15,000 jazz fans a year: Interview with Vilem Spilka of JazzFestBrno

I’ve known Vilém for a few years now and he’s always been this mad…in a good way!

I remember seeing him give a lecture at a conference for music managers and he was explaining the role of a music manager using a huge picture of a Czech literary and comic character “Ferda the Ant”. Ferda is the type of guy who always sorts everything out and, whatever he thinks of, finds a way to make it happen.

Ladies and gentlemen: Vilém Spilka is Ferda the Ant in real life!

Not only is he the founder & artistic director of the huge JazzFestBrno – undoubtedly one of the biggest jazz festivals in Central Europe – he’s also the Head (and founder!) of the jazz department at the Music academy in Brno (Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts), he’s a guitar teacher, he co-operates with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra on their Jazz & World programme, he’s the artistic director of the Strings of Autumn Music Festival, a music publicist and leads his own busy band, the Vilem Spilka Quartet!

Before you check the full Q&A, here are a few particularly great pieces of advice that you shouldn’t overlook:

> Find a “style of communication” with your fans on your social media

> He admits he spends a lot of time on social media (like most of us!) – so make sure your presentation on them is top notch, share inspiring stuff

> For his festivals future he searches for “Having even more unknown, but fabulous artists in the program” – doesn’t it sound like a great challenge for you?!

Programming a huge jazz festival like yours must be super awesome but I can’t imagine myself picking only a few lucky bands amongst all of the others to perform there. What is your programming recipe?

My recipe, hmm. I don’t know if there is one, but I guess our festival is made of a nice blend of what is being offered to me, what I initiate or strive for and what is necessary for the festival to survive. I do like to put together special projects, however, I also like to feature working bands which usually have a special chemistry.

Where do you discover new artists? Do you go to showcase events?

I do go, mostly to see the bands live. The APAP in New York is a good one as well as the JazzAhead in Bremen. There are many more, WOMEX etc, a lot of them collide with our own events and concerts, so I have to be careful while picking the right one.

I discover new artists primarily by:

  • Word of mouth
  • Reading social media
  • Jazz magazines & blogs
  • Going to concerts, festivals and clubs.
  • Checking out many of the offers I get through email or otherwise
  • Sometimes I get inspired by agents

What do you think a successful showcase concert should look like and how should the band prepare for it?

It should be quite short, with strong choice of tunes, not too much talking, but definitely some commentary. The band should approach it as any other concert, just not expecting as warm a reception as usual and with a number of people leaving the auditorium during the set. A special preparation may turn out as a burden: just play as you are used to.

My favourite question now: do you read all email offers you receive and listen to the music from them?

Not all of them of course, but I do read most of them and listen to the music fairly often. I don’t respond to many, but I hope those who send the offers understand that I don’t have the capacity to keep conversations with so many people.

Would you invite to your festival a totally unknown foreign band you accidentally found, which plays GREAT music but does almost zero PR activities around them?

I suppose I would if their fee was reasonable and they were willing to cooperate on the PR activities we would line up. Our concert format often is a double bill, so we can use the headliner to expose the “opening act” to more listeners.

You teach Music Management to jazz students at the Janáček Academy of Music. Can you tell us a bit about what this involves?

I try to be practical.

I make them create a Facebook page and website, help with finding a “style of communication” with their fans, put together a rider and stage plan, an EPK, an email offer, have them make some recording and a live video and convince them to continue with a follow up, knowing that doing those things I listed above is just a start. Soft skills (how you interact personally with people) are an important part of it, so we touch up on those as well.

What is the most important piece of advice you think they should remember when trying to reach promoters?

Don’t push too hard.

When programming a festival it’s important to stay up to date to the jazz scene. How do you do this?

I get a lot of info on Facebook and YouTube, I have to say. Many of my favourite musicians post some inspiring stuff. I read some blogs and magazines. But most importantly I talk to fellow musicians and music lovers, who all have their favourite artists and types of music.

You’ve already had the biggest heavyweights at the jazz festival in Brno (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, Brad Mehldau). How can a festival like this still develop?

Perhaps we can create even more creative opportunities for these superb musicians. It is often hard, knowing that their schedules are so full. Artist residencies come to mind as well. Having even more unknown, but fabulous artists in the program would be nice. And continuous fine tuning of our production skills will not hurt either.

Thanks to Maggie for putting this together and to Vilem for his time and thoughts on these questions!

Find out more about Vilem’s various jazz work…

  • In the last 15 years, Jazzfest Brno (where Vilem is artistic director) has hosted concerts with over 100 Grammy-nominated jazz musicians and reaches an annual audience of around 15,000 people across 25 venues. You can find out more on Twitter & Facebook too.
  • Vilem is Head of Jazz at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno where he runs courses on important non-playing areas of jazz (business, management, career-building), as well as overseeing the practical side.
  • Vilem plays guitar and is active on the jazz scene with his quartet which you can discover here.

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