Why Montreux Jazz Festival chose Singapore for its first Asia jazz club

Swiss cultural brand’s Montreux Jazz Cafe in Singapore intended as a showcase for emerging musicians and international talent. It’s about the music, not the money, says CEO of festival foundation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 11:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 11:03am

The Montreux Jazz Festival, one of the largest and longest-running in the industry, is keeping its 50-year-old brand fresh by spreading it beyond Lake Geneva as far as Singapore without comprising its famed values of intimacy and creativity.

The Swiss brand is expanding its global franchise of jazz clubs and increasingly looking at international licensing of its annual festival, which celebrated its golden jubilee this July.

Last week saw the official launch of the Montreux Jazz Cafe in Singapore following successful openings across Switzerland, Paris and Abu Dhabi. The venue is aimed at showcasing emerging musicians in addition to international talent.

“The last thing we want to be is a Starbucks of jazz clubs,” says CEO Mathieu Jaton. “We're very selective about locations and Singapore made sense as it [is] a gateway to Asia.”

Meanwhile, the music festival, which takes place in Tokyo and Montreux, will be expanding to Rio de Janeiro next year, set for the military base of Fort Copacabana.

The festival – a key contributor to the Swiss economy, bringing in an estimated US$60 million in direct revenue for the town of Montreux – could be a welcome source of income for Brazil, which is in recession.

The festival was no stranger to international licensing, having previously staged collaborative events in the American cities of Detroit and Atlanta, but those came to an end as quality and technical standards did not meet Montreux's standards, Jaton says.

“We've been working with a Brazilian promoter for years so I trust him to execute our brand. But now, we have to find the money to make that happen,” Jaton says.

The 41-year-old is among the rare breed of executives willing to forgo profit to ensure his brand's integrity and music-first approach remained intact. Because the brand operates as a foundation, not a for-profit enterprise, Jaton wasn't “playing the same game” as other music-industry players.

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“I don't have any shareholders so I don't have people waiting for money. I can work for creativity. We have a budget of 30 million Swiss francs (HK$237 million) for the annual festival, but if I'm making money, my margin is less than 1 per cent. If I'm losing money, it could [mean] 1-2 million francs.”

It's foolish to expect a quick return on cultural investments, he adds.

For the festival's 50th birthday this July, the budget was increased by 2 million francs for special celebrations and the event ended up eking out a tiny profit of 300,000 francs. “Luckily, my whole team and I are crazy. We're not in this for money, it's for passion,” Jaton says.

Unlike entertainment-heavy festivals boasting high-production such as Coachella in California and Glastonbury in Britain, Montreux has focused on creating unique experiences for the artist and attendee, ranging from surprise jam sessions to improvisational performances, says Jaton.

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“Our main halls are small and our artist fees are not as high compared to other festivals. So why do major headliners still come to us? For us, an artist is a friend, not a contract. Everything we do is based on human relationships.”