‘There’s A Great Need For Culture In Dark Times’: Q’s With Ancienne Belgique’s Kurt Overbergh

Kurt Overbergh, artistic director of Ancienne Belgique.

Kurt Overbergh is the artistic director at Ancienne Belgique, the leader on this year’s Magna Charta club ranking. The iconic concert location in Brussels, Belgium, had the best year in its 40-year existence in 2023.

Overbergh talked about the strong return after COVID, the unique way in which AB operates, and how the club’s dedication to putting on the next generation of headliners continues unabated.

Pollstar: Since when have you been operating in an unrestricted capacity again?
Kurt Overbergh: Most people forgot, but during the first months of 2022, we were still closed due to covid. When we reopened in March under restrictions, and in April without restrictions, we still had to cope with the enormous problem of no-shows – at times, up to 25% to 30% of ticket buyers didn’t show up. Since the fall of 2022 everything’s been going “back to normal.” 2023 was the first year we were able to program the whole year round again, and it ended up being the best year in our over 40 years of existence.

Can you put that in concrete numbers? And how is 2024 shaping up in comparison?
2023 was the best year in our existence since 1979 (!) with over 350,000 visitors, so it’s gonna be hard to top 2023. With Belgians occupying 40% of our calendar, it’s clear the local scene remains strong, and in need of support. 2024 is looking great for Belgian bands like Soulwax, who sold out 2,000 tickets on four nights, Puggy (three times 2,000 tickets), Ghinzu (three times 2,000 tickets), AmenRa (two times 2,000 tickets), Zornik (two times 2,000 tickets), Romeo Elvis, Jasper Steverlinck, and many more.

The Darkness Concert In Brussels
The audience during The Darkness’s concert at AB, Ancienne Belgique, on November 22, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Elsie Roymans/Getty Images)

The way you program your building clearly shows that you care about developing talent. Up and coming acts in particular have suffered a lot during these past three years. How did you make sure to still support them as best as you could? What will be important in the coming year to make sure, the headliners of tomorrow have a stage to perform on?
During COVID, when we operated at a limited capacity of some 200 people in our 2,000-capacity hall, we payed artists 100% of the ticket sales. Since everything has opened up again, we’ve been running our 300-capacity club, which is dedicated to launching new talent with some 175 shows on a yearly basis. On top of that we’re running our 2000-cap hall at a reduced capacity setting for about 75 shows a year – ABBOX (950 cap), ABFlex (1,250), and Ballroom (1,350) – to support up-and-coming talent.

Given the ongoing challenges: how far is this industry away from business as usual?
[Everyone though], everything was going to change after COVID. But we’re all back to where we were before COVID. The impact of the tensions worldwide are not making it easier for younger generations. That’s where concert halls need to step in more than ever: to present a night with inspiring artists where people, irrespective of gender, beliefs, or political views, are one, and can come together to celebrate life and positivity.

How are you dealing with the current economy, everything being more expensive? How do you still run a viable business?
Well, we were forced to raise the price to rent the hall. Costs in general being higher, is of course reflected in raising our ticket prices. Incredibly, we don’t see a drop in our ticket sales. There’s a great need for culture in “dark” times.

Picture of the exterior of Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, taken on June 3, 2022. (Photo by NOE ZIMMER/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

What makes Ancienne Belgique special in your eyes?
All our crew – sound, light, promoters, production managers, plus the PA, lights, and a recording studio are all based in-house. Our team of promoters comprises different generations to serve a broad audience. On top of that, AB has a lot of own productions, and event series, for example during Black History Month; our dance event Braindance; Outrageous (celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community); or our BRDCST-festival with cutting edge acts. Apart from that, we do a lot of lectures, artist talks, or talks about hot topics in the music industry, from AI to gender equality. Quite often artists curate their own events here, like Tirzah or Lankum in 2024. [All of this] makes AB not only a concert hall but also a cultural hub.

What upcoming events would you like to highlight?
We’re still celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop this season with Baloji, Cymande, Romeo Elvis, IMDDB, Lil Yachty, and Mc Solaar, among other. And of course our BRDCST-festival in April with Autechre, Oneohtrix Point Never, Tirzah with her first curatorship worldwide, Alabaster DePlume, and BCUC from Sout Africa. We’ll also be occupying a beautiful church in the neighborhood over the festival weekend, and an arthouse cinema across the street with a live soundtrack by black metal vocalist Attia Csihar on one of the first Dracula movies: “Nosferatu” from 1922.

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