Thinking about starting your own electronic music festival? Well, you’re not the only one; in recent years, the festival market has been flooded with upstarts, and the influx has created a competitive environment, to say the least. In the UK alone, ticket prices are creeping up along with the age of attendees; in 2013, MSN UK found that the average age of a festival-goer was now in the mid-30s, and in 2014 a separate study by industry publication Festival Insights put the number at 33. According to the MSN study, the reason was escalating costs, with 60% of 18—24 year olds saying they weren’t planning to attend a festival that year because it was too expensive. This year, The Guardian backed up that point by showing that festival tickets were leaping up at a much faster rate than the rate of inflation in the UK, and revealing the way in which booking headliners has become a “financial arms race”—as in-demand headliners know exactly how in-demand they are, and hike up their prices in order to play rival festivals off against one another. What this amounts to is a marketplace packed with festivals charging more and more to see barely indistinguishable lineups.
With the UK scene so overcrowded, many music lovers now look to mainland Europe for their summer festival fix, where tickets are generally cheaper and budget travel packages aimed at festival-goers are on the rise. This has created an overstuffed, competitive environment: in Croatia alone, there are 13 festivals (mostly catering to fans of electronic music) registered on Festicket.com for 2015, including Outlook, Hideout and Dimensions. The same site lists over 30 European festivals specializing in “house” still to come this year; since the 2004 expansion of the EU, there are now many events springing up in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other eastern European countries. In the Netherlands, the popular Amsterdam Dance Event looms in October, and listings site I Amsterdam counts 16 more upcoming electronic festivals in the capital.
In the midst of it all, there’s Dekmantel. Dekmantel is a three-day and four-night event in Amsterdam, founded by club promoters Casper Tielrooij and Thomas Martojo as an extension of the success of their club night series of the same name. Now entering its third edition, the boutique electronic festival has so far sold out every year, doubling its initial capacity of 5,000 to a pretty healthy, but still intimate, 10,000. Despite sticking to its roots as a small, house and techno specialist event, it’s gone from being a mostly Dutch event to welcoming attendees from over 50 countries, as well as extending its night program in the popular Amsterdam nightclub Melkweg, and adding a prestigious opening concert (this year it’s an exclusive Autechre show). Dekmantel don’t do anything particularly fancy or attention-grabbing; they simply program a solid line-up full of their favorite producers and DJs, and each year, despite the fierce competition and their lack of previous experience in running festivals, it seems to be working out pretty great. The FADER spoke to Martojo to find out how to run an electronic music festival.
Find the right venue
Dekmantel didn’t become a festival until 2013, Martojo says, because he and Tielrooij simply “hadn't really found what we considered to be perfect environment.” Rather than rush an event, they waited until the right space came along: Amsterdamse Bos. “It's the biggest forest next to Amsterdam, and in the middle there's this open field where we can do the festival—you're just surrounded by trees. It's an adorable venue. But it's also a venue people can easily reach from the city center so it doesn't require a long drive by car. The Dutch people only go by bike, which is very convenient. We are allowed to make a lot of noise, which helps.”
...in the right city
Finding a pretty venue is one thing, but as Martojo notes, it’s the permission to make a lot of noise that really counts. If local politicians aren’t on board with your festival, they’ll halt it in its tracks. “[Amsterdam politicians] have really embraced dance music in general as something which is good for the city and good for the country,” explains Martojo. “We actually have one of the most progressive mayors in Amsterdam imaginable, who constantly gives away 24 hour permits and is doing his best for clubs and festivals. I wouldn't want to be a club owner in London right now. Before you know it, your permit is being brought back from 3AM to midnight. Something like that would essentially destroy your business. It's the same for running a festival. The moment you don't get your permit, it's game over.”
Prioritize dancing above all else
Martojo describes Dekmantel as a “stripped-down-to-the-bare-essentials idea of doing a festival.” The organizers keep their focus on the quality of the line-up. “There's not a whole lot to do different from just going and seeing sick DJs. We may be a bit nerdy when it comes to music, but we're just not that interested in all the other things on the site when we go to a festival. We're about having a good time, listening to good music, having good sound.” The organizers do everything they can to keep the focus on the dancefloor—including banning selfie sticks. “If you turn up with a selfie stick, we’ll just politely ask if you can stick your selfie stick somewhere else.”
Take chances with the line-up
“One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a programmer is to just look at what is popular and then try and book [that],” says Martojo; “Because you'll essentially end up creating a festival which you can find a shitload of alternatives for.” Instead, go for something that will be special to your audience. This year, Dekmantel’s stand-out booking is German composer Manuel Göttsching, who is set to present his cult proto-house record E2—E4 in a unique live performance. “He's a legend, but he's a legend in his own niche,” says Martojo. “E2—E4 was released originally decades ago, so it's not necessarily something our crowds would be familiar with; they’d have to be really into that sort of music. But it turned out that he's by far the most talked-about booking; we can see it in statistics of the website. I was never really sure of that booking having such an effect but I'm really happy it did because it took me years and years to persuade him to get on board.”
And don’t blow your cash on hype-y headliners
“Usually an artist always follows a sort of cycle,” Martojo explains. “They will release an album then do a tour, so if you want them to a festival it usually follows up an album release.” But the Dekmantel team opt out of the bidding wars around such hype-attracting artists. “It's not something we're particularly interested in. If we just really like an artist, we're not so interested in whether he's just about to release a new album or he's not about to release a new album. We're also not necessarily about programming the newest of the new. We're about what we consider to be quality first, and having a bit of timelessness to it. That's what we consider to be the most important element.”
"We're not necessarily about programming the newest of the new. We're about quality first."—Thomas Martojo
Do what you can to grow sustainably (without being greedy)
While Martojo and Tielrooij don’t flash tons of cash, running a festival is still an expensive business, especially if you want it to grow. The two aren’t much concerned with increasing the size of the event, but they still have ambitions to gradually build on their vision. This means being practical: Red Bull and German beer brand Warsteiner have been on board as sponsors since day one, and this year saw a small increase in ticket price. “In the [second] year we kept the entrance fee the same—actually a 3 day ticket became a bit cheaper,” says Martojo. “For this year, we did have a little increase. The size is pretty much the same as last year, but the increase has to do with making improvements from a production perspective. You have all these ideas about how you want to expand and how you want the festival to improve, and of course all those things cost money.”
Be ready to dedicate a lot of time and money to un-fun things
A festival with 10,000 capacity is on the small side, which lends it an intimate feel, but there’s nothing cute about the amount of money that’s spent on waste; for a crowd of 10,000, it’s estimated that the cost of waste removal alone is around £30,000 (or over €42,300). There are plenty of unsexy elements that a festival organizer has to consider: in the final week before this year’s Dekmantel, Martojo says he’s being preoccupied by “logistical issues, like [making] sure that stage won't be too crowded, or it will be easier for people to get from A to B, or what to do with the toilets, or what to do with transport options.” What’s been the biggest financial drain of the whole process? “Taxes.”
Not every year will be like the first, and that’s okay
Every event organizer hits bumps in the road. For new festivals, this is particularly true in the years following their first, when the excitement of a brand new event has slightly subsided. “In the second year, the ticket sales didn't really take off as fast as they did in the first year,” says Martojo. “The first year sold out in three hours, and then the second year we sold out in the last week prior to the festival. The most stressful thing is just not seeing your pre-sale curve going into the right direction. Luckily, in the end we made it. It turned out that the curve was just different that year; it wasn't necessarily going wrong, just the majority of the tickets were being sold in the last 2 to 3 months. It was a stressful situation, but in the end it all worked out.”
Be conscious in your bookings
This year, many festival organizers set a precedent by dropping Lithuanian producer Ten Walls from their line-ups after he made homophobic comments online—”We would have dropped him too,” says Martojo—and the debate on disproportionate gender representation on festival stages has also been inescapable, with viral edited posters and Tumblrs drawing attention to the disparity (including one post on Dekmantel itself). In house and techno—musics founded on black, gay culture, and historically male-dominated—these issues are massively important; and in today’s switched-on social media-obsessed world, there’s no excuse for being oblivious to them. “If you look at the male-female ratio on our festival, it's very much towards one end,” says Martojo. “In an ideal world, that would be different—but if you look at the amount of female artists available it's very different. It’s a problem you see industry wide, it starts off with small clubs and goes all the way up to big festivals.” It’s far from a problem that’s unique to Dekmantel, but one that Martojo acknowledges does impact him: “We may just be a festival where we can make a slight difference there as well. Let’s see where we end up next year.”
And finally, make sure it's a festival you actually want to be at
“There's only one real rule,” says Martojo. “And that's: try to create the festival you ideally want to go to yourself. If every decision you make is based upon that one little rule, you'll essentially organize the best possible festival you could make.” The Dekmantel organizers test this hypothesis by putting 11 months of every year into festival planning, and then take the days of the festival itself to actually relax and enjoy it—so they can really see for themselves how good it is, and what needs to improve. “I sometimes see promoters running around a festival being really stressed out with a headset, telling me they haven't seen a single artist or they have not been on the festival site for longer than 20 minutes because they were in the production office. That wouldn't feel like an ideal job if that would be the case. Those days during the festivals, they are by far a highlight every year. And, of course, when you see something going wrong or when you see something can be improved here and there, [you can] make sure it's better in the second day and the third day. You can really experience your festival; you can also make it better next year.”