‘Working In Music Was The Sexiest Thing, That’s Changed’: Alex Schulz Talks Reeperbahn Festival 2022

Alexander Schulz 2 2020 credit Fynn Freund
Alexander Schulz, CEO of Reeperbahn Festival. (Picture by Fynn Freund)

When Alexander Schulz, CEO of Reeperbahn Festival, and his team got together in autumn 2021, they were optimistic that they would be promoting the event under relatively normal circumstances again this year. “Fairly naive,” as Schulz reckons in hindsight.

Pandemic challenges have been replaced by post-pandemic challenges, which are exacerbated by an unfolding energy crisis attributed to the war in Ukraine. In 2020 and 2021, capacity restrictions limited the number of festival visitors. This year, a huge backlog of events, and a cost-of-living crisis are keeping music fans from buying tickets for events. Reeperbahn Festival, which takes place for the 17th time Sept. 21-24, will offer a platform to find answers to the most pressing questions.

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Reeperbahn Festival puts on shows in all sorts of venues, including churches like this one, known as Michel by the locals. Here, Mighty Oaks are shown performing in 2019. (Picture by Svenja Mohr)

The reasons that make it so tough to put on an event right now are well-established. A shortage of staff across live industries, coupled with average price hikes on the vendors’ side of up to 80%, mixed with audience uncertainty and limited budgets. At Reeperbahn Festival, some 3,000 professionals – a lot fewer than in a normal year – will come together to talk solutions. Schulz expects the number of visitors to be around 30% less than in 2019, when 45,000 bought a ticket for the festival.

He is aware that one of the biggest years for live isn’t a good reference point for comparisons. Still, he said, “in autumn we thought in good faith that we might fall back to a pre-pandemic routine as far as the production of the festival is concerned. That is absolutely not the case. We’re dealing with a combination of pandemic-caused effects and an oversaturated market. The younger audience in particular has to make tough budget decisions, as they could go to three shows by artists they love every day. At the same time, the looming rise in energy costs as an effect of the war is causing people to spend less money, delegates as well as festival visitors.”

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The concerts at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie are some of the most sought-after during Reeperbahn Festival. (Picture by Marvin Contessi)

The exodus of production professionals that occurred over the past two and a half years, particularly self-employed and independent crew, is felt by everyone promoting events, but especially by a talent festival that puts on 500 shows in 50 venues each September. Schulz said it felt like the entire production supply chain got cut in half. “By the time our team hires three stage managers, two others have canceled. And I’m not just talking wider Hamburg, we’re looking to recruit from all over northern Germany,” he explained, adding that the only mitigating factor was the fact that the team wouldn’t need to use as many buildings as initially accounted for.

Reeperbahn Festival usually features an impressive list of international artists. This
year, with the U.S. being Focus Country, the team was obviously hoping to have many more U.S. acts on the bill. But, as U.S. managers have been telling Reeperbahn Festival’s bookers, up-and-coming artists, who’ve been waiting to perform for two and a half years, are focused on playing their home turf right now. Schulz has nothing but sympathy for that, of course. There will still be 300 artists from 40 countries, including the U.S., giving some 400 concerts along Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.

The lack of personnel, and how to entice future generations into wanting to work in this industry, will be a major talking point at the conference. There are reasons why staff that has left the business isn’t returning now that things have opened back up. “We continue to be an unstable sector, let’s be honest. Sure, if you’ve already worked in it, you might consider returning, but you also see that there’s ambiguity for the autumn to spring period. And if you’re just about to choose a career, there are far more stable markets,” Schulz said.

And while this business is by far not the worst when it comes to pay, many will have found something more lucrative or chosen to follow a different calling, “but that’s just speculation, of course,” said Schulz, who observes the recorded music sector is also struggling to find young people wanting to launch a career in the biz.

“Twenty years ago, graduating from school or university, the prospect of working at a label was the sexiest thing. That has changed, irrespective of war and pandemic. How do we become an attractive industry again, a magnet for job starters? Everybody, apart from the streaming companies maybe, are struggling to find young talent, especially in online marketing. That’s a conversation that needs to be had,” he said.

Schulz believes the gender equality initiative Keychange, which Reeperbahn Festival has supported from its launch in 2017, can help recruit. Aside from a better work-life balance, Schulz said the younger generations were paying much more attention to “the purpose of a sector. If this industry can say, ‘we’re going with the times, and are well positioned with our values,’ it will make us more attractive for young talent.”

Another important question that will be addressed at Reeperbahn Festival 2022, according to Schulz, is being an artist in a world where states are increasingly led in a less democratic manner. Pussy Riot from Russia will speak, as will Alyona Alyona from Ukraine, who won the festival’s Anchor Award in 2019. And while live entertainment has suffered great losses during the pandemic, the recorded music sector’s numbers have thrived, from labels to publishing, at least in Germany. The fair remuneration of artists will therefore be a session topic, as well.

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