Anastasia Wolkenstein, originally from Magdeburg in the former East Germany, lives and works in Regensburg in eastern Bavaria.
Her company, Agentur Wolkenstein, which she has run since 2009, has an artist list that might appear short (Anastasia has been known to call it a ‘family’), but it is one of the leading artist management and booking agencies in Germany.
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A major development for the agency came in 2014 when Anastasia began working with the pianist Julia Hülsmann. In this interview for International Women’s Day 2022 she tells her own story and that of the agency. She also remembers the best advice she ever had. Interview by Sebastian Scotney (*):
LondonJazz News: Germany has such strong structures for youth music. Your love of music was presumably nurtured and grew naturally in this environment?
Anastasia Wolkenstein: In truth my love of music was kindled and nourished from the roots in my parental home and especially by my grandparents. The fact that I subsequently learned instruments and became intensely interested in all kinds of musical genres can be traced back to the concerts I went to when I was of primary school age, and to car trips with my grandparents during which we would play games of guessing the composer.
I am a strong believer in bringing children into contact with music from an early age. I don’t just mean in a “child-friendly” way. They should be naturally and fully integrated early on into the music experience that adults have and taken to concerts. Music and the listening experience can be taken too seriously, whereas adults need to re-embrace their own childlike curiosity and enthusiasm. Then everyone benefits.
LJN: What did you study at university and where?
AW: I studied law at the University of Passau. I was really interested in parts of it, but it became clear at one point that it was not going to be my mission in life.
LJN: So many people involved in jazz have a story (very often it’s about their parents’ record collection). What attracted you to it?
AW: I was 21 when a piano student friend introduced me to the music of Oscar Peterson and Michel Petrucciani. At that time, I was of course impressed by their virtuosity, but above all I discovered improvisation and just found it incredibly exciting. I admired all those who had mastered this art. So, as I listened, I became aware of the freedom they had, and of all that this represented. It is such a fascinating thing, and ensures that the listener is held intensely by the music. To this day, even though I have listened, and continue to listen, to all kinds of different music over the years, it is jazz that always excites and enriches me most. I love the fact that at every jazz concert you are witnessing the musicians’ creative process. No concert is like any other, or like any recording. You are always challenged anew as a listener and invited to engage with music. That has become what my life is focused on and is full of.
LJN: What was your first role in the music industry?
AW: I worked for about four years for a private concert promoter based in Regensburg, a company organising concerts with major national and international orchestras and classical soloists throughout Germany.
LJN: And how did your agency come about?
AW: Sometimes things happen that you can’t dismiss as mere coincidence: on the same day that I stopped working for the concert promoter, a friend of mine who had a jazz band, and wasn’t aware of my circumstances, called and asked if I would like to manage them. I had no contacts whatsoever when I started, so I’m really happy about the way my agency has developed since then.
LJN: And how did you come to work with Julia Hülsmann?
AW: In 2014, I was at a concert by a piano trio I represented in Berlin, where Marc Muellbauer was standing in on bass. We had a very nice conversation afterwards during which I told him I was a huge fan of Julia’s. Three days later she called and asked if I would like to work with her.
I probably need to explain quite how uncontrollably and totally euphoric I was at my end of the phone line when this happened – and why. After listening intensively to all the “old guys” on the piano, I discovered contemporary jazz for myself through one of Julia’s albums while I was still a student. So, she was the reason I had founded an agency for contemporary jazz in the first place, and hadn’t gone for pop or indie rock, or any other musical style. And the joy about this beautiful coincidence is that we work together well and continue to do so to this day!
LJN: You are a successful booking agent and artist manager. What do you think are the personality traits or work habits that have led to this success?
AW: It has always and above all been my enthusiasm for music that drives me, and which has allowed me to overcome the lean spells in the business. I want and need to stand totally behind the music and the artists I represent, and that is important to me. The activity of booking artists is all about showing staying power and not giving up. And I know that I can only guarantee this staying power if I represent musicians whom I also enjoy hearing in concert – again and again. Plus, I have always enjoyed cultivating relationships and investing in maintaining contacts and friendships, simply because I have always been interested in the people I deal with. This is certainly an advantage in networking, as is a desire to communicate in general.
The ability to think in big contexts, to keep many things in mind and cope with the fact that there are few daily routines in the work, to remain flexible and somehow keep calm – I think all that has helped me. But the most important drive has always been the music and the people I work with – because I find that very fulfilling!
LJN: What was the best advice you ever received and who gave it to you?
AW: Over the years, I have received a lot of good feedback that has often made me go back and adjust the way I work, as one does in life. What left a lasting and early impression on me was my grandfather’s mantra. He always said: “Children, use the time you have and don’t waste it”. That might sound a bit glib, but when it is inculcated in you over several years, as it was in my case, you develop an inner urge to make the most of your opportunities, to value time and life, and to be less afraid of jumping in at the deep end – it guarantees a life that is intense and, for me, contented.
LJN: This is an interview for International Women’s Day. What do you think about it?
AW: I grew up in the GDR, where this day was always celebrated in a big way. But it is not only because I grew up with 8 March that I identify with it so much more than with Mother’s Day, for example, even though I am a mother. I have always regarded all people as equal, so for me there is no question that men and women should officially have the same rights. That the course of history was different is just the way it is – all the more important to appreciate the commitment of all women in the last decades and centuries who have advanced the development towards equality. That we all have to continue this work on EVERY day of the year is clear. For me, 8 March is a day to keep the women’s movement in mind, it provides a good reason to bring explicit and focused attention to existing grievances which still need to be remedied. Genuinely then, it is a day I celebrate!
LJN: Are there role models of women in music who inspire you?
AW: All women who are active in the music business, in whatever role, inspire me. I really enjoy working with female musicians, promoters, music journalists and other artist agents and always find the exchange enriching and helpful. I would like to mention Julia Hülsmann and Tina Heine as representatives of all of them. But the younger generation of female musicians, such as Luise Volkmann and Tamara Lukasheva, also inspire me with their courage and irrepressible strength and unwillingness to compromise, their clarity, undisguised emotionality, and authenticity.
LJN: What still needs to be put right in this environment? Make a wish!
AW: Naturally my wish is that women in jazz will become even more visible, on concert platforms, in the media, at universities and conservatoires. It would be helpful if, in any case, publicly funded bodies could focus their attention more on this and be agents for change in this transition. I think it worked well in the jury process for this year’s German Jazz Prize, for example. In the discourse on equal rights in jazz, as in all areas of society, I would like to see openness and mutual human goodwill. I don’t see why stamina, fighting spirit and resilience should be pre-conditions for women to be taken seriously.
Right now, however, above all I wish for peace.