Cross-border music building bridges in pandemic

14 July 2021
Series (4): Evelyn Sieber, Reeperbahn Festival International, reveals how culture AND international exchange work despite pandemic

Evelyn Sieber was en route to Canada to attend the JUNO Awards when Germany imposed the first lockdown last March. On her arrival, all the events had been cancelled and visitors from all corners of the globe suddenly had to book return flights swiftly. The project manager of the Reeperbahn Festival International recalled the turmoil and noted: “During that last phase, I was almost alone on the aircraft. It was spooky." 

International festival building bridges to U.S., Asia and Africa

Relieved to be home, it was time to save the festival and especially the 5th Reeperbahn Festival New York, which had been scheduled for June. The Reeperbahn Festival International has been building bridges to the United States, Asia and Africa since 2016 and paves the way for stakeholders in the music industry to launch on new cultural markets apart from boosting international cultural exchange. 

All the panel discussions, keynotes and live Q&A sessions with music industry representatives due to be held in New York had to go virtual. Several 1:1 matchmaking events, digital receptions, networking events and visits to leading music companies in New York had to be re-organised. This daunting task proved a real challenge, but it worked. Sieber stressed: "It was only possible thanks to our fantastic team."

Digital dive

Four digital stations, two face-to-face events

Sieber and her team are now digital experts. The Reeperbahn Festival International 2021 is more extensive than ever with four digital stations in Beijing, Nashville, Pan-Africa and New York (April to June), as well as two additional face-to-face events in autumn. And interest in the international festival is keen. "The United States is an established but important market. China and Africa, on the other hand, are exciting new markets. There is an incredible amount happening there," she noted. If you manage to gain a foothold in China, for instance, you can expect a huge market albeit a strictly regulated one. "Yes, the rules are clearly defined. But it is very easy to operate within these rules and the people themselves are open and accessible." In Africa, the main focus is on sub-Saharan markets such as Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa. "The interest in our artists is just as keen as our curiosity. That makes it easier to get together at eye level - and we can't do without that," Sieber stressed.  

From Hamburg to the world

"Almost real meetings" 

And how does this eye-to-eye contact work in a digital space? "We bring a few artists on stage and go to a great technical effort to stream the acts. We have created virtual spaces for 'almost real' meetings." The entire Nochtspeicher venue for instance, was photographed for the Pan-Africa event and avatars were used to represent the delegates. "Visitors could meet at the stage or explore the backstage area, but they could also meet potential business partners at the bar for talks." Even though it involved tremendous effort, it was certainly worthwhile, Sieber believes. "The artists were absolutely thrilled to be able to stand on a stage again. And thanks to the media attention, the performance paid off several times over." Naturally, the artists earn a fee, but the chance to make contacts again is more important. "It encouraged us to look forward to a post-pandemic life in music and in future."

Collaboration with Federal Foreign Office

The aspirations of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office on the Reeperbahn Festival International are high similar to other demands. Sieber said: "The long-term promotion of international cultural exchange and enabling stakeholders in the music industry to enter new, relevant cultural markets is a top priority for the Federal Foreign Office, especially in these difficult times.” 

This year's Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg gets underway from September 22-25, 2021. It is considered Europe's largest music festival and has attracted international artists and the music industry to Hamburg annually since 2016. The agenda features around 600 concerts, 380 conferences and more than 130 art, film and literature events at 100 venues. The discourse section gives delegates an opportunity to debate social and cultural issues and musicians a chance to learn more entering the music industry.

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