‘Festivals are to Belgium like tea is to Brits’
Pukkelpop programmer Chokri Mahassine has hailed the diversity of the Belgian festival market, telling IQ that – far from there being trop de festivals – “people like the variety our festival scene has to offer”.
Some in Belgium, as elsewhere in the world, have cast doubts on the viability of the “festivalisation” of the live music business, with Christophe Goethals of CRISP warning last year that the “supply [of festivals] cannot grow indefinitely”. Yet despite this increase in competition – as well as the potential for terror attacks to hurt ticket sales, as happened last summer – Mahassine says the health of the market remains “excellent”.
“I certainly don’t feel like there are too many festivals,” he explains. “People like the variety.
“With small-town events, they can go with their families and hang out with friends while enjoying live music; the bigger festivals, of course, have even more to offer; and hip and trendy fringe events make festivalgoers feel that they’re part of something new. It’s a package deal nowadays: popular music, the latest fashion trends, fancy food, celebs and stars, glamping, hipster activities, art – it’s all there.”
For Belgians, says Mahassine, “festivals truly are part of our national heritage”. “They belong to the Belgian summer like sand to a beach!” he explains. “Or like tea to the British, for that matter…”
“You can’t cook without ingredients. Beer prices continue to rise, and so do the fees of our artists and security expenses”
Independently promoted Pukkelpop – meaning ‘Pimplepop’ in Dutch, as “we wanted a name to refer to something all young people have in common”, jokes Mahassine – is Belgium’s second-largest music festival, after Live Nation Belgium’s Rock Werchter.
Founded in 1985, it has taken place in the village of Kiewit, near Hasselt in Dutch-speaking Limburg, since 1991, with a daily capacity of 60,000. Ticket sales for the 2017 event, headlined by Bastille, Editors, Mumford & Sons and The xx, are off to a “good start”, says Mahassine, adding that he’s “pretty confident we’ll sell out this year”.
Heading into its 32nd year (there was no festival in 1989), Mahassine says one of the biggest changes he’s seen in the festival is an increased focus on non-music entertainment, such as poetry, theatre and comedy. “Fringe activities are gaining popularity rapidly,” he explains. “Nowadays, they’re part of the overall festival experience.
“Petit Bazar and Salon Fou usher in street theatre and comedy, entertainment and wellbeing, [while] Food Wood serves up dishes from around the world in the festival’s greenest nook and Baraque Futur focuses on sustainability, experiment and keynote speaking. […] No Pukkelpop experience is complete without a visit to these corners of the festival site.”
However, all those fringe activities come at a price – and with ever-increasing costs, Mahassine says it’s becoming a challenge to keep from raising ticket prices, echoing recent comments by North Sea Jazz’s Jan Willem Luyken.
“You can’t cook without ingredients,” he comments. “Beer prices continue to rise, and so do the fees of our artists. Plus, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that we’ve seen a significant increase in security expenses in recent years – and, of course, we continue to invest in our festival infrastructure.
“Fringe activities are gaining popularity rapidly. Nowadays, they’re part of the festival experience”
“We’ve set the bar high to keep all our festivalgoers happy, but ticket prices for Pukkelpop haven’t changed in four years. Last year we were forced to raise the price of food and drinks tokens, but we’re still offering them at a reduced rates in the presale. For now, we’re trying to keep the price level constant for another few years.”
As expensive as on-site security is, Pukkelpop can at least benefit from the sharing of security intelligence with other festivals, including those promoted by Live Nation Belgium, with which Mahassine says the festival has a “very good relationship”.
“We meet on a regular basis, and they help us with a lot of issues,” he explains. “Of course, that relationship is essential when it comes to booking international acts – but we also exchange security measures and other festival-related know how.
“[Live Nation Belgium CEO] Herman Schueremans always reminds us of the Belgian national motto, “L’union fait la force” (“Unity makes strength”). That’s a mantra we try to live by!”
Pukkelpop 2017 takes place from Wednesday 16 to Saturday 19 August.
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