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Cities and festivals: A lasting relationship?

Festivals and the cities that host them have close and dynamic relationships. In many cases the festival becomes the city, and vice versa, as suggested by labels such as the ‘festival city’, ‘Music/City’ or the ‘eventful city’. Usually the marriage of city and festival is relatively harmonious, upset only by the occasional spat over licence fees or noise levels. Sometimes, however, these arguments can end up in (threatened) divorce, and the departure of the event for a rival city. This happened in the case of the North Sea Jazz Festival, which as Irina Van Aalst and Rianne van Melik explained, took advantage of the refurbishment of its traditional venue in the Hague to move to Rotterdam. Apart from the enticement of a much larger venue and a bigger potential audience, the support from a well-developed eventful city such as Rotterdam was a major factor in tempting the event to move.

The relative ease with which North Sea Jazz moved to a new city underlines the importance of embedding major events into the fabric of the city. This is a factor discussed explicitly by Wynn (2016) in his book Music/City, where he compared different models of urban music festivals in North America. He contrasted the ‘citadel’ model of the Newport Festival, which is cut off from the city, to the ‘core’ model of Nashville, where city centre venues host the festival, and the ‘confetti’ pattern of SXSW in Austin, which is spread across the entire city and integrated into the urban fabric. It would be much more challenging to move a deeply embedded festival such as SXSW to another city than it would be to re-locate the self-contained Newport Festival.

Another key issue is the extent to which visitors identify the festival with its home base. When we analysed the successful globalisation strategy of the SONAR Festival, we found the strong identification of the event with its original home in Barcelona to by key. Even though the event was subsequently copied or franchised in over 20 cities on different continents, each subsequent copy of the event referred back to the ‘original’ edition of the festival staged in Barcelona. This meant that every new edition of the festival added to the strength of Barcelona as the festival hub, rather than diluting the market.

The success of Barcelona as a festival hub has also been important in the growth of Primavera Sound, now one of the largest music festivals in Europe. The festival attracted over 220,000 visitors at the last edition staged in Barcelona in 2019. The event has also extended beyond its original base, with editions planned for Los Angeles, Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires and São Paulo in 2022. However, the future of the original Barcelona edition of the festival is now in doubt because of a disagreement between the organisers of Primavera Sound and the City of Barcelona. The Director and Founder of the festival, Gabi Ruiz, recently accused the city of a lack of understanding of the festival, and threatened to move the event to Madrid instead. The idea of one of the cultural jewels of the Catalan Capital being moved to their fiercest rival kicked up a storm in the media, which was obviously the intention.

Photo: Greg Richards

Primavera Sound was unhappy because of an apparent rejection of the ‘model’ of the festival by the Cultural Department of Barcelona, as well as a supposed price hike for the venue hire. The organisers indicated that there were limited dates available for the festival in the Forum venue, which meant that they could not use the double weekend format they preferred. They also indicated that residents around the venue opposed the festival and that the culture department was also ill-disposed to the event. This was apparent from the increased hire price for the Forum venue, which according to Ruiz had multiplied 17 times compared to the 2019 edition.

What do I think? That Barcelona does not want this festival model, it does not want Primavera Sound….. the city has lost the view of the cultural industries as an objective. Gabi Ruiz

The spat between Primavera Sound and Barcelona is an illustration of shifting power roles between cities and major festivals. In the past, the use of the city as a platform to project festivals was a major factor in location decisions. Today, the power of larger events has grown to the extent where they can effectively hold the city to ransom: ‘give us what we want, or we will move to another city’. Let’s see what happens with Primavera Sound in 2023.

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