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“All our stages are main stages”: Álvaro Covões on booking NOS Alive

"We want people to have options," explains festival boss Covões, reflecting on another successful year for the 55,000-cap. Lisbon event

By Jon Chapple on 24 Jul 2019

Álvaro Covões (centre) announces Portuguese hip-hop stars Da Weasel as the first act for Alive 2020

Covões (centre) announces Portuguese hip-hop stars Da Weasel as the first act for Alive 2020

image © Rita Carmo/NOS Alive

NOS Alive promoter Álvaro Covões has told IQ that the 13th edition of the festival, held in Lisbon earlier this month (11–13 July), was among the best in its history – and a further vindication of a booking philosophy that prioritises a diversity of talent over one or two must-see headliners.

“When I designed this festival, I wanted all the stages to be the main stages,” explains Covões, the managing director of Everything is New (EIN), who founded the 55,000-capacity festival in 2007.

“Of course, last year, capacity-wise it would have been impossible to put Pearl Jam, for example, on the second stage [because of its smaller size]. But that’s the only reason we talk about main stages, second stages, third stages: capacity. It’s nothing more.”

That ethos is evident in the quality of the acts who played under cover on the festival’s second stage (sorry), the Palco Sagres stage, in 2019, including Smiths legend Johnny Marr (overlapping with main-stage acts Primal Scream then Greta Van Fleet); critical darlings Idles, who packed out the tent with their brand of angry, socially conscious punk rock (a decidedly less angry Tom Walker, then Bon Iver, played the main stage); and platinum-selling force of nature Grace Jones, who went up against Friday’s main-stage headliners, Vampire Weekend.

“We want people to have good options,” Covões says. “For example, we have Thom Yorke [on the second stage] at the same time as Smashing Pumpkins, Idles and Marina at the same time as Bon Iver – plus the comedy tent, the NOS Clubbing stage, the Fado Café…” In total, he adds, there are more than 40 shows a day across Alive’s seven stages.

“I want people to want to see everything. We don’t want to have a festival where people only come to see the headliner”

“From the outset, I wanted it to be like Disney World,” Covões continues, “with all these different areas. I want people to want to see everything – we don’t want to have a festival where people only come to see the headliner. Because if everything else is shit, people aren’t going to return.”

Since its inception in 2007, NOS Alive (called Optimus Alive until 2014, after the previous name of sponsor NOS Comunicações) has been Portugal’s preeminent annual rock festival, helped by the reliably sunny Lisbon weather, positive reviews in the international press and a low barrier to entry, with three-day tickets priced at just €139. (Competitors include this weekend’s Super Bock Super Rock, which is smaller to the tune of 20,000 people per day, while the Lisbon edition of Rock in Rio alternates with its sister festival in Brazil.)

“We started with three stages; now we have seven,” recalls Covões, who says the festival’s philosophy is to keep adding content while keeping ticket prices low. Sponsorship certainly helps – in addition to naming partner NOS, ‘premium sponsors’ include energy company EDP, Volkswagen, Sagres beer and underwear brand Tezenis, while ‘official sponsors’ include Red Bull, Fnac, Uber and recruitment firm Randstad – as does support from public bodies such as the mayor of Oeiras and Portugal’s national tourist board, which provide funding to advertise to foreign customers.

Covões estimates that NOS Alive accounts for around 30% of EIN’s business, with the rest made up of headline shows (major 2018 events have included Ed Sheeran, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, with Billie Eilish, Madonna, the National and Muse set to follow over the winter) and exhibitions such as Banksy: Genius or Vandal?.

He says this summer’s slower European festival season is partly due to several major artists bypassing festivals altogether. “It happens sometimes,” he explains. “Lots of bands this year are choosing to do headline shows. We’ve had Ed Sheeran in a stadium [Estádio da Luz], Eddie Vedder in [Altice] arena – people need to choose what to spend their money on, and everybody wants to see Ed Sheeran…”

“The way we concentrate on our customers – that’s what makes NOS Alive special”

Despite the challenging conditions, NOS Alive 2019 sold out its first and third days – headlined by the Cure and the Smashing Pumpkins, respectively – and was at 85% (40,000) for its second, headlined by Vampire Weekend, which Covões describes as a “very good” result. “We’re a country of 10 million people,” he adds, “and we do a lot of shows. Festivals in Portugal very rarely sell out.”

Additionally, the festival’s international audience continues to grow, with around 10,000 weekend tickets – 20% – being sold to British festivalgoers this year.

The secret to Alive’s success, Covões suggest, is in its focus on people: the event has won the Portuguese Consumer Choice award for best festival every year since 2013, helped by consumer-friendly initiatives such as an abundance of seating and shade, subsidised public transport to the festival site and, this year, a separate area for pregnant festivalgoers.

“If we want people to be inside the festival for eight to ten hours, we have to make them comfortable and happy. For example, I went to [a well-known festival in England] and the toilets were shit, it was cramped, I could only find one place to sit… It’s things like that that makes people prefer seeing shows in theatres and arenas. Whereas we have a 40,000sqm site and over 2,000 seats in the food area alone. And our toilets are great!”

He concludes: “The way we concentrate on our customers – that’s what makes NOS Alive special.”

NOS Alive returns on 9, 10 and 11 July 2020.


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