Mathieu Jaton finds that the digitalisation of music has led to numerous contradictions. The man should know: as director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, he’s been closely following digital change and can attest to the fact that music and technical innovation have been joined at the hip ever since the birth of the festival.
The Montreux Jazz Festival is famous round the world. But that’s not all. Throughout its 50 years of existence, the festival has always constituted a bridge between music and technological innovation – one of the aspects that have helped it achieve global renown.
Montreux was one of the first music festivals to produce excellent recordings of the artists’ performances. Filming wasn’t long in coming, either. For the first time ever between a festival and a university, an agreement was reached in 2007 with the EPFL to digitalise all of the Montreux concerts. This unique collection, comprising 5,000 hours of live music, is one of the largest audiovisual concert archives in the world and today is part of UNESCO’s world documentary heritage. The Claude Nobs Foundation is responsible for creating and conserving this collection. With the help of metadata, fans can search for specific pieces and scientists also use the archive for research purposes, especially in the field of neuroscience.
Consequently, festival director Mathieu Jaton – with his 360° videos, virtual reality presentations, 4K recordings and holograms – finds himself smack dab in the middle of the technology universe. But does he believe festivals, especially his own, are in danger as a result of the digitalisation of music and the resulting shift in the industry’s focus?
At the age of 37, Mathieu Jaton took over as director of the Montreux Jazz Festival following the death of its founder, Claude Nobs, in January 2013. But the Vevey-born Canton Fribourg native has been a trusted festival figure for almost 20 years: during his training at the École hôtelière de Lausanne, he saw to the reception of festival artists and sponsors over a five-year period. As of 1999, the music lover then worked full-time as Sponsoring and Marketing Head and subsequently became Secretary General of the MJF at age 25. He worked closely with Claude Nobs for 12 years and in particular was involved in the organisation of overseas festivals and the opening of the Montreux Jazz Cafés in various locations around the world. The first such café debuted at Geneva Airport.
Man is superior to his technologies
“Since the digitalisation of music, there have never been so many interpersonal contacts. This is one of the paradoxes of the digital transition: the further digitalisation progresses, the greater the desire is amongst people to gather together physically. In 15 years, the number of festivals in Switzerland has tripled, and in Portugal it’s even quintupled.”
“And by the way, here’s another paradox: economic theory states that prices fall as demand rises. However, this is not the case in our field. Nowadays, artists no longer earn much from their music recordings, so they increasingly rely on live performances that allow them to command hefty performance fees. And to stand out from the crowd, they need to put on jaw-dropping shows, which is expensive. Therefore: yes, there certainly has been a globalisation of the market and today it’s a completely different ballgame. Yes, all players in this chain have to change their way of thinking, work differently and turn music into money in a different way. And yes, the ones who want to do everything the way they always did it will have a hard time. However, this development also offers enormous opportunities.”
“The further digitalisation progresses, the greater the desire is amongst people to gather together physically.”
So if Mathieu Jaton is confident about the future of his festival, this is – aside from the economic considerations – also due to his conviction that ultimately the human factor will win out. “We mortals have five senses. We want to be together and exchange ideas. Ultimately, man is stronger than technology. People live from swapping stories with each other; they’re not loners.”
Collecting new experiences
Although technology is an integral part of the Montreux Jazz Festival, it plays more of a supporting role. Virtual reality with 3-D 360° views makes new experiences possible and can put concerts in a new light – for example, you can virtually stand on stage and groove with the artists. But Mathieu Jaton is convinced that social interaction – the awesome experience of it – will ensure the continued existence of live performances.
He himself believes that one needs to conceive a strategy before dealing with the technology. “The problem with digitalisation is that everyone can master it. So the question is not which technology to choose, but rather, what’s your intention? The tools have changed, but the need for a strategy remains.”
Speaking of which: the festival is currently working on developing content strategies to generate new income flows. Mathieu Jaton has already seen to that by having created content units more than five years ago. He then appointed a chief digital officer.
The Montreux Jazz Festival was introduced to the world in 1967 by René Langel, Géo Voumard and Claude Nobs, the latter of whom headed the festival until his death in 2013. With more than 250,000 visitors, the festival is one of the most important events in Europe, if not the entire world. Despite this renommée, the MJF has remained true to its roots: improvisation and the proximity of artist and audience continue to be its hallmarks. The festival employs 30 people year-round, whereas that number rises to over 2,000 during the event. Its annual budget: CHF 28 million.
For a recurring event like the Montreux Jazz Festival, developing a strategy that goes beyond the show and is consistent throughout the year is difficult. The answer? “We need to ask ourselves what our product should look like at the digital level. What are we capable of? Creating experiences! So we’ve introduced the Montreux Jazz Café and the Montreux Jazz Festival Japan to make intense moments like these possible beyond just the two weeks in July. The real puzzle, though, is still the question of how to take what we have and organise in an even better way a series of different, experience-oriented events all year round. That’s exactly what we’re working on right now.”
“The question is not which technology to choose, but rather, what’s your intention?”
Digitalisation also means that today all of us are exposed to a veritable flood of information. “On one hand, this oversupply is exciting and compelling, but it also has a dizzying, disturbing side,” says Jaton, who admits that he himself is a smartphone addict.
“This wealth of information has the consequence that one feels somewhat lost, loses orientation and is stressed at the thought of not being able to comprehend everything.” A widespread feeling, indeed. “As festival organisers, we’ve noticed that our customers and visitors sometimes feel lost. So in response to popular demand, we created the “Montreux Jazz Insider” app, which provides information and interesting facts about the artists and their music. We recognised that the audience needs points of reference, and we want to underscore our credibility and competence to them in this way.”
The credibility of the Montreux Jazz Festivals has always been betokened by outstanding sound quality. Alas – here, another paradox – digitalisation is characterised by “phenomenal advances in the visual domain, but an enormous deterioration in sound quality”. The music revolution came to fruition at the expense of quality, this as the result of formatting and compression.
Mathieu Jaton Short questions – short answers
If you had to describe yourself with 3 hashtags, what would they be? #MJ, like Montreux Jazz and Mathieu Jaton; #Musiconly and #Authenticity, because I don’t like it when people dissimulate – I prefer authentic, simple relationships.
What is your favourite app? Montreux Jazz Insider
What background image do you have on your phone or laptop? My daughter appears on my phone. Some sort of canned background from Microsoft is on my computer.
As a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up? I wanted to do something like I actually do today: I’ve always been a born organiser: birthdays, holidays, cooking at home, etc. Already as a child I helped my mother with the preparations for celebrations, because I always liked gathering lots of people together.
Can you remember your first mobile phone? Which model was it? It was this big, klutzy Nokia with a pull-out antenna.