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Small music festivals in Belgium at risk, say organisers

09:29 06/06/2024

The sunny weather in Belgium may have come a bit late this year, but the festival season is already in full swing, with organisers of some of Belgium's smaller music festivals warning that their future is in jeopardy.

One of Brussels’ most famous free festivals recently took place, 17-18 May, in Jette’s Parc de la Jeunesse. But the gap price-wise between free events such as Jam’in Jette and big crowd-pullers such as Les Ardentes, near Liège, is continuing to grow.

Jam’in Jette founder Olivier Vanhamme said it was difficult for a free festival to make ends meet - but that charging a small fee would turn some festivalgoers away. This festival’s budget was in the red this year, and so donations were needed to enable it to take place.

“The costs are rising and on the other hand, subsidies are the same or sometimes a little lower,” Vanhamme said. “This will definitely become complicated in future, but we do not want to get bigger for bigger’s sake.

"We want above all to remain free, as that’s the DNA of Jam’in Jette, access to culture for everyone, with a programme that is a little different from other events or festivals, to a public who does not normally attend them, as even a price tag of €5 to €10 can shut doors for many people."

The problems of free festivals have been shown by Brussels’ Eu’ritmix created in the early 2000s. After six free editions, the organisers were left with a choice – change the formula or stop the event. “This festival was quite successful, but at the end of the sixth year, we had to take account of several things,” festival organiser Denis Gerardy said.

“The costs were higher and higher with the funds, essentially public money, starting to decrease. And there was also another element, which was that we had just about done the rounds of artists who were willing to play for an audience that was not paying. Because an artist who plays for free, you might think that he is a worthless artist, which is not the case. So playing for free has its limits.”

In the end, after becoming the fee-paying Brussels Summer Festival, the event disappeared after the Covid pandemic. Gerardy, now director of Brussels’ Cirque Royal and head of programming at Namur’s Les Solidarités, no longer believes in free festivals, as they are not financially viable.

Some fee-paying festivals allow a substantially reduced entry fee to festivalgoers who cannot afford the entrance ticket if they evoke Article 27 - the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees an access to cultural events for everyone, notably people receiving benefits from the CPAS or the Flemish equivalent, the OCMW.

"Some festivals use this like the Solidarités," said Gerardy. "We welcome more than 1,000 people on the Article 27 basis, with festivalgoers paying five euros [the standard Article 27 price for a cinema or theatre ticket is €1.25]. This approach of remaining very affordable without being free is important, also for the artists."

Many factors have caused festival prices to increase, and not just the fees demanded by the performers, especially as Gerardy says: “Nothing is making us put on artists that cost too much money.”

But while festival organisers have some leeway over whom they choose to lead their events, other charges cannot be managed: “The technical side of festivals has increased by around 25% to 30% since Covid. Security costs have gone up too,” said Gerardy. “You have to realise that in view of the events we’ve seen in recent years, we’re obliged to have much bigger security plans. There is also a shortage of staff, so when we do manage to find them, they cost more,” said the Solidarités programmer.

These costs have been compounded over time. “New sustainable development standards have been imposed on festivals, and rightly so. It’s costing us extra money, but we’re not getting any help to comply with these rules. Take the example of reusable glasses. It’s a huge cost in terms of management, but it’s also a loss for us.

“Why do we lose out? Because when you buy a round of drinks for, say, ten friends, the deposit is €10, and you can’t be sure of finding your friends with the cup. So people are less inclined to pay for drinks. So we had to raise the price of drinks, and the festivalgoer has to pay the difference.” And if people are more reluctant to buy drinks and with festivals increasingly needing to rely on food and drink sales to keep going, this is going to have an impact.

Mobility is another issue. Despite the problems seen at Ronquières festival last August, with so much traffic, hold-ups and congestion that the event had to open an hour later on the Saturday, people continue to come to concerts by car.

Gerardy told RTBF that if this situation is to change, after the elections, Belgium’s new culture and mobility ministers must organise meetings with all festival organisers, “to progress together on this problem” and offer solutions. At Ronquières, for example, to encourage car-sharing, the driver of a car with four people was presented with a €25 drinks voucher.

Finally, the need to provide access to festival sites and concerts for people with reduced mobility has also meant a higher budget. This has been the case for Les Solidarités, which has prioritised this element, Gerardy said.

With all this, money from ticket sales have not necessarily increased. Indeed, sometimes revenue has diminished. This reality is forcing festivals to turn increasingly to other types of funding, such as sponsors. “But it is complicated here too, because they have moved on to other events, particularly sporting events. So the budgets are extremely small.”

For all these reasons, festival organisers say that their increased ticket prices are justified, the Cirque Royal director continued. But this is becoming excessive.

“Some festivals are taking advantage of this situation to sell day tickets for close to €150,” he said. “And they’re sold out. So the tendency, obviously, is for artists‘ producers to ask for a lot of money because they’re sold out.”

And this trend also applies to venues. “The shows with the highest ticket prices often sell out more quickly. It’s worrying because it’s widening the gap again. In my opinion, shows should be ticketed, but they should not be luxury items.”

Gerardy goes on to say that music has become highly industrialised. “We know that records don’t make money any more and that streaming platforms don’t make enough money for artists either. These days, live performance is very important, so artists invest a lot of money in their performances.”

The shows are sometimes excessive, according to the Solidarités programmer: “It’s a bit like Tomorrowland, a sort of Disney of electro. And it’s to their credit, they’ve succeeded. And the public go there because they want to have experiences, and the more exceptional the experiences, the more they’ll pay.”

But it is hard to imagine a return to the past, he said. The few festivals that have tried to cut back have ended up having to close their doors, “because the public is not used to no longer having big headliners”. For Gerardy, the important thing now is to limit this growth out of all proportions, because, he regrets, “there’s going to be a creaming-off, unfortunately. And what I’m afraid of is that only the big festivals will remain, with little access to the general public.”

For now, some options still remain. At a smaller scale there is Saint-Gilles and Forest’s ‘Park Poetik’ full of music and theatre in July and August or Uckel’Air’s Saturday night concerts in the first weekend of September. Soignies’ ‘Août en Eclats’ – a whole day of theatre, circus and activities for children the last Saturday of August, with big names featuring in the evening concerts including Saule and Pale Grey, has also still managed to keep its free price tag.

However, another end-summer music festival, Forest Sounds, also at the end of August, which used to be free, now operates the increasingly common ‘prix libre’ (pay as much as you can) system, with the ‘free ticket’ option ‘selling’ out almost immediately.

Written by Liz Newmark