‘Fine work, Jan!’: The World’s Oldest Festival Pinkpop Turns 50

Ahead of Pinkpop’s 50th anniversary, June 8-10, we spoke with festival founder Jan Smeets and some long-time partners.
A historic achievement
Bart Heemskerk
– A historic achievement
Pinkpop celebrates 50 consecutive years of live music

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Pinkpop is the oldest annual pop and rock festival in the world. It hasn’t skipped one edition since 1970, and according to festival founder Jan Smeets, there was only one year, during which he actually considered throwing in the towel.
That year was 1985, and Smeets was sitting in the office of a famous London agency, sipping a coffee with “awful milk in it,” as he recalls. He was waiting for the head agent in order to have a conversation about booking the main acts for the upcoming edition of Pinkpop, but the agent stood him up. 
The man behind it all
Bart Heemskerk
– The man behind it all
Jan Smeets, founder and CEO of Pinkpop

The resulting bill lacked any real crowd pullers and only attracted 13,000 people to the 50,000-capacity sports park in Geleen, where the festival took place at the time. Smeets remembers losing around 600,000 guilders, which would be around $300,000 in today’s currency. As a result, he decided to intensify the working relationship with Mojo Concerts, the biggest promoter in Holland and part of the Live Nation network, which today owns 49% of Pinkpop. 

Mojo had been assisting Smeets with booking acts since the late 70s. “In 1985, we made a 50/50 partner agreement with Jan, whereby he was to run the event and we were to book the acts,” Mojo impresario Leon Ramakers remembers. A decision that proved to be a total success. The Cure headlined the festival in 1986, and Pinkpop was back on the map. The band returns for the festival’s 50th anniversary this year. 
Ramakers was also responsible for convincing Bruce Springsteen to play the festival’s 40th anniversary in 2009, which he remembers as one of the most memorable moments in the festival’s history: “I had to convince management to do this festival and I promised them that Bruce would come off the stage with the biggest smile in his life, which actually became true, he loved it!” So much, in fact, that the festival-shy Boss returned in 2012.
The name Pinkpop derives from the Christian holiday of Pentecost, which is called Pinksteren in Dutch. The festival traditionally takes place on the Pentecost weekend, but Smeets reveals that he’s about to break with that tradition. “The American [bands] don’t want to travel on that weekend. They have children and want to spend the holidays at home,” he explains.
From 2020, the festival won’t be tied to the Pentecost weekend anymore. “The name is stronger than the date,” says Smeets, adding that not everybody is happy with his decision, especially in the Netherlands, the country with the highest festival density in Europe besides maybe Switzerland. “A couple of other festivals are happening close together. There are too many. It’s crazy,” he says.
Things looked very different when Smeets launched his own festival in 1970, of course. His plan had been to promote an open-air concert with one of the artists that played the original Woodstock the year before: Melanie. However, the artist cancelled at the last minute, which prompted Smeets to launch a festival instead.
The first edition, headlined by Keef Hartley, attracted 10,000 people. Tickets went for two-and-a-half guilders, or just over one U.S. dollar. The success of the premiere dictated the festival’s return in 1971, and Smeets still cannot believe that he was able to secure Fleetwood Mac for the second edition, back then for a fee of £2,000 ($2,500). And while the band’s fee will definitely have changed, Smeets insisted on having them back for this year’s jubilee edition. 
By the time the event turned 10 in 1979, it sold out 50,000 tickets, and featured “maybe the best bill ever,” with Dire Straits, The Police, a surprise visit by Mick Jagger.  
Today Pinkpop attracts 70,000 visitors per day, of which 40,000 are camping on site. On Pollstar’s first ever Magna Charta European festival ranking released earlier this year, Pinkpop came out on top, after grossing $19,567,672 in 2018. Also on the 2019 lineup are Mumford & Sons, George Ezra, Bring Me The Horizon, Tenacious D, Major Lazer, Anouk, The Kook, Armin Van Buuren, Jamiroquai, Bastille, Lennny Kravitz, and many more.
To this day, hard tickets go on sale at four different box offices in four Dutch cities, and people are still queueing for miles, despite the ability to also order online. For many, the queue is part of the Pinkpop experience. “It’s beautiful to see,” says Smeets, who calls his audience “family.” 
According to internal surveys, people love Pinkpop for its atmosphere, the fact that food and beverages aren’t too expensive, and its overall organization, which is testament to the great work of Smeets’ partners and suppliers. 
Pinkpop crowd
Bart Heemskerk
– Pinkpop crowd
Jan Smeets refers to his audience as “family”

One of Pinkpop’s oldest partners is Ampco Flashlight, which has been supplying audio and lighting systems to Pinkpop practically from the beginning, back when Ampco and Flashlight were still separate companies. 
The company’s Marketing Director Rudolf Nagtzaam remembers many memorable festival moments: “One of them is definitely Rage Against The Machine in the early 90s, when their energy and the jumping crowd made the seismographs 200 kilometers away register a small earthquake. Another one is Radiohead hypnotizing the crowd with ‘Street Spirit’ in the sunset and, more recently, Dutch band De Staat making the audience jump around in a huge circle around the lead vocalist.”
Stageco has been building Pinkpop’s stages since 1987, when it took place in Baarlo for a one-off, before moving to its permanent home Landgraaf in 1988. The company’s Project Manager Wim Maes particularly remembers eggs and tomatoes thrown at Dutch pop band Doe Maar in 1983, and The Police in 1979, which is also one of Smeets’ personal all-time favorite concerts at Pinkpop.  Says Maes: “I, on behalf of Stageco, would like to congratulate you on the 50th anniversary. Fine work Jan!”
Pinkpop has a daily capacity of 70,000
Driepoot/Sanne Linssen Fotografie
– Pinkpop has a daily capacity of 70,000
Some 40,000 guests camp on site

Smeets’ lawyer Frans Willeme remembers the move to Landgraaf well, as it posed one of the toughest cases he had to fight on behalf of the festival. “We had to go to the highest Court in the Netherlands several times,” he recalls. 
“He is very special,” says Willeme about Smeets. “He does his job in his own unique way. He is the boss of one of the biggest festivals in the world but looks into the smallest details. There’s a Dutch proverb that fits: ‘He organizes Pinkpop like a small grocer,’ in the best sense of the word, of course.”
Pinkpop 2018
Bart Heemskerk
– Pinkpop 2018
A bird’s eye view

Gerrit Kuster, the Director of The Production Factory, has been involved with Pinkpop as Technical Producer for 21 years. In his own words, his job consists of coordinating “the overall production with regards to the wishes of all artists, in collaboration with our colleagues from Mojo Concerts.”
Kuster recalls dreaming about becoming involved in the festival in one form or another ever since being a young boy visiting the festival as a regular guest. “I was super proud that, 21 years ago, I was asked by John Mulder from Mojo Concerts and festival owner Jan Smeets to do the production,” he recalls.
He remembers 2014 as “a fantastic and very exciting year,” when The Rolling Stones, Arctic Monkeys and Metallica, one of Kuster’s favorite bands, headlined. “Just before the start of the show of Metallica, a gigantic storm broke out. It took us every effort to ensure that the public, artists and workers were safe. When the storm subsided, Metallica played a great show and the audience went home very satisfied. My feelings and emotions after this memorable day have always stayed with me, the mental and physical exertion was considerable. At the end of the day, my colleagues and I cracked a nice bottle of whiskey.”
Pinkpop 2014
– Pinkpop 2014
The year of the great storm

Also involved with Pinkpop since the mid-90s is The Power Shop. The power supplier delivers anything from generator sets and distribution boxes, to cabling and lighting masts for the stages and camping areas. Company CEO Jan De Meyer recalls first visiting the festival as a guest when it was still based in Geleen: “As a young guy, I was surprised by the laid-back ambiance, a very enjoyable festival.”
His favorite shows were the concerts of Bruce Springsteen in 2009 and 2012, as well as Rammstein in 2016. He describes Smeets as “one of the most remarkable and experienced festival organizers there is, a force to be reckoned with,” and wishes “Jan and the whole Pinkpop crew a great 50th edition and hope there will be many more to come.”
Part of the Gigtech crew
– Part of the Gigtech crew
From left: Marc Plaggenburg, Wouter Koning and Andrew Rijnbeek

Since 2014, the festival has been working with IT services supplier Gigtech, which is responsible for all connectivity and internet connections on site, “from connecting EFT terminals, to live television streams, production internet, camera systems to WiFi for both the public and the artists,” according to General Manager Andrew Rijnbeek.

Gigtech got involved in the year of the great storm, which Rijnbeek remembers all too well: “It was actually a scary moment, knowing that a huge storm would pass over the terrain. But this is what makes all the organization and the parties involved so special as it was handled very well. From our perspective, despite the heavy rainfall, flooding and thunderstorms, our network was not affected, which still serves as an example for our excellence.”
Rijnbeek says that while Smeets might sometimes come across as “a bit of a quirky fellow, inside he is a kind and very passionate man. He deserves all the respect for organizing this festival for the past 50 years and always being involved in the tiniest details. After 50 years he is still going strong and cares deeply for his ‘baby.’ This is really a great achievement.”
According to Smeets himself, there is only one iron rule he had to break with in 50 years of organizing Pinkpop, and that was never to spend more than €1 million on a bill. “It’s just not possible”, he says. The reason his all-time favorite artist, Neil Young, has never played the event, however, has nothing to do with budget and all to do with timing.
This year, for instance, Young is only coming to Europe at the end of June, too late for Pinkpop. “I’ll try again next year” says Smeets, proving his long-time partner Ramakers right. Ramakers, when asked about the one word that comes to mind when thinking about Smeets, answered: “Determination.”