The bright side of Europe
Each January the European festival and media circus travels to the Dutch city of Groningen to experience the Eurosonic Noorderslag festival for three days, an intense overview of what to expect in the upcoming music season. An integral part of Eurosonic is the European Talent Exchange Programme (ETEP) which helps unknown bands to find open ears from both festivals and media.
Peter Smidt works for the Buma Cultuur (the foundation for Dutch music) since 1995 and has thus been part of the ETEP team since the beginning of the programme in 2003; he is also involved in the EuroSonic Noorderslag Festival and Eurosonic Noorderslag Conference. Thomas Venker joined Peter, who has studied art and art management, for a conversation on the wider sociopolitical and cultural impact of the ETEP programme.
Peter, you have just published your 2016 ETEP résumé. Amongst the Top 10 we can find bands / artists from ten different European countries. An amazing representation of the basic idea behind the festival and programme, right? While Europe has been in a political crisis for the last years this is speaking of a growing interest in cultural exchange or do I overinterpret these results?
Peter Smidt: The purpose of the ETEP programme and Eurosonic in general is to have a better circulation of an European repertoire in Europe. It is a weird thing if you live in Berlin and have no clue what is happening music-wise in Portugal, Spain or Poland – and vice versa. We feel there are good bands everywhere in Europe, but they are not always crossing the borders. That said: Since we started the programme we have been seeing more and more bands cross them. This is important, because when you wanna know your neighbours you must know which songs they are singing.
For me, having been socialised in the 90s, it was quite rare to hear and see bands who weren’t from the USA, Canada and England. It has pretty much been a thing of the Noughties that slowly but steadily other countries have started to be a part of our cultural selection circle: first Scandinavia, then France, Italy and today we all are choosing the music we listen to from a much bigger range, including of course a lot of world music too. Is this a matter of the Zeitgeist or do you see this as a direct result of your work and that of others working on the same idea of borderless cultural exchange?
It is a combination of things. Zeitgeist definitely has an impact. Also, the audience in general is nowadays more openminded than it was a couple of years ago. And because of the developments in the digital world it is much more easy to get access to music from other countries these days.
When I started working with Eurosonic, people told me that I am crazy: “Why would you think I would buy a ticket for an unknown band from Portugal or Poland?” My replay was, “Why not – you do so for unknown bands from the UK or US, why not from those territories?” If the band is good it is good – that is everything that counts. That kind of stereotypical thinking from the audience regarding the origin of the bands is changing. People are much more openminded and don’t care where the act is coming from. We have been making this process in general, but the fact that we have to do what we are doing shows that it is currently not the case that the European repertoire is circulating through Europe without help. There is still a dominance of the repertoire from the UK and the US – nothing against them, but there is more to be heard.
The results show to me that once you have a system in place that makes things more easy for professionals, like for festival bookers to book certain acts, they will do so.
Coming from your long experiences in the field: how many of those bands did you expect to find on the final list? Are you able to forecast?
Luckily it is very hard to predict who will be successful in the programme. That is something that I like a lot: it would be a pity if we would know everything beforehand. Each year I am surprised about how well some acts are doing. I remember we started with the ETEP programme in the year when Franz Ferdinand were performing – but the act who got the most ETEP shows was Kaizers Orchestra from Norway. When we approached them to perform at Eurosonic, they said that they were unsure about doing it, as they did not expect anyone to be looking for them outside of Norway – because even in their home country a lot of people did not understand them because of their special dialect. Much to their own surprise they got 10 festival bookings, including Glastonbury. And because of that, one year later they signed an European deal with Universal.
I hope they are buying you drinks every time you see them around?
That would be nice.
Not only because you helped that all of this could happen, but most of all because you opened their own mindset to start about thinking of crossing the borders at all.
Correct. To be honest, what I like most about the programme are not the results – of course they are great – but it is that within the festival we are working on a different agenda in the sense that professionals discuss what is happening in their countries instead of what they are paying for Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example. We all working in the music sector have to be curious about the things happening in territories which are maybe not that visible.
Looking on the list of festivals which have booked most of the bands from the ETEP programme, we find The Great Escape with 35 acts and Reeperbahn Festival with 30 acts on top. And I guess in the past numbers were not so different, some festivals pick quite a lot of your offers. What I am interested in: how close do you work together with these festivals all year round?
We at Eurosonic have a little over 400 festivals coming by in total. With some of the festivals who are coming by for ETEP we are having a closer relationships in the sense that we have several meetings during Eurosonic to discuss all the acts. We have, for example, a meeting where the German festivals are talking about the German bands who perform to their colleagues. Because if a festival promoter is talking about a band it has more value as if the manager or booker was doing so. Them discussing which bands might work in the context of a festival is very important.
How many of the other festivals do you visit each season?
And do you try to watch the bands from the ETEP programme in special when you are there – in other words: Does it also feel a bit like your children are playing out there?
We try to visit as many festivals as possible during the summer season. Of course it is nice to see that one of those ETEP acts has an impact on a festival, that is a nice benefit of our work.
Okay, let’s go back in time a bit. The European Talent Exchange Programme (ETEP) started in 2003 as part of the Eurosonic Noorderslag. How are those two ideas connected and how is the actually process of interaction defined?
Basically, the ETEP programme is very, very simple. When we started with Eurosonic a lot of festivals came immediately, because it is very convenient for both festival people and journalists to get an overview over what is happening in Europe in three days. We thought of giving this idea a boost by having this exchange with a more formal status.
Of course not only ETEP festivals are booking bands who play at Eurosonic, this was happening even before ETEP and still is today. But this is one part of what is happening – and we are making it visible by trying to connect media, bands and festivals. There is always the chicken and egg situation with a new act: The radio asks why they should play an unknown act, and the magazine says the same and so does the festival. But if these three people all say that this is a great band, then… once there is a festival booking, there is a reason for the media to write about an act and for the radio to put them on their playlist. You need to have an excuse so to say yes for it to work – and that is something we are facilitating in this programme.
The summary up to today reads like the original plan is much more than fulfilled: more than 2500 shows by about 1000 European artists from more than 30 countries at about 100 ETEP festivals. Did you expect such a success story?
Well, yes and no. We had started it because we thought it will make sense and help bands from lesser visible territories. We did not have any expectations in terms of numbers.
The interesting fact when looking at these numbers is that we do not see one singular bands getting booked by a lot of festivals, we see a lot of bands from all kinds of countries getting booked to a wide range of festivals. And that’s what your aimed for, right? You did not want everybody to just book Franz Ferdinand.
Exactly. That is something very nice. It would be a pity if it would just be one band getting booked for 100 shows. It is more interesting to have five bands doing 20 shows each, as this shows the variety of music around and that people have different tastes.
Talking about tastes. Do you see patterns in the booking at ETEP? Like that a lot of Swedish bands are picked in Italy and lot of bands from Portugal are selected in Poland?
Of course UK acts are always very popular in our charts – but in general we see a different pattern every year. Which is positive because it reflects what is happening in this dynamic music world.
We talked about that topic a bit already, when you mentioned Kaizers Orchestra. What I am wondering: Does your emotional connection to the artists kind of end with the season or are you still, after all these years, reading festival line ups with the knowledge “oh, a former ETEP band” and how you played quite some part in helping these artist getting a boost, as we all know being on the right stage at the right time often makes the difference between a career and the band breaking up. Are there bands you have a special, deep relationship with?
Yes and no. We are a facilitator. It is up to the partners in ETEP to do whatever they like and make their choices. Of course, if we come across some act who got a lot of bookings thanks to their Eurosonic performance, you discuss how they are doing and are feeling like a partner to them in the sense that we are helping each other. But in general it is all up to the acts and the festivals themselves.
What a lot of people are disregarding is the fact that you do not only cooperate with festivals, that 27 European public radio stations (united in the EBU) and a network of print and digital press are part of ETEP as well. Maybe you could give us a bit of transparency into this process?
They are equally important to the programme. If a festival is booking a relatively new act, they need to be supported by the media in order to inform the audience about their performance. The festival are offering a live spot and the magazines and radios are offering their spots and therefore promote the act.
I know it’s always the hard pick. But looking back on your own personal history with ETEP: what are the Top 3 performances for you in Groningen, as well as later on on the festival circuit and why exactly?
To be honest, that is a tough question. At Eurosonic we do not have headliners, we do equal bookings. All the acts are equally important to us – the festivals and the media decide what they like the best. For me as an organiser it would not be good to talk about my personal favorites, all of them are our picks. We provide a platform where both audience as much as bookers and journalists decide who is interesting for them and who not so much.
What I like a lot is to be able to have been seeing over the years that a festival like Paleo has always been booking a lot of acts in the frame of ETEP. I also like seeing that some acts who got picked at ETEP and first performed on a smaller stage at the festivals finally made it to be a headliner later on, like Franz Ferdinand.
What to expect from Eurosonic Noorderslag and ETEP in 2017?
Every year you are seeing that things are ppoping up that you did not expect. For this year we are focusing on Portugal and I think there is a lot of talent around that not everybody is aware of. I hope the festivals and media will agree on that.
This brings us back to the beginning of our conversation, as Portugal has been hit quite hard by the economic crisis of the European Union.
If you say Europe these days, it is often connected to problems. I feel that it should be the contrary as we have a rich and diverse cultural mosaic in Europe. We should enjoy this diversity and the art people are creating. We should not have one stream of entertainment. We should promote the richness of culture that we have in Europe.
It may sound over the top, but it is important to be aware of what is happening in the cultural field within Europe – to hear what sounds and songs the people in other countries are making, will make all of us more happy.
It is als a stimulating sign in the direction of politics. We are talking about interaction, communication and diversity – this is the bright side of Europe and the reason we did not have a war for such a long time. Peter, thanks so much for this conversation.
Top 10 ETEP-Artist-Chart
AURORA, NO, 13
Blossoms, UK, 11
Liima, DK/FI, 8
Amber Arcades, NL, 7
Have You Ever Seen The Jane Fonda Aerobic VHS?, FI, 6
Fews, SE, 6
Leyva, AT, 6
The Academic, IE, 6
Lost Frequencies, BE, 5
Jain, FR, 5
Top 11 ETEP-Festival-Chart
1). The Great Escape, UK (35 acts)
2). Reeperbahn Festival, DE (30 acts)
3). Europavox, FR (16 acts)
4). Pukkelpop, BE (15 acts)
5). Lowlands, NL (13 acts)
6). MaMa Event, FR (9 acts)
7). Les Nuits Botanique, BE (9 acts)
8). Way Out West, SE (8 acts)
9). Øyafestivalen, NO (8 acts)
10). Glastonbury, UK (8 acts)
11). Frequency Festival, AT (8 acts)