Opening gambit: Chess & Jazz on why it’s game on for 2020
With all eyes currently on Exit Festival and its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the festival season, it’s worth remembering that while the Serbian event is by far the largest European festival to confirm it will go ahead this summer, it’s not (quite) the only one.
In an addition to the raft of music festivals adapted into a digital format, a handful of events are still going ahead physically, including showcase events such as Tallinn Music Week (Estonia) and Reeperbahn Festival (Germany) and Russian music festival Chess & Jazz, originally scheduled for 24–25 July but now expected to be pushed back to September.
IQ caught up with Nick Babin, founder of Chess & Jazz, to discuss the festival’s ethos, preparations for 2020, and why the festival won’t be going online…
Give us a brief history of Chess & Jazz.
Chess & Jazz is international boutique festival which has been held in Moscow since 2018. The festival takes place in the iconic venue of the Hermitage Garden, in the historical centre of Moscow, where Soviet Jazz was born in the early 20th century.
Chess & Jazz has already featured performances from double Grammy award-winner Gregory Porter, the Manchester trio GoGo Penguin, American singer CeeLo Green, London-based band Kamaal Williams and the American soul star Christian Berishai, better known as JMSN, over the past few years.
The festival concept has also drawn attention from international markets, and we organised Chess & Jazz in Singapore and Kazakhstan in 2019.
Why combine chess and live music?
Russia has a significant chess legacy, and it’s probably for that reason that, from the outset, our festival made a large impact on the Russian cultural map.
I also run a booking agency, booking acts for several Russian festivals and private events. But I always wanted to create my own product and realise the ideas that come from my own experience – so, one day, being inspired by chess aesthetic and being a huge fan of jazz music, I did it.
What is your music booking philosophy?
We are a jazz festival. We try to present to our guests stars such as Gregory Porter, but we are not afraid to mix genres, because jazz is a baseline for all music. Our social and cultural mission is to present to our audience new names in the global jazz scene, while also spotlighting Russian jazz artists.
“I don’t believe in online festivals. … Festivals’ main strength is in the live atmosphere and human contact”
Who is the average Chess & Jazz fan?
Our audience is an intelligent, creative class of people from 25 to 40 who love comfort and unusual, interesting events. The first day of the festival is a grand opening with ‘jazz-tie’ dress code and more academic jazz. The second day is more about lifestyle, picnics, more mixed genres, and the best gastronomy Moscow has to offer.
The chess part of the festival is very significant; it has its own line-up with world-famous grandmasters. The opportunity to play chess matches with stars such as the youngest grandmaster in history, world champion in blitz and rapid chess, Sergey Karjakin, attracts a lot of people.
Chess & Jazz is not a mass product. Events like ours are good because they allow you to maintain your personality. At Coachella, for example, you are just one of 50,000 or 100,000 people. You are lost in a crowd. When the event is for a very specific audience, you are significant – you are a personality, not part of the mass.
What is the situation in Russia at the moment? Do you think you’ll be allowed to go ahead?
From April all public events are prohibited by authorities because of Covid-19, so it will be impossible to stage our festival in July. Nevertheless, we haven’t considered changing the format and going online. I don’t believe in online festivals. Offline events will remain offline, as their main strength is in the live atmosphere and human contact.
In the days ahead, we are going to announce new rescheduled dates in September. Our festival is not classified as a mass event, because the capacity is less than 5,000 people, but still we hope that we will be able to conduct our event without any danger to the audience’s health in September – this is our main priority.
Also, we would like to thank our artists and their agents for the support and cooperation in such turbulent period of time.
“We are confident that Chess & Jazz will commemorate the coming together of music fans once more”
Beyond coronavirus, are there any unique challenges involved in organising a festival in your part of the world?
Unfortunately, we have no support from the Russian authorities and no dialogue with the government. To be honest, it has always been like that.
Another challenge is partners. Partners for a niche event should be selected more carefully than for large festivals. In the case of our festival, chess and jazz should be organically presented in every detail. If the brand says it just wants to put up its stand, we’d say that this does not work. We take an individual approach to each partner so that the integration fits harmoniously with the rest of the event.
What are you most looking forward to at Chess & Jazz 2020?
I am just really looking forward to the festival! This year’s Chess & Jazz will be the most anticipated festival yet, as the other Russian festivals are canceled. Our headliners are British soul star Lianne La Havas and Australian musician Jordan Rakei, with the full line-up to be announced at a later date.
We are confident that Chess & Jazz will commemorate the coming together of music fans once more and mark a victory over this crisis.
Let us offer credit for cancelled shows, say assocs
As the coronavirus crisis continues to exert financial pressure on the live sector, industry associations and businesses in Europe, Asia and North America are asking for changes in the way refunds are issued for cancelled events.
In Europe, research shows digital footfall to event ticket sales sites has collapsed in recent months, with only travel agencies harder hit by concerns over the virus. According to Comscore, visits to ticketing sites fell by 47% in France, 12% in Germany, 52% in Italy, 55% in Spain and 26% in the UK between 17–23 February and 9–5 March.
The figures come as associations in the the UK warn of a cashflow “crisis” amid widespread concert cancellations – with British artists and managers alone expected to lose more than £60 million should a ban on mass gatherings last for the next six months – and other sectors, including cinema and aviation, similarly grapple with an unprecedented drop-off in ticket sales.
In countries including Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan, associations representing cash-strapped local operators are pushing for an extended refund grace period (up to 365 days), to be permitted to give vouchers in lieu of cash refunds, or a combination of the two.
“If you can afford it, you should consider whether it is really necessary to return your ticket for a refund,” reads a blog from Ticketmaster Germany, which is supporting the European Association of Event Centres (EVVC)’s #keepyourticket campaign. “Every ticket that is not returned helps organisers, venues and [sports] clubs, even after the coronavirus has passed, and enables them to be able to organise great events in future.”
The EVVC, which represents arenas and conference centres in central and southern Europe, is inviting its members to support the campaign by sharing text and visual materials calling for solidarity with promoters and venues. “For organisers, suppliers and cultural professionals, the corona pandemic is a threat to their existence,” says the association.
“If you can afford it, you should consider whether it is necessary to return your ticket for a refund”
Promoters’ association BDKV – which estimates its ~450 members will lose a combined €1.25 billion from March to May as a result of Germany’s event ban – is asking the German government to extend temporarily, to 365 days, the time within which a refund must be paid, as well as offer credit for tickets instead of cash refunds (a solution it says would especially benefit members sitting on large ticket inventories, such as theatres).
In Spain, newly launched umbrella body Esmúsica (which includes the Association of Music Promoters) is also asking for a grace period, lasting until 31 December, for cancelled events. For postponed events, however, “given the exceptional situation”, the organisation says promoters must not be obliged to offer a refund, instead offering only a new ticket for rescheduled date(s).
“Several organisations and municipalities are cancelling events on a daily basis. Shows on sale for the end of the year and early 2021 are not selling. We have to work together on a reimbursement policy for postponed and cancelled shows that helps to minimise catastrophic losses,” says Portugal’s APEFE, which backs Esmúsica’s position on no refunds for postponed shows, suggesting that “purchased tickets must be valid for postponed shows without mandatory reimbursement”.
Both Esmúsica and APEFE (Association of Promoters of Shows, Festivals and Events) are also calling for a temporary reduction in VAT charged on tickets, among other relief measures.
In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the associations’ counterpart there, VVEM (Association of Event Producers), appears to be making headway with its campaign for ticket vouchers, with the Dutch cabinet discussing the issue this week.
“It is currently impossible for us to offer immediate cash refunds to all buyers”
Dutch culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven has previously asked ticketholders not to request cash refunds, while VVEM has also reportedly found a sympathetic ear in the form of economy minister Eric Wiebes, who has said the government will provide further “strong help” for the sector (though it remains to be seen in what form).
While European associations focus on lobbying their respective governments, US secondary ticketing giant StubHub has taken the matter into its own hands, announcing that – where legal – it will no longer provide refunds for cancelled events to its American and Canadian customers. Instead, ticketholders will receive a voucher worth 120% of the original value of the ticket.
The change in policy comes as StubHub, which is in the process of being acquired by European rival Viagogo, lays off as much as two thirds of its workforce, in what it calls a “difficult but sensible decision”.
Explaining the shift in its refund terms, a StubHub spokesperson says: “In normal times, we’ve made the decision to refund buyers before collecting money from the seller to offer buyers more convenience. And under normal circumstances, this works well, even with StubHub taking the risk of timing delays and some losses when we are unable to collect from the seller. With the coronavirus impacting 28,000+ events and the associated magnitude of challenge in recouping monies owed by sellers over the coming months, it is currently impossible for us to offer immediate cash refunds to all buyers.
“When the volume of cancellations accelerated a few weeks ago, we were the first in our industry to offer a coupon worth 120% of the ticket value. This will now be our default option in Canada and in the US. Outside of the US and Canada, fans are defaulted to a refund.”