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‘They sustain the live industry’: Schueremans on the importance of festivals

Rock Werchter founder Herman Schueremans warned of protecting the “lungs” of the live music business, in a packed IFF Keynote this morning.

By Anna Grace on 26 Sep 2019

Herman Schueremans IFF keynote

Martin Hopewell and Herman Schueremans at IFF 2019

The conference programme of the International Festival Forum (IFF)  drew to a close today (26 September) with the IFF Keynote, which saw Herman Schueremans, Rock Werchter founder and one of Europe’s most influential festival pioneers, joining ILMC founder Martin Hopewell in conversation.

Topics covered by the promoter and agency veterans, respectively, included Schueremans’ early days in the business, live music as cultural heritage and the changing festival scene – which the Live Nation Belgium CEO said is under threat from samey line-ups and festival operators seeing events as “brands” rather than cultural institutions.

Central to the conversation was a rising concern about the festivals Schueremans views as “cultural institutions” that play a key role in a society.

“Festivals sustain the live industry just as the Amazon rainforest sustains the world’s climate,” he said. “They’re the lungs of live music business, and we have to take care to protect them.”

In particular, said the Live Nation Belgium Head, the threat is primarily from newer events organised “for the wrong reasons… The only thing these kinds of festivals are doing is driving up prices,” he stated, “and the passion is starting to disappear.”

Talking about Rock Werchter, the event he founded 40 years ago, Schueremans credited teamwork and the creation of a community spirit as the key to his success. “The general perception is that people should feel welcome at Werchter, at home. It should be a place they want to go to.”

Reflecting on his early days as a student club promoter, Schueremans initially embarked on studies to become a historian, but soon decided that a career in the live business was where he was headed and dropped out of university. “When you really want something, you just go for it,” he explains.

Examples of festivals with poor organisation, such as Woodstock and the early years of the Jazz Bilzen festival, spurred Schueremans on to do his own, as “we knew we could do it better,” he said.

“Nowadays you make one mistake and you’re burned”

When Werchter started, it was a “handicap” to have a festival in such a small country, said Schueremans, as it was difficult to persuade agents to book their acts in Belgium for only one date. To solve this, Schueremans created twin festivals Rock Torhout, to offer a double date to agents. This format spawned copycats across Europe, says Schueremans, referencing the UK’s Reading and Leeds festivals and Germany’s Rock am Ring/Rock im Park.

Hopewell cast his mind back to when Schueremans first entered his office at Chrysalis Agency in London, as a “young whippersnapper”. Sending acts to play shows abroad seemed “exotic”, said Hopewell, and there was definitely “a sense of adventure in the air”.

The pair mused on the fact that when they were starting out there was no “laid-out track” or “map” to follow. “It was all invention,” said Hopewell, adding that he has a “huge amount of respect for promoters”, who are the ones that “make it all happen”.

When asked what the tipping point was for Werchter, Schueremans puts it down to the type of bands they had playing. Dire Straits, U2 and the Talking Heads were among those to cut their teeth at Werchter in the early days. “We were the guys with the young acts,” said Schueremans. “We were just there at the right time and in the right place – simply because we loved that music and we fought for it.”

Hopewell agrees that Schueremans began when there was a definite “changing of the guard” between the older and younger generations, so the timing was spot-on.

“In those days, you could make mistakes and as long as you excused yourself, you could win sympathy back,” stated Schueremans, “but nowadays you make one mistake and you’re burned.”

Talk turned to the changing festival scene and the growing expectations of comfort and cleanliness among audiences. “We’ve spoiled them, maybe,” joked Schueremans, adding that the challenge to do better every year is good motivation. “If you’re not trying to do that, then you better stop,” says the Werchter boss.

“Festivals sustain the live industry just as the Amazon sustains the world’s climate”

Over the years, live music became more of a business, too, “with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings.” A plus side, said Schueremans, is that festivals no longer experience too many cancellations (with a notable exception in “one particular genre”, he added).

“The last thing I want in this business is that we create bureaucracy – we should not make the same mistakes as the record companies did,” he says. “We need to be organised as an army but able to act as a guerrilla, quickly and efficiently.”

Hopewell closed by suggesting that the industry could start doing deals based on some idea of budget and system of transparency. The pair also expressed their dislike for exclusivity clauses, which Hopewell noted have “crept in like viruses” over the years.

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