Baloise Session: ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’

The Baloise Session in Basel, Switzerland, has been going for 32 years, 24 of which took place with Beatrice Stirnimann on board. Pollstar asked her about the festival’s past, present and future. 

Beatrice Stirnimann
– Beatrice Stirnimann

Stirnimann started out as a volunteer, helping out with ticket checks, seat allocation and more. An avid music lover, she describes becoming a part of the business through her volunteer work as “the most beautiful thing life had in store for me.”

Three years later, Stirnimann was offered a paid job at the festival. She was studying marketing and business economics at the time, which turned out to be quite useful after taking on more and more of the Session’s day-to-day operation.

Back then, the event was called the Rheinknie Session, after the river Rhine, which runs in an arc through the heart of Basel.

“You couldn’t expect anyone, especially not the artists, to pronounce Rheinknie. Luckily we found a presenting sponsor in 1998 [Oettinger Davidoff with the brand named after the musician Avo Uvezian], who wanted to turn the festival into an international event,” Stirnimann said.

While the booking of Miles Davis in 1988 had already sparked some international headlines, it took another decade to make the event known outside of Switzerland. This was mainly achieved by booking artists from genres outside jazz, blues and gospel, for which the festival had developed a reputation.

In 2000, James Brown caused the quickest sellout to date for the rebranded Avo Session. The superstar brought a wealth of new partners and sponsors on board and led to international TV coverage, all of which helped gradually grow the event and allow its organizers to keep on booking a stellar line-up.

Over the years, the festival amassed an impressive archive of concert footage, including Chris Cornell’s “magical” solo show in 2013, Pink in 2006, who took a detour from her arena tour to play the 1,500-capacity event, Dave Gahan solo in 2003, Ray Charles in 2000 and Nina Simone in 1998.

Rather than picking one particular highlight, however, Stirnimann references the overall development “from a small, regional event with five or six concerts to a wonderful international festival with a lot of musical heritage.”

And while event organizers had the tendency of making everything “faster, better, bigger” as soon as the success kicked in, Stirnimann’s mantra has always been “quality instead of quantity.” True, the number of concerts has increased, but the intimate club setting hasn’t changed. 

The setup resembles the old music clubs in New York: small, round tables, close to the stage. The retro feel makes for a “truly special experience,” according to Stirnimann. “Artists feel the intimacy and appreciate the fact that all our guests are true lovers of music. You can tell that they’re hanging on the artist’s every word.”

The only bar is outside the auditorium and there’s no table service. Once the doors close, it’s all about the music. There’s no supporting program or fringe events distracting from the concerts, which take place in Basel Event Hall since it opened five years ago. This means that outside ticket and bar sales there is no ancillary income, and the festival could not be done without sponsors, Stirnimann explains.

“It’s a boutique project done by enthusiasts for the sake of staging amazing concerts year after year,” Stirnimann said.

Since 2013, Basler Insurance is the Presenting Sponsor, a deal that was recently renewed up to and including 2020. Today, visitors mainly come from Switzerland, and also surrounding countries like Germany, France and Italy. Depending on the act, people will make the journey from as far as the UK.

Many artists consider it an honor to play the Baloise Session. In 2017, when the festival takes place between Oct. 21 and Nov. 9, Alicia Keys will play two nights. Other acts include Nelly FurtadoChris Rea and an Icelandic evening with Kaleo and Ásgeir. More than 95 percent of tickets are already gone.

Stirnimann used to do the booking together with Matthias Müller, who passed away last year.

“I miss him every day. But he’s with us in spirit, we all carry him in our hearts. I think, he would be proud and pleased with the way his festival is being continued. It was a great honor having been able to work alongside him for such a long time. I will never forget and forever remain grateful for that. I’m determined to lead the festival into the next 30 years as he has always envisioned. And who knows: he has sons. It would be nice if I could one day pass it on to one of them.”