A Look At ESNS 2023: ‘Everything Has A Question Mark Now’

2018 Conference DeOosterpoort Photo Bart Heemskerk HR 3
It’s been too long: after two years of being forced into the online realm, ESNS finally returns as a fully-open in-person event, Jan. 18-21, 2023. (Picture by Bart Heemskerk)

Given everything that happened in the past three years, it’s never been more important for this business to come together and talk. In Europe, one of the best places to do that is Groningen, the Netherlands, where ESNS takes place Jan 18-21.

Pollstar spoke with head of conference Ruud Berends, who said that the past years have changed the game in many ways. Indeed, the only thing that didn’t seem to have change is the fact, that “at the end of the day, the ticket buyer decides. It’s always been like that, and will always be like that,” Berends said.

‘Ready For A Complete, Safe Reopening’: ESNS 2022 Takes Stock

Conference DeOosterpoort BartHeemskerk 26 3
The main auditorium at the Oosterport, the central hub around which ESNS revolves. There’ll be lots to talk about at this year’s conference, said head of conference Ruud Berends. (Picture by Bart Heemskerk)

In 2023, there’s a lot that influences a fan’s decision to buy a ticket. He continued, “We’ve jumped from an unprecedented virus to a war nobody saw coming five years ago. If you look at all that’s happening on a political level, Brexit, Trump, Hungary, Ukraine, inflation, energy crisis, climate crisis..I mean, come on.”

And even if not all of these issues affect the live biz directly, there’ll be lots to talk about at ESNS, not least the effect all of these developments have on peoples’ mental and physical health as well as spending power. Other session topics include fair pay, cancel culture, inclusion. “The list is endless,” said Berends, adding that “variety of topic is the biggest it’s ever been.”

As costs increase on all fronts of production, limiting the caliber of artists who can afford to go on tour; as artist fees continue to rise, affecting the margins of promoters that don’t want to raise ticket prices; as some clubs don’t even have the capacities to host a big-enough audience to cope with the cost increases, there are many essential issues to be addressed at ESNS 2023.

The panel “Promoting for the Elite” will look at the emergence of a superstar economy, in which only the blockbuster acts sell tickets, while the rest are suffering. “We need to talk to each other about what our responsibility is,” said Berends, “as the closing line of the panel description I wrote, ‘Do we need to look in the mirror?’ What are we doing as an industry? Are we happy [excluding] people with a low income, young people? Who do we want to be?”

San Holo Eurosonic Air Jorn Baars 2H7A9475 1
What it’s all about: Talent festivals like ESNS introduce the audience and business professionals alike to the headliners of the future. (Pictue by Jorn Baars)

The grassroots sector is, of course, most affected by spiralling costs, rough economic conditions, and a post-pandemic atmosphere of risk. Since it is the part of the industry that serves as the breeding ground for the headliners of tomorrow, it needs to be protected. Another session is therefore called “Grassroots touring is fucked, what are we going to do about it?”

Finding future talent is a mission ESNS itself has been taking on for many years now. The European talent exchange program, now simply known as ESNS Exchange, has helped provide countless gig opportunities for artists, many of whom have gone on to build worldwide touring careers. The concept is simple: ESNS delegates, many of whom are bookers, check out the artists performing in Groningen during the event, and book them on the spot. The 2022 ESNS Exchange results just came in ahead of press time: 357 shows by 149 acts from 30 countries at 86 festivals in 28 countries. The list is led by Priya Ragu from Switzerland with 11 bookings in total.

See: ESNS Exchange Back In Full Swing

Ruud Berends, ESNS head of conference.

The mission to promote European talent internationally has only gotten stronger, said Berends, who remains optimistic that “there will always be an alternative part of the music industry that will work with artists on the lower level, and sometimes that part is bigger and sometimes it might be smaller.”

Other questions to be addresses at ESNS include the role the EU at the emerging artists level. ENSN Exchange, which is EU funded, does a lot of that work, but it’s limited to festival bookings. “If clubs can’t afford to book them anymore, because now you need to sell 800 tickets to break even on an average production, that is not emerging artists level anymore, is it?,” Berends said.

Last but not least, the mental and physical health of everybody working in this business will be addressed as well. The COVID lockdowns brought many things into sharp focus, and, as Berends explained, “It wasn’t all bad. It was quite nice to have more of a routine, a calmer life, no jet lags, no drinking. I think a lot of people weren’t particularly interested in coming back to the same manic way of working and as before. I think a lot of people are cherry picking much more.” ESNS sessions reflect that development, a reckless rock-and-roll lifestyle isn’t being sold as the be-all and end-all of a successful career anymore. “Everything has a question mark now, and that’s good, but also difficult in many ways.”

One of Berends personal highlights at ESNS 2023 will be the keynote interview with Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. Before Berends became known as one of the best-connected conference organizer in Europe, he had been an agent of 20 years at Paperclip Agency. And he began his career in the 1980s, working with all of the Sub Pop acts at the time, including Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana and more. Berends said, “For Jonathan, Bruce, and myself, it feels like we’ve come full circle. It’s beautiful.”

Subscribe to Pollstar HERE