,000 - that visit this festival stage. It was here that we also met with arts journalist Vera Henriksen and her press photographer, who interviewed us about our festivals, this exchange programme, and pertinently, the terrorist attack of the previous evening in Manchester. This interview – to my surprise – made the front page in the next day’s newspaper (attached).

On return to the festival office, I spent some time with the senior producer Cecilie, who talked me through their staffing structure. It was interesting to learn that a voluntary programme advisory committee assists Hans-Olav with the programming – it includes both old and young, musicians and fans. It contrasts with the sole responsibility for programming that lies with me at mjf. There are many temporary freelance positions that come into play prior to and during the festival and around 600 volunteers, compared to our 120 or so, and it was fascinating to see this laid out in a structure – there is much more internal control and planning of the food and drink offer throughout the festival than the one that we operate at mjf.

We both talked about the challenge of sourcing appropriate and up-to-date software to assist with festival operations. mjf still uses standard Office software, which has practical limitations but has the advantage of being used globally and regularly updated. The MIJF package – which is no longer updated - is exhaustive but has issues with permissions and compatibility with modern mobile devices. Because many people need access, much information which could be termed confidential is excluded and this makes the system not universally usable. We explored some contemporary options like Marcato – and wondered about the practicalities of umbrella organisations such as EJN owning a licence to enable economic use by members. Meanwhile, we both struggle on with what we have…

I only had time to talk briefly with Ellisif – who is responsible for sales and sponsorships – and would have liked to explore her work a little more. Long-term sponsorships in the UK are rare, and it was fascinating to gain an insight into how the team looked after sponsors: what their expectations of return were and what kinds of activities they valued; and about merchandise: which items chimed with audiences and how well MIJF-branded products might sell – or not.

How were the hosts?
I cannot thank each and every one of the Molde team for being so kind and for devoting their time and attention so generously – as well as being interesting and useful, it was hugely flattering. We all work hard to bring our music to more and more listeners, but I left feeling that the future of jazz is in safe hands, thanks to these knowledgeable, hard-working, generous and warm-hearted people.  This kind of exchange experience allowed us to explore our working methods and approaches in more depth and detail than we are able to during our daily working lives, and it is an opportunity – if well-chosen – that I’m sure could benefit many more members.

What was the most memorable part of the exchange?
On the second day, Hans-Olav drove me, on the most beautiful, clear and sunny of afternoons, up the mountainside to marvel at the view of the mountain range that ran for several miles and formed the backdrop to the town along the other side of the fjord. All 222 peaks made for a majestic vista and in this context, it was easy to see what helped draw thousands of visitors every year to enjoy the exceptional music of this very special festival and its wonderful, warm people.

How could the course be improved for future participants?
I think this opportunity is what you make of it – it really is down to the participants to prepare and research their visit and to make best use of time and people. It would be good to have a wider time frame in which to take part (March to August is quite limited for some people and it was fairly short notice for planning into our annual cycle). It could be worth pointing out to applicants that visiting at a time when a festival is actually taking place might not be the best time to speak to festival staff about their work. However, a strength of the programme is that it can operate at many levels; those who seek a more strategic experience will know how best to make that work for them – whereas others will prefer to experience the festival in action and to listen to artists’ performances.

A huge thank you to the EJN team for providing me with the wonderful opportunity to take part in this innovative and valuable programme.