“Is this the world’s most achingly cool festival?” — the Forbes magazine asked. Probably, it is. The Flow Festival 2016 edition is taking place in Helsinki on August, 12-14th. The whole story started in 2004 when the musician and producer Tuomas Kallio and a bunch of his friends decided to organise the festival they would be happy to attend themselves. Within several years the Flow turned into a full-scale music and arts event with the audience of 75,000 people in three days. The biggest world artists on the bill of more than 120 acts, design installations, talks and lectures make the Flow one of the major summer cultural attractions in Helsinki and Finland at all. Keeping up with the highest standards, the Flow is a very characteristic Finnish festival: rather massive but comfortable for its guests, cleverly situated at the Suvilahti power plant area and, you can’t mistake here, ecologically all green and clean. In the interview Tuomas, who still remains the artistic director of the festival, tells what makes the Flow so flawless.
This year Flow is taking place for the 13th time. It was noticeable that at some moment, around 2008-2009, you had started gaining popularity very rapidly. What were the main factors of the festival’s growth?
The starting point for us was the content and the fact that in our early days, in 2004, we didn’t feel that there was such a festival that we would be super-excited about ourselves. So, we started creating something that we might like ourselves — regionally. We are still sticking to the same roots and same ideas. We are trying to create a good combination of content — music, arts, food, whatever — that would kind of feel right to us. One of the reasons why we have so many returning customers is that we are very strict with our values and ideas. We don’t compromise. If you have a similar mindset like we do, you will probably like Flow. The whole festival is a combination of things. In a way, it still reminds me of an arts festival more than a traditional promoter-driven music festival that tries to create a bill that sells tickets. We are not there at all. We try to make a festival as good as we possibly can and hope that the business follows. And it has! This is the main difference of Flow from many other events around.
Once Flow was called the “boutique festival” — relatively small, nice and special. Do you believe this term is that applicable these days?
I think in terms of the capacity or the size the festival is not really growing. Looking at any kind of well-known international festival with a capacity of 50 or 100 thousand a day — that is a level I would not really call “boutique”. For me “boutique” means that you provide everyone with the best service and experience. You don’t have to regard the festival visitors as cattle, just moving them around the area and trying to control the crowd. For me people are more like customers, whom you meet and provide for them the best you can. I still think we can do that. Now, concerning Flow, we are talking about 25,000 people a day. On this level we are able to give our visitors good service. We have raised a number of the restaurant operators; for example, now there will be about 40 of them. You just have to think big enough in terms of such services and their quality. But in any case increasing the audience capacity is not on our agenda.
Still you have to do something interesting all the time apart from music and the usual festival entertainment. Anything new this year?
Right, there is a new approach to the festival which is not really about live music. And we plan to introduce it this year. It is going to be a venue which uses virtual reality, a kind of joint experience. It is not something you usually have at a festival, it is more for a tech-fair. With the venue utilizing virtual reality as a kind of media, the sound and the venue itself will be a whole live environment. It is something really new for us.
It is interesting, that Flow is widely being considered as one of the main Finnish cultural locomotives…
With the main Finnish part of Flow everything is deeply rooted in the city. The Finnish music scene — if we take a look at its mainstream side — does really well, but, to be honest, we don’t much feel a part of it. There are acts that can fill the arenas and even stadiums, but we don’t book any of them, it is kind of a different thing.
GO WITH THE FLOW
The Flow Festival manages to keep the balance between the popular, clever, historical and cutting-edge artists from all around the globe. You have to rip yourself to shreds to see all the cool international bands as well as the cream of the Finnish indie, jazz and electronica. Check out some highlights of the Flow 2016 music programme — just for starters:
New Order, Morrissey, Massive Attack, Sia, Iggy Pop, FKA Twigs, Jamie XX, Four Tet, M83, Savages, William Basinski, Hercules & Love Affair, Anohni, Chvrches, Jimi Tenor, Jaakko Eino Kalevi, Death Hawks — and many, many more.
Do you see Flow as a vanguard among other local festivals showing less known artists to large audiences?
The bigger the act, the less knowledge you need. A random guy on the street can name some big acts, but he or she might not know so much about emerging music or stuff like that. In a way, I think that’s where your expertise comes into play more and more and it reflects on rather special acts. I feel it is really important for us to have these kinds of artists. For example, experimental music at the Other Sound stage, or electronica and DJs at the Resident Advisor Backyard, or world music and acoustic acts at the Balloon Stage. These are the stages where we really can show what we know. We have a special programming team of 6 people to get expertise from different sides of the music scene to create the best possible content each year. I would say that for many regular visitors of Flow, the artists on these stages are as important as the big names on the bill.
What does the working structure of Flow look like? As the artistic director you oversee the music programme, but there is much more to creating this kind of event…
Suvi Kallio, the managing director, is responsible for the human resources and the office, she is running the festival in that sense. We also have the board of directors — Suvi, Toni Rantanen who is the third shareholder of the festival who also books some electronic acts. Generally we make strategic decisions among us. When it comes to the operational side, we involve a certain number of key employees, 6 of them throughout the year, but when it comes closer to the festival there are 15-20 of them at the office. When doing the festival, if we take into account all the people who work for it in different roles, there will be 1200 people plus 700-800 volunteers. So, overall it can be about 2000 people.
I have noticed that similar to other Finnish festivals, like Ilosaarirock or Provinssirock, Flow’s staff is pretty small. Is it a local practice?
It is the Finnish tradition of festival organisation, I think. The way festivals are made here, has been based on volunteer participation. So the budget can be reasonably lower, as well as ticket prices to make the festival easily accessible. The main idea was also to creste the festival for the local people living close to it. Though, what we are doing now is trying to adopt a more international approach, as we already compete on this level. And here the situation is different. You need bigger budgets and also to increase the ticket prices in order to accommodate that level of production, artists fees and salaries for professionals working at the festival. It is a kind of different thing now. I think the local approach might be changing, as we have a new wave of events emerging here. But, as I said a tradition of Finnish festivals is volunteer work and not overblowing the budget and prices for people.
Could we say that Flow is now really an international festival, not only in terms of programming, but with audiences coming from Northern Europe and Russia?
The biggest international groups of visitors are the UK, Russia and German-speaking countries. But now we also have a PR agency in France and are getting attention even as far as Italy. Estonia is close, we have an audience from there, but, strangely, there are almost no people from Latvia and Lithuania. Probably it depends on local economies, I guess we might be rather expensive for them. Hopefully in the future we will see these people at the festival, we’d love to see the whole Baltic region. Concerning Russia, last year we had about 1000 people and it is quite OK. The point of undertaking efforts in other countries might be considered one of our values. We feel that the audience is as important as any other content at the festival. Visitors themselves create “the Flow tribe”, the gathering of people. The more it becomes international, fresh, and interesting in a positive way, the better.
We try to give a better and better experience to the guests of Flow. People that genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and not only people from Helsinki, who see each other every day. We want audiences from faraway places to see and experience what we are doing.
In a funny way the audience is the headline performer at the festival. We are also doing smaller events in other countries — we are not bound to Finland and Helsinki only. And it is one of the things that keeps the festival fresh.
Do you see other Nordic festivals — Way Out West in Sweden or Oya Festivalen in Norway — as competitors on your ground?
Definitely not. Vice versa, they are one of our key partners. At the moment the biggest competition in terms of booking is North America. The festival market there is growing, especially the August period is getting really crazy now. They have new festivals emerging, new places to play. So we are having tough competition with them to get the line-up, even though we are pretty far away. It is probably true, that it would be hard to do it alone as the only Nordic festival in August. But now we have strong partners, and we have common values in many ways, especially regarding musical taste. And we are close enough to each other to offer three festivals to artists instead of one. Basically, together we are a seriously good option for artists to play three festivals in a row. On the other hand, if we were not collaborating with Way Out West, we would be doing much more marketing in Sweden. Even now it is an important market for us: there are lots of people travelling between Finland and Sweden. But, as I said, the collaboration with Way Out West and Oya is one of the crucial points why we have such a great line-up every year. We are very fortunate to have them as partners.
Could you describe how the booking process works in your case?
It is an ongoing process, and it is starting earlier and earlier now. We are already booking acts for 2017, such a thing has never happened before. We actually might announce some names for 2017 far in advance. For us it is important to be able to announce at least some acts before Christmas, or to say so, before “the new Flow edition” starts. The earlier bookings are usually the bigger acts which are really in demand. The main process usually starts around autumn, and the busiest season comes in January or February. Offers come and go, you negotiate and negotiate. As the year progresses, around Spring, it is time to confirm the acts for the smaller stages. We announce new acts ten or more times during the year. It is a lot of work, but in times of social media it is good to have a lot of announcements, and also some special angles and approaches. We have so many artists — if we put a poster with 125 artists at once with the bigger acts’ names written with bigger font size, I would not call it a good job. Thus, we have an announcement process of our own, which we feel is good for us.
To what extent do you have to rely on Finnish promoting companies and contacts with Sweden and Norway?
They are all important. A lot of personal contacts with international agents might be good. Way Out West is owned by LiveNation, so we have discussions with them and the LiveNation Finland office in Helsinki. We are also working with Fullsteam, the large local promoter and some other smaller local agencies and companies. We are not bound to one system or one way of working. I would say at the moment that our collaboration with the two other Nordic festivals is the cornerstone. As Way Out West is owned by LiveNation a lot of big names are coming with them. The Fullsteam agency has been bought by the large German company, Scorpio Concerts (FKP Scorpio Konzertproduktionen — Live.), but it has not influenced us too much. Generally it reflects on the festivals that they run themselves; Scorpio bought Provinssirock, for example. Fullsteam was an independent local promoter, but now they are part of the bigger company. In a broader sense they are our competitors on the local ground, but it does not prevent us from collaborating with them. It does not have much effect on us.
How is the budget of Flow formed? Usually there are ticket sales, sponsors, partners. What might be the ratio in your case?
In the beginning we had to rely on grants from the government and the City of Helsinki. That formed a relatively small but very important part of the budget. Now such public funding has become very, very small, probably 0,5%. Whereas, the main income is formed by ticket sales — 70% it is. So, roughly the remaining 30% is sponsoring plus food and beverage sales. I would probably say that sponsoring is about 17%, and restaurants and bars — all the rest.
What is the Flow approach to sponsors and partnerships? Obviously, it is not the case of having just one beer producer logo and getting away with it…
Traditionally, there was the idea that we would like to incorporate all the interesting brands and potential collaborators from Finland and especially Helsinki. Still, there is the fact that some of them, like design brands for example, in terms of business don't necessarily have the resources that we require in our situation. Probably now it is becoming 50/50 with international and Finnish or Finnish-owned brands. There are also major international brands like American Express, Toyota or Clear Channel. To be honest, it would be nice to collaborate with the cream of the Finnish brands, but, unfortunately now it is not possible. At the same time, all the brands are mostly those that fit our ideology in one way or another and are able to provide our visitors with extra content and added value to the festival — not just some logo. That makes more sense. We have been quite fortunate with it, getting new opportunities and new sponsors. Now it is looking rather nice.
The Suvilahti area of Helsinki is much associated with Flow. There were discussions about changing the grounds as it was rented by the festival until 2017. What’s next?
A part of my and Suvi’s job was to keep up a good dialogue with the City of Helsinki and try to be a part of all the processes of city planning concerning this particular area. So, we have some ambitions on how to develop this corner of Helsinki. We are not really happy about how the area works these days apart from the festival time — it is pretty boring there. We think that it could be a thriving center for many things. Of course, we require so much space that it can be awakened from time to time in the future. Let’s see what happens.
Could you describe the Flow festival in three simple expressions?
It is the content-driven and hand-picked festival; we have elements of creativity in every aspect. Then, I would say that Flow is not reactive, but pro-active to the world; we try to invent new things that have not existed before and challenge people to think in a new way. The third is that there is the contrast between big and massive and small and intimate; we have big stages but also small and intimate areas that might surprise people with their settings. All of the above mentioned is really important to us.