Video Interview: Peter Smidt, Eurosonic Noorderslag

The year traditionally kicks off with Europe’s most important showcase festival for up and coming artists: Eurosonic Noorderslag, the 32nd edition of which takes place Jan. 17-20 in Groningen, Netherlands.

Peter Smidt
– Peter Smidt

Pollstar met the festival’s founder, Peter Smidt, at his home in Amsterdam to talk about the event, but also the man himself, and how he started out as an independent promoter in Groningen.

Smidt remembers squatting the city’s Grand Theatre, which still serves as a showcase venue at ESNS today, and organizing his first shows there. “It was a tough life as an independent promoter,” he recalled.

The foundations for ESNS were laid when Gorningen’s Oosterpoort venue hired a new director, Pim van Klink, who had some budget he wanted to spend on a new festival in the winter holiday break.

While the first edition was marketed under the banner of Holland vs. Belgium – to this day a prestigious soccer fixture in Europe – and hosted bands from both countries. A year later, acts from all over Holland were invited to play, and Smidt called the even Noorderslag, which means “battle of the north.” It didn’t take long for the industry to realize the convenience of a festival concept that allowed agents, promoters and the press to see a variety of bands in one night at one location.

“Lots of people came and discussed all kinds of things at the bar in the venue, and I thought it’d make sense to organize this and do a conference, so we could discuss in a quiet room,” said Smidt, who subsequently founded the Dutch Rock Music Conference. The first edition attracted between 200 and 300 people, “which was quite good for the first time. It was interesting, because I had not idea how to organize a conference and how to do it in a budget.”

Smidt thought it strange that many Dutch people at the time were unaware of the hottest acts from Germany, Poland, Austria and Switzerland and vice versa. So he figured that it would be interesting to also invite European acts to Groningen. The mixed lineup led to a change of name to Euroslag. “We started very small with two venues and four acts or something like that,” he recalled. In 2017, some 382 acts played a total 424 performances in 48 venues across the city.

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The event’s name had to be changed once more, when Smidt initiated the cooperation with the European Broadcasting Union, which is still in place today and forms one of the main cornerstones of ESNS’s media support for performing artists.

“I think it was the BBC guy saying, ‘I’m into it, but we can’t say the word slag on radio,’” Smidt remembered (slag being a colloquial British expression for ‘slut’). “I said, well, OK, if that’s the only problem, we’ll change the name.”

And since then, the event has been known as Eurosonic Noorderslag, commonly referred to simply as Eurosonic.

Groningen’s venues are all within comfortable walking distance. Today, more than 40,000 festivalgoers come each year to see bands at places such as Academie Minerva, Groninger Forum, News Cafe, De Spieghel, Stadsschouwburg, Vrijdag or Warhol.

“Of course, now we take it for granted. But when we started, it was a challenge, like: will the audience buy a ticket for a bunch of bands that they don’t know?” Smidt said. But since Groningen has always had an active live music scene, which is appreciated by the city’s inhabitants, a lot of them students, he trusted his gut.

Groningen is fairly isolated, which means that delegates at the conference aren’t getting distracted. Smidt remembered the beginnings of Amsterdam Dance Event, which he also fathered, when the Dutch professionals left at five o’clock to pick up their kids from school or head home for dinner, rather than staying at the conference bar, getting drunk and closing deals.

Smidt has a bigger picture in mind, which is all about “increasing the circulation of European repertoire in Europe,” probably one of the things you’ll hear him say most. “I think we as a business, let’s put it like that, owe it to all musicians in Europe to give them the opportunity to work on this continent. It [would be] a bit poor if, on the continent, your would only hear music from own country, from the UK and from the U.S., and that’s it, while there’s so much variety and interesting things happening everywhere. And it’s up to us to provide and roll out this platform.

“The European market as a whole is bigger than the U.S. market, so there are lots of possibilities, and there’s lots of challenges. But the opportunities are there, that is why we organize Eurosonic Noorderslag,” said Smidt, adding: “There’s so much unlocked potential, which we’re not using. We can all, in Europe, make much more money in this business. Creating careers, having audiences exposed to interesting sounds and music, and making more money here go hand in hand.”

Creating more opportunities for the bands performing at ESNS is still Smidt’s main driver. While the live side of things is pretty well covered by ETEP

There’s still room for improvement as far as media exposure for artists is concerned. What is more, “the live music sector is progressing in various ways. There is a lot of innovation taking place in all aspects of live music and performances. I think we’re only at the beginning [of this process], that’s why we created a part in Eurosonic, EPIC, on innovation in live music production.”

As always, Pollstar also had a couple of personal questions for Smidt, which he didn’t mind answering. “I feel very fortunate,” he said, “that I can work in a business and can do what I like and what I find important to do.

“I have so many friends that I’m working with, people that are absolutely great. It’s wonderful. How many people work in a job, where they like the people.”