The following interview is with Patti Schmidt, a longtime programmer for the MUTEK festival in Montréal, Canada. The interview took place during the final class session of the spring 2015 semester of the class that I teach about the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Schmidt joined us via Skype.
I frequently invite professionals — musicians, startup representatives, coders, sound designers, publicists — to speak in my class. Rather than ask the guests to prepare a presentation, I interview them in front of the class, and then have the students themselves ask questions. This is a lightly edited transcript of Schmidt’s appearance in class. The interview took place on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, just before the 16th annual MUTEK festival, which ran from May 27 through May 31.
Marc Weidenbaum: First thanks, Patti. I’d like to introduce Patti to the class. This is Patti Schmidt from MUTEK. She’s going be talking with us today via Skype.
Patti, these are the students in the sound class I teach here at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The class is about the role of sound in the media landscape. This last five or six weeks, we’ve been focused on what we call “brands of sounds,” which is how things related to sounds “brand” themselves, how they express themselves in the marketplace. That followed six or seven weeks on the opposite subject, which was “sounds of brands,” about how things — objects, organizations, services — use sound to make an impression.
I tend to end each semester talking about music, and often I’ll have a music publicist come and talk about the challenges of the past 10 years as the record industry has changed, how streaming and other changes in the music and recording industries have shifted their attentions and skills and so forth.
Patti’s speaking with us in class actually began as the result of an interaction with someone in music PR, who reached out to me to ask if I’d be interested in writing an article somewhere about MUTEK, or cover the festival in some way. I replied that I don’t really cover festivals much. Then I suggested we do this, which is have Patti address the class in the form of a live interview, which I’d then edit and post at Disquiet.com, and the MUTEK publicist was enthusiastic about the approach. Patti, could you start just by talking to the class a bit about what MUTEK is and a bit about what you do there.
Patti Schmidt: MUTEK is an electronic music and digital creativity festival having its 16th edition this year. It started in Montréal in the year 2000. The director of MUTEK’s name is Alain Mongeau, and in the mid-’90s he was the president something called ISEA, an electronic arts organization that’s based in the Netherlands. ISEA was one of the first international organizations to really become concerned with the role of digital media and digital sound and digital art. So, he helped host the 1995 edition of ISEA here in Montréal, and his idea was that Montréal is a very unique and weird city in North America because there’s been all kinds of technology leading industries and arts here. The video game industry, Ubisoft [a French company], is based here; Soft Image, which was responsible for Jurassic Park, and all these very early special effects, was based here; and Cirque du Soleil, all this stuff. There are a lot of big spectacle, innovative, tech things that have come out of this province — that you would think might otherwise be isolated because of language, because French is the first language that is spoken here. But somehow through technology and technologically driven art and spectacle, including electronic music, Montréal has sort of distinguished itself in the world. Alain helped start a venue here in Montréal called the Society for Art and Technology, or the SAT, as we call it, and it’s become a real hub for a lot of research on immersive performances, visual works, sounds works.
ISEA was a way for Alain, in 1995, to attempt to really route this idea of innovation in music and performance in Montréal. He went on to program a component for a film festival that was concerned with new media, the Festival of Nouveau Cinema. They gave him a component called the Media Lounge for 5 years, where in the late 1990s he would bring in people like Richie Hawtin, who at the time was rather unknown and would be presenting minimal sound and interactive light installations. This was the beginning of laptops becoming an important tool not only for music, but for visual work. And it became possible to then compose on these brand new portable, reasonably affordable tools. So there was an explosion of art and music going on, all over the world, and so he programmed components of this film festival for a few years. Then he was given some seed money by the guy from Soft Image to begin the very first edition of MUTEK, which was hosted inside of a big complex dedicated to new media that this guy had also just started, called Excentris, roundabout 1999.
That was the basic background on MUTEK. A few years later, maybe it was 2003 or 2004, Alain also — because he has this sort of global view and a positive idea of globalization and technology — he started planting seeds for other MUTEKs in South America, and a “micro” MUTEK festival happened in Chile. Then a few years later — it’s now into its 11th year — Mexico City began its MUTEK franchise. This is all, like, “open source,” no money — we don’t receive any money from these festivals at all. It was more about the idea of inverting the axis of the music industry, which usually goes from North America to Europe, so horizontal, and instead, doing a vertical axis — Montréal down to Latin America — where these emergent economies and artistic communities that were also beginning to just use computers and digital technologies to make music, and to plug into a whole global circuit existed. Alain has a personal history in Latin America, which made this possible. He speaks Spanish; his father is a university professor. They were in Chile during the coup in 1973, and he is very comfortable working these angles. So now MUTEK Mexico is 11 years old — MUTEK Argentina has sort of moved to Mexico. We just started a version of the festival in Colombia. The ones in Chile are a little bit dormant. We also have an outpost in Barcelona, Spain, which is European but it is also a place where tons of Latin American expats end up. The festival has a real mission and mandate statement to always cultivate local audience and the kind of artists and communities that are left out of the regular global conversation that’s western-dominated about technology and music — and that’s an essential interest of the festival. And over the years, as well, MUTEK has cultivated a local community here in Montréal. A number of them, a big chunk of the local artists who helped start MUTEK Montréal, have since relocated to Berlin. And they have quite vibrant careers there, so we work this axis as well. And we still always try to cultivate and throw into our international network local artists who are innovative in using technology. There’s other interesting things to look at over the course of a 16-year history of a festival that takes technology as its important taking-off point, and this technology is constantly mutating, and evolving, and changing, and if you’re going to stay relevant you are going to have to stay on top of what those changes are.
Weidenbaum: Can you summarize what distinguishes MUTEK, for people unfamiliar with it, from the broader range of music festivals that focus on electronic music?
Schmidt: One of the big things that distinguishes MUTEK from other festivals that are EDM or electronic is that it has always been about presenting original creations by artists that unfold in real time, which is our definition of live performance. I mean, a DJ comes and plays live as well, but what we want are people to be using technological platforms. There’s all kinds of new tools and breakout boxes that you can play live electronic music on, but we have maybe three or four DJs that play at our festival, out of more than 110 artists. Everyone else, even the visual artists — it has to unfold in real time, can’t be just playback. It’s hard to prove that when you’re in the audience all the time, but as one of the programmers and curators for the festival, this is what we investigate when we program the festival.
Weidenbaum: Thanks. That’s a great overview. Now, what is your role at MUTEK? How long have you been involved with the organization?
Schmidt: I’ve been programming for the festival since 2008. So, I guess, it’s my 8th edition, 9th edition? There’s three of us, the other two being the director, Alain Mongeau, and Vincent Lemieux, who’s been with the festival for 15 years. The three of us get together and exchange lists and evaluate the terrain of interesting electronic live acts that are out there, audiovisual works that are out there. Then we argue about them to death, until about end of February each year, when most of the programming is set.
Weidenbaum: Do the three of you have different areas of interest? Do you have specialties, the three of you?
Schmidt: Everybody has their particular networks, and relationships, and bugaboos that they bring to the festival. I think it’s good that we are all really different and have different interests and agendas to lay out, but we make all decisions by consensus. I mean, maybe there’s four or five that are not a consensus, out of all of the 80 performances that end up in the festival. We own it together.
Weidenbaum: Could you characterize the three broad proclivities?
Schmidt: It might be unfair to the people not here for me to do that to them.
Weidenbaum: How about your own?
Schmidt: I have a background in music that goes back, getting on 27 years or so. I used to work for the CBC, which is the national broadcaster here in Canada, the equivalent of the BBC. And for 17 years I hosted an infamous new-music program five nights a week called Brave New Waves. The mandate of that program was always to be presenting avant-garde and alternative music. That is a moving target that you have to stay on top of all the time if you want to be relevant, so we played, for example, Sarah McLachlan in, like, the early ’80s, but there comes a time when you don’t need to play Sarah McLachlan anymore, or Nirvana, or whatever. But sound art, strange jazz — it was a four-hour program. I have a lot of contacts that I bring to the festival that are pan-Canadian and a little bit international. I connect a lot of people who are far flung across the country into the MUTEK fold. Alain and Vincent are from here in Montréal, and they have their connections in Quebec as well as Europe. Vince is a DJ and also travels the world. And as I mentioned earlier, Alain has 25 years of international connections in avant-garde electronic and digital art circles.
I’m also the Anglophone here. I also do all of the English communications for the festival. Because we’re an international festival and more than 60 percent of our audience comes from outside of Montréal, we need to have a competent and professional sounding English voice for the festival. That’s the other work that I do.
Weidenbaum: Could you define the word “programming” for the students?
Schmidt: Well, the buzzword these days is “curation.” I don’t use them as interchangeable but sometimes I’ll lay “curator” on people. We don’t just choose the artist: we choose the context in which a lineup can happen. This person can be on a big stage, this person has the kind of music that would require the sound system where it needs to be in a certain proximity to the audience for the music to make sense, or this combination of artists should go together in a trajectory that will make everybody shine.
We also have to mix in local and Canadian artists, because that’s part of our mandate, and we think this artist from Montréal is amazing and emergent and, then, what is the best combination in a lineup where we can also make them stand out, and who can follow certain acts that are amazing and who can’t, because again, you don’t want anything to not be amazing on its own.
It’s a combination of shuffling the deck, choosing the artist, trying to have a trajectory over the five days of the festival — and there is afternoon programming and night programming and a few parallel stages, big rooms. The biggest room is 2,300 people and the smallest room is like a 200 people. We want to have a variety, a kind of panoramic view of what’s going on in electronic music and digital audiovisual performance — that, also, we can afford, and is available, and doesn’t repeat too much what other festivals are doing, because the music industry has undergone some really crazy changes and artists don’t rely on recorded works in the same way and touring and the festival circuit has become like a junket in itself.
If you’re gonna distinguish yourself in the festival market, which is really oversaturated and gigantic, you have to be clever about some of your choices. Regionality is what we rely on to distinguish ourselves. Half of the artists are Canadian, and quite good quality ones who then get launched into international circuits — that is one way that we distinguish ourselves.
Weidenbaum: Let’s talk a little bit about the matter of distinguishing. As I mentioned at the start, the point of this final session of the course is about the way that things related to sound promote themselves often in non-sonic ways. Are there other major festivals in Montréal itself that you’re competitive with? Or is it more of a global competition?
Schmidt: Increasingly over the last 15 years, Montréal has become a very saturated market for electronic music and audiovisual stuff. Happening right now is a festival called Elektra, who are much smaller than us. Their biggest room is 550 people, and we teamed up with them last year, but they concentrate on more pure audiovisual works, not music. And because they are a week or two weeks ahead of us — they used to be in the fall — we do tussle over certain artists. It becomes a bit of a negotiation, because it is a small town, a village almost here, and our funding comes from the same government sources. We’re a non-profit, and we’re not a commercial festival. So we work around or with the Elektra festival, but now there are big EDM events like Île Soniq, where 30,000 people show up to one of the islands, it’s like David Guetta–sized stuff. There is Piknic Electronik, which sort of grew out of working with MUTEK, where they have like 6,000 people every Sunday come and watch DJs, and there are some similar bookings.
To remain relevant, we need to constantly readjust our definitions of what’s interesting and what’s vital. There’s a winter festival called Igloofest, where 10,000 people show up in minus-30 weather down at the old port to also experience electronic music. There is Osheaga, which is Montréal’s answer to Coachella, which also has an electronic stage where there is crossover, and we try to be in contact with the programmers there and negotiate over certain artists, sometimes. And there is an interesting phenomenon in this city where — there are a lot of French people from France who have moved to Quebec over the last 15 years or so — a few hundred thousand, in fact. They have a lot of money, they come over here for work, to go to school, or do an internship program that’s sponsored/subsidized by the French government, and some of them have started to do all these big underground parties that are not reliant on making money because they have all of this cash in their pocket — they can spend forty thousand dollars on a European DJ and have thousands of kids go to their underground event, and so we’re stepping on — everyone’s stepping on everyone’s toes more than ever before. In the last three years in this city it’s bananas. We used to be the only broker of European electronic artists. Just even air travel has changed radically over the last fifteen, twenty years, so that DJ’s are jet-setting, electronic artists are going back and forth like it’s nothing on weekends, you know? That has definitely been a big challenge for us.
Weidenbaum: What are ways that you think MUTEK gets its story out that are unique to MUTEK?
Schmidt: One of the things that’s been important to us is this idea of reputation as a kind of a cultural capital. Our relationships with the artists are quite long term, for all three of us as programmers. The idea that the artist is coming to a non-commercial festival, that the human scale of the festival, quality of production — a lot of this travels by word of mouth, and a lot of it goes through agents and artists who talk to other people — sometimes we can get very big name artists to come here for fees we can afford, because the context is such that it becomes a very rewarding experience for them and an opportunity to try out a new project, connect with audiences in a human-scale kind of way. And it’s not like going to one of the big outdoor 30,000-people things at all. There are real opportunities to take risks.
Yeah, cultural capital is probably the biggest thing to us. We don’t have a gigantic marketing budget. We work social media as best we can. We try not to be cheesy. Our audience tends to skew a bit older, as well. We probably have more thirty-year-olds than your average electronic music festival, so there’s a definite level of discourse that we try to maintain.
Weidenbaum: When you say “cultural capital” what you’re getting at is you’re kinda depending on having strong relationships with your artists so that they’ll help get the message out.
Schmidt: Yes, exactly. And also audiences, too. This year we sold, like, hundreds of passes before ever having released one name of the lineup. And that’s people who are returning, who don’t even care what happens because the other thing we try to do with this festival is create a kind of convivial atmosphere for festivalgoers. So, again, the human scale of things is very important, the venues are close together, and we time the programs so that we allow people to maybe go eat dinner if they’re well organized. The social element, how comfortable it is to gather in certain venues, is very important to us. How people move. One of the things I enjoy the most about watching the festival unfold is all of the little cohorts of people that hang out together and meet new people. Some of my friends have been going forever and there is something socially fascinating about that. You don’t really go to this festival alone and then that audience brings other people in, and I think that’s one of our biggest secrets over the last decade and a half.
Weidenbaum: Do you have aspirations to grow larger, or are you at the size you want to be? How do you manage that? How do you know when you’re successful and how do you know when you’re endangered?
Schmidt: Well it’s a real kind of “Canuckistan model,” in that our funding comes from government sources. We have a few private partners, but they are technological partners, ones that make sense, and a few beer companies give us free beer and that kind of thing. The growth thing matters in the non-profit government-funding model only if you become super gigantic. Like the Montréal Jazz Festival is very famous, and they can provide economic-impact statements about the number of tourists from all over Canada and the world that come to their festival, and once you hit millions of dollars in your festival budgets, you’re eligible for even more money from the government, and tourism agencies, and provincial agencies. We’re kind of trapped in this “biggest of the smallest” level, so growth is not — it’s tricky, because also artist fees have exploded over the last ten years or so, so an artist that used to cost us maybe a thousand Euros can sometimes cost us — or the first thing laid on the table is like 20,000 Euros. Our ticket prices haven’t gone up, and our venue capacity hasn’t gone up that much, just incrementally over the last 15 years. So maybe we had a 1,000 entries, I don’t know how many core people that is but a 1,000 entries — people attending — at all of the programs in the very first year of MUTEK. Last year we had 50,000 entries. So that’s adding up all the attendance at all of the programs together. So growing that in a city where there already are commercial promoters who will bring in the big name acts, it’s a thing that we debate amongst ourselves quite a lot. I personally do not want to see the festival get bigger than this because then, I think, you lose the kind of connections that artists like with a certain size of an audience. The audience gets alienated at a larger size. When you become more commercial or populated you also let in a kind of audience that is transient and consumeristic, and not as loyal as the one that we have.
Weidenbaum: You talked a bit earlier on about this idea that it has to be things that happen in “real time,” and you distinguish DJs a small subset of it. Are there other mission-specific constraints that maybe have been tested as time’s gone on?
Schmidt: Maybe this is related to the question, but we have a component to our program that’s called the A/Visions series, that for many years has been this very formalized idea of an audiovisual show — also, again, the platforms for digital visual work have evolved radically over the last ten years — but there would always be this theatre type of setting that we would put people in and maybe it was an old fashioned idea, maybe a little bit “high art” to do that, but we found over the past few years that this whole A/Visions program really needs to change. Even though settings like these are important contexts to present works that require attention — you’re seated, your body is taken out of the equation, you can “be there” in a different way than a standing up show. So, we’ve reduced it from a four-night performance program to two, because a lot of these kinds of audio/visual works have become standup things, or they’ve become so apart of a regular electronic live performance, that it’s no longer this kind of special, formalized presentation anymore. That would be one way that this idea of wanting to present innovative audiovisual works as a core component of the festival has been shifting. The ground for that has been shifting underneath us, and we’re a little bit confused as to how to deal with that in the future. So this year we have a dancer from Japan who’s coming who needs a kind of formal stage setup because the screen starts at the back and then wraps underneath him and it’s like motion-mapped and you need to have a sit-down audience for that sort of thing. Tyondai Braxton is doing a performance with these pods that a Danish architect has built that are light and sound wired, and there is an interaction between five musicians who sit on them. That needs to be a sit-down program. But this kind of presentation of audiovisual as this formal spectacle is a changing part of our mandate, for sure.
Weidenbaum: I was listening to the new Tyondai Braxton record on the bus on the way to school today. The new HIVE1 record. Anyone in class familiar with Tyondai Braxton? He was in the group Battles, if you are familiar with Battles on Warp Records. His new record came out of an exhibit he did initially at the Guggenheim Museum, where they did a bunch of performances there that were interactive and the music we hear on that record is the result of that installation development. Patti, are there works — there must be works that track their existence back to MUTEK experiments and premieres. Do people use MUTEK as a way to debut work, to experiment with work? What do artists look for in MUTEK as a way to try things out?
Schmidt: People love to do premieres here. I am trying to think if there are a few sexy things that track back.
Weidenbaum: I think Amon Tobin may have done one.
Schmidt: Oh yeah, it’s true. So do you guys [to students] know Amon Tobin? Are you familiar with him? Well he started out in drum and bass and was a fairly well known British drum and bass star for a while. Ninja Tune puts out his records. This is a good example of personal relationships at work in the festival. Amon lived here in Montréal for a while because there is a Ninja Tune office in Montréal and I’m good friends with the guy who runs that label, and Amon lived in my neighborhood. And so I’d play him weird records and we’d hang out. And he was at a point in his career where he was a little bit tired of — he really didn’t have a proper live show for an electronic musician, and he was getting tired of the options for touring. And for a couple of years I was, like, “Listen you know there’s a lot of interesting, kind of ‘scenography’ that you could do to present your music. If there is a concept, there are a lot of artists who are based here in Montréal who can provide some interesting scenography, like live video, lighting designs, some kind of a stage setup.” And so for a couple of years I was on him. And so he met with some artists here but ended up choosing V Squared Labs, which is based in San Francisco. And they ended up building this gigantic set that fills an entire theatre stage that’s all these sort of cubes, and became a video-mapping thing where each of the tracks on his record which had been sourced from — oh my god, what was it — they were all samples that were from nature and ISAM, the project name, stands for something about controlling nature.
Anyway this was a few years ago and so it was this huge spectacle and the set was very expensive to move around. It had some of the highest lumen projectors that were available at the time. He was built into the box, too. There was a little screen and he had a Kinect system in there. So when he moved his hand in front of the Kinect camera, the whole giant box that he was in, you could see his face and his hand movements cross over. It was a big deal. And live. And so it debuted at MUTEK in 2012. Because we sort of helped to encourage the project and push it along and then it ended up traveling through a circuit of festivals called the International Cities of Advanced Sound. And two years it was on the road, because it also cost a lot of money to do this, and then it closed at MUTEK Mexico two years ago. So that’s an example of the kind of big scale stuff that we do and help to incubate.
Weidenbaum: Thanks for that. I’m a big fan of Tobin and Kid Koala, and Monolake and other people for whom the installation and the music — well, it’s hard to tell when one ends and the other begins. So I want to remind everyone here in class that if you have questions, do not hesitate. Patti, does anyone work on MUTEK full time year round or is it part time for everyone involved?
Schmidt: The director is full time. There is an executive director who is full time, and then there is a development and strategic person who is sort of three quarters time. And then the rest of us come in during the festival and in cycles. So as a programmer, Vince and Alain and I, actually will start meeting in August for the next year’s festival. But there is really no money, you are not getting rich here at all. I call this one of my “Not Jobs.” I have other ways that I look after myself, but it’s a really great privilege to be able to be involved with this level of artistry, and to create experiences for people in these kind of contexts at MUTEK. Coming from my CBC career, where all of my contacts are very underground and emergent artists, it was something that I got good at — I feel so glad that still I get to exercise those muscles in this context here. But yeah there is not a lot of financial stability to have a full time large staff.
Weidenbaum: When it’s running full speed how many people are responsible for keeping it afloat?
Schmidt: I would say there would be a production director, a technical director, an administrator, a communications person, a graphic designer, an editor, a couple of writers that are on short contracts, a translator on short contract, and then everybody else is volunteers. So it’s not that big at all. And we also collectively help in small ways to sort of broker and run the other MUTEKs as well.
Student Question: Hi, so I was just wondering, although you are based in Canada, because you have different MUTEKs in different regions, does your branding or positioning change depending on which MUTEK is going on at what time? Do you have, like, different social media accounts, have different type of brand pillars, or whatnot?
Schmidt: Yep. Well, a few things. So, the logo is the same, although each of the different branches are branded differently, like MUTEK.ES, is the Spanish version, MUTEK.MX is the Mexico version. We house all of the web-based platforms — those go through our main MUTEK.org site. So on our website you will see Bogotá, Barcelona, México, Montréal. The directors and people in those other MUTEKs run their own social media, but there is definitely a look and feel. I recently did some of the English communications for the Spanish festival, press release writing. Just to make sure everything is consistent, in a way. There are definitely values that are super important in communications, but also as a MUTEK festival, there has to be good sound. There has to be an audiovisual component or an A/Visions program. Basically, they take the template of our festival, which has five main program components — Nocturnes are night time programs, A/Visions are the audiovisual formal shows, Experience is where the local artists and emergent artists go, depending on what city that we’re in, and Play is the experimental program. So, all of the other festivals use this same template. And the director will often travel to these festivals, and we talk to the other directors and it’s very community-based, open-source stuff. And everybody wants it to be good because they know that the cultural capital of MUTEK is the thing also that they get to leverage in their local communities. And because it has a reputation you can start at a little bit farther along the road in terms of booking international artists in or even encouraging the local community to be, like, “Wow, it’s a MUTEK, I would really like to participate in this.” A lot of exchange goes on, and critique back and forth, like “You know this screen that you had last year at was really crappy” or “You need to find a better room” or, as a festival one of the things we try not to do is use clubs. We use museums, or strange spaces in the city, trying to make a different context for a festival that doesn’t confuse it with a commercial club. These values are passed on and we have little documents and discussions that we share with each other.
Weidenbaum: Has any festival sort of gone rogue and you had to pull them back in?
Schmidt: Uhhh. No. They haven’t [laughs]. I mean, because we are all part of the same global community, we also want to please each other, too. And we are rooting for each other all the time. Alain, the director, spends a lot of time before he allows someone to do a MUTEK, and it will usually start off with what we call a “micro MUTEK” where it’s all, like “OK, you can do two nights, or a weekend, you know you can use our name, you need to fly one of us down there so that we can kind of like check out how it’s going, and do you understand what our mandate and mission is?” That sort of thing. It can take some time to “become” a MUTEK.
Weidenbaum: I had a question related to the previous one. When a festival happens once a year in a particular place, putting aside your global reach, how do you maintain awareness throughout the year, and yet keep it fresh when it’s time to announce a new festival? I get a lot of email. I’ve written about music for a very long time, so I get a ton of music PR, hundreds of emails a day, and sometimes I can’t remember if a festival is about to happen or that they are just keeping me aware that they still exist.
Schmidt: Yeah, it’s definitely an issue to try to maintain presence and one of the challenges that we have with MUTEK is that — first off, Montréal has a hundred festivals a year and because it is so fucking cold here they all happen between March and October. A hundred of them. It’s crazy. Right now when I’m walking to work, there’s this whole area called the Quartier des spectacles, the neighborhood of spectacles, and it is all lined up for weeks: there’s circus festivals, and food festivals, and fringe festivals. So it’s difficult for us to connect with local audience because people are so festival-fatigued here. It is hard for us to fight for a place in the local press, too, for our festival when it is actually happening, or to get any kind of coverage that’s invigorating or interesting to a local audience. We try to do a couple of events during the rest of the year that are branded MUTEK. There is a big Nuit Blanche here — do you guys have that concept? You know, in Paris where the art galleries all stay open all night, it was something that was imported here about 10 years ago. So all the museums and galleries stay open and a lot of organizations do all-night events but for us it’s at the end of February so it’s even more daunting a task. So we do a Nuit Blanche event at the end of February and sometimes we’ve done these things called Avant MUTEKs, where we bring an artist into more of a club setting and try to create a bit of local awareness about the festival that is coming up. It’s always a fight because it is a city of festivals here.
Student Question: On either a local or global scale, who would you say your biggest competitor is, and what have you done to maintain competitive advantage with them?
Schmidt: I don’t know that it’s very useful for us to even think about it as being competitive at all. Which is why we form all of these networks with festivals that are similarly sized and similarly minded. Around the world there something like 30 festivals, 40 festivals, who are part of the International Cities of Advanced Sound — Unsound in Poland, Club Transmediale in Berlin — and there’s a lot of exchange that happens. There’s Communikey in Bolder, Decibel in Seattle, New Forms in Vancouver. And we’re all very similarly minded, not competitive with each other. But the forces of darkness for us would be big festivals like Sonar, for example, who can hand out giant fees to artists that we might be interested in, and trying to create a dialogue with those agents. Now, we don’t have so much direct contact with artists anymore. And trying to create dialogue with agents to explain that we are a different size and a different mindset is difficult. That’s the competition, really, these days. It’s not between like-minded, like-sized festivals, but with the giant, monolithic commercial festivals that set some of the monetary agenda for everyone.
Weidenbaum: Explain that a little bit. How your relationships have shifted from artist to agent?
Schmidt: It’s been a slow creep over the last, I’d say, like, ten years. It goes along with what I was saying earlier, that there has been an explosion in festivals as well, a festivalization of electronic music or the music industry in general. It happens in indie rock and jazz and all those genres too. It probably has something to do with declining record sales and greater fees that can be extracted from the festivalization of the industry, and so that means that more middlemen and agents and managers become involved in looking after these artists. Now there are artists who have one EP out and get a good review in Pitchfork , who now have agents and managers and you cannot get to the artist anymore. There’s still a few cases with international artists where I will write emails to them directly and they don’t have agents yet, but it is increasingly rare for even the smallest, most obscure, untested, unknown artist, not to have the full brunt of music industry bullshit behind them.
Weidenbaum: Can you talk a bit about how MUTEK has changed as record sales have declined?
Schmidt: Well, you have to consider with electronic music and with audiovisual works that with record sales it’s not really the same thing. When you’re talking about electronic artists, you’re often talking about EPs or 12”s, a kind of club culture sometimes. Or gallery culture. So it’s not the same as with a rock musician. I think that if you looked at the indie rock touring circuit, you could probably blame declining record sales for the boost in performance fees, but I’m not sure. I also think there is something about electronic music, and this is a criticism of it, is that it tends to be at its worst, a gross VIP culture that can be eurotrashy and elitist. And in Europe artists really command gigantic fees to just DJ a night. That can create expectations on us.
Weidenbaum: The velvet rope.
Schmidt: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s something we also try to fight against and if artists aren’t interested in our festival because we are too puny for them, then we’re also not interested in them. So in the electronic music milieu, I think it’s the festivalization of electronic music culture that has really created this whole middle industry for agencies and escalating fees that is the big issue.
Student Question: In terms of the festival having a food and drink component, are those all local purveyors? National ones? How does that work?
Schmidt: Some of them are international ones. The beer sponsors will be things like Sapporo, who have a presence in some of the events that go on here. We do try for local stuff. There’s really great beer that’s made here in Quebec, so there’s a lot of local breweries. Do you know about Club Mate? It’s a thing everybody in Europe drinks. It’s kind of this herbal drink that keeps you up but doesn’t make you insane like Redbull. There is a local manufacturer here who does a version of that which we will use this year. Our outdoor stages are right in the center of the Quartier des spectacles, and there is a whole food truck culture here. So there are a lot of gourmet food trucks in Montréal and we have organized five or six of those that will be part of the afternoon programming. We just did, for people who buy passes, a bunch of discounts. For the first year we’ve done something called the MUTEK Culinary Route. There is a real foodie culture here, tons of restaurants, amazing food. We’ve approached a dozen restaurants and asked for a free coupon, for 10% off on a meal, and we’ve put them into our program and tried to promote the other connections to culture in the city that are part of the general sensuality of living in Montréal — that we want to be part of the festival experience for people too.
Weidenbaum: When you mentioned the connection between Jurassic Park and the initial funding of MUTEK, it made me wonder a bit about the reverse, which involves bringing all these international figures from music and technology to Montréal and also elevating people from the area and from the country in general. Has that helped, locally, create connections between artists and technicians and business culture? I know, for example, Amon Tobin did that great score for that Ubisoft Splinter Cell game. I wasn’t sure if they were aware of him beforehand. Maybe it was MUTEK that helped.
Schmidt: No, that was because of Ninja Tune. Because he lived here at the time, and that Jeff Waye, the guy who runs the label, makes those connections. There’s also music publishing arm of Ninja Tune that’s very successful. But it is about being physically in the centre of the technological art world that’s here. You guys know the famous Madonna halftime show that happened in the super bowl a couple of years ago. Do you have a recollection of when Arcade Fire had these big balls that had lights in them that were sent out at Coachella that bounced around. There are two companies based in Montréal who are responsible for those. The Moment Factory did the Madonna halftime show, and a small company called ESKI did all of those LED balls for Arcade Fire. And so there’s a lot of artists, there’s a research and creation component of those industries here Montréal — and so a number of the VJs at MUTEK actually work for the Moment Factory, and ESKI, and some of the other companies that do these gigantic multimedia shows. My friends who work at Silent Partners work for Katy Perry, or they’re working on Justin Timberlake shows — they provide the live video and the scenography. So there is definitely an ecosystem here in Montréal where there’s the giant artists who come and commission Montréal companies to provide a lot of these spectacle elements, but then those individual people also have an artistic itch that they scratch in the festivals and some of the smaller events that go on here too.
Weidenbaum: We’re coming up on the hour, when we have to end. I have one or two more questions, and then we’ll see if there’s anymore from the students. You’ve used this word “scenography” quite a bit. Could you explain what you mean by that?
Schmidt: It’s a kind of a catchall to describe dressing a room. It could be how the stage is built physically. With the giant stage that we use at Metropolis, one of the guys who does scenography built this octagon structure, and there were different levels to it so the videographers could map each separate level differently. And then it was so big that when we had five artists on the stage, there was no delay in the changeover because on this stage there would be the first artist and inside the hexagon there would be the second artist on a different level. It was a big piece of wood. Gigantic. That’s part of the scenography. Lighting counts as scenography: it creates the space. Anything that creates the mood for the space — the live video is also scenography. I guess it would be — in the olden days, you would call them artistic directors but we call them scenographers and you see that term coming up a lot more when it comes to creating immersive spaces at events.
Student Question: You said that especially for a lot of upcoming electronic artists that they have to go to an agent right away because they’re blowing up after one song. How is MUTEK adjusting to new kinds of music or artists that blend music styles, now that the electronic scene is blowing up that much?
Weidenbaum: Yeah, if I can paraphrase: The challenge you describe is one where electronic music has become so successful, in part because of events like MUTEK drawing attention to it, maybe in time has MUTEK considered other genres, other areas that are less professionalized?
Schmidt: Yes, always. I mean, we definitely have certain genres of music that we gravitate towards. But yeah, we’re always open to listening to and finding out who’s got some interesting style or a new take on a genre or some new way of creating sound and space and all of those things, for sure.
Weidenbaum: This has been tremendous. I’m a huge admirer of MUTEK. I want to thank you a lot. It’s the last day of the semester, and wrapping it up with the state of what the music industry is like right now is really important. It’s a good way to close the loop on what we’ve been discussing and in closing, I just want to ask a little bit about you reflecting on changes in your own professional life over time. Are there things you do today that would be especially alien to when you first began a music industry career?
Schmidt: The beginning of my music career was inside of a corporation and we still did things punk rock style and do it yourself, even if there was real staff. With MUTEK it’s a continuation of that. I don’t mind any of this because there is something about creating an event that is very temporal and lasts for five days and touches people deeply that keeps me going. You know, this is the two weeks before the festival right now, where a lot of us are starting to feel very cranky and stressed out — and this is the same cycle for me every year — I start to be like “Why do I do this? Why do I do this?” And then once the festival is underway you see how it happens on the ground and I feel more ecstatic than I usually can ever imagine — the cycle starts over again. I have to say that that I am 47 years old and there’s something about being in the music industry — that is the terror of youth culture — that I am very lucky to still work in this industry, for lack of a better word, in the middle of contemporary art and music — but I feel that this is a shifting world that I have to face. I know that I am not of the same tribe as 23-year-olds, and they know I’m not either. But I feel very connected to music. I am moved constantly by innovative art. I am still curious.
Weidenbaum: It’s funny, you talking here is a fairly meta thing, because how this all originated was that a woman named Evelyn who does publicity for MUTEK sent me a PR email. I get hundreds of these everyday: “Would you write about X?” And in this case Evelyn was asking, “Would you write about the upcoming MUTEK festival.” And we had a bit of a back and forth and I said, I am a huge admirer of what you do, but I don’t do festival coverage because as you pointed out there are tons of other festivals out there and if I start covering one or two, what does it mean? But we had a back and forth and then I thought about it for a while and I said look, I really admire what you do, then I proposed this idea that you would speak to my class in an interview format, have it transcribed. Then we would use that as a way to depict the conversation. And she said, “Oh gosh thank you, that’s exactly the sort of non traditional publicity we are trying to do.” I just want to say thanks to you and to Evelyn for being open to such an idea.
Schmidt: Thank you.
Weidenbaum: Well good luck with MUTEK and all, and thank you so much.
Schmidt: Thank you. Congratulations on your semester, everyone. Bye.
Thanks to Nick Drexler (twitter.com/nickdrexler) for transcribing the audio of this interview.