The ultimate rite of passage for any music fan is a full festival experience
Ivana Jelača is a booker for INmusic festival, based in Zagreb. Since 2013, she’s been a key member of the small team responsible for the biggest Croatian live music festival. She’s a woman with the respectable knowledge of today’s music industry and an extraordinary feeling for the sounds of tomorrow. She has a lot to say about past, present and future.
Where does your interest in music come from?
I have always been a passionate music fan, but never really anticipated this could be a career choice for me as I am entirely musically non-gifted. I was just in my early high school years when the New York and UK early 2000s indie scene broke out. This indie wave was a huge influence on my informal musical education, which obviously led me to dig deeper and discover bands like Joy Division, The Smiths, Bauhaus, The Clash. My university years definitely expanded my musical taste when interacting with a whole new group of musically like minded friends who all brought something new to the table – prog rock, world music, electro. All in all, a large part of my personality and values were shaped by a spontaneous and curious venture into modern music consumption and exchange as a central social activity of pretty much all of the close relationships I have ever formed.
How did you start working in this business? Have you abandoned some other desires or ambitions when you decided that music would pay your bills?
My university years were filled with volunteer gigs in various cultural projects – among others I started working part-time as a fundraiser for EU projects for a contemporary art bureau which led to a job offer to run an EU project for INmusic festival. From 2011 onwards I got more and more involved in the whole process of organizing such a big event, parallel to managing an EU project centred on multiculturalism taking place as a part of the festival. With a growing workload from the festival side, I slowly started to minimise my involvement in other projects.. Since I’m an art historian by profession, this was a hard decision to make but I chose to pursue a career in a team and cultural environment I felt very comfortable in. Having worked both sides of the creative industry – the more hermetic visual arts side, and the more commercial side of popular music – I feel privileged to have first-hand experience and understanding of the particularities each of these fields face in practice. By 2013, I took over the talent booker position for the festival and remained heavily involved in the event production, marketing, fundraising, sponsorships, one-off projects, and I’ve been at the same job ever since.
What was your impression of INmusic when you became a member of the team? What’s different today?
INmusic’s first edition back in 2006 was also my first festival experience – I saved money from tutoring elementary school kids to be able to afford a ticket for INmusic to see two of my indie heroes: Morrissey and Franz Ferdinand. I had no clue that seven years down the line I would be booking and hosting the same bands for a living. I attended each and every edition, first as an audience member completely oblivious to the amount of work and dedication such a project demands, then as a student worker on a job position for the festival where I got a little taste of the rumble and buzz behind the scenes, and finally as an integral part of the festival’s core team. The team is definitely the reason that I stuck around. I found myself being in awe of the intensity and relentless will to go forward for the sake of our audience, all the while resisting immense pressure and obstacles along the way. Our team has changed little over the last 8 years since I’ve joined, remaining a very close-knit team where I can speak my mind and share ideas for improvement. And we have improved, significantly: the festival’s attendance and, by the same virtue, the entire production doubled and even tripled in certain respects since 2011.
The make-up of festival-goers shifted from mainly locals in the past to today’s quite international audience. In what way did it influence the INmusic artists’ selection?
Yes, in recent years we’ve been lucky to welcome a diverse audience: Scandinavia, the UK and Ireland, Greece, Turkey all the way to visitors from overseas. Apart from a much more vibrant atmosphere at the festival, in terms of artist selection this has given us even more freedom to explore new music from various countries. We’ve added new stages and slots to accommodate the influx of up-and-coming artist from all parts of the world and this is one of the trademarks of INmusic festival. The festival has always been very committed to presenting world music artists on a prominent scale in the festival programme. With project partnerships like the one with Europavox, we have managed to expand the number of European artist performing at the festival even further. To be honest, this is a booker’s dream – my personal triumph of every festival edition is when the festival audience instantly connects to an artist who they have never heard of.
INmusic managed to survive as a completely independent festival. Is such a festival position in the market inconvenient for a booker who has to keep up with the increasingly stronger competition across Europe?
Absolutely. The festival circuit has become overwhelming – from new festivals popping up at every corner, and thus increasing the demand for the same artists, to the very particular audience demands that make this industry a minefield in terms of music tastes. What definitely makes the biggest difference now, in comparison to 5 years ago, is the number of festival franchises and corporately backed festivals which operate on a completely different business model from independent festival such as INmusic. Unfortunately, audiences and artists are for the most part oblivious to this duality of the festival industry where independent festivals, which were founded to make a difference in their local community, are fewer in number each festival season and systematically weakened and marginalized by corporately owned festival franchises which overpay and block certain artist from performing at non-related events. The ultimate rite of passage for any music fan is a full festival experience. But while it is so common and almost obligatory in the historically strong markets of the UK, Denmark or Belgium where festivals are celebrating their 40th+ editions, this rite of passage for music fans in Croatia is still a very new concept and this is where I feel the biggest responsibility as a member of the INmusic festival team.
The festival booker’s search for headliners sometimes ends with a compromise between what you wish and what’s possible. Filling up the rest of the line up gives you more freedom of action. What are your criteria when choosing not so famous artists?
The rest of the line up builds somewhat around the headliner bill in terms of genre, but there is still an enviable degree of freedom and where you can steer the rest of the artist selection. A sure criterion for booking a particular band for the festival is the live show – an intense, sincere and well-delivered live show is a must. The emotion needs to be clear and direct, whether it be joyous or angry, or sensitive or outspoken, it needs to resonate on a personal level and this in my opinion only goes over when a band is true to itself and really wants to be on stage at that point in time. Festival shows tend to function better for energetic types of shows, so anything from world music to punk and metal has a place at INmusic – it just has to be special in its own way.
There are certainly moments of INmusic you will always remember. What is it that particularly makes you proud about your festival?
It seems impossible to single out just a few moments but what always brings a smile to my face at the festival is when I see parents with really small children who run around having the time of their life, and it makes me proud that what we have built will hopefully be a warm childhood memory to them. I was especially moved by a mother who contacted us after one festival edition to thank us and share the story of her 8 year old daughter. She is autistic and has difficulty fitting in among her peers, and they attend the festival yearly because she finds the it to be her happy and safe place where she can run around freely in any costume she feels like wearing and everyone makes her feel welcome and cool.
Can you tell us what artists are on the top of your wish list or does it have to remain a business secret?
I don’t keep secrets like that! In 2018, a number of my personal favourites were actually booked for the festival and I had the chance to see them live “in my house”. Most notably, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, who I’ve been a diehard fan of since my teenage years, and David Byrne, who I never imagined I would have a chance to see perform such a warm and intelligent medley of his solo material and Talking Heads classics. These were probably my favourite shows in recent years. In terms of future wish lists, I would love to book Patti Smith and Calypso Rose for the festival, in part due to their legendary status, but more so because of the way they deliver their music live on stage. I admire the way they connect unwaveringly to the audience. There is great music out there – Jack White is someone I’m perpetually impressed by, his versatility and boldness in stepping out of the box.
What global music trends usually get accepted in Croatia faster than others?
This is a hard one. It is important to stress that the Croatian music scene is in a perpetual delay when it comes to keeping up with new music, which is mainly due to the lack of media coverage and general public interest in the contemporary music scene. With that in mind, music trends don’t seem to catch on so easily as elsewhere. When we consider mainstream music in Croatia, there isn’t much to analyse – the relatively simple framework of pop music eventually grasps and adopts elements of popular music from abroad. In terms of the underground scene, yes, there is much more versatility but rock bands still form the majority and are in general best accepted by the local audience. Most recently, the trap scene in Croatia has materialized as a new phenomenon in line with global trends, and it has a loyal following but it’s limited to a relatively small circle of people which prevents it from becoming a mainstream phenomenon.
Is the Croatian scene able to keep up with Europe concerning the production and export of contemporary music?
In terms of creative production I think there is great potential. The ex-Yu scene has had a strong and very progressive new wave era which left a big mark on many contemporary bands. Where the success of new bands falls short is the practical and necessary framework to make it possible to pursue a career in music. Bands lack performance spaces, venues, quality media coverage, agents and managers that know the local scene and, most of all, an active and curious audience. The first step, in my opinion, would need to be to decentralize in terms of publicly funded youth centres, like the ones that operated and introduced alternative culture across the country in the 1980s. Today, there is a limited and very small number of clubs where shows are actually held regularly. The majority of these clubs can only operate successfully in Zagreb. In terms of breaking borders, Croatia doesn’t have a music export office or any sort of systematic approach to financially aiding artists with international potential, so few bands ever venture abroad because this is entirely a DIY mission.
Your favourite European festivals? Where did you party the best?
Hmmm … I’m partial to a nice and relaxed festival site and crowd, so I really enjoy NOS Alive in Lisbon and Pohoda in Trenčin – very mellow, very cosy, reminds me of home, and by home I mean INmusic.
What are your future plans? Is your intention to remain in this business for a long time?
So far I plan to finish the booking for INmusic 2019 and work hard to have another great edition, but like I said it’s a struggle. I’d love to carry on doing what I’m doing, but as everything else in life, it’s not just up to me – there are bigger factors at play. We’ll see what the future holds, but we’ll always have the music!