Common Property

OpenAir St.Gallen was founded by Freddy Geiger in 1977. Local bands, no alcohol, not too big – that was what “Gagi,” as he was referred to by everyone, had envisioned.

A lot has happened since. And Christof Huber, who joined the festival in 1993, and took charge of it in 2004, told Pollstar all about it.

When Huber joined the St.Gallen crew in 1993, not too much had changed from the early years. The main part of the bill still consisted of Swiss acts. Ticket prices lay between 60 and 70 Swiss francs.

“We realized the festival was running out of steam,” Huber recalled. “That’s why we booked Rage Against the Machine and Deep Purple as headliners in 1994.” Ticket prices were increased substantially, and surpassed 100 francs for the first time in the festival’s history. The 1994 edition was a success, but St.Gallen’s organizers wanted too much in the following years. “We had Metallica in 1999. The band was simply too huge for our infrastructure,” Huber said. It wasn’t the band’s fee.

Contrary to what can be found online, Metallica isn’t the most expensive band that ever played the festival, not even relative to today’s fees. Huber: “If I could get Metallica for the price of back then, I’d let them play two or three nights in a row.” Metallica was still expensive, especially when ticket prices were relatively low. And although the festival was sold out often during the late ’90s, mounting artist fees, the introduction of VAT and bad business decisions caused a financial breakdown in 2000. For the first and only time, the festival’s organizers had to ask government for help. Given that OpenAir St.Gallen is generating millions in income for that same government – for many years the so-called amusement tax cost the festival 10 percent of ticket revenues – one would assume that help was eagerly granted.

But the experience of having to beg in front of a parliament, which initially seemed oblivious to St.Gallen’s cultural and economic value, left Huber feeling determined to never go through that process again. And with that one exception in 2000, until this day, the festival has been paying all its bills without any subsidies. Sympathetic suppliers also helped save OpenAir St.Gallen. That year, the public realized what was at stake.

“They sensed that we weren’t just being tolerated, but that we were needed,” said Huber. The organizers realized this too. After years of being run as a registered society, proper company structures were established. The 2001 edition was almost sold out (29,000 attendance). Wyclef Jean closed the festival with a 2.5-hour set, and only very reluctantly separated with his audience. It marked the start of OpenAir St.Gallen’s golden years. In 2004, Huber took over as managing director. A new board was elected. In 2005, tickets were sold out weeks in advance, 30,000 visitors per day, with R.E.M. headlining. The past 10 to 12 years have not only been marked by professionalism but also stability, Huber said. Almost all editions have been sold out, meaning 30,000 visitors on each day (Fri-Sun) and 20,000 on the Thursday, which has been included in the celebrations since 2010. “Unique, premium, solid, sustainable and credible.”

These are the “five pillars” on which OpenAir St.Gallen is built, Huber explained. He did not add “transparency” as a sixth, although that might come along with credibility. “It may result in you taking a shitstorm if you have to fulfil significant changes for the audience, but it makes you credible,” Huber said. “Our fans are very faithful, 75 percent of visitors come between two and 10 times. Kids turn parents, and then bring their kids. There’s a real connection.”

As loyal as the St.Gallen audience may be, it does not care about the inner workings of the business: the rising artist fees and production costs, the fluctuation of exchange rates or payment of tax arrears. It may be hard to explain to them why it will cost increasingly more to top each year’s lineup. But if the festival experience is good enough, they will also appreciate a less spectacular bill. “Many guests react so sensitively because they feel that the festival belongs to them,” Huber explained. “It’s not just a promoter’s event, it’s common property.” Competing internationally with a 30,000-cap event isn’t easy these days. OpenAir St.Gallen was one of the few festivals that dared to take place on the same weekend as Glastonbury for a few years.

Back then, they succeeded in convincing artists to make a slight detour to Switzerland while they’re in Europe. “This year, we’ve got Rock Werchter, Main Square, Roskilde, Heineken Open’er, Les Eurockéennes, all on our weekend. Plus Provinssirock and Bravalla. That’s 10 major festivals.” Another sold-out OpenAir St.Gallen will take place June 30 to July 3. It’s the 40th edition, headlined by Radiohead (Huber: “Our lucky punch”) and Mumford & Sons, who were part of one of the most memorable moments of the festival’s history. In 2012, the band surprised everyone, including Huber, when they brought out Paolo Nutini, The Kooks and Wolfmother for their final song “The Weight” (“a grande finale if there ever was one”).