Belgium punches above its weight with a music market that’s as heady as its beer. As IQ discovers, it’s not about how big you are, but where you’re located…
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In our latest market profile, Adam Woods learns how live music's corporate juggernauts are transforming Belgium's independent landscape
By Adam Woods on 20 Jun 2023
As one of the world’s biggest consumers of live music per head of population, Belgium finds itself on the routing for nearly every European tour, while its festivals are magnets for talent and fans alike. Little wonder then that the market is also attracting interest from the corporate behemoths. Adam Woods reports.
For about a decade from the mid-1990s, the small municipality of Viroinval in southern Belgium was the centre of Europe – literally, the geographical midpoint of the European Union – until a handful of new Central and Eastern European members joined the club in 2004 and the drawing pin moved east.
But while it’s not technically the centre point of Europe anymore, you’re unlikely to find a more dependable, better connected European market than Belgium, nor one that captures so faithfully the density, diversity and complexity of the continent.
As well as hosting the capital of the EU itself, Belgium shares borders with France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg but also reflects the continent’s density, diversity, and internal contradictions. It has three official languages (French, Dutch, and German) and two very distinct populations (the Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south, plus a sprinkling of Germans in the east).
In live terms, too, Belgium is the sort of country that draws a lot of traffic – both audiences and artists. As well as two busy, accessible live cities – Brussels and nearby second city Antwerp – it has a mature festival calendar with international and even global pull, including Tomorrowland, Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop, Graspop Metal Meeting, Dour, and others.
“We are served by every single tour on the planet, really,” says Greenhouse Talent’s Pascal Van De Velde. “If you want to go from the UK to mainland Europe, you come via Belgium; if you want to go from Scandinavia to southern Europe, you go through Belgium. Coming from northern France, the Netherlands – to get to the continent, you have to come through here.”
“It’s a very small country, but it’s very different. Someone who can sell 40,000 tickets in Antwerp will sell 2,000 in Brussels”
It is well known, but worth re-stating, that as a result of its very distinct populations, 11.8m-strong Belgium is two markets in one, with extremely defined regional characteristics.
“It’s a very small country, but it’s very different,” says Thom Vanderdeelen of boutique promoter and management agency Shadow to Live. “Someone who can sell 40,000 tickets in [Flemish-speaking] Antwerp will sell 2,000 in [French-speaking] Brussels, and 20 minutes further south, they won’t sell any.”
The Flemish half of Belgium both produces and consumes more entertainment than the French. Brussels, while French-speaking, counts as a region on its own, but overall, all are healthy, even in these choppy times.
“The market is strong,” says Van De Velde. “We hear that some of the markets are weaker, and people are suffering from the crisis; I can’t say that we are suffering. The market is as strong as it was before Covid – with an accent on big shows, but I mean, the smaller shows and the middle-sized shows are doing well as well.”
One theory is that Belgium’s wage index, which delivers inflation-based pay rises to all those on a payroll, is helping to keep the middle classes spending and the live business buoyant. But like virtually every other country, Belgium has issues with poverty and the broader cost of living, and with a war still raging to the east, there remain plenty of pitfalls on the road ahead.
Also significant, in the meantime, is an infrastructure that offers generous funding to smaller venues and a country small enough that no show is out of reach to anyone interested.
“The main markets will always be Brussels, Gent, and Antwerp”
“The main markets will always be Brussels, Gent, and Antwerp,” says FKP Scorpio Belgium managing director Jan Digneffe. “That’s what the agents always ask after and where we’re always going to start looking, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in the southern part of Belgium. If you look at Liege, which is the biggest French-speaking city in Belgium after Brussels, there’s a lot of things going on there. It’s such a vibrant, cool city.
“The same with Charleroi, which is an old industrial city – maybe a little bit like Sheffield in the UK. There’s a movement of young people finding places there to live, and stuff is happening. So that is really definitely something I am watching, and I guess that everybody else is watching it, too.”
Live Nation rules the roost in Belgium, much as it has for years. It operates the biggest festivals, stages many of the biggest shows, owns the premier large venues, and sells many of the tickets via Ticketmaster. CEO and Rock Werchter founder Herman Schueremans is the well-respected father of the Belgian business, and he is doing well out of the post-pandemic boom.
“The Belgian market is healthy again, as per pre-Covid times, and it is even growing, as more and more people get into the magic of live shows and festivals,” says Schueremans. “2022 was top for us, with sold-out festivals Rock Werchter, TW Classic, Werchter Boutique, and Graspop Metal Meeting, as well as a lot of sold-out shows.
“But 2023 is even stronger, with many more indoor shows, from club level to arenas. We also have stadium shows of Beyoncé and The Weeknd; a show of Harry Styles at Werchter Park; Rock Werchter with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Muse, and Arctic Monkeys, which will sell out; TW Classic with Bruce Springsteen and Werchter Boutique with P!NK, which have already sold out. We also have Graspop Metal Meeting with Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, and Mötley Crüe, which is going to sell out, too, and the alternative festivals Dour and Pukkelpop, which are selling well.”
But for all Live Nation’s strength, the sheer demand for live music supports an increasingly strong fleet of rivals, including longstanding Benelux-specialist Greenhouse Talent and new offices for FKP Scorpio and All Things Live (ATL).
“There’s more promoters than ever, but there’s also more business, so there is room for most of us”
“Things have drastically changed in the last 15 years,” says Van De Velde. “There’s more promoters than ever, but there’s also more business, so there is room for most of us.”
Greenhouse Talent’s year has been a strong one, with successes including three sold-out Rammstein shows at the Brussels Stadium in July, two Elton Johns at Antwerp’s Sportpaleis, as well as further sell- outs for Hans Zimmer (Sportpaleis and Palais 12 Arena in Brussels), Pentatonix (Forest National), and Till Lindemann (who sold out Antwerp’s Lotto Arena in an hour).
Greenhouse also took over the bankrupt Gent Jazz Festival in January and will launch its first edition in July, with headline slots for Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Norah Jones, Joe Bonamassa, and others. “That’s in our hometown, and it is selling very well,” says Van De Velde.
Gracia Live is another long-standing independent, with an indie’s diverse approach. Recent shows include Måneskin in Luxembourg, Bob Dylan and Morrissey in Belgium, and a Belgian tour for local star Camille that shifted 120,000 tickets. A Sportpaleis show for the same artist next May recently sold out in two hours and an extra show was promptly added.
“Locally, she is stronger than Angèle,” says Gracia Live promoter Sam Perl. “That is one thing we were working on during the pandemic – doing more with domestic artists. We are still doing 80% of our business with international tours, but for indies the domestic roster is becoming more and more important. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. As healthy as the market is, sometimes it shifts, so you diversify within the business because you never know what next year is going to bring.”
Also on the schedule is Gracia Live’s annual Disney On Ice season, and for next year, four or five arena acts, yet to be announced. “Last year we had Eric Clapton, Olivia Rodrigo, 50 Cent, and next year we have a few more of the same calibre artists coming in,” says Perl.
“Of course, I come from the mothership, Live Nation, which is very dominant in the Belgian market, but I always thought there were opportunities, and I still do”
FKP Scorpio touched down in Belgium under former Live Nation man Digneffe just weeks before the first lockdown. “A lot of my ex-colleagues were moving shows and trying to find new dates, and I didn’t have anything to do because I hadn’t booked any shows yet,” he says. “But from March 2022, it’s been like a super-fast train.”
First-year achievements have included two Ed Sheeran shows at Brussels’ Stade Roi Baudouin and an opening edition of the Live /s Live festival in Antwerp, featuring Suede, The War on Drugs, and local heroes Balthazar, dEUS, and others. Clearly, Digneffe spies room for expansion in the busy Belgian marketplace. “If I didn’t, I probably would never have started with Scorpio,” he says. “Of course, I come from the mothership, Live Nation, which is very dominant in the Belgian market, but I always thought there were opportunities, and I still do. Stuff is happening. I think we have a very healthy small market, and we’re all trying our best, and I think that there is not really anyone who is not doing well at the moment.”
All Things Live launched into Belgium starting in early 2021, through a cocktail of diverse acquisitions – namely the domestically focused booking agency Busker, management organisation Musickness, and the Ostend Beach Festival.
“ATL has a great view on how the business should work for them, and we learn a lot from them,” says All Things Live Belgium CEO Marcus Deblaere. “Busker and Musickness are rather leftfield, rock, pop, hip-hop, jazz, and the festival is EDM, techno. They have nothing to do with each other, but they have everything to do with the bigger festivals ATL has in the Scandinavian countries. And now the task is to connect it all in Belgium, too.”
The aim is not necessarily to take on the biggest operators at their own game, suggests Deblaere. “We’re looking into how can we fill the gaps,” he says. “We don’t have to compete with the big ones. We have a great relationship with Live Nation, Greenhouse Talent, Scorpio. We work with everybody, we keep the door open, and we have always done that.”
An attempt to launch a small festival – Unwind – in the dawning months after Covid last year illustrated the dangers of competing too bullishly in the international mainstream.
“We don’t like taking dangerous risks, but we do like doing new stuff, because if we’re not creative in our business, then who’s going to be?”
“We launched it at the beginning of March for a date at the end of May,” says Deblaere. “The sales weren’t going that well. It was a good concept, but it didn’t make sense to compete on the international market with the bigger players, and therefore we pulled the plug. We don’t like taking dangerous risks, but we do like doing new stuff, because if we’re not creative in our business, then who’s going to be?”
Brussels-based promotion, management, and booking agency Shadow to Live has reached a similar conclusion, balancing private and public events in many categories – from a DJ set for Brussels National Day by Henri PFR on top of Brussels’ iconic modernist Atomium structure, to Arabic stand-up, to Coldplay bookings for private clients.
“We work on projects we believe in,” says Vanderdeelen. “Obviously, the world of entertainment is ruled by money, lawyers, big companies. You can’t compete financially against that, but you can be more understanding of the needs of your artists – find creative ways of promoting, do partnerships with different companies.”
Any discussion of promoters in Belgium also needs to mention venues, of which the smaller ones (sub- 2,000) are subsidised and promote many of their own shows. And inevitably, that makes it hard for independent smaller promoters to thrive.
“I think Belgium is an odd one in the sense that we don’t really have that many independent live promoters – though there’s plenty in dance,” says Benjamin Beutels of Antwerp-based indie MCLX. “Because most venues are government-funded, there’s not a lot of room to operate as a professional independent promoter, as they obviously have a financial advantage over us.”
The increased competition in the promoting sector means many promoters are picking up acts at an early stage, Beutels notes. Consequently, he says, niche genres like metal, hardcore, punk, and hip-hop create a gap for indies, as that music is less likely to find a natural home in state-funded regional venues or busy metropolitan ones.
“There’s a bunch of great and dedicated promoters who do it as a hobby, and a lot of times they are the starting point for international artists”
“So, the bands start looking for alternatives, and that’s where we come in,” says Beutels, who has promoted shows for acts including Idles, Turnstile, Zeal & Ardor, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The HU, Danko Jones, and Frank Turner over the past seven years.
“I might be mistaken, but from what I’m aware of, we’re one of the very few in the whole country that put on independent live shows at this level, without any funding or ties to an international corporation, and make a living out of it. Apart from that, there’s a bunch of great and dedicated promoters who do it as a hobby, and a lot of times they are the starting point for international artists.”
In the tricky post-Covid June of 2022, Live Nation cancelled its 25,000-cap, one-off Rock Werchter prelude Rock Werchter Encore, citing high production costs, staff shortages, and low consumer confidence, and channeling its bill into sister festival TW Classic a day earlier. It was an uncharacteristic blip – and a characteristically sure-footed repair move – in a festival portfolio that is a model of careful management.
“Belgium is a country with lots of successful festivals that all have their identity, and that is our key to success,” says Schueremans. Also significant, he notes, is Belgium’s ability to maximise its central location to create international attractions.
“People of the surrounding countries have come to our festivals for decades. For example, 60% of the audience of the Dour and Ardentes festivals in the French-speaking part of Belgium are French; 21% of the Rock Werchter audience are Dutch, and 10% come from Europe and the [rest of the] world.
“One key is top bills and top service to our audience, as they are our kings and queens,” says Schueremans. “Another is that we keep renewing those festivals in order to attract new generations of music lovers.”
“The French-speaking crowd will head to Les Solidarités in Namur, Baudet’Stival in the south of the country, or Les Francofolies d’Esch/Alzette in Luxembourg”
An item on the shopping list of any growing promoter in Belgium is a festival or two. FKP Scorpio is building its Live /s Live brand in Antwerp; Greenhouse has the Gent Jazz Festival; All Things Live in March acquired a majority stake in the 22,500-cap Ostend Beach Festival, a well-established three-day festival with more than 100 artists on four stages.
Last June, Tomorrowland and Rock Werchter joined forces to create CORE, a new two-day festival in Brussels. The festival returned to Osseghem Park in May, with Little Simz, Bibi Seck, The Blessed Madonna, and recent Coachella-playing Belgian star Angèle among those on the bill.
Festivals serve the Flemish and French parts of Belgium pretty equally, says Jakob H Lund, Ticketmaster RVP, North West Europe and managing director, Denmark, Belgium, and Netherlands.
“The French-speaking crowd will head to Les Solidarités in Namur, Baudet’Stival in the south of the country, or Les Francofolies d’Esch/Alzette in Luxembourg where artists like Orelsan and Angèle are already sold out,” says Lund.
“The north of the country is also well served: in addition to the famous Rock Werchter and Graspop Metal Meeting festivals, fans can choose from Live /s Live in Antwerp, the Moen Feest, the Beach Festival, the Antilliaanse Feesten, and others.”
Live Nation is strong in the venue market, much as it is strong every- where else in Belgium. In April 2019, the group acquired Antwerps Sportpaleis, the Belgian venue operator behind Antwerp’s 23,001-capacity Sportpaleis arena and 8,050-cap Lotto Arena; the 8,000-cap Forest National in Brussels; and the 17,000-cap Trixxo (previously Ethias) Arena in Hasselt.
“With our biggest venues, we are losing some shows to artists opting for open-air and stadium concerts”
Now known as the be•at group, the division also operates three roughly 2,000-capacity theatres (Stadsschouwburg Antwerp, Capitole Ghent, and Trixxo Theatre Hasselt) and the Proximus Pop-Up Arena, which is erected in the summer at Middelkerke on the Belgian coast and can hold up to 5,000 fans.
In recent months, Sportpaleis has received Robbie Williams, Lizzo, Lewis Capaldi, Snoop Dogg, and Michael Bublé, with Post Malone, Elton, Sam Smith, Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel, Iron Maiden, and Depeche Mode on the horizon. Meanwhile, Forest National and Lotto Arena, be•at’s mid-size venues, hosted The Kooks, Eros Ramazzotti, Bring Me The Horizon, Mäneskin, George Ezra, and others, with Avril Lavigne – one of the last Covid-postponed shows – The Offspring, Tenacious D, and Michel Sardou coming up.
Be•at CEO Jan Van Esbroeck believes the market, overheated since Covid, shows signs of cooling in Q3 and Q4 of this year. He notes the abiding popularity of well-known acts and established festivals and acknowledges that these are difficult times to be an emerging artist, though he believes an upswing will come.
“I think this will only be temporary,” he says. “The market will stabilise somewhat after this initial period, and I’m convinced we will return to a normal mechanism, in which new talent will again find the fans it needs to grow.
“It is also an observation that with our biggest venues, we are losing some shows to artists opting for open-air and stadium concerts. The demand is now for one big thing, so it is understandable that the artist with the status to do so will opt for the biggest capacity. It remains to be seen whether this phenomenon will continue.”
“All the concert halls here in Belgium below 2,000 capacity are subsidised”
If Brussels is famous for any one venue, it is the city’s 2,000-cap Ancienne Belgique, which draws international and local acts most nights, but the 400- to 1,400-cap La Madeleine and the 650-cap, standing-only Botanique aren’t much less in demand. Other key venues at the smaller level include Trix and De Roma in Antwerp and De Vooruit in Gent.
Smaller venues adopt a particular position of strength in Belgium, their state subsidies insulating them a little from the commercial climate and giving them the ability to develop and promote local music scenes. For promoters, the balance of power may occasionally feel a little unequal.
“All the concert halls here in Belgium below 2,000 capacity are subsidised,” says Deblaere. “They have their own ticketing systems, too. You can promote in them, but then you take all the risk. And they sell the tickets with their ticketing system, so they gather all the data – and that’s true for the big venues, too. They have their ticketing system, they get the data, you take all the risk. So, it’s a very strange combination.”
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