A Smooth Change: Ben Mitha Interview

Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion is one of the last truly independent promoters in Germany. Its founder is highly respected by the whole trade, and ever since his grandson Ben Mitha was announced as successor two years ago, people have been wondering what will come about. 

It turns out that rather than having to deal with an abrupt change that could potentially cause disorder in an established system, the whole process is a simple one. It’s a family business, after all. From the time he was a kid, Mitha has been accompanying his grandfather, Karsten Jahnke, to concerts. His earliest memory is witnessing the hype around Michael Jackson’s visit to Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion in 1992. Mitha was 5 years old.

He grew up listening to hip hop, funk and soul – A Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, Run DMC, a lot of German stuff as well. By the time he had completed his A-Levels (high school finals), his musical taste had diversified. “I had two options: take the route Karsten had carved out, join the company and work in the live industry or study sports journalism.” Twenty-four years and one economics degree later, Pollstar is talking to Mitha about the future of Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion.

Joining his grandfather’s company, where he had worked throughout his school years, was a heartfelt as well as rational decision. What is more, “Karsten always kind of pressed for me to become his successor, because both of his sons didn’t want to take over; they’re both doing other things,” Mitha explained. Jahnke is a stoic character. He won’t get emotional over the fact that the business stayed in the family, which doesn’t mean he’ll let go of the reins entirely anytime soon. “He’s in the office every day, which is probably not going to change until the very last day,” Mitha said. A family business operates very differently from any other professional relationship. Things are just talked about in a different manner. And Jahnke and Mitha have a lot of talks.

Then again, what would one expect when the old-school and the new-school meet? While Jahnke came up in an environment that allowed for a very passionate, driven approach, Mitha’s generation faces a different economic reality. Sometimes Jahnke will be enthusiastic about a project and Mitha has to deliver the bad news that there is simply no market for it anymore. “Most of the time it’s a proper exchange,” Mitha said. “He gives me feedback, I give him feedback. I appreciate his experience very much, and it’s always good to obtain different views on things.

Sure, change always causes friction. But no matter how heated our debates may get, they’re always very sober and business related. There’s no bad blood.” It helps that Jahnke has been open-minded all his life. He won’t dismiss ideas just because he may not know what his counterpart is talking about, Mitha explained. Jahnke’s openness to change has allowed Mitha to create a working environment that is hallmarked by flat hierarchies and also to bring in new genres. “The rock market, for example, is a very stable one; it’s even growing.

Yet, we’ve never been involved until recently. We also opened up a new talent division around five years ago to actively start developing acts. We never used to travel to showcase festivals to see and sign new acts on site. That’s changed as well. I personally brought in a lot of hip hop and pop stories. Our roster has expanded dramatically.”

Besides always keeping an open mind and being responsive to people, one of the most important things Mitha has learned from Jahnke is not shying away from risk every now and again. “Yes, you might lose a lot of money, but if it works, we’ll all have a lot of fun. Karsten has always worked like that, keeping an eye on anything left and right of the obvious route. He held on to artists for a s long as 15 years until he got them to a point where their tours turned profitable.”

German superstar Herbert Grönemeyer is a prime example. “The first tour was a mega flop. Everybody wanted to drop him. Karsten didn’t. Then [the album] Bochum came and all arenas sold out.” When it became clear that Mitha would take over in the beginning of 2014, one could feel the skepticism and uncertainty within the team, he recalled. However, in 2016, the 35 members working at Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion are acting in concert like never before. To Karsten Jahnke’s head of communications, Frehn Hawel, the decisive moment was the day tickets for The Cure went on sale last year.

“Literally everybody was in the office early that day because they wanted to see how we’d fare. It was amazing.”

This spirit is particularly important in times where public corporations set out to rule the world of promotion companies that can operate in spite of generating losses into the millions – a luxury the smaller promoters cannot afford. All they can do is step up their game even further, which is easier if everybody on board is pulling together.

While no one today believes that the state of the business will or needs to return to what is was when Karsten Jahnke promoted his first Jazz-Band-Ball in 1959, one has to be careful that it doesn’t turn into a solely number-driven business where the love for the cause doesn’t matter anymore, Mitha muses. He’s confident that there’ll always be artists that will appreciate the more hands-on approach of promoters like Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion, their transparency and passion.

“It has always been our intention to move forward and shake things up with a small roster of talented artists that will be successful in the long run. Obviously we’ll continue to pitch for one or two big names whenever we can.

“We’re also looking into building up one or two more boutique festivals, as the major festival market in Germany is completely oversaturated. Maybe a finely curated hip hop festival or a small electronic festival in Hamburg, who knows? And maybe add two more bookers that cover areas we’re not currently in. That’s our basic game plan.”