‘Time To Go Off Autopilot And Innovate’: Q’s With Helen Sildna, Head of Tallinn Music Week

Martin Dremljuga
– Tallinn
The capital of Estonia will host a scaled-down edition of the annual showcase event for culture, TMW, Aug. 26-30.
Tallinn Music Week (TMW) decided to hold a scaled down version of the annual showcase festival for arts and culture, Aug. 26-30. The Nordics, including Estonia, where the event takes place, are looking at encouraging numbers regarding COVID-19.

Pollstar reached out to Helen Sildna, who runs TMW and heads up Shiftworks, the company producing and promoting the event, to talk about her decision to go ahead with the event, some highlights on this year’s program, and ways to revive the live events industry post-crisis.

Helen Sildna
Kertin Vasser
– Helen Sildna
Head of Tallinn Music Week and production and promotion company Shiftworks.

Pollstar: What do the current Covid guidelines in Estonia look like, and do you reckon a lot will change come Tallinn Music Week?

Helen Sildna: The situation in Estonia has been relatively calm since the second half of June, when restrictions were eased in Estonia. As a comparison – the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the UK is 12.6, in Estonia it’s 6. 
Since midsummer, the restrictions on public events have been gradually eased. The allowed attendance numbers are now at 1,500 indoors and 2,000 outdoors. TMW has made a decision though not to go up to the maximum allowed capacities, but keep our limits to 700 indoors and 1,500 outdoors. 
An important part of the guidelines is the dispersal of crowds. We will leave space for people to be able to keep a distance from each other, so all indoor venues will be kept to 50% capacity. 
Strict hygiene riders are in place, each and every venue has its ventilation, clean-up and disinfecting agenda. Facial masks are not compulsory in Estonia at the moment, but we’ll make these available to the visitors.  The logic works on the principle that we create an environment that allows people to protect themselves. 
In terms of international guests and artists, we only allow visitors from countries with a lower infection rate, not over 15 per 100,000 inhabitants. We monitor the situation closely and have accepted that the only way to run a festival now is to be sensitive and adaptable to the situation, and at the same time rational and decisive when it comes to decision-making and establishing an updated action plan.
What are the reasons that made you want to go ahead with the event despite the risk of one government order being enough to shut everything down?
The main reason is the fact that we might be in this situation for a long time. Even if the vaccine will reach the market (they say not sooner than within a year), scientists are saying that the likelihood of future pandemics as well as extreme weather events is on the rise. 
I personally wouldn’t count on post-pandemic “business as usual,” but the need to adapt… perhaps indefinitely.
We cannot shut music, culture, our way of being down, we need to learn how to live in this new world. It will affect the shape of our industry, the shape of travel and the shape of the events we put on. It will require a new level of responsibility, professionalism and smarts.
The events sector needs to establish trust in the society, proving we are capable of adhering to the regulations and minimizing the risks.
Looking at it from a different perspective – there aren’t very many other industries that would be professionally capable of handling large crowds in a safe and sophisticated manner and at the same time making wide and comprehensible communication campaigns.
Promoters and festivals, used to dealing with thousands of people, do have unique professional experience in crowd management. We need to use our skills in the service of culture and in the service of society now. 

One of TMW's many unique spaces.
– One of TMW’s many unique spaces.

How do you assure visitors that they’ll be safe at the event?

We have a policy and an action plan, but safety is a co-creation that will depend fifty-fifty on the environment we create, as well as individuals acting responsibly within it. 
TMW will follow all possible precautions to create a safe environment at the festival, but we ask each and every one of our visitors to act responsibly in order to protect themselves and those around them. We may leave space for dispersion, but if people don’t keep a distance, it’s not going to work. The virus has a way of telling us that the actions of each and every individual matter. 
It has to be said that due to virus levels being down, Estonians are feeling relatively at ease now, so arriving from the UK, Tallinn might feel quite liberal.
If meeting people at a public event makes anyone uncomfortable, we wouldn’t persuade them to come, we’d like people to come if they feel comfortable with it. 
In other words, you’re appealing to each visitor’s own responsibility, i.e. let them decide if it’s safe or unsafe to go?
This is precisely how I see it. It’s the organizer’s responsibility to create an environment that allows for individuals to keep themselves safe.
No festival, restaurant, airline or service can protect each visitor from a virus. It just does not work that way. We cannot make anyone wash hands or keep a distance. But we can and have to provide appropriate facilities and use a relevant communication strategy. 

The Fotografiska gallery.
Kaupo Kalda
– The Fotografiska gallery.
One of the new venues at TMW.

Which parts of the program of Tallinn Music Week 2020 would you like to highlight?

We hope that the conference at the Estonian Academy of Arts will be able to truly unite both the regional music industry and the wider global creative community – from on-site participants to online attendees (we launched a DigiPRO service this year). We are all experiencing similar challenges related to the pandemic, yet it only underscores the importance of sharing knowledge and deepening collaboration. 
We’ll dive into the topic of the new era in three key themes – Music Industry 2.0, Sustainable Development Goals and Neighbors – with special focus on resilience and leading change. The highlights of the program include a master class by leadership expert Ben Nothnagel, Senior Advisor at Aalto University Executive Education that focuses on leadership potential and performance.
In addition, there will be celebrity interviews with iconic Finnish music entrepreneur Tapio Korjus and Stevie Wonder’s manager and former Motown GM, OBE Keith Harris. 
We’ll discuss crisis policies and communication, the music sector’s future-proofing strategies, as well as an upgrade to the health and safety agenda.
There will be masterclasses and practical workshops from content marketing to music production including the one by drum’n’bass legend Roni Size himself. 
We will not forget the green turn as well as equality in music in collaboration with Keychange. A forward-looking and future-proofing ethos is defining the whole festival.
Are you going to address ways for musicians to continue to tour and earn live music income?
One of the core reasons for us to go forward with TMW was to be maximally useful to artists and the music sector. We also conducted an extensive survey in the spring to find out what the sector really needs. Turns out there are gray areas and info gaps we didn’t expect. So we decided to make a clear step closer to the artists.
For the first time, we’ll open up the whole PRO conference program for free to all artists in the line-up, not only the managers. We’ll reserve some of the main room conversations consciously for that. The whole sector will benefit from knowledge and understanding and artists are the core of it. 
As a festival innovation, we have 10 dedicated artist coaches in place for Estonian artists, giving them counseling sessions, we’ll also be organizing pre-festival Zoom meetings to explain the agenda and what to expect. So our innovation is not another app, but actually talking to people.
Live Music Estonia, one of the core organizations to represent the live sector, is hosting a set of in-depth discussions for the live music market, and Music Estonia will focus on broader business development. Health & safety, touring in future, future travel, the green agenda, new generation copyright are all part of the program.  
What about the artistic program?
Curated in collaboration with the largest cultural centre in the Nordics, Tampere Hall, our music line-up features artists from 14 EU and Schengen Area countries.
Our art program provides modern art exhibitions and open air installations across the city, including a very special one by TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu. 
We are actually running two festivals in two cities in the same week – Station Narva at the border town of Narva, between the EU and Russia, on Aug. 26, and TMW from Aug. 27-30. We’ll be able to share some of the performers like Roni Size, Iceage, Jesse Markin and Bendik Giske [between the two].

A TMW venue.
Tõnu Tunnel
– A TMW venue.
The area around Tallinn’s Noblessener Port offers venues with “excellent ventilation systems,” according to Sildna.

Are you able to utilize all venues you would usually use for Tallinn Music Week?

We have taken some of the bigger events outdoors and skipped indoor venues with poor ventilation. We are health-proofing every single venue we use. We have a team in place to provide all venues with sanitary stations, we will add hand-wash facilities with running water, and we are cashless this year. 
Basic things, but aimed to be fulfilled immaculately. This will hopefully be a good exercise to help venues upgrade their regular service too. A set of health and safety meetings in collaboration with the Health Board, to raise awareness in the sector, is part of the agenda.
Luckily, August in Tallinn offers many brilliant outdoor areas in courtyards and parks, as well as a set of brand new venues like the Fotografiska gallery and the PROTO invention factory – brilliant spaces with excellent ventilation systems in the popular hubs of Telliskivi Creative City and Noblessner Port area.
Are there any innovative concepts in terms of performing live you’ve observed in the past months, I mean concepts that actually present a viable economic mode? 
Unfortunately not yet. There are several attempts to offer services for digital pay-per-view, but these will not compensate for lost business. Maybe the future will be new generation digital entertainment based on virtual reality and maybe the future is also in smaller boutique events and smaller venues. 
Maybe the future will be in regional development rather than arenas in megacities. An industry of smaller well-curated brands with strong artistic identities. Maybe innovation is not about technology, but a completely new way of thinking and creating.   
It is by far not just artists affected by this crisis. A thriving live entertainment world, made up mostly of independent, creative, passionate people that don’t necessarily care about money, has been devastated. What will be the most important factors for returning to a modicum of business and for enabling people to go out to live events again without fear?
One thing we’ve all learned is how interconnected all ecosystems are. We depend on each other. Artists, venues, promoters, service providers, hospitality, tourism. Being egoistic doesn’t help, we are in this together – equally fragile. Collaboration and sharing knowledge are essential. 
How have these past months changed the way you think, about business in particular and life in general?
Many things. First, we need to talk about leadership in music and culture much more seriously. In times of uncertainty it’s the quality of leadership that can make it or break it. And before you lead others, you need to be able to lead yourself. 
Keeping a calm atmosphere that has equal amounts of trust, warmth and discipline will also depend on our skill to manage emotions. To calm or to escalate is a decision and the pandemic is about both physical and psychological safety.
Second, rationally identifying things we can change and things we cannot. The course of our industry, our life and future is still in great parts in our own hands. 
It also helps to go back to the basics – to the very core of “why we do this.” Tallinn Music Week was created from the desire to put Estonian music on the world map and to create a tool to connect us with the world. These are the things we will not give up on.
An article in Foreign Affairs had a quote I liked: “What is killing us is not connection; it is connection without cooperation. And the cure is not isolation but deeper connection, the kind that can support collective action.”
The crisis is a chance for an audit. It’s time to go off the autopilot and really innovate. 
Tallinn Music Week’s safety health and safety regulations can be read here.