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The Rock Werchter founder and Live Nation Belgium CEO charts his career, from organising a tiny local festival to putting Belgium on the international touring map
By Gordon Masson on 28 Mar 2023
Looking back on half a century in the live music business, Herman Schueremans has learned many lessons – a smattering of which you’ll find highlighted in the pages of this special anniversary feature. However, arguably his top lesson is that cycling is not only the best possible way to stay fit – it can save your life.
In 2014, Herman took a regular cycle journey to visit his mother in her residential care home, and on his way back his bike hit a patch of wet leaves and sent him tumbling. “I broke my hip,” he tells IQ. “But it was broken quite nicely – it didn’t move, there was just a fracture through it. But on the scan for my hip, the doctor noticed that my appendix was swollen, so I was told it was best to remove it while I was in hospital.”
During what should have been a routine operation, the surgeon discovered that Herman’s appendix had been leaking and was very slowly poisoning his body. Warned that the leak could lead to cancer, Herman agreed to a procedure where a team of surgeons would meticulously open up and clean his intestines, while removing anything that could not be saved. “They also coated my intestines in platinum, which would kill any infection that they might have missed. It was a big operation – 32 hours in total.”
Despite undergoing such trauma, which would normally result in a patient spending months in hospital to recover, within a week Herman was back at home. “I wanted to be back working on my festivals – the Classic and Rock Werchter,” he states, “I’d lost 15 kilograms, and I had to rest quite a lot, so I was not as active during the festival changeovers, but because I cycled every day, as a 60-year-old man I was pretty fit and healthy, so that definitely helped.”
Consequently, he urges everyone in the live music business to take up cycling. “It’s a great way to forget about our fantastic business and all the responsibilities you have. I would absolutely advise people to cycle because it’s not only healthy, it destresses you. And if you’re with friends, at the end of the bicycle ride you stop at a nice pub and have some lagers.”
Inspired by a documentary on Woodstock, he decided to create a small music festival in the town of Herent
As one of the most popular personalities in the live music world, Herman Schueremans’ career is the stuff of legend. Growing up in Belgium in the 1960s and ’70s was a frustrating time for music-loving Herman because although most international tours travelled through the country on their way to and from gigs in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, very few would actually stop in Belgium to perform. Herman would shatter that status quo.
Having toyed with electric guitar, then bass guitar, he conceded his talents were not as a musician, and at the age of 17, he began managing a local band. A year later, inspired by a documentary on Woodstock, he decided to create a small music festival in the town of Herent, a few kilometres from his hometown of Leuven. “I called it ‘The Park Festival,’ because it was in a park,” he laughs. “I booked a few local bands, and 800 people came to the first event.”
However, just weeks later, another youngster – Hedwig De Meyer – staged his new festival a mere eight kilometres away in the village of Werchter. “He also had 800 people,” says Herman. “At the time, I was also writing for a newspaper, and I was the only journalist on Hedwig’s guest list. We met and agreed to work together for the following year, and because there were fewer neighbours in Werchter, we kept that site to minimise the chance of complaints.”
That collaboration led to the first Rock Werchter festival, in 1974, and the partnership thrived, with Hedwig taking care of production logistics, and liaising with the local authorities and the Werchter mayor, while Herman concentrated on booking the artists.
Still living at home, Herman soon started using his talent to promote club gigs, as part of a move to try to fund renting his own apartment. “It wasn’t the usual promoter route because I was a festival promoter before I organised gigs, but I was able to pick up some interesting bands and that’s what kick-started everything.”
“It wasn’t the usual promoter route because I was a festival promoter before I organised gigs”
What that modest comment does not cover is the lengths young Herman would go to in order to fulfil the growing demand from audiences in Belgium to discover new talent. As a result, his ambition and confidence grew, and he would travel to London to try to meet with agents who had never heard of him. Working with a shoestring budget, he would stay in youth hostels and wait for the unsuspecting agents on their office doorsteps first thing in the morning, just to try to get a meeting.
Herman comments, “Some people become a missionary in Africa or whatever. Our mission was to put Belgium on the map and to see acts playing in Belgium and not only passing through from London to Germany to play for the American troops or to play Paris or Hamburg or Berlin.
“The big bands didn’t bother about Belgium in those days, so I started out chasing the smaller ones. That was one of the advantages of being in a small country – if you wanted to be part of the music business, you had to sniff out the new acts.”
Such was Herman’s skill in identifying emerging talent that the local Warner Records operation persuaded him to take a job in its A&R department – an opportunity that he realised could ultimately benefit Rock Werchter. “We were doing promo for Sire acts such as the Ramones and Talking Heads, as well Stiff Records, which was home to the likes of Elvis Costello, and I was able to get those acts to play at the festival,” reports Herman.
His tenure at Warners lasted close to five years and saw him rise through the ranks to head the local A&R and promo departments. But with the festival and his other promoting efforts dominating more and more time, he was given an ultimatum by his managing director. “So, I left Warners, aged 26, to finally become a full-time promoter. It was a very easy decision. Basically, my hobby became my job. And I’ve never regretted it. I still love my job.”
“Our mission was to put Belgium on the map and to see acts playing in Belgium and not only passing through from London”
As Rock Werchter grew in the early years, there were a number of accidental spin-offs that have, in the decades since, become major players in the live music sector – namely Stageco, EML, and The Powershop.
“When we started, the festival was in one marquee where we could squeeze in about 3,000 people,” explains Herman. “When it grew, we rolled up the sides of the marquee, but the stage wasn’t high enough and people couldn’t see, so we decided to move outdoors, and Hedwig used his engineering skills to design the stage, which was the birth of Stageco as a business.
“In those days, you had supply companies like Edwin Shirley in England but bringing equipment from England to Belgium was too expensive, so we had little choice but to do it ourselves.” And it wasn’t just the staging that had to be sourced. With no decent PA or lighting equipment available in Belgium, the partners also created EML – which has since become part of the PRG group of companies. And it was a similar tale for The Powershop, owned by Hedwig’s brother, Jan De Meyer, as the Werchter principals decided that the best way to solve their power supply issue for the greenfield site was to launch their own business.
Indeed, for about the first 15 years of Rock Werchter, any profits were ploughed back into Stageco, which quickly became a year-round business supplying infrastructure to international tours – the pioneers being Genesis.
“The band’s agent, Steve Hedges, was at one of our festivals and was so impressed by our stages that he put us in contact with the band and that led to us getting the deal to supply staging for a Genesis European tour – which then went on as far as New Zealand,” says Herman.
“When we started, Rock Werchter was in one marquee where we could squeeze in about 3,000 people”
And the success of Rock Werchter was also getting Herman and Hedwig noticed. Noël Steen and Monique Van Dromme, who organised another festival, Rock Tourhout, in the west of Belgium, proposed that the two events should collaborate, to save costs and share line-ups, but at either end of the country. Theoretically, Torhout-Werchter was a great idea. Logistically, it was a huge challenge.
“At that time – 1980 or ’81, I think – both festivals were just one day each, so we’d move everything overnight from Torhout to Werchter – that’s 140 kilometres – and I mean everything: the PA system, the lot. It would have to be loaded out at Torhout, make its way through the traffic across Belgium, loaded in at Werchter, and built in time for the gates opening the next day.”
Rather than just being a one-off experiment, the twin festivals continued the practice for 15 years, until they both expanded to two-day events in 2016.
“In the early days, the twin event helped me attract bands because I was able to offer two shows rather than just one, but Werchter be- came bigger and bigger and booking two festivals started to become a disadvantage,” says Herman. “It also became bloody expensive to run a festival at two different sites. So, when we made big losses at Torhout in 1996 and ‘97, I took the decision to concentrate just on Werchter.”
While the appeal of Rock Werchter captured the imagination of music fans from day one, creating a day-to-day tour circuit around Belgium was a longer-term project. “We didn’t have a company name, but we set up a foundation called Altsien to reflect what we were doing – working with alternative acts like the Human League, Dead Kennedys, and U2, and using alternative venues, such as university aulas in Leuven, Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Hasselt; a union venue in Mechelen; a sports hall in Deinze; and venues in provincial places like Herenthout, Zedelgem, Poperinge, etc .”
Looking back, Herman admits lots of mistakes were made, but it was the learning ground that he and his companies built their foundations on. “I could easily lose £300 on a show, which was a month’s wages. But that taught you to quickly learn from your mistakes.”
“I still operate as an entrepreneur, and Live Nation allows me to do that”
Making Belgium a European Hub
Two decades ago, when Robert Sillerman’s SFX undertook its programme of corporate klepto-mania, Herman Schueremans’ activities in Belgium were among the top targets for his vision for a global promoting empire.
“SFX first approached me in 2000,” states Herman. “I was honoured that such a big company felt Belgium was important enough. So, in May 2001, I became part of what would later become Live Nation.”
As a division of that corporate entity, Herman’s company has grown in size by a factor of six. Indeed, during the Covid pandemic, the financial protection not only allowed him to keep every member of staff but he actually hired new employees as restrictions on live shows began to ease.
“Promoting shows is an art,” he tells IQ. “I don’t have to put my financial future at risk anymore, but I do want to be successful, so I still operate as an entrepreneur, and Live Nation allows me to do that: to take risks. In fact, since we became part of Live Nation, the company has grown from about ten people to about 60 now.”
And he contends that making the odd mistake is part and parcel of the process in evolving as a promoter. “I still make mistakes, but I think that’s an important part of the process because sometimes you overestimate, sometimes you underestimate things. Especially after Covid.
“When we restarted in March , one of my big worries was will I be able to give the same service?”
“When we restarted in March , one of my big worries was will I be able to give the same service? And I was so happy to see that a lot of shows and tours were safe.”
Looking back on the past year, which he contends was the busiest of his career, Herman says, “It was a sort of interbellum, but not between two wars, rather between two music worlds, which made it a good lesson for everybody to rethink the business, to reinvent it.
“Most of us had a good 2022, but some suffered because they underestimated costs. But overall, the business is back, and I think 2023 will be very good. It’s all about approaching things in a positive way, without becoming greedy.”
Indeed, Herman believes there are some positives to take away from the devastation that Covid inflicted on the live events sector. “People are re-appreciating the experience of a live show or festival. At Werchter 2022, we saw so many happy people. At every festival, you have some moaners, but even the moaners forgot to moan. If we can make those people happy, then I think we are doing a good job.”
“Religion and politics divide; music unites. So, no, I do not miss politics”
Among Herman’s other claims to fame is a long stint as a member of parliament for the Flemish Liberals and Democrats. “I got involved because I thought that politicians kept making stupid decisions that threatened to destroy what we’d worked so hard to build,” he explains.
His political achievements include helping to introduce a decibel law that measures average noise levels over the course of an hour, as well as Herman enjoys a much-deserved beer at the Rock Werchter 2013 after party legislation to fight secondary ticketing.
Despite those positive moves, Herman is candid about his time as a parliamentarian. “Over the years, I’ve learned that music brings people together. It’s one of my slogans: religion and politics divide; music unites. So, no, I do not miss politics. But it is damned important.”
He continues, “At the same time, I’m happy that I did it, because I can see what the qualities of democracy are and that we all should support it. Being in the Liberal Party, we also managed to push through legislation to allow same-sex marriages. I think that was tremendously important because in recent years we have seen a return to conservatism, meaning it might be a lot more difficult, today, to get those laws voted through and adopted.”
His interest in political matters dates back further. Speaking from his beloved second home in South Africa, Herman tells IQ, “One of the things that gives me a lot of satisfaction is that at the time when Nelson Mandela was in prison at Robben Island, Peter Gabriel asked us to deliver the stages for the Free Mandela shows, which we did in Dakar, in London, and in New York. Delivering those stages at no cost, because that was the deal, was one of the best things I’ve done in my career… when I pass away, and if heaven exists, when Saint Peter is at the gates and starts reading me my list of sins, I will bring that up as an argument to let me in.”
“Delivering the Free Mandela shows was one of the best things I’ve done in my career”
Herman is rightly renowned for the development of Rock Werchter – which is set to mark its 50th anniversary in 2024 – and, indeed, the rest of his festival portfolio, which includes Werchter Boutique, Werchter Classic, Graspop Metal Meeting, and I Love Techno, as well as hugely successful partnerships with the likes of Pukkelpop and Dour.
His support for other businesses in the aftermath of the two-year pandemic lay-off helped those events enjoy successful post Covid returns. “A lot of people moved out of our business to do other things during Covid, and it was a bit difficult to get all those people back on track. But that meant the satisfaction after the festivals was double or triple because we managed to do it as a team,” he states.
“A long time ago, we decided to start paying suppliers in advance and not 30, 60, 90, or 120 days after the event. Helping people with their cash flow definitely allowed them to get back to work after Covid. And that policy helped us a lot in 2022. Don’t forget, we have a history with Stageco, The Powershop, EML, so while we don’t have a Silicon Valley like the Americans have, around Werchter we have a rock and roll music fair, and we have a common history.”
One Herman mantra that has never changed is the lengths he goes to in order to make sure that everyone who attends his festivals is kept safe and made as comfortable as possible – from the audience to the artists to the crew. “For example, we have warm showers, day and night. So, whenever the crew or truck drivers arrive, they get their towels, and we try to make them feel at home.
“The artists’ dressing rooms are perhaps a bit over the top. But basically, when you arrive at Rock Werchter, the dressing room is yours until the end of the festival when you leave. Catering is always open; you can drink tea from a proper cup; you can eat with a knife and fork; you can drink a good glass of wine or draft beer out of a glass. It’s about hospitality.”
“I’ve been saying that a festival should be reinvented every five or even three years. It’s all about evolution”
Reminiscing on his career path, he adds, “30 years ago, I said a festival should be reinvented every ten years. But in the last decade, I’ve been saying that a festival should be reinvented every five or even three years. It’s all about evolution. This is a business where if you have the capability of listening to other people and their ideas, you can be creative, you can reinvent, and you can give young people an opportunity to prove themselves.”
And talking of the next generation, the 69-year-old festival guru admits that the pandemic triggered him to begin plotting the way forward for Live Nation Belgium and his beloved festivals when he is no longer at the helm.
“One of the main jobs I had in the last five years was to prepare our company for succession,” he reveals. “When we started the company, there were five or six people. Ten years ago, it was 30-something. And today it’s close to 60. So, as the business grows, the pyramid also has to grow.
“Now, we have a fantastic team ready to take over in the next couple of years. They do already a hell of a lot of the jobs, and I have to give them all that credit. So, I am happy that the company is in a place where I can afford to stop working in this business, and our team will deliver.” Not quite ready to hang up his promoter’s hat, however, he concludes, “My team inspire me, and I hope I still inspire them a bit. And together we are strong.
“You’re only as good as your last show, not only as an artist but also as a promoter”
“But we are not immortal, and I think it’s part of our moral duty to hand things over to the next generations to create opportunities for them. And for them to do even better – I’m sure they will.”
As for the immediate future, 2023 will be like most years for Herman Schueremans, with the highlights he’s looking forward to centring around his summer programme.
“It’s fantastic to put on the Belgian show of a European tour or a world tour – it’s a privilege to contribute to that. But festivals are something that you create with your team, and you really have to reinvent and rework every year.
“We want to treat our audience well, but at the same time, we want to bring in a younger audience, and I rely on the younger members of our team to do that.
“It is a good success story – and I still love my job every day, but I think staying humble is key. Bottom line, you’re only as good as your last show, not only as an artist but also as a promoter, also as a PA company, as a stage company.”
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