‘Tough Times Are Followed By An Explosion Of Art’: Q’s With Michal Kaščák, Founder Pohoda Festival

Michal Kašcák
Boris Németh
– Michal Kašcák
Founder and CEO of Pohoda Festival.

Pollstar speaks with Michal Kašcák, founder and director of Slovakia’s Pohoda festival, which is renowned in Europe for its visitor-friendly approach, its sustainability efforts, eclectic lineup and variety of side-events, which include debates and workshops around current topics.

We wanted to know how the COVID-19 crisis has influenced Kašcák’s thinking, his plans for an online event in place of the 2020 edition of Pohoda, and why he remains optimistic that audiences will be reunited at festivals returning at full capacity in 2021
Pollstar: How have fans reacted since you announced the postponement of Pohoda 2020 to next year?
Michal Kašcák: We announced the postponement on April 15, and until today we received about 700 request to return tickets, including parking tickets and extra tent tickets etc. That’s about 5% of the total amount, because until April 15, we had sold around 15,000 tickets for Pohoda 2020.
Around 100 people already bought new tickets for 2021, which doesn’t sound a lot, but everyday somebody is buying new tickets. 
Some people informed us that they want to keep their tickets, and also buy new ones. We have limited capacity, so we need to facilitate a system that will account for those validating their 2020 tickets for next year as well as those that want to donate the 2020 ticket and buy a new one for 2021.
So, I guess it’s still tough trying to plan next year’s edition?
I’m optimistic. If we look back into history, tough times were always followed by an explosion of art. People started to meet, go out, dance and create more, and I’m optimistic that Pohoda 2021 will be as it used to be. If anything, I think people will be even more excited to see each other again, to hug each other and spend time together.
What’s the maximum capacity of Phodoa festival?
30,000, and we’ve kept it that way since 2010, because I think that we are too obsessed with numbers. We didn’t want to compete with ourselves, I don’t believe in endless growth. We wanted to keep the festival nice and cosy and affordable. Placing a limit on the maximum capacity was one of the best decisions we’ve made.
From my point of view, many festivals are overcrowded, which brings many problems with it. Others don’t place enough importance on PA, equipment, service stations, toilets etc.

Members of Afghanistan
– Members of Afghanistan
The members of the ensemble are one of the first women in their families and throughout the country to study music in the past 30 years and they often have to deal with various threats.

How did you create a community of fans that would be so committed to supporting their event?

I’m glad you used the word community, because that is the most important word and what Pohoda is all about. We want to make people feel like they’ve been invited to a home, that’s the philosophy of Pohoda. 
Good food, great sound, plenty of clean toilets, truthful communication, treating visitors like friends.
We are not allowing our food vendors and sponsors to put on music at their stands to avoid sound pollution between stages. So, when you are at the concert of LiAnne La Havas, you can really listen to LiAnne La Havas, and not some rock band from some other stage.
I also think it’s important for a festival to have some kind of message. We are not just a festival with artists on the bill, and three-day entertainment. If you want to, you can visit a lot of interesting places, like the NGO sector, debates and workshops.
We also like to reflect our philosophy with the lineup. In 2019, for instance, we had Zohra, the first women’s orchestra from Afghanistan on the main stage.
Are you going to manage to keep the 2020 lineup for 2021?
We invited all artists back, yes. When I’m discussing this with other promoters, I’m surprised that they’re just focussed on the headliners, while cherry-picking the smaller artists.
From my point of view, if you confirmed a small band, if something like that even exists, I think it’s great for them to play a festival with The Libertines, FKA Twigs or Stormzy. I can’t imagine telling them, ‘sorry, the festival’s not happening, tough luck.’
So, we work with them in absolutely the same way as we do with the big names. I send the same email to all artists and all agents, and that email said that I can guarantee the same slot on the same day for the same fee. Same conditions, same rider, everything like it was confirmed for 2020.
Until today we have confirmed 35 out of 50 artists. With small artists you can see the joy, you can feel the excitement of being part of the festival. For you, as a promoter, it’s great to receive this kind of feedback.
You also host talks and debates at Pohoda. Are you planning on addressing the reaction to the COVID-19 crisis?
Yes, instead of the regular Pohoda, we’re going to hold an online festival, and we’re going to do it in a very different way to classical streamed shows or festivals. We want to play with the emptiness of the airport, how empty the site is without people and structures, to show how important the presence of people is.
We are currently creating debates, which will be a big part of this online festival, and they will of course revolve around everything that is currently going on in the world. Debates focused on human rights, green issues etc. have always been a strong part of Pohoda.

Lola Marsh
Ctibor Bachraty
– Lola Marsh
Performing at Pohoda 2019.

Do you think the fact that Eastern Europe has had the most recent experience with totalitarian regimes, makes people extra aware of the importance of culture?

You have a lot of great festivals with great spirit in Western Europe, like Fusion, for example, or Bestival. I visited Glastonbury in 2001, and I remember it as a very strong event focussed on human rights and spirituality.
You do have a lot of festivals in Eastern Europe that started as protest events, but the generations are changing. For example, I can see that the nostalgia is very strong in some post-communist countries, far-right extremism is on the rise. Sometimes I’m disappointed that the lesson we learned maybe wasn’t strong enough, or maybe people forget to soon how it used to be. It was a nightmare, it was a nightmare for all of society, but especially for art. 
I observed a paradox in ex-Czechoslovakia, where some music journalists still refer to the communist period as the golden age for music, because the most popular bands were selling around half-a-million copies, and now they’re selling 5,000 copies. But it was because all shops in our country banned all Western music. I don’t know if you can imagine that in 1989 it was not possible to buy bands from the West, apart from maybe a few best ofs, but also Africa and Asia.
Musicians were jailed or forced to emigrate, and you can hear some people to this day saying that it was good, that we used to have our own culture and could focus on our own artists. 
Are you making special plans for Pohoda 2021, or will the fact that live events return create enough excitement?
We believe in our audience, I’m sure the excitement will be fantastic. But, obviously, we’re going to reflect how the world is continuing. We have a very strong visual arts section, and it’s always connected to things going on around us, as is our debate section and our workshop section. 
Between now and July 2021, we will continue to do things we normally do, like a festival for homeless people every Winter, which takes place in their dormitory in Bratislava, we do a festival every November 17 to celebrate the victory over communism, and we would like to continue with that. 
We’re going to do this streamed event in July, which I hope will also have proven its value in five to ten years, which is why it won’t just be connected to the Covid situation. 

Michal Kašcák
Ctibor Bachraty
– Michal Kašcák
Addressing his audience, which he’ll miss doing i 2020.

How has this current crisis shaped your mind?

I was surprised how easily we were willing to give our freedom to people we didn’t know or elect, groups of experts etc.. It was an interesting lesson to see how quickly a police state was established again. I’m aware it was based on the worldwide situation, but I was still surprised how easy it went.
Pohoda is live culture. I was suffering a lot when I was not able to go to clubs and pubs to meet people, and hug people. I hope that people realise we need each other much more that we thought, once we’re out of this. That’s why I’m optimistic that cultural events and creativity will be even stronger than it used to be. Some people are afraid that these social distancing restrictions will continue, but I strongly hope that it won’t come to that, that we can celebrate together again. And we also need to start a conversation about how easy it is for politicians to take our rights.