In our fifteenth installment of How To Organise A Music Festival, DiS went behind the scenes with Welcome To The Village artistic director Sjoerd Bootsma.
Situated in the northern Netherlands town of Leeuwarden, Welcome To The Village prides itself on being the most experimental music festival in the region. Having only launched its first edition in 2013, the festival has grown over the course of its six years and this year's line up boasts a host of big international names alongside some of the finest emerging talent on the planet.
Its non-profit philosophy and organisation consisting mostly of volunteers also set it apart from many of its rivals on the festival circuit.
DiS: How did Welcome To The Village start?
Sjoerd Bootsma: We first came up with the idea back in 2010 or 2011. I was part of that along with a couple of my friends. It was right after the economic crisis hit. In the Netherlands, the arts and culture budgets were cut massively. So basically, living in a small peripheral town called Leeuwarden where nothing ever happens - people here are really cynical and the unofficial anthem goes "If you're born here you're fucked!" People sing along and they're proud of it. There was an old generation that thought nothing would ever happen, and the young group got pretty fed up with that. So we founded a music venue in the town called Asteriks after the comic hero. It's basically an old prison in town, and everything was done independently. Because it did so well and there was a movement growing in the town, we started a festival here as a happy protest against the cynical older generation. And it worked!
Has the festival grown since it started?
The first edition in 2013 had around 2000 visitors and now we are at 8000. The second edition was 4000, and then 5, 6, 7, 8 every year after. I think we've reached the maximum now. I don't really want it to grow anymore. I want it to be good, not necessarily big. It's called Welcome To The Village not Welcome To The City. There has to be enough time and space to concentrate on that part of the festival as well as the music. I've never really been a fan of very large festivals. I find them too overpowering, and generally, their sole objective is about making money. Whereas we're not a commercial festival; we're a foundation.
Which festivals do you see as being your main rivals?
Generally, our competition comes from the big commercial festivals, because they have a very different foundation and are there to make money. Of course they provide you with big shows from some of the biggest bands but then they're also represented by some of the largest booking agencies. Mojo runs Lowlands and Down The Rabbit Hole, while Friendly Fire runs Best Kept Secret. The big problem is the music industry's completely fucked up. It's the bookers running the festivals and ultimately deciding who plays where so the average price for bands went up around 400% over the past five years. It's a very fucked up industry and we struggle to be a part of that because we really want to book some of those bands. Except we can't because we don't operate on the same commercial scale as any of those festivals. So what we try to do is something that's run differently, and while we try to appeal to some of the same people, we don't see those festivals as direct competition. I don't really notice competition among festivals like this. Small scale festivals like ours don't tend to see each other as competition.
One of the reasons Welcome To The Village stands out is the attention to detail not only with its surroundings, but also things like food and drink. Was that always something you wanted the festival to be renowned for as well as the music?
Yes, definitely. Of course, music is what we spend most of our money on, but we also have a theatre line up where we invite young international theatre companies to perform as the new voices of Europe. We have a small visual art program which we're proud of, then a large scale food line up that's mostly made up of local caterers and farmers. We also run a very large scale innovation program as well as a summer school called Dorp which is the Dutch word for village, where around 120 people from about 25 different countries will come up with prototypes on how to run a more sustainable festival. If we can create a more sustainable festival then hopefully those ideas can be translated into the real world. We work together with a lot of original small companies to open up our infrastructure to lots of new ideas. We really built the festival together and involved around one thousand volunteers. We have around 5-600 people serving the food and beers, but then another 350 elderly volunteers who are mostly refugees, people with learning difficulties, homeless or people with severe drug habits. They all take part in creating the location design for the festival then we invite them to attend. I'm trying to come up with an inclusive festival both for attendees and behind the scenes. There might be more Dutch acts playing but we also invite artists from places like Syria. We want to make it as international as possible. It's only a small regional festival but I think the role of the arts and culture is to bring new ideas into society. If we can do it for a weekend in the make believe village we create for this festival, then why can't we do it in our real villages?
In terms of the demographic are you aiming to attract people from all age groups, nationalities and social backgrounds?
Yes. Most of our visitors are from the Netherlands. Around 60% primarily from this region I believe. We get about 5% of our audience from Europe but if you're from the UK you should manage because most people in the Netherlands speak English. We have a very wide range of age groups not only for visitors, but also with the volunteers.
When does planning begin for the following year's festival? When do you normally start booking artists?
Generally, I start fourteen months before the festival. But that's mainly contractual, so the real planning starts in September. After we've finished evaluating that year's festival we start building the new organisation for next year's. We are a highly inefficient organisation on purpose! No sane person would try and put together a festival. We work with almost fifty people. That’s why it is inefficient. Five would be efficient, but we try to make a point that it’s all about the fact when you create something together, that you build a shared dream. So Welcome To The Village is a platform for idealists to build their own make believe village for four days. The more the merrier. But then the people involved are all really committed to what they're doing. So the food programmer is always looking for new and inventive caterers, and the innovation programmer is continually seeking out new ideas. Same with the girl in charge of festival design. We aim to have this creative platform for people to work on a better society. One of our project managers is an Iranian refugee. He's looking at ways to try and involve more refugees so they have a better opportunity to blend in with society. He's doing the same thing at three other festivals in the Netherlands. It's great to have the opportunity to test out new ideas while working on the festival because they can also be developed in other places.
This year's line up contains an equal balance of both male and female artists. Is that something you were focused on from the outset?
We are. It's not quite at the phase where we're happy with it but I think we're in a much better place than we were two years ago. You really need to make those choices to make a change. It's difficult because the ironic thing is prices went up drastically when it came to booking bands with females in them. Of course, it's a big thing right now and there are more male acts so booking agents have increased their fees for female acts. In an ideal world there would just be more female bands rather than more expensive ones. I think it's important we try to create that balance and the only way to change it is changing the way we behave. Or in our case the way we book.
Among the artists playing this year are Mark Lanegan and Joan As Policewoman. Have they been on your booking wishlist for a while?
I'm really happy to get both Mark and Joan, but also about having someone like Mykki Blanco play the festival too. For the audience, he's probably not that well known but once they experience his show I think they'll love it. He's an incredible talent that also has a very interesting story to tell. It's always difficult. A lot of the stuff you want to book is way too expensive so they end up playing at the bigger festivals. I wanted to book Patti Smith but she was way out of our financial reach.
There are also several great up and coming Dutch acts playing such as The Homesick and Birth Of Joy. Do you see Welcome To The Village as being an ideal place to showcase homegrown talent?
We like to give Dutch bands a platform but not necessarily only new artists. Take The Ex for example. They've been around for 35 years and just released a new album which is incredible. It will be great to have The Homesick play because they're local heroes from around this neighbourhood. They live about 15, 20 kilometres away from the festival. Our music programmer is their manager. Their music could only have originated in a little, isolated area.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own music festival?
Don't think about it, just start it! Building a festival is really like building a sand castle. The act of building is what counts and not so much actually having it. When your sand castle is finished you'll show it to everyone then kick it over and start again because building it is more fun than having it. So if you really want to build a festival go for it. Invite all of your friends, invite people outside of your comfort zone, and start building it together. It's easy to get help when building a festival because everyone likes festivals. They're very easy going, friendly places with arts and culture so you'll find people want to help you do that. Then you start working with people from all sorts of different sectors. Our innovation team have such a wide range of characters from all different industries and backgrounds which is crucial to making the festival work. There's so much fun in that because you also learn a lot and get to meet new people. You just need an excuse to meet them and festivals are the place for that.
For more information on Welcome To The Village, please visit their official website.
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