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In a New Bosses 2023 interview, Atlas programmer Vladyslav Yaremchuk talks about the return of concerts and festivals in war-torn Ukraine
By Gordon Masson on 21 Aug 2023
Vladyslav Yaremchuk is the programming director of Atlas Festival – Ukraine’s biggest music festival, which had more than 600k+ visitors in 2021. He is also the partnership manager at Music Saves UA – a humanitarian initiative that harnesses the power of the international music community in order to provide humanitarian help to Ukrainian civilians.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he had to abandon his regular work in order to fully focus on doing projects that help Ukrainian civilians and spread the Ukrainian message far and wide across the word.
Here, as part of a New Bosses 2023 interview, he tells IQ about the realities of living and working in a country under siege.
IQ: The lives of everyone in Ukraine have been massively disrupted by the war. Is anything taking place in terms of live music, or is it too dangerous to organise large gatherings of people?
VY: Live music, stand-up, theatre are all alive and well. We even had a first couple of small festivals, one in Kyiv and another in Lviv just last week. You have to take care of safety, make sure there is a shelter that can fit everyone nearby and that everyone knows where to go. Curfews are a big factor and will rain one going forward. Kyiv curfew is midnight till 5 am for example and events have to wrap up by 10 pm. Events are very needed to keep people’s mental health and morale intact. They unite people and every single one serves a purpose – they fundraise for humanitarian or military needs.
“It’s time to get more artists and all kinds of people to come to Ukraine to experience what is happening here first-hand”
As time passes, news coverage about Ukraine is slipping down the order of priority in other countries. What can the live music community do to keep helping the people of Ukraine?
We need to see each other and talk to each other. Ukrainian people and artists need a platform that will give them a chance to reach people and tell it how it is straight into people’s eyes. It’s also time to get more artists and all kinds of people to come to Ukraine to experience what is happening here first-hand: to support people, to give charity shows, to then come back home and share their own personal experiences and perspective.
We need to keep the connection strong as time isolates Ukraine from the rest of the world, because what is happening is too extreme and tragedies are happening on a daily basis, people are tuning out. The tragedy needs to be bigger every time so that people outside of Ukraine care like they used to. People need to understand what is happening here and not take their information just from the news or media, but from the people who are living through this and from those who came here to see it with their own eyes.
If you want to help, but don’t know how – just simply reach out to me and we will see what we can do together. At Music Saves UA we collaborate with venues, conferences, festivals and artists to make a real difference and we always try to find an individual solution that would work best, all we need is people willing to support us and together, we will come up with something great.
“I’m sure if we didn’t do it we would not survive as a company since our last festival would have been in 2019”
You say that 600,000 people attended Atlas in 2021 – can you tell us more about the festival, its headliners and how you achieved such a high total of visitors?
We were lucky to be pioneers when it comes to organising a festival of such scale in Ukraine. We started in 2015 and the festival was growing faster than we could keep up. The population of Kyiv and Ukraine are also big, we had a huge domestic audience we could work with and even in 2021 despite the crazy number of visitors, we had so many people in our target audience who never came to the festival. That’s even without mentioning the international audience which we were only starting to attract.
It was 2019 when we finally managed to put down roots deep enough that will ensure that the festival will happen this year and the year after and two years down the line, it was a privilege we haven’t had before. We also made a festival for everyone – so much different music, so much space, so much to do apart from the music itself. You had a lot to do and experience no matter your age and so it was a festival for everyone. We were also on very good terms with our sponsors – we were a one-of-a-kind platform and so they were ready to back us financially and that was essential, since our ticket sales alone wouldn’t let us grow nearly as much.
We also taught our sponsors to do something special, to generate memories and experiences for the visitors instead of just trying to have their name on every corner of the festival and that’s it. Basically, it was a lot of passion, hard work and of course, sheer luck. Things were looking great for us in 2020 – we secured Twenty One Pilots, the biggest act at the festival yet and had very exciting prospects for 2021. Then came Covid and everything came to a screeching halt. We were exceptionally lucky to pull off a festival on 2021. I’m sure if we didn’t do it we would not survive as a company since our last festival would have been in 2019.
“Concerts are happening everywhere, even in frontline cities in shelters, even in trenches”
Ukraine pioneered the idea of vertical concerts during the pandemic. What impact is the lack of concerts and arts events having on you and your fellow citizens?
Like I’ve mentioned earlier, the concerts are very much happening and play a very important role. Since we don’t have many international artists coming to Ukraine the local scene is thriving, especially amidst the renewed interest in everything Ukrainian. The capacity to innovate and adapt is also insane, but it’s because there is no way we can abandon music and culture. It’s needed more than ever amidst the attempt to erase our very identity. So it’s a cultural renaissance in a way with daily explosions and deaths as a background.
People often bring up the phrase “when guns roar, the muses are silent”, but I don’t believe it applies to reality, not in our case, nor historically. Of course, in the first few months, everything went dormant, people couldn’t even listen to music or write it since our we all sought to survive. But now the concerts are happening everywhere, even in frontline cities in shelters, even in trenches to support those who we thank for being alive. And these are some of the most raw, special concerts since we are all living through this intense experience. It brings us together and helps us prop each other up and keep working and keep supporting the military and each other. It’s quite fascinating and I wish people outside Ukraine could see and experience this more, but also realise that it’s our defence mechanism, an adrenaline rush in response to being subjected to literal genocide.
“We have the first proper festival taking place with a couple thousand people”
How long, post-war, do you think it might take for Ukraine to rebuild the infrastructure needed to host concerts and festivals?
It depends on what you mean by infrastructure. Many venues are working, we should be opening our Atlas venue in autumn for the first time since 24 February 2022. We have the first proper festival taking place with a couple thousand people focused first and foremost on the charity aspect, while also giving a lot of the new artists their biggest live performances so far.
International artists are coming to do charity shows, we just had The Tiger Lillies who dedicated an album to Ukraine. UK’s London Elektricity came to play a set in July and others are coming. I hope this trend will continue and we will certainly be inviting those who are ready to come as it’s very important. But it’s all a very different way of functioning, I can’t imagine when things will be “normal”. This war is far from over, we are learning to live with it, to do festivals amidst the drones, missiles and alarms and looking for ways how can they be as useful as possible. It’s not the time to think about business, big tours or huge festivals, we don’t have that privilege.
You and your colleagues have all had to pivot in your careers since the war broke out. But how are people who remain in music managing to fund their work?
It depends. Grants and outside funding play an important role. For example, Music Saves UA, the humanitarian fundraising initiative I work for right now, can exist and pay me a salary thanks to the grants and allows us to focus on saving lives without worrying about making ends meet. It also makes sure 100% of what we raise on spent on providing help instead of operational costs or salaries.
For the Atlas Festival team it’s a lot more difficult. We tried to keep paying our sizeable team for as long as we could, but eventually we had to “freeze” the whole operation as we are simply not making any money. All we did since the invasion was charity projects which enabled us to pay those who were involved from the sponsor money. Now we work on a project basis, if we can find funds to put on a big charity event while also getting a chance to employ a part of our team and help them financially for a couple of months, we do it. But until then most of us are doing work on the side.
In general, as long as people can put bread on their tables they are content and focus all their efforts on doing something useful. There’s no “music business” as such here anymore. Everything operates on grants, government support, etc, no one is pursuing big profits, it’s about sustaining yourself and your family and helping the country.
“It’s simply exhausting to live this reality”
Your daily life is unimaginable for people who have not had to experience war. What’s the most difficult aspect of your current situation?
I feel like a lot of us are sugar-coating things because we feel like people outside of Ukraine are not ready to face the reality of what’s happening and what we have to live through – it doesn’t really register because it’s that extreme. It’s simply exhausting to live this reality – and that’s coming from a person who lives a very privileged life compared to those who are sacrificing their lives for us and the rest of the free world on the frontlines.
These last few months have been mentally challenging. In May, Kyiv was attacked every night with drones and missiles, literally hundreds of them. People simply couldn’t get sleep, and that accumulates with time. Then Russians proceeded to attack less protected regions and every morning you wake up to another tragedy in one or two of Ukraine’s big cities with dozens of civilians dead, murdered in their homes. And then you see how that’s just become normal for the world.
Then Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam – a case of genocide, a war crime of unimaginable scale amidst dozens of war crimes every week, and then we saw a lack of a proper response from the world, which disillusioned a lot of us.
Media was trying to both-side their coverage which reminded a lot of us of MH17 coverage. It made us physically sick to see this and see how there was no adequate response from the world, which only emboldens Russia to do worse things with impunity. I have a little box in my corridor with documents, cans of food and water. The whole country was preparing for nuclear sabotage at ZNPP after the Kakhovka dam explosion.
It’s an overwhelming feeling of injustice that we feel here. The democratic world is one of the reasons why we are still alive and exist, yet at the same time, so much could have been done and can be done, but it’s not being done and the price is in human lives. I can’t imagine what our military feels when they see the world’s hesitancy to really put an end to this. Ukraine needs more weapons, it’s as simple as that. It’s an uncomfortable fact for people who don’t know what war is and lived for decades in countries that were safe.
“Music was never out of politics, that is simply impossible”
We can keep raising money for humanitarian needs forever, but it treats only the consequences and does nothing to stop the very reasons – Russians are killing our best every single day and they only understand power in response. Hesitancy and appeasement only embolden them to keep going and outlast the free world’s will to help us till this is over.
We need tougher sanctions as we see that Russia is producing missiles and drones in quantities enough to shower us with them non-stop. Putin is showing his commitment to this war, but Russian propaganda and meddling in politics immobilised the world. This conversation needs to be normalised. It needs to happen in cultural and music circles. Music matters and it plays a huge role in this. Music was never out of politics, that is simply impossible. You either stand for what’s right or let those who are ready to use brute force and propaganda to take over.
We are exceptionally grateful to our allies and the UK especially as they have been leaders in terms of mobilising military and political support. You can’t imagine how much love there is for the UK for that reason. And don’t get me started on how supportive regular people are, it’s heartwarming and it keeps us afloat mentally knowing we are not alone and so many people genuinely care. It’s the reason why we are still alive and live in a country called Ukraine. But at the same time, we are not seeing an end to this, because there is a lack of confidence in big politics that enabling Ukraine to win is the only right thing to do and it has to be done now, not later. It sometimes feels so useless to tell people about how we are preparing to rebuild the country and live a bright future when that future is in no way secured yet.
Where might people be able to meet you in person during the remainder of 2023?
I haven’t left Ukraine since February since the rules for obtaining the temporary permission to leave as a male from 16-60 have been changed. Hopefully, I will be able to travel soon again since nothing works better than speaking to people face-to-face and mobilising support that way. I had to write a lot of emails and be a part of many online panels. I appreciate the conferences that accommodated that and made it possible.
Meanwhile, the Music Saves UA team is currently on a festival tour through Europe, where they talk about Ukrainian music, culture and the current state of things, and raise money for humanitarian help. The results are great and it’s good to see that there is still so much willingness from fellow festivals to join our cause. If things work out, I hopefully will attend Reeperbahn and any other conferences that will be kind enough to invite me. But hopefully ESNS, ILMC (I missed it two times in a row due to visa and documents, so hopefully the third time is the charm) and all the other staples.
“My hope is that the music industry and community will continue to support us while we are fighting for our freedom”
As a New Boss, in normal times is there anything you would change to make the music industry a better place?
It’s tough to think of “normal times” right now. In many ways, I feel rather removed from the industry and feel like I missed a lot and barely know how it operates post-Covid since we went from Covid straight to war here, and that changed everything. I haven’t had a chance to work on the festival for a long time, I don’t know what the fees are, who represents who, or what the crazy new contract shenanigans are, as my work is very different now. My hope is that the music industry and community will continue to support us while we are fighting for our freedom and will be there for us once the war is over.
Ukrainian music professionals worked a lot in the last few years to put Ukraine on the map, to integrate it into the European market and it was going well. Hopefully, the world saw our resilience, our willingness to stand for what we believe in, our love for music and our ability to keep it going no matter what and would be willing to help us create a strong bond with the rest of the world.
I want to see Ukrainian music being welcomed everywhere and to see artists from all over the world willing to come to Ukraine and use music as a means to help and make a difference. I hope there will always be space for the music itself, for the passion of the people in this beautiful community, and for the willingness to stand for what is right using your platform amidst all the business stuff, profits, acquisition and mergers. This is a very human-centric industry and community and I hope it stays as such, because when I see how willing people are to help us and others it gives me the capacity to keep going and it is the reason why I love my job and cling to it so much.
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