Don’t Panic, We’re From Poland! – An Interview
#Don't Panic! We're from Poland
small, Don’t Panic, We’re From Poland! – An Interview, Iga Zawadzińska, Michał Hajduk, Królik, Krzysztof Halicz, Barbara Feliga, photo: IAM, full_do_not_panic_zesp_770.jpg
They’re the ones sending out music with a blue-and-pink bunny to Primavera, The Great Escape, and the Jazzahead festivals. Culture.pl talks to Iga Zawadzińska, Michał Hajduk, Krzysztof Halicz, and Barbara Feliga from the Don't Panic We're from Poland project of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Filip Lech: Since 2008, you have been sending Polish bands off abroad, and releasing compilations of the most interesting pieces. What is it that you want to achieve?
Iga Zawadzińska: My dreams are rather down-to-earth. I would like for Polish music bands to learn how to cope overseas – I want them to go on tours, and to take part in festivals; simply for them to appear alongside other bands that tour with concerts across the entire musical map of Europe. Our common ambition reaches even further, it encompasses Asia, and the Holy Grail of the music industry – the United States.
Michał Hajduk: You mean the Un-holy Grail.
IZ: Less holy? There has to be some other myth…
MH: Yes, there is, just like the myth of the British market. If you ask me about the main goal, then it’s delivering a narrative on Polish music to the world, in other words, the statutory aim of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. We do it in a particular way, because we are to first ones to have proposed a market-based model.
Our collaboration with professionals and bands is not just the PR activity that I like to call "unrolling the red carpet”. We work at the base, we engage young artists and first and foremost their backstage – promoters, and managers. We try to be a platform that opens up possibilities for artists and their collaborators, in order for them to explore foreign markets, and build their own position and image, step by step. In the beginning, we had to undust the image of Poland from old cliches. Hence the name, ''Don't Panic, We're from Poland'' (considered controversial by some) and the flashy image, along with the bunny. This work has had an effect, some are already saying that we’re everywhere. Now, the ball is on the side of the artists and their backstage support.
The new generation of musicians, singer-songwriters, and bands that hook onto an electro-pop aesthetic are really a fresh line-up. Free of any inferiority complexes, and lacking the distance that once separated us from the so-called West. They’re on top of things.
Not everyone wants to risk things abroad, though. It demands effort, the means, and strategic activity. That is why our aim is to activate people from the industry who stand behind the bands. We have more and more bands, the Spring Break festival in Poznań is an example of this – year after year, more than a hundred young artists of a really high standard. This year, the already famous and titled ones made up less than 10 percent of the programme.
Maybe the Polish market is enough for them?
MH: The Polish market is large enough for what it offers to our artists to be sufficient for them. The quantity and quality of music keeps on growing systematically, and there is a shortage of people who know how to use this potential abroad.
IZ: Artists lack motivation to go outside of Poland, because they can live here relatively well, and make good money. There are many places where it’s possible to play…
MH: …Here, I would argue.
IZ: There isn’t such pressure, like in the Baltic or Scandinavian countries, where there are few people and everybody knows each other. Especially in Iceland.
MH: I wish for everyone in Poland to know each other. Integrating the music industry is one of our aims. Years of experience is necessary – many of the artists we help often work with the trial and error method. They have to test all the options, there is no such thing as some tracks laid down by older colleagues.
We wait for a breakthrough act – like the band from Olsztyn more than twenty years ago, who played in basements, and then suddenly signed a contract with the leading extreme metal music label. The success of Vader spiked the world’s interest in Polish death metal, which in turn resulted in the success of Behemoth, Decapitated, and a few smaller bands. The musicians who play in garages have thus gained motivation – that is why today, the Polish metal scene boasts such a high level. Polish popular music still lacks a Vader to pull the others after them.
You speak about the backstage and promoters. But who are these people? I think that these concepts are worth explaining to the readers, since I myself don’t know exactly what we’re talking about, even though I’m a DJ, and I’ve been organising concerts for many years.
MH: It’s a whole range of people. You have the manager, who is the "nth" member of a band. A real manager is someone much more important that just a person who tries to book concerts over the phone. It’s someone who lives and breathes the band’s life, who takes care of everything.
There are agents, who have their roster – a stable of musicians. They try to ensure the highest possible number of gigs, tours, and festival performances for those artists. They work a bit like solicitors.
You have the bookers, who promote music from the other side. They work in a club, at a festival, and they decide on its programme. Or, they represent an artist in a given country, and they plan out the concert tour, collaborating with the agent. They are the buyers, not the sellers.
Barbara Feliga: On top of that, there is also PR, who usually – though not always – do a hell of a good job. They look after the promotion of the album or tour, the advertising, and the communication with various media. Polish artists often don’t know how to do this, or they hire someone who isn’t very good at it. Even if they have the necessary tools, unfortunately, they don’t know how to use them. It pains me to see artists who do not use their promotional potential. Unfortunately, it’s all about knowing how to "sell yourself”(…).
MH: At the end, there is the promoter, who takes care of all the publishing activities and so-called synchronisation – the redistribution of music and its sale for commercial purposes, which, in the present times – the times of the fall of the phonographic industry – is one of the few potential sources of income for an artist.
This doesn’t exhaust the list of people who busy themselves with promoting music. The most important ones for us are the managers and the music labels.
We are walking on the edge between the market and the art world. The person of an art curator not only carries the responsibility for selling an artist, but also frequently engages in artistic and intellectual curatorship. Does a promoter have similar ambitions and duties?
IZ: There is a tendency towards curatorship, especially within music festivals. There are specific scenes which do have their own curators at certain festivals, people who are responsible for the selection of artists. They create some kind of a vision, an entity.
MH: With so-called indie, independent music, everything depends on passion and love of music. There is no money involved there, because within a certain range of music, it’s impossible to make money from it. If you consider the experimental scene, the improv, or even the jazz scene – all these people are there due to passion, rather than being businessmen. The closer we are to the commercial domain, the less passion and more money there is involved. We aren't operating there, where only money is at stake.
Before starting my collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, I was an independent booker, I used to organise jazz and alternative music concerts. As a promoter, I never approached my task from a business angle. Each time, it was connected with thinking within a curatorial frame. Anyway, in the field of jazz, it’s a matter of passion for everyone. Even for those who work with the most expensive musicians. It’s all based on friendships, mutual recommendations, and not on fighting and competition. In the field of popular music, market competition is really strong and it’s clearly visible at the festivals across Poland which compete with each other, fighting to be headliners and sending their salaries soaring.
IZ: This has already changed, festival organisers have remembered themselves.
In the age of the Internet and the domination of the English language, what does the term "abroad" actually stand for?
IZ: We can also ask what Polish music is; we do ask ourselves this question.
MH: I don’t have any difficulties with this. We still have the physical borders between states, and we have our own language. It’s quite clear where "abroad" begins.
IZ: We are mainly active in the domain of live music performances. There is the physical presence at a given place which does exist, and the gigs happen abroad, in a place which also exists. When it comes to the media, it’s also worth distinguishing between Polish and foreign. There are no renowned blogs or Polish portals in English. We have Culture.pl.
IZ: That is an international platform, though it’s true, it was created in Poland.
MH: In the case of the music market, the division into the local and the global is still pertinent. You won’t experience any Polish music in the media or the radio stations of Baltic countries, or those of our closest neighbours – and it works the other way around, too. In this case, promoting music abroad means finding a German label, an agent who can help you organise a tour, contacts with local media, bookers who will also administer your concerts and tours on the spot. Not everything can be accomplished from behind a desk, through the Internet.
You work with showcases, conferences and festivals. Don’t you think that that is an awful lot, and everyone could have a sense of satiety? The promoters, the musicians, and first and foremost – the audiences?
MH: Yes, definitely. It’s the question of broadband Internet and how it has redefined culture. The number of active bands across the world has grown an extra 0 over the past 20 years. You can record an album at home, release it, create your own artistic image, and even take care of distribution – all by yourself. This sense of satiety is present in all possible fields.
About a dozen years ago, there were much fewer festivals across Europe with real headliners. Now, there is a shortage of stars that could fill the ongoing festivals. Not to mention how some headliners are 60 years old, which was completely impossible in the 1980s. Who would have been listening to bands that existed 40 years before?
Things are the same when it comes to showcase and commercial events. There used to be the MIDEM music fair but it has been devalued. There are dozens of such events across Europe.
IZ: Each country has the ambition to create such a festival.
MH: We distinguish three most important conferences for ourselves, the Eurosonic Noorderslag in Holland, the Reeperbahn Festival in Germany, and The Great Escape in the UK. In our geographical area, the musts are Tallinn Music Week, the MENT in Lublyana, and Spring Break in Poznań – the latter doesn’t attempt to be an international festival competing with international giants, but it’s doing a fantastic job of integrating the local scene.
Krzysztof Halicz: The competitive model does not presently exist, everybody is exhausted with it, but a Google glass for the promotion of young musicians hasn’t yet been created. The market is at a stage of multiplying festivals and showcases, because the work done there still brings effects.
IZ: We're reducing our activities, for example, we are not present in the United States. The costs were huge, while the effects were very small – it’s hard to compete with the two thousand artists from across the world who play during one week in Texas at the South by Southwest. We are not biting off more than we can chew.
Are there any other ways of telling about Polish music?
KH: We enter through all kinds of doors – for example, we collaborated with Scena Otwarta (Open Stage) for the realisation of videos of artists invited by international festivals, we now have ahead of us the joint collaboration with OFF Festival and KEXP, an American multimedia and radio channel, and on top of this we are organising study visits of journalists and so-called talent-buyers to the most important music festivals. Within Poland, we educate representatives of the Polish music industry through courses, workshops and lectures, we also organise business meetings for them as part of which they can establish their own business relations and connections with their fellows from abroad.
One has to remember that showcases are an offer for businessmen. We create a field for doing business in such a way so as to reconcile business with a fresh perception of music. Artistically, we are at a very high level, business-wise, at a still rather low one.
MH: We have filled in a gap. Eight years ago, there wasn’t any popular music within the institutional frame. The public subsidies only encompassed classical music and mainstream jazz, because they were the safe areas, and ones associated with high culture. We were strong in the niche market, but we had this hole in the middle. No one in Poland was organising any showcases, and no one participated in any, either.
What’s still ahead for you?
BF: A lot more work.
MH: Today’s solutions only encompass a certain fragment of the market, artists with a commercial potential, musicians from the milieu of alternative rock, pop, and singer-songwriters. Extreme music, metal, jazz, and world music all require a different approach and different means.
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Don't Panic We're From Poland