TSOH | Close-up: Festival Programmers

Valuable learnings from the programmers of Mysteryland, DGTL, Into the Woods and Drift Festival. 

For our first feature, The School of House delves into the world of music programming on festivals: how to construct the best possible festival line-up. Since we like to learn from the best, we spoke to some of Holland’s leading festival programmers: Anaïs d’Olivat from Mysteryland, Floris Groeneveld from DGTL, Brent Roozendaal from Drift Festival and Jasper Löwik from Into the Woods. They share some valuable learnings about the world of programming—like ‘stay humble, ‘invest in your network’ and ‘always listen to your gut feeling.’


Written by Aron Friedman

With an astronomic amount of festivals (800+ festivals in a mini-country with a population of 17 million) and some of the world’s leading dance music events, the Dutch festival industry is second to none. Thus, putting together a proper line-up in the Netherlands can prove quite the challenge. Every festival is after the hottest names, and many organizations have an exclusivity policy—sometimes blocking an artist’s Benelux bookings for the entire summer. In order to stage a relevant line-up, you need to be strategically sound, creatively clever… and somewhat of a badass.

Cherish your headliners


The first thing you need to focus on when organizing any festival, is your headliners. Anaïs d’Olivat knows all about booking the biggest names in dance music. As the head of bookings for Mysteryland—Holland’s biggest electronic music festival—she needs to fill up two full days with a total of sixteen stages, drawing some of the biggest crowds in Europe. It all begins with a wish list. Anaïs: “I start top down, summing up all the major artists I’d like to book, immediately checking their availability, and making offers.” Sometimes, this process can start up to fifteen months in advance. Right now, Anaïs is already checking out the first names for August, 2018. “The next step for us is to seek out the right hosting partners. By adding their following to the following of Mysteryland, we’re able to reach new target groups. Then I discuss the artists on the hosting partners’ A-lists, and together we put together a proposed line-up. We then try to make it as complete as possible.”

ML

For smaller events like Nijmegen’s boutique Drift Festival, headliners are equally important. Founder and programmer Brent Roozendaal (36) has two editions to fill each year, drawing a total of 6000 people to his latest autumn event. “First you try and get the big fish. Of course, you need a plan. You have to have a certain sound for each stage and time slot. Take the techno stage, for instance. You need a headliner for the closing spot, and a live-act at some point during the day. For each of these spots, there are several options. Some of the bookings succeed, some don’t. From this process, the complete program evolves. I work pretty organically: a line-up usually comes into existence within a couple of months.”

Floris Groeneveld (34)—head programmer for Apenkooi, the organization behind festivals like DGTL and Straf_Werk—has a holistic approach when he starts programming. Before thinking about the line-up of DGTL’s Barcelona edition, coming up this weekend, he has a brainstorm with the production team. “I’m interested foremost in the appearance of the festival. We discuss the size of the stages and what they will look like. Based on that, I determine the vibe for each stage: is it a house stage? Is it more of a techno stage? Then I start visualizing the line-up on each of them. If an area has room for 5k people, you know that on each day, you need roughly two headliners to fill up the place, two smaller international acts and two proper locals.”

Never stop making sense 

A line-up doesn’t always have to rely on major headliners. Organization Into the Woods has made its mark in the Netherlands almost without booking any A-listers. Jasper Löwik—head of musical programming for their boutique festivals Into the Woods and Wildeburg—knows the atmosphere is paramount for their audience. “Many of our visitors don’t really care for big names. As long as there’s quality music and a great vibe, they’re perfectly happy.” Wildeburg, which saw its second edition this year, has a remarkably strong local billing. “I guess the smaller and the more underground you are, the more freedom you have to book lesser known names. But I also believe the Dutch are obsessed with international artists. We have such a strong scene at home. Especially at Wildeburg, we try to support our local heroes, by giving them prime time slots.”

16230424_1845377839037949_2957564722553028608_n

In 2016, Brent Roozendaal took a new direction with Drift Festival. “During the first five years, were far too reliant on headliners. And with prices for mainstage techno skyrocketing in recent years, it had become more and more of a hassle to compete with other festivals. So we decided to take a step back and ask: what is Drift really about? In order to stay true to ourselves, and our own story, we needed to take it down a notch.” Drift changed its entire setup and atmosphere, focusing more on the beauty of the location and the famous exuberance of Nijmegen’s local scene. Drift also started to book more daringly—supporting lesser known and upcoming artists. It worked like crazy. 2000 more people came than the year before, and the Dutch press wrote raving reviews. “A line-up has to make sense,” Brent explains. “If the story of the entire line-up is right, you don’t necessarily need the biggest names. Of course our line-ups aren’t suddenly void of headliners, but at least we’re not so reliant on them now.”

Anaïs doesn’t have the luxury of taking a step back: “Mysteryland has to draw tens of thousands of people on both Saturday and Sunday. We need the A-listers to sell those tickets. Also, we’ve been programming the biggest names in electronic music for the last 24 years. So we have a reputation to uphold.” She agrees that a line-up has to make sense, and knows this isn’t achieved with headliners alone. “You definitely need your party starters: guys and girls who you can trust to rock the crowd, no matter what. Then you’ve also got to book some tastemakers who are ahead of their game. The cutting edge names won’t particularly appeal to the ticket buyers, but will definitely attract the music connoisseurs.” Mysteryland is unique for bringing together all the electronic music subcultures. “We want to tend to everyone, and not estrange certain crowds. We’re one of the few places in the world where you’ll see gabbers and drag queens walking hand in hand.”

Maintain your network

As a festival programmer, half the battle is won by handling bookings agencies tactically. Mysteryland has booked headliners like Deadmau5, Armin van Buuren and Craig David for this year’s Mysteryland. “A few years back, the prices for A-listers went up astronomically, thanks to the big EDM boom in the US. Some of the promoters, like many of the Las Vegas ones, were paying such crazy amounts, it affected prices around the world. As a programmer, my job of course is to get the best deal for our festival. When we make an offer, the bookings agency will usually make a higher counter-proposal. If their bid is too high, it can be a deal breaker for us.”

Then again, Anaïs explains, money isn’t the only thing that matters. “Artists base most of their choices on previous experiences. Once they’ve had a pleasant time at your festival, they’ll be happy to return.” Those pleasant experiences will also resonate with the artist’s bookings agent and manager, making it easier to book other artists on their roster. “This is how you build up a relationship together.” These relations are extremely valuable for a festival programmer. “When there are other offers on the table, you can get favored more easily over other festivals.” And with 250 names to book for Mysteryland each year, the agencies are also key for finding new talent. “I frequently get tips from bookers about upcoming talents on their roster. It’s important that I can trust them enough to tell me who’s hot.”

Floris also emphasizes the importance of network, especially with the artists themselves. Before he started working for Apenkooi, Floris was the programmer for Whoosah and Naturel, two laid back beach bars in Scheveningen. “We would book guys like Âme and John Talabot, when their profiles were a lot smaller. I’d have dinner with them, and spend time with them after the show. You really get to know one another this way.” So when he started DGTL four years ago, they were among the first DJs to be on the bill. As the festival developed—it has grown substantially, and is now held in São Paulo, Barcelona and Amsterdam—the headliners developed accordingly. “Generally, artists will stay loyal to the festivals that supported them at an early stage. But you need to keep earning their loyalty by delivering quality, and staying relevant to their careers. If the conditions are beneficial for both parties, you can grow together.”

14124329_1165679566828111_1130392867420483827_o
Work hard and trust your gut feeling

It’s hard to say what exactly makes a great festival programmer. All four of the experts agree, you need to listen to your gut feeling. Jasper always imagines what a DJ will sound and look like during a specific time slot on a specific stage. “I literally try to visualize their set, so I can sense whether they’ll be the right person for the job. We work with a team of five to decide on the line-up. This year, we imagined Dutch hero Tsepo to close off Wildeburg. He may not be the biggest headliner on the bill, or the most obvious choice for a closing set. But if you think about the music he plays, then close your eyes and imagine him on our main stage, Sunday night after three days of intense partying… we knew it was going to be magical, and it was.”Brent also underlines the importance of trusting your gut feeling. “You can follow what others say or do, but in the end, the only way to truly stand out is to stay true to yourself. If you listen to your heart, you know what the story is you wish to tell.”

19095494_1741085452572641_8483470746128453635_o

And let’s not forget about the amount of dedication you need to fulfill this job. It may look glamorous from the outside—but in the end, you’re making long hours during the week as well as on the weekends. Anaïs: “I love my job indefinitely, but it’s not for everyone. This is not a job you can learn just from a book. That’s why I would always suggest to aspiring festival programmers: find the right internship. You’re truly going to learn by working in the field, and it’s the only way to find out if this is truly what you’re cut out for.” In conclusion, Floris adds: “In order to be a festival promoter, you have to give up a lot. You won’t be seeing much of your friends and family, since you’ll be working mostly when they’re free. But if you’re willing to make that sacrifice, it’s the best fucking job in the world.”

Links: 

www.mysteryland.com

www.dgtl.com

www.driftfestival.nl

www.intothewoods.nl

Follow The School of House on Facebook and Instagram:
https://www.facebook.com/theschoolofhouse
https://www.instagram.com/theschoolofhouse

Please follow and like us: