Small music festivals rock Switzerland's summer

Small festivals rely on a fun atmosphere to pull the crowds Keystone

Lumnezia, For Noise, B-Sides, Cholererock, Natural Sound, Woodrock or Hors Tribu. Obscure music groups? No, they're music festivals, and there are hundreds every summer in Switzerland.

This content was published on July 8, 2012 minutes
Marc-Andre Miserez,

They're popping up everywhere, with around 300 taking place across the country. But you would be hard pressed to name ten of them. This doesn't come as a surprise.

In order to savour just a fraction of Switzerland's musical feasts, you'd have to be a master of teleportation. The festival season is short - from mid-June to mid-August - and jam-packed. So many festivals over nine weeks means 30 every weekend. Whatta lotta music!

The biggest Swiss festivals are Paléo in Nyon, Frauenfeld, St Gallen, the Gurten in Bern and Gampel, and they've long established substantial audiences in the tens of thousands. Joining these is a newer generation of once small but rapidly growing events, such as Rock Oz'Arènes in Avenches, Caribana, which is Nyon's "other" festival and Out in the Green in Interlaken.

The smaller and lesser known events can be pulled together to give the audience a bit of fun, to promote a certain musical genre, or to offer a platform to local musicians. With an audience of a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand people, they may be more modest, but they offer something else - a cosier atmosphere. Purists might go so far as to say a more authentic one. Often, entry will be free.

Music still makes us dream

"Practically every village wants to organise its own festival nowadays," says Jodok Kobelt, a journalist and one-time presenter on station DRS 3 of German-language public radio. "It's a need to spend time in the company of others. Before, people would go to a sporting event. Now we meet up at the local music festival."

Willy Dezelu is the head of programming at the French-language public radio station, Couleur 3. He reckons that the boom in the number of mini-festivals is down to the quality of Swiss bands. "There's been a realisation that Swiss music is actually quite good, and that means it's no longer silly to put a local band as a headline act in your festival."

He also puts festivals' popularity down to "a desire to participate in events, to take part in things. Even if the economic climate has affected the music industry too, songs help people dream," notes Develu. "People volunteer to take part, they will often put up the stage, help deal with the artists, even help with the catering...and that is also a factor in the spike in the number of festivals."

An important factor, the radio executive adds, is also the fact "that artists are no longer making the sales they used to, so they must perform live more often. Everyone spends the summer performing - big stars just as much as local artists."

Close-up is cool

If everyone is touring, that means everyone needs a stage. A quick glance at a festival poster shows the vast array of artists and the average potential festival goer may not know all of them.

Some smaller festivals choose a particular theme which helps them determine both the music on stage and target their audience. But most smaller events are happy being a hotch-potch of musical genres, seeking out artists in Switzerland or abroad that are available and simply not too expensive.

Although mini-festivals can showcase artists who may be on the way to stardom, the fun atmosphere is the biggest crowd puller.

"It's really all about the ambiance, the fact that people are getting together in a festive, communal way, in a less formal way than when you come across somebody in the street," explains Dezelu.

And the public seems to have no problem going from a big event to a small one. “After a night at the Paléo rocking to the music of world renowned stars, many music lovers will go the following week to a more relaxed happening, with a small stage, where they can get up close to the artist," he adds.

The thin red line

Financially, the smaller festivals tread a very narrow path. Operating on tiny budgets, they don’t have much in the way of financial reserves. An unforeseen event can cause disaster. "Enough rain, and the organiser will find itself owing tens of thousands of francs. And they will also have to put the site back the way it was," says Kobelt.

These risks mean an army of volunteers is essential. And like the big gatherings, they will call on sponsors for help although the deals signed are likely to be with much smaller companies. For example, Coca-Cola or the Swiss retail giant Migros are unlikely to be interested.

This tricky financial balancing act means that small festivals can disappear as quickly as they enter the scene. But the man in charge of programming at Couleur 3 radio station does not think this trend is likely to die out any time soon. "Having fun in summer, getting together around a barbecue, where you can listen to music and meet other people - I don't think that will ever go out of fashion."

Dezelu warns potential organisers that it's not a piece of cake. "You can't put an artist on a poor stage, or have just one toilet for 500 people." He adds he thinks the future of festivals lies in "not thinking that the music is the only thing that counts. Paléo (in Nyon) understood this very early on. You've got to make your audience feel welcome, and you've got to surprise them, too."

Indeed, surprise will be key to the future, he thinks. "Festivals will have to be creative, organise side events, photo exhibitions for example, they'll have to make sure the catering is really up to scratch - or, perhaps, to pluck an idea out of thin air, put a swimming pool next to the stage. People don't want to hang around an empty stage between artists."

Festival Feeling

These are a few examples of what's on offer. For a fuller guide, follow the links below. 

Uhuru ("Freedom" in swahili), brings together world musicians on a Solothurn hillside and includes dance and music workshops for spectators who are budding performers. Weissenstein, July 29 to August 4.

Zamba Loca. Born in 2010 to jolt the small village of Wohlen in Aarau. A two-day session gives its audience 16 hours of live rock music, and 16 hours of DJ electro music. August 24-25.

Irish Openair Toggenburg. With the St Gallen Alps as a backdrop, this festival has 100% Irish acts. Thanks to a supply of Guinness, and traditional Irish instruments, the craic will come to Switzerland. September 7-8.


Le Chant du Gros. In a Noirmont meadow, in the Jura. A once small festival that's got big,  it's given a stage to some star players such as Deep Purple, Johnny Clegg and French singer Bénabar. September 6-8.

Metal Assault. Leather jackets and pints of beer - metal fans are in for a treat over two nights in Lausanne. Swiss and European bands offering heavy metal, trash metal, power metal, doom metal, brutal metal, extreme metal an death metal. September 28 and 29.

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