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For the first time in its 45-year history, the 2020 Paléo Festival has been canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  Founded in Nyon in 1976, in the spirit of Woodstock, Paléo has grown to become one of Europe’s largest open-air music festivals.  Around 50K people visit the rural grounds near Nyon (20 km from Geneva) each day, totalling more than 280K visitors over the course of the week-long event. 

Held each July, the festival has been rescheduled for July 19-25, 2021. In mid-May, Living in Geneva caught up with Dany Hassenstein, Paléo’s programmer, to learn more about the festival’s plan for 2021. 

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Hassenstein oversees booking, logistics, contracts, permits, and the management of volunteers.  And perhaps above all, he ensures the artists are in the best position to deliver an unforgettable performance to Paléo’s loyal audience.    

For the first time in its 45-year history, the festival had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Is it a very busy/stressful period, as you rebook the artists and rework all of the logistics for summer 2021?

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster.  Obviously, it’s the first time the event has been canceled so it’s been quite a shock.  But it also represents a new challenge.  We’ve had concerns in the past about a potential health situation, for example when the MERS virus, swine flu, and other epidemics occurred across Europe.  But in terms of a worldwide pandemic?  Like everyone else, we never expected it. It’s now the survival of the whole industry we’re fighting for, and it gives us a new purpose. 

Throughout its history, Paléo has been an independent, non-profit organization. And as such receives no public subsidy.  Has that changed this year?  Will the Swiss government provide some type of relief or support to music festivals and cultural events? 

Yes, we’re in the middle of the application process now.  The central government in Bern reacted very quickly to the crisis, and made an allocation of CHF 280 million to the cultural sector.  These funds have been distributed to the 26 cantons, who will then allocate the money to organizations and artists in need.  If approved, it will be first time the festival receives public money.  Over the course of four decades, we’ve created a tremendous amount of economic wealth in the Nyon region.  We now hopefully expect some return.

How does the festival change, grow and set its goals each year?  For example, the 2020 festival was going to emphasize Paléo’s commitment to sustainability and the reduction of its environmental impact.  Can these same goals be prioritized in 2021? 

The 2021 festival will be the same event, as much as possible, to the 2020 event. Regarding the environmental impacts of music festivals, the philosophy will change after this crisis.  Previously, the industry had an attitude of, ”If you want to be 100 percent eco-friendly, then you simply don’t hold a festival or outdoor event.”  This approach doesn’t work any more.  For example, the biggest pollution-causing activity related to the festival is the international travel of the artists. Environmental considerations may influence how artists tour in the future.  Will they do five continents in two weeks?  Or will they do one continent per month, take more time to travel in between shows, and make less pollution while on tour?

The festival is famous for is its eclectic mix of new artists, combined with established acts/artists.  Can you describe how the line-up is developed each year?

It is invitation-only.  We have hundreds of submissions per day. We try to reply to everyone, and we advise them to play as many shows as possible, and to hope that we come see them in the clubs.  A small three-person team at Paléo makes the selection for the festival’s line-up each year.  We are lucky enough (in general, not necessarily this year) to travel and see concerts all over Europe, America and Asia.  Our way of booking the festival is from top to bottom, starting with the headline acts.  Once we have those secured, we add acts in the same musical genre (of the headliner) for each day of the festival.  We try not to mix too many musical styles each day, two or three maximum.  So yes, while the overall composition of the festival is very eclectic, that’s not the case for each individual day. 

Each day is often a different style of music (rock, world music, reggae, pop, electronic music and more), and isn’t targeted at the same type of audience.  The majority of people come on individual days, not for the whole festival.  Organizing the line-up is how we tell a story, but it also helps us build a relationship with our audience.  For example, if people come to see Céline Dion, they can be confident that they will like the music on the other six stages.  They don’t have to know the bands already. 

Paléo has been sold out in advance for the past 10 years, usually within a couple of hours of tickets being released.  What is special about the festival that creates such strong demand for tickets?

The demand for the tickets is incredible and we’re very thankful.  The goal is to have a very loyal audience. The mix of what we offer, with more than 200 concerts and performances, makes all the difference: a very creative, safe, and secure cultural event; an outdoor festival during the best possible season in Switzerland; the most exciting headline acts; and finally, the opportunity to discover new music.

Was most of the 2020 line-up in place before the cancellation of the festival?  The situation is evolving, but do you anticipate that most of the artists will be able to participate in 2021, including Céline Dion?

That’s our plan.  Céline Dion is our priority, since we already announced her show and sold the tickets.  We are waiting for her answer on whether she can return for 2021.  Again, we’d like to make, as much as possible, a copy-paste of the whole artistic menu.  The situation worldwide is so uncertain for the moment, especially for the bands. Certainly, as soon as things open up, everyone will want to tour.  Every act wants to play and audiences want to see shows.  We believe that touring/festivals will make a strong come-back. 

But Paléo’s situation may change.  For example, we may not have the same budget in 2021 as we had in 2020.  It could be that we try to do the same event, but with less money.  We may say to the artist, “We are interested in having you back, but it won’t be for the same fee as before.”  And it’s not only Paléo.  All music festivals, all over the world, are in the same situation.  The acts are aware, and likewise are experiencing a tremendous decrease in income.  The artists who had planned to tour in 2021 now find themselves in competition with those who planned to tour in 2020.  The availability of artists on tour may be larger than the demand for tickets.

What can supporters of Paléo do to help/support the event from now until 2021?

The ones currently suffering the most are the artists.  They had a revenue plan for this summer, and an opportunity to connect with their audience.  Both of which are no longer happening.  The best thing to do right now is listen to a lot of music.  To consume music and to pay for it.  Every time we stream a song or listen to music, the artist gets the feedback that people are still aware of him/her.  And as soon as events can take place, and people are allowed to see shows, the best help is to buy tickets and go.  And likewise, to keep the tickets for events that have been postponed, including Paléo, and not ask for a refund. 

Paléo has featured incredible artists over the years, including Bob Dylan, The Who, The Strokes, Björk, Ravi Shankar, Indochine, Motörhead, R.E.M, Patti Smith and Arcade Fire.  Are there certain performances over the years at Paléo that have been particularly meaningful for you?  What makes a certain performer/performance most memorable to an audience? 

Tracy Chapman, standing alone in front of 30K people with her guitar, entertaining people for almost two hours non-stop.  Without saying a word.  She nailed it.  Other acts can take over the stage, and still not transmit the same vibe to the audience.  And it’s not necessarily the type of music, rather it’s about the connection between artist and audience.  My personal goal, as well, is to create an environment where the artist is as happy as possible, particularly at the moment s/he goes on stage.  If everything is perfect and the artist feels great, s/he shares that feeling with the audience.  The weather can also be a big factor.  Neil Young came in 2013, and a thunderstorm rolled in during his performance. Out of 30K people, 25K left.  Neil Young and his band played for another 30 minutes, to 5K people who stood in the rain.  Those were two really unforgettable and exceptional moments. 

What is your best advice for someone who has never been to the festival? 

Come as early as possible.  The energy is very mellow at the beginning of the day.  And with lots of families around, it’s a smooth introduction to the festival.  Then take a break during the evening, and get ready for either the headline act or a smaller act you’ve been waiting to see.  Observe and interact with those around you.  Doing this will give you the feeling of being out of your day-to-day routine.  And that you are (at the risk of sounding cliché) entering a “love and peace” zone.  By taking your time and arriving early, you can take full advantage of what Paléo offers. 

Photos (c) Paléo

We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to learn more about our activities and excursions, visit our website at  http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/