This week the city of Groningen will once again dominate the European music stage. The 31st edition of the European Music and Showcase Festival Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS) takes place from 11-14 January at various locations in Groningen. What once started out as a simple band competition between Dutch and Belgian bands in the mid 1980s has evolved into a multi-disciplinary music festival and an international media event that stimulates the circulation of European repertoires and festival networks.
Eurosonic and Noorderslag are in fact two separate events. Eurosonic serves as a showcase festival for promising European acts. From Wednesday to Friday these artists get an opportunity to present themselves to industry professionals at various locations throughout Groningen’s city center. Noorderslag, which is held on Saturday, is known as the ‘Dutch music barometer’. It is a cross-section of pop music in the Netherlands and focuses on Dutch artists only. Noorderslag eventually culminates into the presentation of the Pop Award (Popprijs), awarded to the Dutch artist who has made the most significant contribution to Dutch pop music in the last year. By including new bands and awarding those who have become successful, ESNS promises an annual mixture of discovery, consent and disagreement among those who immerse themselves in the festivities and the multitude of acts.
In recent years there has been debate about the tendency of pop festivals to become places of recognition rather than places of discovery. In other words, festivals have started to focus on the standardized ‘big’ names rather than on diversification and providing a platform for new talent. On the Lowlands Festival fan website Lowlove, for example, it was suggested to the readers to skip the 2014 edition of their beloved festival, because the preliminary line-up was ‘of too little surprise’. Also, Mojo’s general manager Wilbert Mutsaers expressed his concerns in an interview in de Volkskrant (27 May, 2016) about standardization and stressed that pop festivals should do more to diversify and aim to attract new audiences.
What is at stake here is the added value of festivals for contemporary society as sites of cultural exchange and experimentation. Of course, different festivals are valuable to different people for different reasons. Also, the choices in festivals are manifold, the demand for diversification, therefore, seems somewhat paradoxical. After all, don’t festivals need to find ways to communicate their uniqueness, especially in a time of increasing festivalization? So what will happen if diversification is the core business of the festival?
ESNS aims to provide a European answer to the long-standing dominance of the American music industry. Reminiscent of the slogan ‘reunifying Europe through culture’, as the creators of the Edinburgh International Festival (Fringe) envisioned in 1947, we might indeed need to reach out to neighboring countries and find common ground. Especially in a time when European unity is under pressure. And what better way to connect than through the universal language of music?
To stimulate the circulation of European music, ESNS initiated the European Talent Exchange Program (ETEP) in 2003. This program commits the participating European festivals to book at least one band from the ESNS line-up, thus providing bands with the opportunity to play outside of their home country. Another part of the ESNS festivities is the annual presentation of the European Border Breakers Awards (EBBA), which celebrates artists who have been successful outside of their (EU) home country. Also, ESNS organizes the European Production and Innovation Conference (EPIC), which specifically focuses on innovation through international collaboration.
Due to this multi-faceted international approach ESNS is not about standardization or fixed expectations (or it has to be the expectation of being surprised). Rather, its continuing quest for the distribution of European artists and repertoire as well as its focus on innovation makes the ESNS festival a dynamic cultural laboratory. Echoing the utopian message of the Edinburgh Festival, ESNS offers a contemporary platform to celebrate diversity, to feed our curiosity, and learn more about European music culture. In short, it is a site for research rather than recognition. I’ll soon see what other surprises it has to offer as it will serve as the main case study for my festival research in the coming years.
Rob Ahlers (1976) studied drums at the Prince Claus Conservatory in Groningen (BA) and Arts, Culture and Media (MA) at the University of Groningen. He is currently working on his PhD in the field of popular music studies at the ICOG research institute (Faculty of Arts), University of Groningen.