After losing his job as a marketing executive in 2001, François Missonnier bought a car and set out on a road trip across France while he considered his next move. Now he’s responsible for creating two of the country’s biggest music festivals – Rock en Seine and Europavox.
François Missonnier looks remarkably calm for a man in the midst of overseeing a music festival. It’s the fourth and final day of Europavox 2015 and thousands are descending upon Clermont-Ferrand’s Place du Premier Mai. Seventeen acts are preparing to perform across four stages and a music industry conference is under way, but the Auvergne native is unhurried as he sits down to talk. “Would you like a drink?” he asks, beaming a broad smile.
It’s 10 years since Missonnier, an enthusiastic pro-Europeanist, first staged Europavox in central France and he’s suitably proud the festival has reached this milestone. As the balmy evening sun shines down on the festival site he recounts the story so far, starting with how he made the decision to enter the music industry.
“I was working for the French TV channel Canal Plus and I was fired,” he reveals. “After a while I was bored, so I bought a car and toured France and said: ‘OK, what’s the next move?’ In a past life I worked for a stadium and organised a U2 concert, a Michael Jackson concert, and a David Bowie concert in the same two weeks. It was so stressful because it was the first time [I did something like that], but it was wonderful as well. And when I came back I said, ‘OK, let’s try to do this business’. That was in 2001.”
Two years of intense planning followed before Missonnier emerged with Rock en Seine – an open-air festival set in the Parisean suburb of Saint-Cloud. Taking place across two stages on a single day, acts included Beck, Massive Attack, Morcheeba, and Electric Six. Since then it has grown to become one of France’s largest and best-known music events, even becoming the backdrop for notorious rock ‘n’ roll incidents along the way (Oasis famously split just before they were due on stage to headline the final night in 2009).
“It has four stages and a 40,000 capacity, so we have 120,000 over the weekend – the last weekend of August – and it has a very international line-up,” he says. “And also, we have French bands playing, and of course each time I try to have bands which I discovered through Europavox. Each year there’s one or two in the line-up.”
While Rock en Seine is the moneymaker, Europavox is something of a pet project for Missonnier. First held in 2006, the festival brings together breakout acts from across Europe to play the multi-stage event at Clermont-Ferrand’s Polydome; a complex aptly located on Rue Serge Gainsbourg. As well as an arena which can hold an audience of over 6,000, it is home to the town’s main music venue, La Coopérative de Mai, which has two performance areas: a club with a capacity for 464 people and a hall that holds 1,500. These, along with an outdoor stage, provide a platform for over 50 acts, while Europavox also hosts promoters, booking agents, and music journalists from across the continent, with the aim of introducing them to these performers and creating an opportunity to network. Recent years have seen the addition of a nationwide French tour with acts picked from the festival’s line-up.
It is clear the concept is something he holds dear: his eyes light up and he talks with genuine enthusiasm when describing how it came to fruition.
“It began for two reasons,” he explains. “The first reason came from me: It was 2005 and there was a referendum in France, it was for or against the European Constitution, and there was [lots of coverage] in the media and it was very interesting but I thought something was lacking. Nobody talked about culture and nobody talked about the youth. All of the debates were about economics, agriculture, and all these kind of things… business. [If you don’t include the youth] who will bring the Europe of tomorrow? So it was quite disappointing. Culture was not a theme in the debate at all, and that’s the exact opposite of what I think. I think that with Europe, it’s one of the most beautiful political projects in the world because of its concept. The simple idea of Europe is that we are different but we share a common vision and our difference, instead of being something wrong, is something good because our differences make us stronger and richer, and so on. So it’s about living together on the same planet, and Europe made that a political project.
“But it’s a project that’s difficult to defend, because when everything goes wrong everybody has a tendancy to close the door and stay under the pillow, and so on. You always have to explain the project and make people aware of its beauty.
“So, in 2005 the idea came to me – those political guys, the media in France – they don’t talk about culture, they don’t talk about the youth – I will make a festival out of it! I will make a music festival out of it, having tons of different bands from different countries playing together, that will explain the deep meaning of what Europe is.”
Missonnier found support for the project in his native region, where local politicians were keen to add a music festival to the cultural calendar.
“I’m from the Auvergne region and at the time there was a political change and they hadn’t any music festival. They were thinking about that and they wanted to have a rock festival for the youth of Auvergne, and as I created the Rock en Seine festival in Paris two years before, they asked me if I had any ideas. So I came to the table and I said, ‘OK, I don’t want to make another Rock en Seine festival, I want to make this: I want to make a music festival based on musical diversity.
“At that time they had the incredible political courage to put in a lot of money to help me create this festival. And it was born in 2006, with three different directions: it was in the centre of France, it was with concerts – that hasn’t changed since, there’s 50 bands from 20 different countries – with professionals and media from all over Europe that can meet and exchange ideas and bands and business and so on, and also a citizenship programme called Ambassadors, where we invited 100 people, four from each country, to live the festival together, like a small Erasmus of music.”