Party hard but party safe at the Montreux Jazz Festival

An EPFL PhD student in urban sociology spent four years working at the Montreux Jazz Festival in order to gain insights into how safety and security are managed, both within and around this world-famous event.
Lucien Delley took parti in three editions of the festival, from 2017 to 2019. © FFJM Sebastien Moitrot

The Montreux Jazz Festival (MJF) is an annual event that takes place over 16 days in the center of Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva. For the organizers, maintaining a festive atmosphere while keeping people safe and minimizing risk is a constant challenge, especially since the site is mostly outdoors and accessible to the public.

PhD student Lucien Delley set out to understand how the event organizers manage this challenge as part of his somewhat unconventional thesis research. He spent three years, from 2017 to 2019, working at the MJF as a security coordinator while also conducting a sociology study. “Analyzing something when you’re an insider is no easy task,” says Delley, who carried out his research for EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LASUR). “At times, I became the subject of my own investigation.” He will present his findings at a free event held at the festival on 16 July.

For his research, Delley joined the festival’s Operations Department, which handles everything from site layout and facilities to retail outlets, security, and sustainability. As a security coordinator, he was responsible for crowd management, access control, and risk prevention and mitigation – a role that required a detailed understanding of attendees’ behaviors and practices.

The study focused on two specific sites: the Strobe Klub (indoors) and Parc Jean-Villars-Gilles (outdoors). These venues require very different approaches to safety and security. Delley describes the method adopted at the indoor venue as risks “domestication,” while at the park, the staff aimed to “tame”, focusing on building rapport and favoring inclusion over exclusion. Moreover, because the festival takes place every year, Delley sees it as a good testing ground for novel urban approaches and practices.

The Strobe Klub in 2017. © FFJM 2017 Sebastien Moitrot

The Strobe Klub

The Strobe Klub is a free-to-enter electronic music venue that opened in 2016 when the MJF celebrated its 50th anniversary. Until 2017, it was situated at the Petit Palais before moving to its now-permanent home at the Montreux Music & Convention Center in 2018. “The security protocols used at the festival were inspired by the approach that local authorities generally take to electronic music events,” says Delley.

The original Strobe Club was opened by the festival’s founder, Claude Nobs, in 1968. The MJF parted ways with its original venue, the Montreux Casino, in 1993. The Casino tried to set up a competing event, the Dance Sensation Festival, but it was quickly shut down by the authorities over excessive drug use. This ban coincided with what Delley terms a period of “tension”.

As Delley explains, local governments have “domesticated” the electronic music scene – including the MJF – in a similar manner to other countercultures. “After the ban, these venues adopted ‘selective’ practices: they made attendance free, but also put up barriers and spotters and placed security officers on site. Security staff have to tread a fine line between being friendly and welcoming and allowing people to have a good time, and keeping everyone safe and managing risk.” After reviewing the door policy at the Strobe Klub, Delley found that MJF security officers make subtle decisions about who to admit and what items are permitted inside, seeking to keep risk to a minimum while maintaining an atmosphere that’s consistent with one of the festival's core values: hospitality.

The Strobe Klub in 2018. © FFJM 2018 Sebastien Moitrot

Parc Jean-Villars-Gilles

Although Parc Jean-Villars-Gilles isn’t an official MJF venue, between 300 and 500 young people gather there every evening throughout the festival. In 2017, the park was the scene of clashes between 300 young revelers and law enforcement officers. “The police had to escort medical staff onto the site to attend to someone who was unwell after drinking too much, and things got out of hand,” says Delley.

The following year, the Montreux city council and the MJF organizers employed social workers to engage with young people in the park and act as a positive face for the event, working alongside security officers. The social workers handed out bottles of water with messages designed to help people stay safe. Delley describes this as the right approach, since it demonstrates an acceptance of the revelers’ risky behavior without attempting to ban it or involve the police.

«These young people might not want to take part in the official festival, but they still want to be close by so they feel as if they’re involved in the experience.»      Dr Lucien Delley, EPFL’s LASUR

“For many young people, drinking and taking drugs is a rite of passage,” says Delley, who worked as an educator at a residential center before resuming his studies. “It’s important to acknowledge and accept this if you want to understand the reasons behind it. These young people might not want to take part in the official festival, but they still want to be close by so they feel as if they’re involved in the experience. They see the park as ‘their’ place, gathering in large crowds and playing music. It’s an important step in their socialization.

Towards taming

This approach, which involves a certain degree of tolerance and rapport-building, is what Delley terms “taming.” In his view, it requires a change in mindset when it comes to security – one that moves way from the binary thinking that places law enforcement in one camp and social work and risk prevention in another. “I don’t take a naive view of things,” says Delley. “It’s obvious that when young people gather and party, they’re going to cause public-order disturbances. But the security policies typically used at parties and festive events point to more serious issues, such as the stigma and exclusion faced by certain sections of society on account of their practices. While event organizers tend to justify these policies on safety and security grounds, these policies also drive a wedge between different groups cohabiting the same space. Building rapport would be a more appropriate option.”

«The security policies typically used at parties and festive events point to more serious issues, such as the stigma and exclusion faced by certain sections of society on account of their practices.»      Dr Lucien Delley, EPFL’s LASUR

According to Delley, taming represents a fundamental shift in the approach to dealing with risk and uncertainty – rather than introducing blanket bans or micro-managing every situation, it involves learning to live with life in all its diversity and finding new ways to coexist. “This approach reflects a new social and urban conception of the relationship between partying and safety,” says EPFL researcher Luca Pattaroni, who supervised Delley’s thesis. “It’s an essential part of transitional thinking.”