‘Festivals still feel the pandemic brain drain’

After her breakthrough during the pandemic, Meskerem Mees is working on her first normal festival summer. Patrick Keersebilck is organizing his Cactus Festival again after two canceled editions, where the singer is one of the invited guests. ‘It will take some time before the music sector is back to how it used to be.’

‘No, I’ve never met Meskerem’, says festival organizer Patrick Keersebilck (62) when we meet him and the 22-year-old singer in the Bruges Minnewaterpark, where the 39th edition of the Cactus Festival will take place next weekend. ‘I know her from her performance this spring in our music center and from the TV.’

Meskerem Mees laughs. Her career is in its early stages and has boomed, especially during the pandemic. But at the same time, as a result of the professionalization of the music sector, there is a greater distance between the organizers and the artists. Mees: ‘Last time an employee of yours said, half laughing, that I should come back in the summer. In my head I ended up on the poster in no time, but of course my booker arranges those things for me.’

The Flemish public loves her down-to-earth modesty. You will not easily catch the Ghent girl in diva behaviour. Before she ended up on the stages of the festivals, she wiped the tables there. ‘I volunteered for three years at Gent Jazz, where I helped clean up in the morning. The last year I was responsible for the team and I was allowed to say who was allowed to clean up what. (laughs) At Rock Werchter I once worked eight-hour shifts at the VIP entrance. I didn’t have much authority, but that didn’t matter, because there was a security guard standing next to me. The most important thing was that after a good shift I was still able to catch up with the headliners. My responsibility was minimal, but I realized then that organizing a festival is much more than quickly setting up a tent somewhere and inviting some people. So all due respect to Patrick and his colleagues.’

Do you feel that respect in most artists?

Patrick Keersebilck: ‘Yes, although it has become more anonymous. Contacts used to be more direct. Professionalisation is a good thing, but it means there are more partitions. Fortunately, we have a very small backstage at the Cactus Festival and no separate VIP zones.’

Organizing a festival has become much more expensive. When I have to pay suppliers, I get the impression that everything comes from Ukraine these days.

Patrick Keersebilck

Organizer Cactus Festival

Meskerem Mees: ‘On Best Kept Secret there was a backstage for the plebs like me (laughs) and a separate one for the headliners. The entrance to the latter was barricaded by two security men. Too bad, because as an artist it’s fun to chat with colleagues. So I’m not in favor of many different cards and wristbands, although I understand that it can be very annoying to be constantly addressed if you are Mick Jagger or Nick Cave.’

Keersebilck: ‘The coolest thing is when the bands with the longest riders still drop the protocols because they notice that the atmosphere is good. In the past, our last festival day invariably resulted in a great fraternization between the employees and the artists. Those are the moments that stay with me the most.’

Was it easier as a relatively small-scale artist and organizer to make decisions during the pandemic?

tit: ‘Last year the larger festivals organized mini versions or there were new small-scale initiatives. That didn’t sit well with my acoustic listening music. I was also not immediately thrown to the lions and was able to grow with my audience. In retrospect, that was ideal for my confidence. But it was of course a tragic time for the sector and for many fellow musicians.’

Who is who?

Meskerem Mees (22) was born in Ethiopia, grew up in the East Flemish village of Merendree and lives in Ghent. She made a name for herself in 2021 with her debut album ‘Julius’, which is full of captivating bedroom folk. At the beginning of this year she won the Music Moves Europe Award, an important music prize for young talent with an international future. Previous laureates have been Adele and Stromae.

Patrick Keersebilck (62) is coordinator of the Cactus Music Center and organizer of the Cactus Festival in the Minnewater Park in Bruges. That music festival is due for its 39th edition this weekend. Without the two corona summers, it would have been the 41st edition.

Keersebilck: ‘The constantly changing situation was the most difficult. You didn’t know beforehand what to expect. The first cancellation was especially hard, because we partly pay for our annual work with the income from the festival. Fortunately, we could fall back on temporary unemployment. We are very grateful to the policy makers for that. Without it it would have been a financial disaster. We had started preparations in 2021, but canceled the festival faster than other colleagues. Many measures related to keeping a distance and the associated maximum capacity. Translated to the Minnewaterpark, that would not have been feasible.’

During the two corona summers, technicians from the event sector became roofers or started constructing swimming pools. Can you get them back?

Keersebilck: ‘Difficult, and those who stayed are drowning in work and have to make choices. The pandemic has been a moment for many people in the sector to stand still.’

Some of the know-how and experience has come from the sector and I fear it will be a while before everything is back to normal.

tit: ‘I understand that, because they make a lot of sacrifices. If you have a nice job as a stage builder or sound engineer, you will find it normal after a while that you work at the most impossible hours. It is only when you do something else that you might enjoy for a while, but that leaves more time for yourself or your family, that you get a different perspective. That has created a brain drain that we also feel as an artist. Recently I had some feedback issues on stage. When I first made eye contact with the man behind the monitors, he shrugged. The second time he had a child in his arms and didn’t even look up. It’s not always the case, of course, but on Best Kept Secret I heard there were major shortages everywhere. Some of the know-how and experience is gone and I fear it will take a while before everything is back to normal.’

Keersebilck: ‘Because of these shortages, I think that students who want to go for it certainly have a future in the sector. Many technicians who work at a light or sound company that we work with started with us as volunteers and then continued to grow. We can see from the contracts that a number of them have now stopped. In the past, these were concluded with a fixed price, now with a base price plus extras. Organizing a festival has become much more expensive. When I have to pay suppliers, I get the impression that everything comes from Ukraine these days.’

These price increases have consequences for the festival visitor. Do you dare to ask 3.5 euros for a beer? And would you say that as a student?

tit: ‘I would take my drinking bottle with me to start with. But if you decide to go to a festival, in a sense you also resign yourself to the fact that you will spend a lot of money in a short time, especially if you are having fun.’

┬ęBrecht Van Maele

Keersebilck: ‘We have knocked on 3 euros per consumption, of which 5 euro cents is a deposit. Pricing is a point of attention in every edition. Our baseline remains ‘a festival on a human scale’, but we had to raise our prices, because the purchase prices of drinks have increased several times in the past two years and our foreign artists are also on average 10 to 20 percent more expensive. I expected that the offer would be a bit larger, but it wasn’t. Internationally, there was still reluctance. Hall concerts have also been shifted to the summer. Joe Jackson was on our list, for example, but he plays postponed concerts in De Roma and the AB.’

What do you take with you from the past two years?

Keersebilck: ‘The solidarity in the sector. The sector consultations have brought the parties closer together over the past two years. As a result of these new platforms, we as a music sector have become more in touch with the broader event and nightlife sector.’

tit: ‘We suffered the most together with the catering industry and suffering together creates a bond. It has helped us as a music industry to speak with one voice. I was really impressed with that front formation. As an artist, you were kept well informed via mail groups about meetings and points of contact, contacts that can also come in handy later. For the rest I was able to occupy myself in silence: I learned the violin and a little German and walked a lot with and listened to friends who were studying and were mentally much deeper.’

Meskerem Mees will play on Friday 8 July at the Cactus Festival in the Minnewaterpark in Bruges.