The country, located at the heart of the European Union, has recovered from the dark days of terrorist attacks in 2016 and its promoters and venue operators have a sense of optimism for the coming year, apart from facing all the usual challenges. Tom Ambrose reports
If 2018 was unable to deliver the success so many had predicted for the national football team, many in the live music business are at least looking forward to a strong 2019.
As the base country for both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Belgium and its capital Brussels have a special prominence in the world – compensation, perhaps, for being a colony of the Netherlands until 1830 and invaded by Germany in World War l and ll.
It has a population of just over 11 million, with most settled in one of Antwerp, Ghent, Charleroi, Liege and Brussels. And depending on where you live, you will speak one of three officially recognised languages – Dutch (known locally as Flemish), French or German.
In fact, even its political parties are divided by the language, with each party adhering to either French or Flemish. The current Prime Minister is Charles Michel, of the French-speaking Mouvement Réformateur party.
Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016, which claimed 32 lives and injured at least 300 more, the city was placed in lockdown – essentially, a state of emergency. At the time, the notion of a broken city returning to normality must have seemed a distant prospect.
While the tragic events will never be forgotten, the nation has moved on and top promoters are reporting that the scene has never been so vibrant.
The country’s leading promoter is Live Nation Belgium (LNB), which runs the 85,000-capacity, four-day Rock Werchter festival, headlined this year by Pink, Tool, Mumford & Sons and Muse.
LNB is also owns July’s TW Classic festival (60,000), which features Bon Jovi and John Fogerty.
“The live music situation in Belgium is healthy, as the number of music lovers who go the shows and festivals keeps growing,” says LNB CEO Herman Schueremans
“Being a relatively small country, it is important that ticket prices and booking fees stay reasonably priced, in order that as many people as possible can afford the live show and festival experience.”
Schueremans believes that audiences are being rejuvenated by an influx of youthful music fans, looking for an escape from an ever-divisive society.
“Each year we promote more and more shows and all those shows sell-out,” he says. “People get older but keep going to shows. Young people go to shows at a young age to have their first live concert and festival experience.
“Music has the power to unite people, contrary to fake news, politics and religions, and we are the lucky servants to help to make this happen by giving artistes and their teams the service to perform in perfect conditions and the audience to enjoy the shows and festivals in top conditions.”
However, he still has concerns over the country’s ability to play host to the world’s biggest acts, with the ageing King Baudouin Stadium (50,000) the only stadium with a capacity of more than 30,000.
“One worry is that we still don’t have a proper stadium, as Brussels’ plans to build a new one for Euro 2020 have been cancelled, and they still haven’t decided if and when they’ll refurbish the existing Stadium,” he says. “I hope there will be some positive news soon.”
Despite this, LNB have organised shows by Metallica and Rammstein at the venue for July.
LNB’s Rock Werchter has already sold 80,000 tickets and regularly is the best attended live music event in the country, with the help of festival tourists from neighbouring countries and further afar, as Schueremans explains.
“The challenge we face is that we have a wide variation of festivals in Belgium and that, year after year, we manage to make all those festivals – each with their own identity – a success, and that is something that we are very proud off,” he says.
“At Rock Werchter, for example, the number of festival visitors from abroad is a constant element to the success of the festival.”
Other shows that LNB is promoting include Drake at Antwerp’s Sportpaleis (23,359), which also hosts Post Malone and Bastille, as well as Bryan Adams at the Forest National (8,400) in Brussels.
The country’s next leading promoter is almost certainly Greenhouse Talent, based in Ghent.
Launched in 2005, it stages between 250 and 300 shows a year and has an office in the Netherlands. Founder and MD Pascal van de Velde says, despite a successful 2018, competing against LNB is always a big challenge.
“Last year was one of our best ever, so things are going well,” he says.
“The challenges are the same as ever – competing as an independents against the monopolist, Live Nation.”
Another major challenge is a lack of suitable medium-sized venues, with existing venue networks not able to cope with the demand from promoters and audiences alike.
“The lack of medium-sized venues is becoming quite a problem and the popular clubs and theatres like Ancienne Belgique [1,800] are getting busier and busier. It is becoming extremely difficult to secure dates at these venues.”
Among Greenhouse Talent-promoted concerts are the Backstreet Boys at both the Lotto Arena (5,218) and the Sportpaleis in Antwerp, Jason Derulo at the Lotto Arena and Katy Perry at the Sportpaleis, with will also host shows by Britney Spears and Beyoncé this year.
Another promoter which has enjoyed a fruitful few years is Gracia Live, based in Antwerp.
Founded former LNB chief executive Michel Perl in 2011, the company is relatively young compared to its rivals, although Perl is a true veteran of the industry.
“Don’t forget Michel resigned from Live Nation in 2009 and we have started over again in 2011,” says Perl’s son Sam.
“Although Michel has been promoting concerts since 1972 with Make It Happen and then Live Nation, where he was the chief executive for three years, our company is quiet a young one.
“But ever since, we’ve seen a yearly growth and have added challenges for ourselves to continue growing. As fully independent, we need to think outside the box.”
Perl says the market is “generally healthy” and this helps ensure successful concerts with artistes such as Paul Simon at the Sportpaleis last July, as well as shows with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jamiroquai, ZZ Top and Toto.
But, for Perl, the secret to success for his business is to delve into markets which allow residencies, sometimes away from traditional contemporary live music productions.
“We’re also focusing a lot on our big international blockbuster shows, such as Disney On Ice for next month [February]. That is set to sell-out seven shows at Lotto Arena and seven at Forest National, which amounts to some 65,000 tickets overall.
“Our Lord of the Dance tour through January and February has beaten the records of all previous editions – we’re playing 11 shows in 10 days, from which nine shows completely sold-out.
“We’re now going to promote Cirque Du Soleil’s Blue Man Group in October at the Cirque Royal [3,500] in Brussels.”
When pressed on how Gracia Live continues to thrive in a busy but relatively small market, Perl puts some of it down to the personal attention they offer.
“The big difference between us and any other promoter in Belgium is that at any given concert Michel or myself will be present – we still believe it’s important to be in touch with the promoter and not only his reps or his accountant,” he says.
The majority of major international touring artistes who visit the country will play at least one night at Antwerp’s 23,000-capacity Sportpaleis.
Established three decades ago by Jan Vereecke and Jan Van Esbroeck, PSE Belgium’s Sportpaleis Group, also owns the adjacent Lotto Arena and manages the Ethias Arena (18,000) in Hasselt and Forest National.
In addition, it operates Stadsschouwburg (2,000) in Antwerp, Gent’s Capitole (1,600) and Hasselt’s Ethias Theater (2,000) and Van Esbroeck says it is flexibility that is key to the company’s success.
“Within our group, we are able to offer venues from 1,600 up to 23,000 capacity,” he says. “So, excluding for outdoor shows, we have the right venue for all of our artistes.”
“The only real competitor our venues have are the various outdoor festivals. The festival market often coincides with the venue market – headliners playing their show indoors in our venues earlier on in the season, before shining in the summer season on festival stages. And, conversely, bands established themselves at the festivals and plan their own indoor tour later in the season.”
But he says it has not always been easy to attract big names to their crowning jewel, the Sportpaleis, after a dry spell late last year.
“A lack of big touring acts left the Sportpaleis agenda a bit thin, especially in the fall of 2018,” he notes. “Luckily, we have a couple of strong local acts and good promoters, it helps us having a strong foundation.
“It is important to keep on developing this local market as it balances with the uncontrollable fluctuations of international acts and their touring plans.”
Despite the mini slump, the venue is coming into 2019 off the back of its most successful period overall and Van Esbroeck continues to be positive.
“The 2017/18 season was the best ever for the Sportpaleis Group. We enjoyed a couple of very successful runs of shows as well in the Sportpaleis, as well as in the Forest National in Brussels, which hosted a record-breaking 92 shows in one year.
“We hosted over 600 shows overall and welcomed more than 2.6 million fans – it was a spectacular season.”
Home from home
Based in Morstel, Peter Verstraelen set up his own promoting business in 2008 after working with Herman Schuermans for six years and the fist incarnation of Live Nation ancestor SFX Entertainment, then at Clear Channel Entertainment (which acquired SFX).
He books between 750 and 1,000 shows each year and also works in Luxemburg.
Herman Hulsens, who works with Verstraelen, believes that there has never been such an appetite for international artistes.
“The number of artistes playing Belgium, be it via our colleagues in other agencies or us, is huge,” he says.
“Not only are we a country with a thriving live scene and an enormous festival calendar, but geographically we’re also on the crossroads between London, Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam so each tour bus passes Belgium multiple times.
“As such, sometimes on one album campaign an artiste is performing too many shows in our little territory of 11 million inhabitants – that’s equal to the Greater London area.”
But Hulsens points out that, as well as artistes from abroad, there is a strong and growing domestic market.
“There is lots of support from media, venues and festivals,” he says.
Among international acts that Verstaelen promotes are Bad Religion, UK Subs, Mudhoney, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and Booker T and the MGs.
“Business is going well and I believe our strength is diversifying,” he adds. “Not in activities, as we mainly focus on booking and promoting and don’t organise any festivals, but in genres.
“We work with artistes from around the globe in various genres, but also have a strong local roster. I would say that 2019 is looking good for most of our artistes who are releasing new music, especially on the live side.
“However, our media landscape is becoming more of a high-end pop music highway and there’s less interest from the media in genres like roots, reggae, world music, which is become a problem to work on an artiste’s long-term career in that genre.”
The right track
The overriding emotion emitting from Belgium at the start of the new year does appear to be one of optimism. Whether it is from the global powerhouse that is Live Nation or smaller, independent promoters and agencies.
Agent Bart Quintens set up his Artist Agency, based in Linter in 1993, with artistes including Dreadzone, Dub Pistols and Big Country among his roster.
He is one of many predicting another period of success for both international artistes stopping off in his country, as well as domestic acts.
“The large majority of our concerts are sold-out and the past two years have been our best since the start of our agency in 1993,” he says. “We hope that Brexit will not trip us up.”
“I’m not a fortune teller, but I am convinced that the future for shows in Belgium is looking good. The bookings for this year are going smoothly.”
“Having a central geographical position in Europe is definitely a benefit. Additionally, we have a good reputation when it comes to organizing shows, both indoor and outdoor. Thanks to this, it is never difficult to convince artists to come to our country.”
He adds, “Belgian artistes seem to be getting more and more popular and sell-out the largest venues in the country. Also, abroad, our artistes are really thriving.”
Meanwhile, Manu Braff on Brussels-based promoter MB Presents, believes the main challenge is for businesses to keep their eye on the ball.
“With the amount of high-quality shows Belgium has, both in the arena and club circuits and the fact that there are quite a few promoters around, I think it’s a healthy market.
With a nod towards the tragic events the country has suffered in recent years, Braff praises the nation’s ability to bounce back and insists there are happier days ahead.
“There is a heightened awareness of course but the show must go on.”