Text by – GIUSEPPE ORIGO
Translation by – JULIA PERRY
It is only fair when dealing with each cultural-artistic case, firstly, to be given suitable information on which to build an as an effective spectator rather than of a mere observer: anyone can go to the Louvre and, with a bit of luck and sense of direction, find their way to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and take a “selfie” (all in the meanwhile demystifying the concept of “art” as well as “evolution of the species”), but not many understand the grandiosity of the splendid Veronese from right next door.
“The Wedding at Cana” is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and majestic paintings housed in the Parisian museum complex, a masterpiece that in its making saw the collaboration between Paolo Caliari and the great Andrea Palladio (whose echoes are clearly distinguishable in the theatre architecture of the represented biblical episode) and that conquered all of Europe in the 700s, including emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to the point of him falling madly in love with it and claiming it as compensation for the 1797 war.
Without much of an effort the same concept is actually transposable onto a more “popular” artistic reality like, in this case, the Music Festival dimension, the mass summer culture event (after the World Cup) that if dealt with the appropriate means turns the clichéd “that’s so cool!” to a much more meaningful exclamation.
We talked about the Sziget Festival in Budapest (here’s the article: http://revolart.it/sziget-festival-la-ricetta-per-limpermeabilita-alla-crisi/ ) as perhaps the most eminent of festivals in the current festival scene, and in this sense, not just among critics of the industry of which both experts and the public, have accompanied its name to that of the legend of Woodstock: a mistake, in my opinion, inexcusable and unflattering to the “Festivals of all Festivals”, a name which, if you grant me time to explain myself, is not used in reference to the 1969 legend.
A business management, which we can easily define as masterful allowed Sziget to innovate itself and grow year by year from 1993 up to today.
From a little more than a gathering of emerging bands to hosting more than 370 thousand paying spectators, and almost about anyone from the “Big Brands” of the contemporary music scene, the reality is that the festival has come a long way, grinding, one after the other, the string of critiques that have, over time, placed it on the highest step of the international podium of mass summer events.
In 1969, the Woodstock festival (where half a million young people reached the state of New York in order to attend three days of “peace, love & music”), coincided with the peace of the psychedelic movement, as well as the beginning of its end. The management of pop festivals of mass in an alternative and self-managed way, devoid of the management of corporate sponsors and based on the myth of a spontaneous “new community” resulted in one of the most disastrous economic flops of all time: by the end of the festival (an event organized by manager Michael Lang and declining songwriter Artie Kornfeld in order to finance the project the start “the most important recording studio of the U.S.A.” [take that, hippies]) debts amounted to one million and three hundred thousand dollars.
And yet the name Woodstock is identified by most as the archetype of the successful festival, so then why this failure?
The reason is perhaps to be identified mainly within physiological reasons leading cultural institutions in general away from achieving a balanced budget due to the inability to manage a totally unexpected success.
For companies in the cultural sector it is common, if not typical, for economic and financial results to be negative, essentially due to the outputs being consistently higher than the revenues. Outputs and fixed costs are generally very high because of the enormous number of people present, leading to onerous staff costs, as well as sites and assets typically handled by narrow-minded local authorities, to the potential positive externalities in terms of tourism, and territorial revaluation because of the event that grant a ridiculously high rent. Another problem is related to the variable costs to be addressed as an exorbitant artistic cachet, careless costs for equipment and consumption as well as operating expenses, that are, in general, difficult to budget for.
Lastly, under these physiological aspects, it is fair to say that general revenue is often not adequate and sufficient to cover the long list of costs, mainly because of the near impossibility of raising public funds.
The second macro-group of the reasons behind the Woodstock failure, which in essence are the same conditions that lead to the failure of the majority of similar events, is, as mentioned, the fact that organizers of the psychedelic 1969 event found themselves overwhelmed by the incredible success of those three music days. Half a million people were present, more than ten times the estimate provided, that took both organizers and the administration by complete surprise, not even giving them the chance to process the grandeur of what they had organized.
Shortly after the festival, its debt amounted to more than a million dollars and, subsequently, was accompanied by about 70 lawsuits lodged at the expense of the team.
It is certain, however, that something spectacular, albeit a failure economically, had been made and that this financial statement although it is certainly not the most important event in the world of culture.
But is it really possible to completely separate cultural and economic aspects?
Well, for a company, which in this case is what it is albeit a “cultural company”, no: the cost of the event necessarily constitutes the foundation upon which to build the cultural infrastructure.
This may perhaps be the reason that led the legend of Woodstock to become tainted by the stain of economic failure, which is what forbid its replication in time, and that at the same time separates it from Sziget whose tradition, on the other hand, continues, reviving and strengthening it from year to year, 11 editions up to now.
What is certain is that we are no longer in the 70s. Things have changed and so has the scene of competition.
The number of festivals remained virtually unchanged from the beginning of the 1900s to the 80s: it was mainly about general events of which mostly celebratory events placed as a backdrop. From the 80s to the present, however, the number of these events increased in a hundredfold measure. This rapid and recent proliferation can probably be explained by the fact that festivals have been progressively considered more than just celebratory events, but effective instruments of cultural and territorial policy able to generate positive externalities in economic, social, and cultural terms (Frey, 1994; Gursoy, Kim, Uysal, 2004). Managers and local authorities have therefore found in the organization of festivals a contingency of public and private interests, thus, the proposal has been increasing, multiplying over time.
The recent financial crisis, on the other hand, has constituted a trend reversal and the fear of economic default was by many, foolishly and recklessly, addressed by “reducing” compulsively where the monetary return is less immediately obvious: more precisely in culture (a reasoning in terms of externalities that seems in fact too complex to be grasped by the carelessness of many administrations).
In this scenario the praise towards the virtuosity of this cultural reality of global importance is growing, and in addition, has managed to survive and innovate itself constantly by remaining faithful to its budgetary constraints. Herein lies the reason as to why Sziget differs from Woodstock: perhaps its legend is still not as great as that of the “grandfather of art” but this festival of Budapest has the opportunity to grow thanks to the increase in numbers that will comfortably allow it to do so.