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The secret behind North Sea Jazz’s 47-year legacy

Festival director Jan Willem Luyken speaks to IQ about the evolution of the MOJO-promoted event in Rotterdam

By Lisa Henderson on 19 Jun 2024

NN North Sea Jazz director Jan Willem Luyken

NN North Sea Jazz director Jan Willem Luyken

image © Andreas Terlaak

NN North Sea Jazz director Jan Willem Luyken has spoken to IQ about the secret behind the Dutch festival’s decades-long legacy.

The 47th edition of the MOJO-promoted event will take place at Rotterdam Ahoy between 12–14 July with 150 acts including Sting, Raye, André 3000, Corinne Bailey Rae, Masego, Sampha, Noname, Jessie Ware and Jamie Cullum.

With the Saturday and Sunday of the 30,000-capacity festival already sold out, and around 2,000 tickets remaining for Friday, Luyken expects another banner year for the event.

According to the director, the festival’s enduring success is largely due to its eclectic lineups, which draw a broad and diverse audience.

“The founder of the festival, Mr Paul Acket, was a very eclectic and broadminded guy – he was a real jazz guy, but also a smart businessman and above all, a famous concert promotor in The Netherlands,” explains Luyken. “So he decided to have jazz as the basis of the programme, as well as some big names to sell the tickets to the non-jazz audience. The first editions featured Ray Charles, Van Morrison and Chaka Khan.

“We have to make sure the jazz fans are happy but you need the big names too, to stay connected to other audiences”

“Almost 50 years later, the basic concept is still the same. But of course, the music is always on the move and I think it’s very important that we keep track of new trends and bands, so we have a very skilled and experienced programme committee team that has weekly meetings. The good thing is that we have 16 stages so we can do it all – from the classics to the contemporary.”

While the festival’s spectrum of genres has evolved over the years (see last year’s edition headlined by Stormzy), Luyken says that attracting jazz fans is an ongoing priority.

“We always ask ourselves, ‘If you take away the crossover or pop stuff, is this still a good jazz festival?’ and I think it is. It’s one of the strongest jazz festivals in the world. We have to make sure the jazz fans are happy and that they want to buy tickets but of course, you need the big names too, to stay connected to other audiences. It’s this broad setup that’s the success of the festival.”

North Sea’s wide-ranging lineups also mean the festival has no problem offering an ethnically diverse and gender-balanced bill.

“This was always the case, since the 70s,” says Luyken. “Nowadays people demand [diverse lineups] but it’s not new for us, it was always there organically. The founder’s basic philosophy for the festival was to have enough good music for all people and that automatically makes a diverse festival – when it’s a structural thing.”

“We’re the right weekend, that we can afford good headliners”

North Sea Jazz’s broad programming also means that the reported lack of available headliners isn’t an issue for the bookers, as there’s a bigger pool of A-list acts to choose from.

“Plus we’re the right weekend, that we can afford good headliners,” adds Luyken. “If you’re in the second part of June and the first part of July, you traditionally have the best chance of booking big acts.”

Taking place in an indoor venue has also proved to be an advantage for North Sea Jazz, as festivals grapple with the impacts of severe weather – though there are some downsides to it.

“We are seeing the limits of our venue,” says Luyken. “We’re not a big outdoors festival that can sell 60,000 or 70,000 tickets. We are limited to 30,000 a day.”

With the 16-stage festival unable to expand, the organisers have looked to offset rising costs in other ways.

“We have a very well-developed hospitality and VIP offering which is doing very well and we depend a lot of external funding and commercial sponsoring – which is popular for us.”

He continues: “Besides rising artist fees and the stuff we have to deal with every year, there have been no big challenges here. And I know we’re very lucky because a lot of festivals out there are struggling,” he says. “It’s a tricky business but we are in a comfortable position. And you have to work very hard and have a lot of luck to get in this position.”


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