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Great things come in small (ad-free) packages

Foto: Edouard Hartigan

Great things come in small (ad-free) packages

Music festivals have become serious money-makers. While sponsors reach millions of people, artists and their music are almost relegated to the sidelines. In stark contrast, music is front and center at the MIMI festival in France.

At the heart of the French port city of Marseille, music enthusiasts of all ages are crowding the large patio of the La Friche creative center. The stage in the center of the patio is one of many venues at the ten-day music festival MIMI. Every year, a variety of bands offers a cornucopia of rock, modern classical and avantgarde music. In July 2016, French DJane Pépé kicked off the festival before a spectacularly beautiful sunset over the Golf du Lion. And not for the first time: MIMI premiered more than 30 years ago, in 1985.

Music without blinders would be an apt caption for the MIMI festival, both for its smorgasbord of different musical styles and for the venues themselves. For except for a few beverage stands, each stage and each venue is solely dedicated to the music: no banners obstructing your view, no promo teams handing out flyers. MIMI is an ad-free music festival.

Small but nice

“Stay small, be true”, British performance artist Genesis P. Orridge likes to say at his concerts. MIMI shares the same philosophy: It prefers to stay small and independent. “Each year, about 700 to 800 acts want to enter the festival, and we can only book twelve. That is a good thing, because we don’t want to work with large agencies. If we find an artist to be a good fit for MIMI, we approach him or her directly,” MIMI founder and director Ferdinand Richard tells us. He is a musician himself, as well as a former member of French Avant-Rock band Etron Fou Leloublan. He likes the direct contact with the artists, which not only helps build great relationships, but is also a way to break through the heavily commercialized sphere of the music and cultural industries.

  • Panorama view over the former hospital Caroline, with the city of Marseille in the background. Photo: Mathieu Mangaretto

  • The former hospital Caroline by night, lit from above as well as below. Photo: Edouard Hartigan

  • The Hospital Caroline and Château d’If by day. Photo: Mathieu Mangaretto

  • Open air concert featuring the beauty of the former hospital Caroline on Ile de Frioul. Photo: Edouard Hartigan

In recent years, music festivals have ballooned into commercial powerhouses – not necessarily for the benefit of artists and event directors, but for the corporations that sponsor them, financing almost everything from the technology to the artists’ salaries. In return, they get to run advertisements on huge screens at the venues, print their logos on tickets and flyers, place their products amongst the audience as convenient festival paraphernalia, and generally showcase their brand in the hustle and bustle of the festival. In Germany alone, corporations spend tens of millions for sponsoring contracts with music festivals or tours. Even higher sums are paid for additional features, for example the right to deploy promo teams at the venue. Companies hope to boost their corporate image as well as their sales – and it seems to work. The power of sponsors is enormous. Only the big stars attract mass audiences, which is why many large festivals will only book acts with high name recognition.

Ferdinand Richard does not want to get engulfed in this dynamic. That is why the MIMI festival is free from any pressure to grow bigger, a force which often makes unique events descend into mainstream mediocrity. MIMI is all about the music – a virtue that the festival director believes most other European events have lost, with a few notable exceptions such as the Rewire Festival in Den Haag, the Meakusma Festival in Eupen or Unsound in Krakow.

Musical diversity

The festival draws financial support from only three sources, the city of Marseille and the regional and national ministries of culture. These public sponsors give the MIMI organizers free rein to create a festival program which, in contrast to most music festivals, features a plethora of musical styles. For 31 years, MIMI’s creative mastermind Ferdinand Richard has been creating programs that marry avantgarde jazz with World Music, fuse minimal classical music and art punk, and always resist the temptation to follow trends or to harness customary marketing mechanisms, such as bringing in big sponsors.

The artists featuring in this unconventional and non-commercial program are often unknown outside of their special circles, yet some are popular with larger audiences, such as Elliot Sharp, Ghedalia Tazartes, Moondog, Lydia Lunch or Suicide.

“We welcome artists whose aesthetics break down stylistic barriers and who disregard musical conventions, regardless of their genre,” Ferdinand Richard explains. In 2016, for instance, Spanish singer, vocal artist and phonetician Fátima Miranda mesmerized the audience with dramatic facial expressions, thought-provoking vocals and poetic stories. The same goes for the world premiere of Domingo Garcia Huidobro’s non-narrative film “Partir to live” with its ethereal soundtrack. Belgian artist Aksak Maboul and the multicultural band Rêve Général presented a blend of string sounds, African grooves and futuristic minimalism, while US poet, spoken-word-artist and vocalist Saul Williams and South African performance art ensemble The Brothers Moves On added their very own musical accents. An eclectic mix of music that embraces diverse musical styles and offers fresh new perspectives on the many worlds of music our planet has to offer. Should you wish to enter this embrace and take a look for yourself, you will have avid opportunity to listen and discover again this summer: From August 19th to 29th, musicians will be putting their art on display at la Friche la Belle de Mai, the former hospital Caroline on Ile de Frioul and at Estaque.


    June 2017
    France, Marseille

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    Michael Leuffen
    is a freelance journalist based in Cologne. His focus is on music and festivals. He has published in national and international music magazines. For MiMi 2016, he was invited to Marseille.  


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