Behind the scenes: Martyna van Niewland

In our newest section, “Behind The Scenes,” we introduce you to individuals who have made music their profession without stepping on stage. From festival directors and music managers to venue bookers and sound engineers, these are the people who create and support the ecosystem around an artist, making performances possible.

Our first guest is Martyna van Nieuwland, the artistic director and programmer of the Music Meeting Festival (Nijmegen, the Netherlands). Her rich professional background extends from leading the festivals Gardens of Sounds and JazzArt (Katowice, Poland), to working for international events and organizations such as Womex and Europe Jazz Network.

Since joining Music Meeting Festival in October 2022, Martyna has focused on curating interdisciplinary projects and enhancing the festival’s inclusivity and appeal to younger audiences. We are excited to delve into her vision for Music Meeting, her approach to programming, and her reflections on this year’s festival challenges and successes.

With this year’s edition of the Music Meeting Festival just behind you, can you share some highlights and reflections on the event? How do these experiences align with your broader vision for the future of the festival?

This is a very important question, both deep and insightful. First of all, we have the best evidence that climate change in the 21st century is real and can affect our festival. We considered moving indoors some time ago because depending on the weather can be a huge risk. After experiencing the thunderstorm this year, we were lucky to continue the event after a couple of hours’ break. We didn’t suffer great damage or huge financial loss due to cancellations or damage to the terrain. We didn’t risk the audience’s health or lives, luckily. However, we see that people wait until the very last moment to decide whether to visit the event. Not having a budget for headliners is another issue. When building the festival terrain is a major cost and the program budget is not proportional, the festival faces another risk. However, headliners nowadays do not guarantee the audience either. I see many events and their programmers who think that switching to a more accessible/mediocre program will secure their income, but in the end, the event turns out to be both a financial and quality fiasco.

photo by Eric van Nieuwland: Bab L’ Bluz on stage

What is important to you when selecting artists for the lineup? What qualities or elements do you look for in a band/project?

There are many factors. Music Meeting is famous for its adventurous and high-quality program. I want to continue this mission, but I am thinking from the perspective of the younger generation, considering how the global music scene has changed over the years and how the world is evolving in post-colonial narratives. Often, the artists chosen are in the Netherlands for the first time. I look for artists who are open to collaborations, music meetings, and are both great musicians and great human beings. Originality and quality are always the top priorities, but there are more factors to consider when building the program: gender balance, geographical diversity, and the proportion between Dutch acts and international ones. We also have different types of stages spanning from dance/electronic to intimate/chamber, which affects the program. Sometimes, what it takes is trust in the artists and their new projects. In the end, it is very much a matter of personal taste and individual preferences. I am the one who needs to challenge herself and get out of her comfort zone – sometimes with more and sometimes with less satisfying results – but again, that’s a personal opinion.

photo by Eric van Nieuwland: Naamu on stage

How was it to work on the festival lineup with guest curators? What unique perspectives did they bring to the programming?

Working with Jermaine Kanbier and Tim Sprangers was a great honor and privilege. They opened up for adventures and expanded my vision into totally new domains. It is important that both the curators of 2024 and the invited curators of future editions are visionary professionals, representing different points of view and having their distinctive interests. Jermaine focuses on young, groovy soul and funk, while Tim is involved in the creative improv scene in the Netherlands. It was important to open up programming to new generations of promoters (under 40) whose mentality is different and who program for their own generation.

photo by Yoas Huwae Media: Trumpeter Peter Somuah from Bnnyhunna on stage

This year, Music Meeting placed a special emphasis on Australia, with our magazine’s editor-in-chief moderating a panel on Australian music during the festival. What are your thoughts on the influence and importance of Australian music in the global scene?

Australia is well represented in the pop/alt scene, but unfortunately not in the global music scene. That is understandable considering the distances and accessibility of resources, especially for indigenous artists. Yet, it is home to the oldest continuous culture on Earth. The narrative of indigenous rights has become much more visible over the last 10 years, but I have a feeling that even “professionals” working in the global music sector do not fully acknowledge these changing discourses. That is why I find it so important to present Aboriginal artists, as well as the rich and fascinating tapestry of Australian music, here in the Netherlands, where there are special connections. Nijmegen is very close to Arnhem, and Arnhem Land is one of the regions in Australia. However, how many citizens of Arnhem know the story behind this connection?

photo by Eric van Nieuwland: “Why Australian Music?” discussion panel moderated by Sofia Hussein with guests Catherine Haridy (Australian Music Centre), Larry Heath (Sounds Australia) and Fred Leone (musician)

On the second day of the festival, a significant challenge arose with a thunderstorm prompting an evacuation. However, you and your team admirably resumed the festival after a few hours. How did you achieve this, and what do you think encouraged the audience to return even with the adverse weather conditions?

Luckily, we have a professional and responsible production team that does an amazing job. And fortunately, we have at least one decisive person who makes the right decisions at the right time. The returning audience is the best evidence that we have loyal and dedicated music fans, friends of Music Meeting, for whom it is worth doing all this. After coming back to the terrain, there was a real party. I’m happy that we could proceed with the festival and love our audience more than ever.

photo by Eric van Nieuwland

With your extensive background in programming and directing international jazz and world music festivals, how do you think we can enhance inclusivity and ensure festivals are safe and welcoming spaces for everyone?

We have to start from behind the scenes. If the atmosphere backstage is bad, it quickly spreads to the whole festival. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that codes of conduct are not just a set of rules, but that we respect each other’s work, time, and personal space. It is important that decision-makers are well-represented and diverse—not only performing artists but also board members, programmers, directors, heads of departments, and communication specialists. Additionally, exposure on stage, such as presenters or interviewers, should reflect gender balance and diversity. We notice differences in language between older and younger generations, so it can be challenging to maintain the same level of conversation when these two worlds meet.

photo by Yoas Huwae Media

photo by Eric van Nieuwland

As the artistic director of various music festivals, you must have some epic behind the scenes stories to share. What’s the most surprising part of your job that people never suspect?

The biggest part of my job is research and paperwork, LOL! Travel and live music, which are the most spectacular parts of my work, are often connected with my free time and personal financial investment. Another challenge is coping with “program experts” who always know better, LOL. And realizing that there is not enough time in one’s life to check all the concert offers waiting in the mailbox…

One last question – what do you prefer: watermelon or melon?

Watermelon is a fruit that became a significant part of my life and travels, especially during the time I lived in Central Asia. I am lucky to live close to a little Afghan joint in Zeist that sells excellent watermelons. It is also a funny symbol of my friendship with Gwenn Sharp over the years (LOL). So – I like both, but watermelon!

 

Interview: Sofia Hussein for Dinya
Cover photo: Eric van Nieuwland

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