Digital Won’t Solve Physical Needs, And Other Learnings From Tallinn Music Week 2020 (European Live Savers Issue)

Helen Sildna
Kertin Vasser
– Helen Sildna
Head of Tallinn Music Week
Showcase festivals are a big deal in Europe. There’s hardly a country on the continent that doesn’t host an annual event to present the hottest newcomers from the region. What makes these events particularly interesting for artists is the fact that professionals from all fields of the entertainment industry are on site and often sign new talent right on the spot.
So, when COVID incapacitated this industry, it didn’t just affect confirmed tours by established artists, but also an entire year’s worth of shows by up-and comers on the verge of breaking through. 
While most organizers of showcase events decided to move their programming online, some decided to go as live as possible, hosting workshops, keynotes and panel discussions as well as artist showcases with a live audience. 
One of them is Helen Sildna, head of Tallinn Music Week, the annual talent festival of Estonia. Sildna understood early on that the restrictions made in response to COVID might remain in place for a long time, and therefore never felt like waiting for a return to “post-pandemic business as usual.”
Of all the challenges organizing a COVID-proof live event poses, maintaining an international program proved the toughest. There were and still are no streamlined travel rules for Europe, where each government is working with its own catalogue of restrictions that changes constantly. Originally scheduled for March, TMW got postponed to August, at which point 44% of the original festival line-up had been replaced.
 “We started off with 160 performers from 32 countries and finalized with 140 performers from 10 countries,” Sildna recalled, adding, “Not only was this a huge financial risk, but it also put our organization and every single team member under a pressure we were not prepared for. There wasn’t a week without changes to the program, and whoever works in the festival business will know the extent of the domino effect and amount of work that constant reshuffling like this creates for everyone on the team.”
Tallinn Music Week 2020.
Ake Heiman
– Tallinn Music Week 2020.
Zahir performing at Kivi Paber Ka¨a¨rid, a restaurant in Tallinn.

Sildna is hoping for a more balanced approach to traveling within Europe going forward, as the showcase festivals are also an opportunity for international delegates to meet, discuss and network in one place. “Freedom of movement is one of the core functional aspects of the EU and Schengen area. International collaboration can only progress so much with digital-only meetups, it will only be matter of time until international relations start slowing down again,” she explained. 

One of the key learnings her team gathered over the course of planning, promoting and pulling off a physical TMW was that “the people’s desire to physically meet and experience culture together is strong. A backlash in their mental health should not be taken as a surprise as [the crisis] proceeds. Digital access will not solve this,” said Sildna, which is why the “psychological impact of reduced social interaction should be measured more seriously, and the culture sector should play a bigger role in addressing this.”
In a survey conducted among TMW 2020 visitors, 58,5% said they consider visiting cultural events safe, 16,5% considered it unsafe, and 25% were indifferent. While those are encouraging numbers, they mean nothing as long as severe capacity restrictions remain. 
“Letting our governments base event restrictions around capacity numbers will make the sector go bankrupt and not solve the health crisis either,” said Sildna, who suggests “a much more detailed take on measures for specific event types and venues. Some venues with 3,000 capacity can be safer than others with 30. What matters is what happens inside. To find tailor-made solutions for the sector, we need direct collaboration links with health specialists and scientists.”
TMW usually welcomes around 15,000 festival visitors, including some 1,000 professional delegates. Only 15% of ticket buyers asked for a refund, when it became clear that TMW 2020 would not be going ahead as planned. Still, Sildna has no illusions about being able to operate economically under the current restrictions. 
“We survived this year thanks to the relief funds of the Ministry of Culture. We lost 30% of our income in addition to the postponement costs while investing 130% more work. In addition to the financial risk, there is the real danger of burnout for our people. We simply cannot expect our teams to continuously function under pressure like this. In the quest for saving our industry, we should never forget, there are people’s individual lives and dreams involved,” she said.
And Sildna concluded, “As a sector we need to be able to clearly explain the economic and social consequences of the restrictions, we need to be much better with statistics and surveys to illustrate the impact of our whole ecosystem. We need much stronger collective representation and a clear one voice.”