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The legendary German promoter details his company's journey from a boutique operation to a fiercely independent powerhouse
By Gordon Masson on 31 Mar 2022
When Karsten Jahnke registered the company name back in 1962, the enthusiastic music man had already been immersed in his favourite genre –jazz – since the decade before but admits that running a company that would allow him to indulge in his passion was never really a goal.
“The first jazz ball I promoted was 1959 for a band of a friend,” he recalls. “Afterwards, I remember receiving a letter from the authorities telling me that I needed a type of licence to put on such a show.”
At the time, Karsten was working in an export company in Hamburg, but with his evenings free, he would organise shows when he found the time and otherwise spent his waking hours listening to jazz records and trying to contact the representatives of the artists he liked best.
Finally, in 1962, his employer persuaded him it was maybe time to chase the dream, and with the registration of Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion (KJK), he took possession of the licence that local government had been urging him to obtain for his concerts and events.
“When I started, I had one assistant and one freelancer because I have no knowledge about the technical side of things, so I made sure to have an expert for the technology,” he tells IQ. “I had a fantastic start because I was working with a German ‘nonsense’ group called Insterburg & Co. and every year we had between 80-150 sold-out shows with capacities of 1,000-2,000. So for ten solid years, we made money.”
““When I started, I had one assistant and one freelancer because I have no knowledge about the technical side of things”
The success of the boutique KJK operation also attracted the attention of Germany’s powerhouse promoters, and Karsten would often find himself working with Marcel Avram and Marek Lieberberg at Mama Concerts, as well as Fritz Rau, who dominated the German market from the 1950s right through to the 80s. Those collaborations saw Karsten working with the likes of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Santana, and Neil Diamond, expanding his roster beyond its jazz routes.
Indeed, while losing money on the odd show was, of course, part of the reality of being a promoter, the first time Karsten experienced real difficulties was 20 years into his career. “It was 1983, and Marius Müller-Westernhagen cancelled a tour one day before it was scheduled to start,” says Karsten.
“I was insured by an English company who said they would pay, but all of a sudden it was six months later, so I employed an English lawyer, and after 18 months we got the money, which at that time was DM650,000. It was a lot of money [about €330,000 in today’s money], and if we had not got it back, the company would have been bankrupt.”
While a passion for the art lies at the heart of everything Karsten does, he is a realist when it comes to working in the industry. “I like music, but it makes no sense if you like the music and you can’t make money,” he states. “We had a lot of successful tours and, okay, sometimes you lose some artists – Depeche Mode we lost, Herbert Grönemeyer we lost. But some, like The Dubliners, we’ve booked for their entire 40 years. And we still have Peter Gabriel and we still have The Cure, so to be honest, I’m really happy.”
I like music, but it makes no sense if you like the music and you can’t make money”
Keeping it in the Family
Although Karsten was always keen to keep his eponymous company within the family, sons Torsten and Heiko found careers elsewhere, albeit Torsten still designs many of the company posters and artwork, while Heiko curates ÜBERJAZZ Festival and works with the company’s booking team on certain acts. Instead, the family business skipped a generation, with grandson Ben Mitha assuming the CEO role in 2014 alongside his grandfather and long-time chief Hauke Tedsen as the company’s three general managers. But it wasn’t always a certainty that Ben would take over the reins.
“During my school days, there was always this soft push and wish of Karsten to get somehow involved in the company,” he reveals. “But I kept my options open to do something different. So when I finished my A levels, it was a choice for me to either go into sports journalism or go Karsten’s way.”
The decision was made during an open house visit to Hamburg University. “Part of the programme was a journalism lecture,” says Ben. “There were, like, 2,000 people in there and about 2,000 more trying to get in. So I realised, no matter how good I think I am, pursuing a career as a journalist would be challenging. So I made the decision to go into music business and never regretted it.”
Keen to learn his trade, Ben found a role as an intern for Ted Kurland in Boston, while embarking on dual studies for both a bachelor degree and a merchant degree. “After three years, I had both degrees, and then I just started working my way through at KJK, starting as a booker and working my way up to managing director as I assumed more and more responsibilities.”
“We are now in a position where we pretty much have a specialist or a booker with knowledge of pretty much every genre”
“Of course, he started really when he was three years old in the StadtPark during the summer,” interjects Karsten. “Little Ben was always around, and he loved it.”
“It’s true,” says Ben. “My mom did the box office at Stadtpark, so I was always hanging around and playing in the bushes and stuff like that. So I suppose I got the experience from very early on.”
Karsten describes Ben’s path to the top as natural. “As a school pupil, he started to work at the company during his holidays. And after his A Levels, he started his own company, Digga Events, a full-service agency for security and stage personnel that now also handles concert production. So when he decided to join our company, it seemed like a very logical next step, and I was really happy to have a family member on board to have him leading the company into the future.”
And Ben’s impact on KJK’s activities over the past decade has been obvious. “When I started at the company, I started to open up the general roster in a more diverse and wider way,” he explains. “So we are now in a position where we pretty much have a specialist or a booker with knowledge of pretty much every genre except the classical market and German folklore (schlager) business, which we don’t cover.
“The first ILMCs I joined Karsten at, I could see that everybody knew him, everybody liked him, everybody respected him”
“While Karsten loves jazz, I originally come from the hip-hop and urban world,” he adds. “There are a few names I’m working with now, like Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, J. Cole, who definitely are some heroes from my teenager years. It makes me proud to be a small, tiny part of their art.”
That passion for music is something passed down the generations, and Ben is in no doubt about the legacy his grandfather has created for the family.
“Karsten’s 70th birthday was a big party at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg with 1,200 guests,” recalls Ben. “It was remarkable how many domestic and international stars showed up – Paul Weller, The Dubliners, Nils Landgren, Til Brönner, Herman van Veen, Justin Nozuka – as well as loads of politicians and celebrities. It was really impressive to see how many people travelled to Hamburg just to honour this guy.”
And he says his first trips to the Royal Garden Hotel similarly underlined his grandfather’s status in his eyes. “The first ILMCs I joined Karsten at, I could see that everybody knew him, everybody liked him, everybody respected him and wanted to speak to him. Seeing his standing on the international stage showed me how well respected Karsten is throughout the business.”
“[Karsten] taught me that life is too short to deal with assholes”
So with such a sage to learn from, what has the grandfather’s best advice been to the new company leader? “He taught me that life is too short to deal with assholes,” says Ben. “Besides that, I try to follow his style and manner of doing business. We have a saying in Germany that he is a typical Hanseatic businessman, which means he is always laid back, calm, loyal, trustworthy and respectful. That’s something he showed me from the very beginning, and I try to keep that spirit alive. Your word is your bond.”
Marking the company’s 60th anniversary while the German market is still trying to manoeuvre its way out of Covid restrictions will undoubtedly put a dampener on celebrations, but it hasn’t stopped the KJK staff from working tirelessly to prepare for their return to action.
“During the last two years, there was a strong focus on local and domestic artists because those were the only ones available and the only ones present in Germany,” Ben observes. However, he pours scorn on suggestions that emerging domestic talent has benefitted.
“Germany only had a few newcomers that came through, because the only thing they could do was streaming or some social media stuff. Otherwise, there was a huge lack of options and possibilities for the newcomers to come through,” notes Ben. “Obviously, the more popular and well-known domestic artists had a platform because all the attention was focused on them. But everything that comes after them struggled during the last two years. So I wouldn’t say that the domestic scene has experienced much growth.”
“Germany is one of the very few countries that still has so many local promoters in place”
Examining the changes to the German market during the pandemic, Ben notes the arrival of both DreamHaus and All Artists Agency, but he believes the new sense of camaraderie within the country is also boosted by the very unique nature of the way in which the live music business operates in the nation.
“As it stands right now, we are all very cooperative and there’s a spirit of solidarity, but once you open the gates and the normal competition comes back in, this will be shifted to the side pretty quickly,” he laughs.
He continues, “Germany is one of the very few countries that still has so many local promoters in place. Everywhere else is more centralised and the big players can easily take over a whole country by storm. It doesn’t work that way in Germany because of our historic background and also from the cultural differences within the country – the people from Bavaria are very different than we are in the north; the people in Eastern Germany are very different than the Western people, and stuff like that.”
Nonetheless, KJK is not immune from attracting suitors, and the pandemic has seen a number of approaches from corporations keen to add the Hamburg-based experts to their portfolio.
“We had some offers, but I was not interested,” Karsten tells IQ. “I want us to remain independent, and with such a young guy by my side, I can be happy.”
“I want us to remain independent, and with such a young guy by my side, I can be happy.”
Ben says, “Yes, a couple of bigger corporates approached us. Corona has been hard for all of us, but the company came through pretty well because we had good years before the pandemic, and we had lots of money saved that we could use to get us through this crisis.
“If we were to sell the company, it would be because the deal would bring us certain benefits: maybe access to another pool of artists that we couldn’t get access to without being part of a corporate, or maybe synergies in the label world. But so far, everybody who approached us just wanted to give us a ton of money for 50% of our annual revenues. And that’s not interesting for us at all because we don’t need to sell anything or to generate money.”
Talking through KJK’s Covid experience, both Karsten and Ben emphasise the strength in remaining independent, as they managed to retain all 46 staff and used government furlough schemes to keep staff on full pay when they were not otherwise working normal hours.
Detailing some of the company activity during 2020-21, Ben says, “We started with drive-in concerts, and then we took on seated shows at the Stadtpark with a very reduced audience – only playing one-quarter of the overall capacity. We also did a streaming series, and we came back in summer 21 with a whole bunch of open- air social distance concepts.
Loyalty toward employees is one of the reasons that many staff remain at the company for their entire career
“None of the shows made us any money, but they helped to keep us busy and to keep the whole infrastructure around us alive with all the suppliers, the crews, the bands, and the artists. This was one of our main concerns, as we saw it as our responsibility to keep our suppliers and the people we need open, ahead of things getting back to normal, otherwise we might have a huge lack of suppliers. So, that was our main intention for our pandemic shows.”
That loyalty toward employees is one of the reasons that many staff remain at the company for their entire career. “I started on first of April 1994, which makes it 28 years and counting,” says Frehn Hawel, the company’s head of communications, noting, “I’m not the only person clocking in around 30 years – there’s our third general manager, Hauke Tedsen, there’s Peter Gramsch head of our local department, and in my team I have Kai Friedrichsen who has also been here around 30 years. We have a long history of people who dedicate their lives to this company.”
And Hawel epitomises the family feel to KJK, having worked his way up through the ranks organically. “I was friends at school with Karsten’s youngest son, and when we moved into our first bachelor pad together, Karsten’s wife, Girlie, offered us some box office jobs to boost our income,” says Hawel. “My job during the day ended at five o’clock in the afternoon. So it was perfect to go to Karsten’s office, pick up everything and start in the box office at seven o’clock.”
Determined to find a full-time job with Karsten, Hawel even spent his holiday time doing an internship in the booking department at KJK. And it paid off when in 1994 a vacancy arose. “Unfortunately, it was not as a booker, but as a bookkeeper. But it got my foot in the door, and a couple of years later our press team left to join BMG’s record labels and, after a bit of persuasion, Karsten trusted me to step into the job. He just said ‘I think you’re my new press guy then.’ And that was that.”
“Karsten is an artist man, first and foremost”
With the company now around triple the size it was in the mid-90s, Hawel oversees a team of five people, all of whom are being moulded in the KJK tradition. “Karsten is an artist man, first and foremost,” states Hawel. “Ben is similar but he has a laser focus on the business side of things, too – they kind of feed off each other in terms of that Ben comes from an economic point of view. A company that’s only looking at figures will not have the connections to the artists that we have with our artists, so it works very well and the transition has been smooth.
“I know it was a relief for Karsten when Ben joined the company because Ben has a strong entrepreneurial side that allows him to see opportunities and then do the research to make sure they will be a success. The good thing from an employee’s point of view is we know the leaders will steer the ship, and we can trust them totally, and that’s been underlined by this pandemic – thanks to their leadership we’re emerging even more closely knit than we were before.”
That concept of considering the needs of the industry is a Jahnke family trait. The company is a partner in the massively successful Reeperbahn Festival, with Karsten being one of the event’s founders.
“I met Karsten for the first time in 2004, when the company [had] already existed for more than 40 years,” Alex Schulz, managing director of Reeperbahn Festival, tells IQ. “I was searching for a professional promoter for my idea for Reeperbahn Festival because it was quite clear that we could not establish this event with only my company, which had absolutely no experience in artist booking, etc.
“It wasn’t a new idea, but the Reeperbahn in Hamburg is the absolute right place to present new music”
“The option to establish a platform for new talents and established acts that Karsten personally liked – no, loved – was definitely one of the driving forces. And from the first edition of Reeperbahn Festival in 2006 until now, Karsten is present at as many programme events as possible, from midday until midnight, four days in a row. Every year, about one week before the event starts, Karsten will call me in order to ask me to send a list of recommendations for both the conference sessions as well as concerts.”
Karsten states, “It wasn’t a new idea, but the Reeperbahn in Hamburg is the absolute right place to present new music. And now the conference is getting very big, alongside maybe the biggest showcase festival in Europe. The first idea was to present unknown bands, but now it’s an international festival and I think we’ve developed it well.”
Schulz believes that Inferno Events’ partnership with Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion has been crucial to the success of Reeperbahn, while the close relationship between the operations involves many of KJK’s staff working directly on the event. “Petra, Alina, Anja, Jessica, Frehn, Karen and Stefan are just a few of the people in the team that we share our daily business with,” he says.
“About ten years ago, Karsten introduced me to Ben, and I appreciate his point of view and advice very much, especially since we have been working closer together for the last two years.”
For his part, Ben comments, “At the beginning, we had the wrong strategy [for Reeperbahn], so we lost a ton of money because we just had too many venues and too many unknown bands involved. We thought about bringing bigger acts to smaller venues and charging specific venue tickets or day tickets to make up the finances, but that wasn’t the case, so we made big losses and that forced us to adapt the concept.”
“No matter how efficient and how successful we are, [Reeperbahn] would not be possible without the gov funding we receive”
Expanding the remit of the event to appeal to an international audience was part of the solution. “In the end, this is the success of Reeperbahn – it’s now a global brand,” says Ben. “People from abroad know that if you want to take your first steps in Europe, you can do it via Reeperbahn because you have everything in one place.
“But no matter how efficient and how successful we are, the festival and conference would not be possible without the government funding we receive, as the capacity is just too small to generate enough income to cover the costs on our own. But thankfully, this is recognised by the German government and the city of Hamburg who provide funding.”
While KJK’s principals carefully plot the company’s path out of the pandemic, its independent style already has it a step ahead of some of its peers in Germany. A number of promoters in Germany participated in the nation’s voucher scheme when the pandemic first hit the events calendar, but KJK opted out.
“I think it was mainly a tool for people who had cashflow problems,” says Ben. “So we decided not to participate, and I’m now hearing a lot of partners are facing huge problems because the scheme ran out at the end of last year but people now want refunds of their vouchers.”
“We are more hands-on simply because it’s our own money that we might lose”
The passing of the leadership baton to his grandson gives Karsten satisfaction on a number of levels. “Ben is now doing all the great shows that I promoted before. And that leaves me to do my favourite music: jazz,” says Karsten, who has created a genre-specific series called JazzNights. “In this series, I work with live venues like the Elbphilharmonie or the Old Opera in Frankfurt or the Philharmonic in Cologne, all the concert halls and so on. And musicians and audiences like these venues, so it’s been a great success.”
He adds, “When I was young, jazz was the most important music in Germany, in the 50s. Rock came in the early 60s, but the 50s was all about jazz. And for me, it’s the most interesting music. To be honest, it’s a privilege to promote music that you like, and even better if you don’t lose money.”
Not losing money is a bit of a family mantra. “Live Nation or AEG can easily say, ‘Okay, we might lose money in Germany, but that’s not a problem because we can cross-finance the tour with the UK leg or US or something like that,’” opines Ben.
“From our point of view, we only have this one market in which we can compete, so we have to be more thoughtful and careful about the offers because if we lose money, it’s not shareholder money, it’s our own money. And we don’t want to get in the situation where we can’t pay our wages or Karsten has to sell his house.”
But Ben also sees that process as an advantage. “We are more hands-on simply because it’s our own money that we might lose. So we put harder work into projects to make them a success.”
As for company expansion, Ben believes that “smart growth” is the way forward.
“We’re quite happy with the independent position we have in the market right now”
“We’re quite happy with the independent position we have in the market right now, and we also get a lot of trust and respect from our clients and the managers we work with because they like our hands-on approach.
“But at the same time, we look left and right. So, for example, we just took over the Baltic Soul Weekender, which is a huge soul-, r&b-, 60s-, Mo- town-related event, which perfectly fits our company’s strategy and our company brands. It’s a smart acquisition that totally makes sense.
“We also launched a new company called KJ Projects, which is currently running a 4,000-capacity tent venue in Hamburg because there’s a huge lack of venues of this size in the city. This is another smart approach for us to grow the brand. And we’re talking to a couple of venues and a couple of smaller boutique festivals that might fit our brands and be good add-ons.
“This is more or less our strategy: we’re always pretty niche with most of our core business, so we want to stay in that niche and look left and right to identify other niches that could make sense for us.”
And with Karsten able to devote more of his time to jazz, he’s more than happy to leave the future in Ben’s safe hands. “I happened to develop real friendships with many artists over the years, especially with Herbie Hancock, but also Branford Marsalis, Gregory Porter, Herman van Veen, and, of course, John Sheahan of The Dubliners,” says Karsten. “I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve always worked with artists whose music I really like – it can’t get much better than that in this business.”
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