‘How Can You Be So Good?’ The Promise of ESNS

ESNS 2020
Niels Knelis
– ESNS 2020
More than 350 performances took place in Groningen, Jan. 15-18. This one by Pongo at the Grand Theatre was one of the most spectacular ones

Why would anyone in their right mind travel to Groningen in the north of Holland in January, when ice-cold rain, encouraged by sharp gusts of wind, slaps you in the face on a constant basis, while you’re just trying to make your way from one venue to another?
The answer is simple: because of the promise that each new venue holds. 
It’s a promise Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS) has been delivering for more than 30 years now: the promise of great live music.
More than 350 artists perform in Groningen over the course of four nights. Every genre is represented, and the bands are at different stages in their careers, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re already a solid live act. 
I’ve been to ESNS around ten times now, and the amount of fantastic music I’ve witnessed on those occasions is nothing short of amazing. 
Which is exactly why no one at ESNS seems to give a damn about the weather. The only thing that matters is the music. Inside the 40-plus venues that range from a giant tent on town square, to a lofty 13th century church, to a former movie theater, it quickly gets cosy anyways.
The Grand Theatre in Groningen
Jorn Baars
– The Grand Theatre in Groningen
Just one of 40-plus venues artists perform at during ESNS

Only a few of the spaces are used as music venues throughout the year, but the team around head of program Robert Meijerink spares no expenses when it comes to equipping each venue with a proper PA system during ESNS. 
Thanks to the stellar sound in all buildings, you’ll be able to acknowledge the musical talent of each artist even if you’re not a fan of their musical style. That doesn’t happen often, though.
Usually you leave yet another great gig, thinking to yourself: “Surely I’m bound to see something really shit at the next place. Simple statistics dictate that.” But more often than not you end up loving the next band even more than the last. 
You stop reading the descriptions for each artist in the ESNS app, you don’t even look at the designated genre anymore, because if there’s one thing ESNS teaches, it is the fact that the day and age of classifying music into genres is over, and that you’re bound to miss out on something incredible, if you just rely on the text. 
– Groningen
During ESNS, there’s music everywhere across the city

Take Athletic Progression, for instance. The trio from Denmark is said to fuse soul, funk, and hip hop utilizing keys, bass and drums. Yet, I wasn’t reminded of any of those genres during their 45-minute set. The band consists of Jonathan Jull Ludvigsen on drums, Jonas Cook on keys and Justo Gambula on bass, who combine their instrumental skills with sample-based electronic sounds to create something that’s harmonious and rough at the same time. Ludvigsen’s arms disappeared in a blur while moving over his snares, cymbals and toms, creating rhythmic patters that would make the most skilled trap producers tear up in appreciation.
It’s a delight to see how tight many of the bands performing at ESNS already are live. The sheer amount of talented musicians you come across in Groningen is a constant reminder of the incredible things human beings are capable of.
EABS from Poland
Bart Heemskerk
– EABS from Poland
One of the many up and coming artists at ESNS that already sound pro

Other highlights this year included EABS from Poland, Greyheads from Holland or The Gardener & The Tree from Switzerland. Some of these young acts sound like 20-year live veterans, until you hear them announce their debut EP for 2020. 
Gaidaa is another artist that just blew my mind. Her Spotify bio says she’s 20 years old, but she performed with a naturalness and confidence you’d expect from someone like Erykah Badu or Jill Scott. 
And it’s not just the level of instrumental or vocal skills, it’s also the arrangements of the songs, the depth of the lyrics, the artistic vision executed on stage without relying on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of production – most bands playing at ESNS are ready for the big stage. “How can you be so good?,” was probably the thought that went through my mind most during this year’s ESNS.
Gideon Gottfried
– Gaidaa
Probably our favorite artist at this year

Sophie Hunger wasn’t so much a revelation, as I’ve seen her twice before. She’s just such a skilled songwriter and instrumentalist that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen her. Every time she performs it’s awesome, and her ESNS set, which featured just her on guitar and Julian Sartorius on drums, was no exception. 
Hunger’s concert was followed by Celeste, one of the most hyped performances this year. The American-born British singer delivered, and reminded everyone of the fact that insane hype is sometimes completely justified. I cannot recall another singer since Amy Winehouse, who is able to pull off such an incredible vocal range while maintaining a completely straight face. 
Sophie Hunger
Bart Heemskerk
– Sophie Hunger
One of many artists from Switzerland, which was the focus country of this year

On the ESNS Friday, the European Union handed out its new award, which carries a title only a true bureaucrat from Brussels can come up with: the Music Moves Europe Talent Award. Even the abbreviation sounds bad: MMETA.
Luckily, the name of the award doesn’t matter. What matters, is the talent it celebrates. The jury chose eight winners out of 16 nominees, who will be receiving monetary support from the EU: a total prize package of €10,000, €7,500 of which will go towards covering expenses related to the winner’s international touring and promotion, the rest will be invested in training packages provided by the companies and music professionals that have partnered with the MMETAs.
All MMETA winners will be actively supported by European live music associations, including Liveurope, Live DMA, and Europe, who will  work towards providing the winners with live performance opportunities.
In the end, Flohio (UK), Naaz (Netherlands), girl in red (Norway), Anna Leone (Sweden), Meduza (Italy), 5K HD (Austria), Harmed (Hungary) and Pongo (Portugal), prevailed over Fontaines D.C. (Ireland), Au/Ra (Germany), Perfect Son (Poland), Charlotte Adigéry (Belgium), Hugo Helmig (Denmark), Beast In Black (Finland), Tribade (Spain) and Kimberose (France).
Bart Heemskerk
– Flohio
It was the UK rapper’s second performance at ESNS, and she made the Grand Theatre bounce

Pollstar made it a mission to watch as many of the nominees’ and winners’ live performances as possible. Naaz, who also won the MMETA public choice award, told the audience not to cheer too much when she picked up her trophies. “Maybe I suck,” the 21-year old singer joked. It became clear that she doesn’t, when she took the stage right after the ceremony. Even if you’re not a fan of quirky pop music, you would have been impressed by this young woman’s vocal range. 
Anna Leone played a stripped-down acoustic set in the AA Church, which was a stark contrast to Charlotte Adigéry’s energy-driven performance at Huize Maas or Flohio’s teardown of the Grand Theatre. 
Anna Leone
Bart Heemskerk
– Anna Leone
Performs an acoustic set at The AA Church

Female rap act Tribade, who performed at Vera, one of Groningen’s most iconic venues, took me aback with their unique combination of rap lyrics over flamenco, soul, afrotrap and reggaeton rhythms.
And then came Pongo. You already knew this Portuguese singer with African roots carries a special kind of energy, when she picked up her MMETA trophy earlier that night and used the opportunity to kick a spontaneous freestyle. From the moment she entered the stage of the Grand Theatre’s main auditorium to the moment she left it again at 1.15 a.m. the energy in the room was crazy.
Bear in mind that Flohio and Muthooni Drummer Queen had been on stage before her, and people had been dancing for a while. But Pongo’s special blend of Kuduro, EDM, bass, dancehall and melodic pop, left you with no other choice than to start moving your own behind in a way that didn’t look too embarrassing when compared to Pongo or her dancers on stage. 

Bart Heemskerk
– Celeste
The UK singer more than lived up to her hype at ESNS 2020

When you step outside, back onto the streets of Groningen, after such an intense performance, you’re actually looking forward to some cold January air. The icy rain that felt like tiny razor blades hitting your face earlier, suddenly becomes a gentle shower washing away the sweat of the night. And any feelings of tiredness are replaced by an overwhelming wish to head to another venue and watch another gig straight away.
Ben Houdijk
– Pongo
Had the entire Grand Theatre dancing to her unique blend of Kuduro, EDM, bass, dancehall and melodic pop

ESNS 2020 in figures
Total visitors: 42,061
Conference visitors: 4,323
Nationalities: 52
Acts: 347
Number of countries acts: 33
Number of stages Eurosonic: 39
Number of stages Noorderslag: 9
Number of journalists present: 423
EBU radio stations: 31
International festivals: 390
ETEP festivals: 130