Promoter Craig Blyth says lessons have been learnt from the abortive Angus Festival of House as he plots a new two-day festival in Dundee
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After two years of falling ticket sales, an at-capacity Lowlands 2017 marked a return to glory for the Dutch festival, which invested heavily in a complete site overhaul
By IQ on 25 Sep 2017
A Campingflight to Lowlands Paradise has been one of the Netherlands’ – and Europe’s – leading festivals for more than two decades. Sell-outs had long been guaranteed at Lowlands’ melting pot of music, culture and arts – until 2015, when audience numbers fell to 85% of capacity, picking up slightly in 2016.
Organisers, then, realised they had to make major changes to Lowlands for 2017 and beyond, explains festival director Eric van Eerdenburg, introducing a bold revamp and pumping significant investment into the event in order to regain its status as one of the summer’s must-visit festivals.
“We saw ticket sales falling for a number of reasons,” van Eerdenburg tells IQ. “The competition has increased significantly in recent years. A lot of new independent festivals launched, and our more loyal and older attendees – many of whom were unhappy with some of the highly necessary decisions we were making in the direction of programming – made a choice not to attend.
“While our content was becoming more relevant for a new, younger crowd, they hadn’t been able to attend the festival because of high pressure on the tickets for over ten years; for them we did not exist. The programming was changing with the new trends, but our look and feel didn’t follow that progression.
“Maybe we were getting a bit complacent sticking to the same format year after year. We realised we needed to kickstart the festival with a new art direction, new tents, bigger production capabilities, a different marketing approach and a reshuffle of the site. We decided to make the 25th anniversary an opportunity to face the issues we had and reinvigorate Lowlands.”
Van Eerdenburg’s partner, festival founder and director Ronny Hooch Antink, continues: “I’ve been a part of Lowlands since it was founded 25 years ago. I started off on a forklift and became one of the directors, so I’ve seen all aspects of the festival.
“In the ’90s it was a trend setter – much more than just a music festival. We grew and grew and we were very successful; tickets were selling out without us even announcing any artists. In a way I think we got lazy, and then our ticket sales started to drop.
“This made us realise that we needed to change: we wanted to once again be the kind of trend setting festival we were in the ’90s. Then we started thinking about how to get there – we had to be different, we had to be new. We wanted to return to being the visionary festival that was ahead of the competition.”
The result is a partnership between promoter Mojo Concerts and Dutch event management outfit LOC7000, of which Hooch Antink is GM, which delivered for 2017 far more than a cosmetic facelift. At the centre of a comprehensive site redesign, organisers introduced two radical new stage designs, dubbed Alpha and Bravo. Designed to give increased production capabilities by the festival’s in-house team, most notably Niels Peeters, senior production manager for Mojo Concerts, in close cooperation with Stageco, both stages were manufactured specifically for their first use at Lowlands 2017. They have been treated acoustically to produce exceptional audio, lighting and visual experiences – and futureproof Lowlands for years to come.
The Alpha stage (pictured above) – a 75m-long x 60m-wide steel structure in a copper-coloured skin, with a height of 22m and 30 tonnes-per-arch rigging capacity – looks more like a huge, futuristic aircraft hangar than a standard festival stage. It houses 15,000 people inside and gives sightlines to a further 20,000+ outside.
The avocado-green Bravo stage (pictured below; both photos by Graham Brown), meanwhile, is 20m high with four ‘cloisters’ coming off a cathedral-esque central dome. As with the Alpha, it includes a modern, touring-style main stage, with a 69m x 64m structure that covers the bulk of the audience.
“This year, we invested in having a good 25th anniversary line-up, and the new stages meant we were able to accommodate the full festival productions for our headliners on both stages, such as The xx, Mumford & Sons, Bastille, alt-J, Iggy Pop, Skepta, et cetera,” adds van Eerdenburg.
“We wanted to once again be the kind of trend setting festival we were in the ’90s”
“I’ve been talking to some tour managers who are really happy with the facilities that the new stages offer artists. I’ve also spoken to the audiences, who are all so enthusiastic about the new structures. The Alpha stage offers fantastic sightlines and the structure of the Bravo stage is really beautiful to be in.”
The third major change from previous years is a central hub, known as the Armadillo, which combines lounging space with DJs, food vendors, bars and climbable structures running 24 hours a day for four days. The venue has Lowland’s iconic chimneys at its centre, previously used at the entrance between the campsite and the main festival arena.
Mojo’s Niels Peeters, who designed the Armadillo, explains: “We wanted to create a central chill-out and party point depending on the time of day, and the audience’s experience of the area was more important than the practical side. However, backstage areas for food and bars were built into the Armadillo, allowing traders to replenish their stocks easily. When we were designing the area we worked closely with all of our suppliers to ensure they were happy with how the space worked for them.”
Significant changes around the lake near the Alpha stage also added a picturesque natural feature for the audience, as well as creating an additional production route on and off the site.
“You need a very close relationship with your suppliers because they are an integral part of the festival,” says Hooch Antink. “When you want to be ahead of other festivals, you have to make sure that every team from every aspect of the festival is happy and involved with the Lowlands concept.
“For the whole 25 years of the festival we’ve had a very strong team. It’s not just been two or three managers making the concept and pushing their ideas. It’s a collaboration: site production, technical production, health and safety, catering, theatre programming… they’re all one team and the whole team is creating the concept.
“Along with the more obvious things we do, like the stages, we also do a lot of work on the less immediately noticeable aspects of the festival. We keep our customers safe and look after them with good sanitation on site and fantastic catering.
“Also, you can’t ignore what is happening in the world in relation to terrorism at entertainment events – they can be seen as an easy target and people are concerned when going into a festival. The Lowlands philosophy is that safety is not just something you stick onto the festival, it’s something that we build into it from the very beginning and it is at the forefront of all the big decisions we make. The big challenge is to provide a contemporary security solution while also making sure people still feel free to enjoy themselves. We made some fundamental changes to our security plan this year – notably project manager Maarten Van Lokven redeploying our stewarding positions and introducing airport style X-ray machines at the entrance, which worked very well.”
Those fundamental changes, along with the investment in talent and production capabilities, appear to have paid off: For the first time in three years, Lowlands 2017 had a capacity audience across all four festival evenings (18–21 August) – and van Eerdenburg says the feedback from artists, crew and festivalgoers has been universally positive. “The Alpha stage offers fantastic sightlines, and the structure of the Bravo stage is really beautiful to be in,” he explains.
“I’ve been talking to some tour managers who are really happy with the facilities that the new stages offer artists – and I’ve also spoken to the audiences, who are all so enthusiastic about the new structures.”
Lowlands will return in August 2018.
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