Interview with Mario Steidl of the Austrian Jazzfestival Saalfelden

At the end of August, many international musicians and industry people come together in Saalfelden for a jazz festival against the backdrop of breathtaking mountain scenery.

Ranging from intense listening experiences to exuberant dance parties, concerts take place on various stages in the city as well as on Alpine pastures.

We talked to Mario Steidl, artistic director of the International Jazzfestival Saalfelden and head of the Kunsthaus Nexus in Saalfelden – an arts centre staging 250 events per year.

As always, you can dive into the full interview with some great tips below, but first I wanted to pull out a couple of interesting points…

“I think the time is over when it was solely the responsibility of the organiser to promote a concert”

Assuming you’re getting a guaranteed fee as a musician, there’s always the option to simply turn up to the gig and hope for the best. But if you’re trying to build a long term, sustainable career, you need to be an active part of the promotion of a concert to make sure that:

a) You’re maximising the audience which comes to hear you
b) Promoters consider working with you a positive experience which they’d like to do again
c) You’re getting the exact ‘message’ that you want to across and turning as many potential fans into ‘super fans’ as possible

“Album cycles are not really important when considering who to book, but you automatically come across projects that have been newly released more often”

There’s a big belief that you shouldn’t release an album if you don’t have a tour lined up.

But whilst that might feel logical (“I’m touring a new album”) many gigs get booked once the promotion of your album starts to work…

a) You release an album and do a great job promoting and marketing it
b) You send reviews and promotional content to clubs & festivals
c) They check out what you’re doing and, if they like it, discuss a booking for their next period [which can easily be 4-8 months in the future

How does booking a festival differ from booking a venue in terms of what you’re looking for from a band or musician?

In our club – the Kunsthaus Nexus – I program differently than at the festival, of course.

Saalfelden is a small town with only 17,000 inhabitants and is located in the middle of nowhere, so we offer a very broad program in the club to reach as many people as possible. 

The festival, on the other hand, is programmed in a much more focused way, puts the emphasis on jazz and improvised music, and is therefore also much more experimental, and the audience is also mostly international.

Accordingly, the program and also the selection of musicians is different.

Your festival has the relatively unique situation of being split between various stages in the city as well as on Alpine pastures – how does this shape the programming?

The heart of the festival is and always has been the 20 concerts on our main stage (1200 capacity) as well as in the short cuts series (220 cap).

At some point I felt this stage division and the accompanying allocation of concerts as a major limitation. Because many projects need specific spaces to work, not every band works on a big stage.

So I was interested in looking for new spaces for specific projects, and so, in addition to the already existing stages, we turned an old bookbindery, an empty courthouse, a museum in a castle, a park or even spaces in the great outdoors into stages. 

To include the mountains, the nature of our region as a stage in the festival was simply obvious, as these also give our festival a unique character.

And discovering the mountains and landscapes together with the musicians on hikes and concerts is a unique experience for musicians and visitors alike. 

So when I hear music or concerts that I find interesting for our festival, images always arise in my mind: in what stages or places, at what time of day, in what mood of light this music could best unfold.

The festival features around 80(!) concerts in just a few days. How do you manage marketing and pushing individual shows (for example if one is moving slower than another)?

We use the social media channels as well as our homepage to inform the audience about news or changes, for example. 

However, the best means of communication during the festival is our app, which we have been using since 2019.

Not only do we use it to provide information about our program, users can also use it to put together their own individual program and are reminded of it with a push alert before the concert begins.

As organizers, we can use push alerts to inform the audience at any time about program changes, spontaneous concerts or other news, and this brings enormous advantages because we can reach visitors almost in real time.

In the past you’ve commissioned special line-ups or one-off projects for the festival. How do those ideas come about?

Every year we award a commissioned project to an Austrian musician who opens the main stage with it.

We endow the project with € 10,000 and cover all the costs for travel, hotel, etc.

For me, it was about promoting Austrian musicians, who could then develop new projects.

In addition, I keep coming across artists who are so versatile in their work that you simply can’t do them justice with one concert.

That’s why I always invite artists to several concerts or award residencies that give artists the opportunity to present several projects. 

For the same reasons, I invite musicians to spend several days in Saalfelden to take part in other improv sessions in addition to their own concert, and to choose their own artists from the line up of the festival.

In this way we offer artists the opportunity to cooperate with other musicians, to network or perhaps even to start new projects. 

In some cases, musicians also approach me because they would like to realize a new project and present it at our festival.

And in some musicians you also have this trust to give them this wild card.

In terms of promoting concerts, how much effect can artists activities (eg social media) have on a concert, compared to what you and your team can do locally?

Very big influence!

I think the time is over when it was solely the responsibility of the organizer to promote a concert.

Not every musician can also be a marketing genius, but it should be a matter of course to have good and appealing photo material and to promote their concerts at least on the most important social media channels and on appropriate digital platforms.

If you as an artist offer your music on streaming sites, why not promote your concerts there as well and provide information about yourself there?

What’s your best piece of advice to an artist who doesn’t have an agent and is pitching themselves to festivals such as yours? 

I always say to artists: Please just send music. Two meaningful sentences about the band, the line up, a good photo and a link to the music or to a video where you can quickly get a first impression – that’s enough for me.

When considering booking an unknown band, what can influence your decision to give them a slot?

I don’t make my decisions based on an artist’s level of fame.

If a project convinces me musically, the name recognition of the musicians is completely irrelevant to me

How do you keep connected with your audience throughout the year, outside of festival time? 

  • Social Media
  • Homepage
  • Newsletter

Are albums and release cycles important when considering which artists to book?

Not really.

But you automatically come across projects that have been newly released more often.

Where do you discover new music and ideas for your festival?

At other festivals and events, through recommendations from my program advisory board, from colleagues and from other musicians.

Through applications from artists, through targeted searches for new releases on various platforms.

And sometimes I even discover new music I didn’t know before through the algorithm of streaming platforms.

Thank you, Mario, for taking the time to answer our questions!

If you enjoyed reading this and would like to discover more insight from other jazz festival promoters around the world, head over to our Jazzfuel Interviews area.

Or, alternatively, check out our ever-growing collection of guides to some of the best jazz clubs & festivals around the world

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