ADE in Conversation: Unmute Us and the international festival scene

Tuesday, 07 September 2021
Last month's ADE in Conversation served as the stage for an in-depth discussion on the voice of the Dutch nightlife industry, with the Unmute Us protests as a topical starting point to reflect on the situation in the Netherlands and outside of our borders.

The electronic music scene has been driven by passion since day one. Now, with an industry that has been forced to remain closed for over a year, over 70.000 people representing that industry and its supporters hit the streets in cities all over the Netherlands on the 21st of last month, to bring safe live events back to life. While people are happy to see that sports matches, seated events and more can proceed in our country, the consensus in the dance scene is that it, too, can open up safely and time is running out for its survival.

With neighbouring countries hosting big and safe live events, in stark contrast with the lack of perspective for festivals and nightlife in the Netherlands, the Dutch electronic music industry could use some advocacy.

A brief timeline

At the beginning of this year, a series of Fieldlab test events were organised, to gather research and information on the virus spreading during live events. Visitors attended by showing a negative test result as a QR code, freely available through Testen Voor Toegang (Testing for Access). The subsequent developments gave organisers a positive outlook on the summer; especially with the Netherlands having a high vaccination coverage number, the live events industry was hopeful.

Last July, The Dutch government decided to open up sooner than initially expected. The celebration didn’t last long. The Fieldlab recommendations that were based on thorough research were not taken into account by decision-makers, Dutch news outlet NRC reported a few weeks later.

After two weeks of Dutch festivals and clubs reopening, the government shut the live entertainment sector down once again because of a rapid increase in Covid-19 transmissions. Since then, the industry has been waiting on the government for clarity.

The current situation

Our guests, along with moderators Gary Smith and Dave Clarke, gathered in our ADE in Conversation studio at Felix Meritis to discuss how this conundrum came to be, and more importantly: how we can change it for the better. As Gary Smith pointed out, the Dutch government has always valued this industry as important to the economy, and because of that, were very quick to be typically Dutch in their pragmatic, no-nonsense approach of live events with the Fieldlabs. "But how did we get from this to nothing?", Gary questions the panel, kicking off the conversation.

As one of the initiators of Unmute Us, the protest against unfairness and irrationality in the government's decision making, Jasper Goossen of Apenkooi Events (DGTL and other major events) joins our panel to advocate for the electronic music industry and equal treatment compared to other events. He paints a picture of what went wrong with the Dutch strategy: "It started with the government ignoring the Fieldlab advice on testing 24 hours before an event and ignoring the advised incubation time for certain vaccines. The pressure on the testing system was too much, which ultimately led to the government shutting the whole country down again after two weeks. Everyone was expecting that with the right legislation, everything would open up again within a few weeks, or September at the latest. This not happening is a huge blow for the whole industry."

Jasper continues: "It’s a mess that’s made by the government. At first, they didn’t say they were sorry at all-, and they didn’t understand why they needed to. After a week or so, the government realized that perhaps they made some mistakes, said sorry, and then expected us to move on with our lives." Anna Knaup, industry pioneer and CEO of Anna Agency, weighs in: "Except there is no moving on with our lives, because there is no work. I mean, 70.000 people showing up at Unmute Us, is that not enough? This number shows just how big our industry is." In response, Jasper shares what he sees happening around him: "There already was a sort of exodus of people working in the industry last year. If you’re young and talented, you want to create things. You think about your future. The dreams people had, are gone. Nobody knows what to do next."

Making events happen

So if live music events aren't considered possible in the Netherlands, how did surrounding countries get to the point of welcoming visitors again, in certain cases even building on Dutch Fieldlab research? And what does it take for us to get back to hosting safe live entertainment events as well?

Dušan Kovačević, founder of Serbia’s EXIT Festival, and Lutz Leichsenberg of the Berlin Night-time Commission, share the strategies that were successful for them as well as possible solutions to the situation in the Netherlands. Both panelists elaborate on how their workday consisted primarily out of lobbying over the past few months- with success.

Speculating on what went wrong with the Dutch government not taking action or responding to the industry after the UnMute Us protest, Lutz chimes in: "As somebody who started their lobbying or advocacy career about 12 years ago with protests against the closing of night clubs, there was one thing I understood about this work: it’s not just politics and politicians. Lobbying is about speaking with a lot of different people in a lot of different parties and levels, with a lot of different interests. It’s not enough to bring a politician a good solution, you have to go and carry the project yourself, until it’s written in the law. I think the Dutch way of protesting right now is definitely necessary."

Dušan agrees; with EXIT being one of the few major festivals that actually successfully happened this year, he understands the importance of lobbying all too well. "I can say that this kind of pressure, like Unmute Us, is the only way forward. We made our 40.000 visitors per day festival happen by a combination of lobbying and educating decision-makers and with pressure. Three weeks before EXIT, we heard rumours about the government denying us the festival license, which would mean immediate bankruptcy for EXIT Festival. That was when we started putting pressure on decision-makers, by saying that the festival was going to happen anyway; either on our safe grounds or in the streets, with ten times as many people. The night before the festival, we got a call that we got the license."

Moving forward

Dave Clarke asks the panel if they feel like we, in the Netherlands, have to become much more of a political beast going forward to safeguard our future and industry. Jeroen van den Bogert, co-owner of Amsterdam-based BLiP Agency and guest on our panel, explains that the Dutch scene does have a Pop Coalition, a unity of independent and underground agencies, together with Dutch venues and larger event organisers. "We have been a spokesperson through this towards the Dutch government, but I think we need to grow stronger in our role, because we all feel a bit unheard."

As a returning guest on our panel and CEO of the UK based Night Time Industries Association and SaveNightLife, Mike Kill talks us through public opinion and why that is paramount for politicians: "Whether we’re in the UK, whether we’re in The Netherlands: the biggest thing we have on our side is that people in the dance music culture are the voters of the future, and that movement is massive. First, we need politicians to recognise the strength of the people that are behind the industry we represent, and then we need to consider political representation", he elaborates on what the industry can do itself. "Let’s not sit on our hands and in ten years’ time complain that we got nobody in politics that understands our industry; let’s make sure over the five- or ten-years cycle, we got people in the government that understand how the music industry works."

Next steps

The next press conference by the Dutch government will be broadcast on September 14th and is expected to mark a decision regarding the definitive nightlife and events restrictions for the upcoming period. Until then, event organisers are keeping a positive and hopeful outlook. As far as Unmute Us goes, Jasper Goossen and the other initiators aren't planning to give up easily. Having still felt unheard after the initial protest, the initiators announced another march through more than 10 cities throughout the Netherlands on Saturday, September 11th.

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