How do you organise a city-wide festival during a global pandemic? Stuart Wood visited Estonia’s Tallinn Music Week to find out.
In a season that has been wiped clean of events due to Covid-19, Tallinn Music Week is one of Europe’s only major festivals to have gone ahead as planned – or almost as planned.
This city-wide music festival and conference in the Estonian capital serves as a showcase for Estonian music to the world at large. It takes place in a variety of venues across the city’s Telliskivi district (pictured below), bringing together an eclectic mix of musical styles from traditional folk to experimental techno.
This year’s festival was supposed to have taken place in May, but lockdown forced TMW’s organisers to push the event back to August. Unlike the many UK festivals which did the same, however, TMW was able to go ahead the second time around. Helen Sildna, founder and director of TMW, says adaptability was key: “The amount of continuous extra work our team had to do due to constant changes was staggering. We all learned to trust our own ability to tackle the unknowns and find solutions quickly on the spot.”
Among the last-minute changes was the imposition of new quarantine rules for inbound travellers to Estonia, just days before the festival was due to begin. This meant many international attendees had to fly out early to avoid being hotel-bound for two weeks, and some international acts had to be cancelled.
The team at TMW did receive regular updates from the Estonian Health Board, however, and these provided vital reassurance that the event could go ahead. Karena Leiger, a crisis management adviser at the Estonian Health Board, says: “We discussed the worst-case scenarios and my main task was to counsel what kind of measures must be taken to prevent the virus from spreading.
“I think the most difficult part was the vagueness and the timing – you must be prepared to share valuable information with organisers regardless of the time, and they have to make the changes in a week, even in a day. They have to be prepared even to cancel all events.”
Motown and the President
Tallinn Music Week was able to go ahead due to the limited spread of Covid-19 in Estonia, a country with a small and sparse population of just 1.3 million people. As of mid-September, there have been slightly more than 2200 cases of the virus, and just 64 Covid-related deaths. During the week Access spent in Tallinn, public transport was running as usual and venues were open. At TMW events masks were not mandatory, but were on offer everywhere alongside plenty of hand sanitiser and reminders to stay safe.
“We cannot shut music and culture down. We must learn how to adapt and get smarter, to prove we can adapt to the risk.”
Helen Sildna (pictured centre, below), speaking at the opening reception of the conference, emphasised the need for resilience: “We cannot shut music and culture down. We must learn how to adapt and get smarter, to prove we can adapt to the risk. Promoters and festivals have a unique experience of crowd management. We need to use these skills now, for the good of everyone.”
The conference portion of Tallinn Music Week included an interview with former Motown general manager Keith Harris OBE. Harris spoke about his long career managing Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many other legendary artists, as well as the changing role of music managers. “Where we are now is where we were in the early ‘60s,” he said. “Everything was new, and a handful of music industry entrepreneurs were leading the way. The digital era is taking us back there.”
Perhaps the highlight of the conference was an interview with Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia (pictured left, above). Access asked Kaljulaid what she saw as government’s responsibility to the struggling creative industries. Her reply was a pragmatic one: “We must guarantee equal treatment and demonstrate equal support [for all industries] but it is necessary for the state to take on some financial burden.”
Bagpipes and acid techno
Estonia’s music industry is still a young one. But in the 12 years since the first Tallinn Music Week took place, it has grown from being reliant on irregular international touring schedules to containing a thriving local ecosystem of artists. The festival was also a reminder of the crucial role played by grassroots venues across the world, with some of its most unique artists playing on small stages inside record shops and bars.
The trendy and cosmopolitan Sveta Bar played host to a number of rock and metal bands, many from neighbouring countries such as Russia, Lithuania and Finland. Elsewhere, a jazz stage showcased a burgeoning Estonian jazz scene, including a hypnotising free jazz freakout by a band ominously named The Meat.
Fotografiska, a design and arts shop, played host to a folktronica stage on Friday evening. The programme was curated by OOPUS, a trio who delivered one of the musical highlights of the festival. Stationed around a strobe-lit pyramid in the middle of the dancefloor, two members mixed Chemical Brothers-style acid techno while a third raucously played the bagpipes. This unexpected but brilliant combination of the traditional and the modern was representative of Tallinn Music Week’s lineup – something which the team was very much aiming for, says Ingrid Kohlta, head of PR and communications.
“We search for and support acts who have their own signature sound and vision – it’s not so much about chasing or being in sync with the West,” she says. “We have offered a springboard for adventurous music – from all sorts of ‘now’ genres, but also from more traditional fields like postclassical, jazz, Estonian trademark choral music and our ever-evolving folk scene. Showcasing Estonian talent is of course one of our core missions since the very beginning of TMW.”
Suppliers and their struggles
Although many venues across Tallinn have been cautiously reopened, business has still been sparse for many of Estonia’s live industry suppliers. RGB Baltics, which supplies lighting to the festival, saw its turnover fall by 100% in March as all concerts, festivals and conferences in the country were cancelled.
Tauno Antsmäe, partner and project manager at RGB Baltics, says: “Plans B, C and D had to be thought out quickly. We started preparing solutions for virtual and hybrid events, and as soon as the Estonian government reduced restrictions on 1 May, we were able to start a series of free web concerts in cooperation with the Postimees Group, the largest media group in the Baltics.
“In total, we gave 33 concerts to almost one million spectators in two months. In June, little by little, real physical events began to take place. Turnover has risen step by step, but recovery takes a long time.”
Eigo Sõster is head of Meeskond Security, which worked in closer collaboration with the TMW team than it ever had before to ensure crowds were managed safely. He says: “The past few months have shown that it is indeed possible to organise events safely, however it also means that the applied measures have to take into account the characteristics of each venue and event. Our hope is that in the future, if further restrictions are applied, they would be precisely targeted and developed in cooperation with event organisers.”
“It still gives me goosebumps”
The many challenges faced by the organisers and suppliers to Tallinn Music Week did not stop the festival being a resounding success. It was a timely reminder of the power of live music and culture, with a focus on the grassroots venues and artists which are struggling the most during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The resilience of the live industry was encapsulated in one symbolic performance, delivered on the festival’s funk stage by soul singer Rita Ray. TMW founder Helen Sildna recalls it as her personal highlight of Tallinn Music Week 2020: “[She] was in the middle of her performance when suddenly there was a power cut, so the sound went off. She walked in front of the stage and started singing acapella.
“The hall of 600 people went completely silent. Everyone was catching their breath. It was truly powerful, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. It felt somehow symbolic to the whole year: when everything fails and collapses, you still have yourself and your voice. A beautiful moment.”
Main picture credit: Kaarel Antonov