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View from the top: The festival organiser (Lode Verschueren)

Marc Maes 12 August 2015
Lode Verschueren, Antilliaanse Feesten

Bringing a little bit of Caribbean sunshine to the centre of Europe

Who are you?
My name is Lode Verschueren. I  first organised the Antilliaanse Feesten (Caribbean Festival) in 1983 when I was 27. And I’ve just become a “young” grandpa…

What do you do?
I’m a full-time festival organiser – and happy to say that I’m my own boss. I’m a free man, and that’s my biggest victory in life. Before, I worked as a surveyor…

Where do you do it?
The Antilliaanse Feesten is being staged in the tiny village of Hoogstraten, with some 20,000 inhabitants. Indeed, Hoogstraten is the very centre of Europe, equidistant from Cologne, Amsterdam and London. That’s why we’ve called our festival company ‘Belgium Oversees’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to illustrate that we oversee the music we put on, better than some who actually perform it [laughs]. No, really, we claim to be the one festival bringing all of the Caribbean musical styles together. For 31 years now, we’ve staged the festival at the Blauwbossen riding school, a beautiful landscape in the woods.

Why do you do it?
I have to admit I didn’t know Caribbean music at all – but I was curious and fascinated by what I discovered – so organising the festival was a combination of coincidences and lots of passion. I started organising the festival in the punk and blues era; friends tried to talk me out of it, but they were wrong, it turns out. Starting up wasn’t easy but I’m happy to see that, over the years, we’ve built an audience consisting of both ‘Europeans’ and also lots of expats with roots in the Caribbean living in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France.

What’s your biggest success to date?
Don’t ask me for hard facts, names or figures! I think my biggest achievement is to keep the festival fresh and inspired after all those years. And to remain independent and not be part of the big multinationals controlling the live market. To be independent, successful and medium-size – that’s what it’s about.

What’s the biggest challenge coming up?
It’s along the lines of the previous question. The main issue is to pass on the passion – crucial when it came to setting things up – to the next generation. Continue to give the event an identity of its own, offering a fresh and innovative programme with an attractive festival site. In terms of business, we try to adapt: for instance, adding extra stages – this year’s festival has five!

What’s the issue that never seems to go away?
The fucking weather! I have a billboard in my office saying ‘Don’t mention the weather!’. Bad weather conditions do have their influence. Although all of the stages are in huge tents or marquees, the festival requires ‘Caribbean’ weather. Last year we had a heavy rainstorm just as the campsite gates opened…

Is organising a niche festival an advantage?
Actually, I see no direct disadvantages – we made a clear choice as to the festival’s identity. If we should lose this typical aspect by mixing other musical styles or adding pop bands, we would loose our core audience and not be able to attract new public.

How loyal is the audience?
Very loyal – we see it on social media and in communications with the visitors. Every edition attracts, weather permitting, some 15,000 people per day, plus, for a few years now, several thousands in the campsite the day before the festival weekend. We don’t have any exact figures on hand – the only thing we know from polling at the entrance is that 56 per cent of the audience are female. In the months prior to the festival, our audience is very involved with what we do via social media. We don’t attract festival tourists driving from the Graspop Metal Meeting to the Tomorrowland dancefest. Many of our visitors attend only one festival: ours.

And what about the evolution in Caribbean music?
Our audience is very open to new musical trends. The most popular new bands are massive on the social media and YouTube. Bands that didn’t exist six years ago now get 100m views in Latin America. Those are the bands we want at the festival, in combination with traditional salsa and merengue orchestras. This year we have Grupo Niche, a Colombian salsa orchestra with many horns who attract a huge audience here. The advantage of having multiple stages is to be able to have style accents throughout our programme.

Flying so many bands from Latin America must be a logistical challenge…
This could have been my ‘issue’, but it has grown on me over the years. I’m used to solving problems, like this week when a band’s booking agent is off the radar for five weeks with Schengen visa and flight tickets pending – with one month to go till the festival, this requires daily following up.

What is the festival’s future?
I believe in constant innovation as the key to its future. Caribbean and Latin American music moves on, and it’s our job to keep our finger on the pulse.

www.antilliaansefeesten.be

This is #5 of 10 ‘views from the top’ appearing in PSNLive 2015, PSNEurope‘s 10th annual analysis of the European live sound industry. This year, we quizzed incumbents of key industry roles on the ups and downs of the business. The result is a range of insights (views from the top, no less) from a diverse group of individuals, all of whose careers are inextricably linked to the fabric of live sound.

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