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  • Curator Björn Döring on the 27th Fête de la Musique

Fête de la Musique

Curator Björn Döring on the 27th Fête de la Musique

"Look at the numbers, we're up there with Glastonbury." Curator Björn Döring on the unique challenge of running 140 mini-festivals at once.

Photo: Jim Kroft

What does Fête de la Musique mean to you?

To me personally, it’s really so much more than a music festival. Even if you only look at the numbers, usually between 80,000 to 120,000 visitors, we’re up there with major festivals like Lollapalooza or Glastonbury.

The difference is that it’s not one major festival, but a collection of mini-festivals all over Berlin with around 140 stages all over town. 

What is really fascinating is the spirit that lies behind the whole thing. This idea was launched 40 years ago, and it’s still growing, it exists all over the world, and the idea keeps on developing because it’s truly a communal thing. 

There are so many people in Berlin donating their time, their energy, their music, their location, and anything they can offer to this one day, so that their neighbours, fellow Berliners, can enjoy music for free.

Neukölln actually approached me to ask if they could be the partner district, and honestly, my first thought was: well, no, you can’t. 

Let’s use the big word: capitalism. The Fête de la Musique is something that you don’t find anywhere else in our times and for me it is a major sign of how strong this society can be.

It goes beyond the idea of a music festival, it’s a celebration of music, of course, but also a celebration of creativity, what people can do and what people are willing to donate and to give to others.

Why do you think it is so popular in Berlin specifically?

It’s funny, the Fête began in Paris, and a few years ago we had a call from the organisers there and all they wanted to know was ‘What’s going on in Berlin?’ 

We had over 600 concerts here, which is way more than even they had in the place it began. For me, it’s not any kind of science, it’s just this unusual thing about Berlin that people just roll out their carpets in front of a shop and start playing music.

It’s now the 27th year. I was involved in the first editions and at that time it was really difficult. I think it was just one truck driving through the city. Musicians in Berlin were completely insulted when you asked them to play in the streets and in the first three or four years, it was quite a challenge to build this event up. 

Berliners are always a little bit like this though. When you confront them for the first time they’re a little bit grumpy and a little bit rough. But, when you conquer their hearts, then they love you forever. 

How important is that communal aspect for you as a curator?

It is really precious. There are no social barriers because you can go and enjoy music for free and hopefully you discover new things. Personally, I can say that I’ve been working in the business for over 27 years and I still discover crazy things about this city every year. Last year, during the pandemic, we had a floating stage with a live stream on it and people were watching music from the shoreline. It is always full of new and different experiences and they are available to everybody. Berlin has many great things, so much great music happening in so many amazing places that you wouldn’t expect. Before the pandemic, we discovered a Gartenkolonie, that had been putting on concerts in their private gardens every year. You could just walk through the alleys and listen to music in the gardens. How great is that? 

Just the other day I discovered a group of people playing the Alphorn. I had no idea something like this existed in Berlin. I discovered all of this from the Fête de la Musique and it gives that same opportunity to every single person no matter their social situation.

What are the challenges of curating an event on this scale?

I’d say there’s two major challenges and the first one is time.

The time element is really tough, but I should say that we are so lucky because we are constantly supported by the city of Berlin. We have the Senator for Cultural Affairs, and for Europe, who are really strongly behind the whole legacy of the Fête. At the same time, we only get permission year by year, which leaves you with three months to organise an event for 100,000 people, to build a team, find the topic you want to explore, find the partner district, and everything else.

During the pandemic, we had a floating stage with a live stream on it and people were watching music from the shoreline

So, as you can imagine, the time pressure is always a big thing. But, on the other hand, in 2018, when I first had the honour to be the curator of this whole thing I was totally stunned because on the 21st of June, I had nothing to do, no phone calls, nothing. Everything was already done.

So, that’s the second part — the telephone is totally silent because everything is so well organised by our partners. Usually my job is really curating every aspect of a festival and the music, but here, I have to let things go, let things organise themselves, and trust that the festival will make its own way, and for a control freak like me, I can tell you it is not so easy.

The success of that entropic element is so core to the Fête. Do you have a sense of whether people are ready to come back to the streets?

Honestly, I have no clue. I really have stage fright because it is something I can’t predict. These two years have done damage to the habits of people and how they choose to spend their free time. Maybe Netflix has really won the battle on the sofa, but maybe not.

What I can tell you is that within days of opening the call for musicians we had over 140 applications from venues who were ready to organise something for free, 300 applications from bands and musicians and choirs and DJs that simply wanted to perform for no other reason than for the joy of it. 

Honestly, that was a really pleasant surprise. I mean, I know it sounds dramatic, but it was dramatic that so many people survived this terrible moment and still have so much to give. I don’t have a clear vision of what will happen, but I really do hope for great events that are well attended on the 20th and 21st.

Can you tell me more about why Neukölln was chosen as the partner venue for this year’s edition?

That’s an interesting one. Neukölln actually approached me to ask if they could be the partner district, and honestly, my first thought was: well, no, you can’t. 

Neukölln is the partner district this year. Photo: Jim Kroft

Usually, the idea of the partner district is that we go to places that don’t have many clubs, we don’t go to the so-called cool places because we want to direct the focus of the attention of the media and the audience towards new encounters with these hidden gems that you don’t usually know. 

However, then I thought, okay, well this is actually quite interesting because Neukölln has many different faces and we are all guilty of focusing too much on just one of those. 

Of course, we have locations like Heimathafen, but it’s really based in the Gropiusstadt, which is the place where culture happens, but usually it’s not in the focus of media.

Of course, it’s a challenge because we do not know, if we attract the attention of the people that live there, or if they will take our invitation to see these concerts. But I really do believe that people appreciate opportunities of all kinds in this world and we shouldn’t make assumptions, just make things accessible and see how it works out.

This is the reason why we have a really diverse programme. From classical music to hip-hop, we have everything you can imagine. We want everyone to find their sweet spot, with no judgement, no barriers, and all of it for free.