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Collateral Damage: Mat Schulz on festivals in the curatorial age

Under pressure from artists, agents, online PR and internet trolls, and inundated with new music, festival organisers must stay true to their principles and curate events that people can believe in, says Mat Schulz

For a long time I resisted using the word curator or artistic director to describe myself. The Unsound team wasn’t identified in print or online. There were no credits. If forced, I said I organise a festival. I preferred that word: organiser.

These were the quaint days of the early to mid-2000s, when there was no Instagram, no clickbait music journalism, no energy drink Medici, no live video streaming of DJs playing sets. There weren’t even that many festivals, and the ones that did exist seemed to have their own distinct identity.

Skip to 2008, and the early days of preparing Unsound New York, when I first heard the word hipster used in its semi-dismissive context (rather than the one formulated by the Beats), and also encountered the word curation used in new and bizarre contexts.

“That wine shop is very well curated,” someone said to me. I laughed at the time, yet now, several years on, in a world of acceleration, choice and a seemingly infinite supply of stuff – including music – it seems like a reasonable thing to say. (In time, the word curate will be applied to apps that filter our Twitter and Facebook feeds.)

One of the artists I know who is most resistant to the machinations of the new experimental/electronic music industry is Leyland Kirby. He said to me the other day, “Soon there will be more agents than artists.” He has a point. I could have replied that I remember when the curators aspired to become sound artists. Now it seems that things have turned around, and artists are becoming curators, via small record labels, museums and – yes – festivals.

When we started Unsound Krakow in 2003, there weren’t as many events dealing with experimental and electronic music. It was simpler to posit yourself as something different, certainly in Poland, which was then more isolated. It was also less complicated to reach out to artists directly. They didn’t talk of selling units or crossing over. There were few agents and pseudo-managers.

As festival programmers there was less music for us to choose from, or at least less music that we were aware of – because musicians couldn’t get it out there so easily. Now, there’s more music than ever. It comes at you every day, via an inbox clogged with spam from agents, Twitter feeds and a breathless online music press less concerned with reviews (they’re too long) and more with tabloid-style tidbits. Labels send out PR to announce video teasers to foreshadow an upcoming video for a track from an LP, doing anything they can to get your attention.

There is of course a very positive side to this: we can discover a broader range of music. Yet, given all this choice, everything feels increasingly uniform, from the music itself to the way it is presented – and that includes the ever-growing number of festivals.

One reason for this, I think, is laziness. The musicians are often lazy, putting out work before it’s ready. The festival programmers can be lazy. We book what agents send us, and our search for talented artists is hindered by the diminishing number of good music journalists, who have less and less places to publish.

In a world more connected than ever before, few people can be bothered looking too far, and we’re all looking over one other’s shoulders. And in a world increasingly accelerated, when something original does appear, everyone pounces on it: the journalists, desperate to find the latest thing; the artists, copying styles; the agents, needing fodder; and – of course - the festivals. In such a world, where a constant turnover of rapid hype ascents results in artists quickly being tossed aside, few people remember who discovered what or who. It’s kind of irrelevant.

And yet… it’s not.

I was asked by The Wire to write about Unsound and similar festivals, and what makes us different from more commercial events.

The question brings to mind a discussion I had once with a friend in Krakow who organises – sorry, curates – experimental music events attended by small numbers of people (possibly clutching this very magazine in their hands). I remember him telling me with a curl of his lip that Unsound is a “pop festival”. I suppose that might be at least partially true, at least if Wire magazine cover stars like Holly Herndon and Demdike Stare are factored into the equation—or if we accept Momus’s prediction, a twist on Warhol’s famous maxim, that in the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.

All any of us with a festival – or a magazine – can do is create something that we believe in. There are lots of voices whispering in our ears telling us what that should be (or maybe they are tearing us to bits), from reviewers to internet trolls to the aforementioned agents and the artists themselves, as well as bloggers with very well-founded arguments urging for more inclusiveness and geographical diversity in the music industry and festivals. Be careful what you pay attention to.

What you can do is listen to the music, trying to be as inquisitive as possible, yet trusting your gut. And if your main aim in running a festival is not to make money, then you should also push to the back of your head that internal voice whispering: What does the audience want? What about headliners?

And hopefully, though this act of not-listening-but-listening, when everyone is bombarding you with information, you’ll discover some new artists and support their careers, and you’ll build longterm relationships based on mutual respect. You might even commission a project or two with a person you like, and help bring something new into the world.

Speaking of relationships, the other thing that all good festivals do is create a sense of community. In a world where it sometimes feels as if everything is degraded, this is important, as much as the music itself. People come to feel part of something. Hopefully, it’s something warm and true, and if you’ve built a festival you have an obligation to attempt to protect it.

Like the readers of a novel, there are as many versions of Unsound – or any festival – as the number of people who attend it, so I’m not going to sit here and write precisely what I think it is, as it’s an exercise doomed to failure. Instead, I’m off to a well-curated wine shop to buy a bottle of red, which I will sip, listening to music by the last remaining Unsound artists we need to programme for this year’s festival.

Mat Schulz organises the Unsound festival, which takes place in Krakow between 11–18 October. Mat is on Instagram here