Industry Profile: Peter Smidt
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Peter Smidt, founder & creative director Eurosonic Noorderslag & manager Buma Cultuur.
If anyone is the “Musical Emperor of Europe” it’s Peter Smidt, a major player in both bringing European talent to the masses, and in the evolution of the continent as a vibrant live music market.
The 53-year-old former rock singer--founder & creative director of Eurosonic Noorderslag and manager Buma Cultuur—watches over the annual 4-day festival and conference in Groningen in The Netherlands.
There’s no argument that Eurosonic Noorderslag, organized by the Noorderslag Foundation in cooperation with Buma Cultuur, is the single most important event within Europe’s live music sector.
As a conference and showcase festival event, it is the primary networking platform for Europe-based festival buyers, artists, managers, label and radio executives, music media, interactive professionals, and music industry organizations.
The event is broadcast, and reported on by national radio stations in over 20 European countries.
This year’s Eurosonic Noorderslag attracted 3,200 delegates, showcased 300 artists, and featured a conference program of 150 panels as well as having keynote speakers, interviews, and workshops.
Focused primarily on showcasing newcomer acts, over 400 European festivals annually come to the event seeking exciting new European talent to present at their own events.
Eurosonic Noorderslag can credited for igniting the careers of Asteroids Galaxy Tour, James Blake, Crystal Fighters, De Staat, Digitalism, Ewert and the Two Dragons, Franz Ferdinand, FM Belfast, Iceage, Lykke Li, James Vincent McMorrow, Nobody Beats the Drum, Agnes Obel, Ben L’Oncle Soul, Team Me, Triggerfinger and others.
The 28th edition of Eurosonic Noorderslag will take place Jan. 15th-18th, 2014 with Austria being spotlighted.
The event began in 1986 as little more than a battle of the bands contest between 10 Dutch and 10 Belgian acts.
To the surprise of many, Holland won hands-down.
The second year, under the Noorderslag banner, there was a battle between the North and the rest of the Netherlands, and this edition of the event gave the festival its initial name.
In 1995, with a new name, Euroslag, emphasis shifted to featuring European bands. The Eurosonic imprint came in 1999 with collaboration with European radio stations in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)
In 1995, Smidt began working for Buma Cultuur, founded by Buma, the collection society for music authors in The Netherlands. Buma Cultuur supports and promotes Dutch music copyrights in The Netherlands, and in key international markets.
Buma Cultuur also organizes the annual Musicians Day and Amsterdam dance events Buma Rotterdam Beats, Jazzdag, Toonzetters and other events promoting Dutch repertoire.
Smidt is responsible for Buma Cultuur’s export and European policy. He had a forceful hand in developing both the European Tour Support Plan (ETSP), and the European Talent Exchange Program (ETEP), which works with 80-100 festivals, and 27 radio stations united in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
Smidt also works closely with the European Music Office (EMO), where he is a board member.
How prepared are you for Eurosonic Noorderslag 2014?
At the moment, we are trying to secure all of the financing for the conference edition which is an important thing, of course. Sponsors and things like that. We have a rough outline of topics for the conference which we are going to fill in starting the first of September. Regarding the talent, we have a deadline for people to submit material, which is the first of September.
Over 300 new European acts will be chosen to perform.
Yep. We wait until we have all of the material. Then we can take a really good look. Of course, throughout the year we discuss (acts) with a lot of our partners. We also visit a lot of events, and festivals. We start preparing the program in September. We want to have the whole program ready, and finished by the end of October.
Who picks the bands to perform at the festival?
We have a committee that works on that, and we have two bookers. Robert Meijerink does the bookings of the European acts, and Joey Ruchtie does the bookings of the Dutch acts.
Eurosonic Noorderslag is organized by the Noorderslag Foundation in cooperation with Buma Cultuur.
Yes, we are a foundation with a board of 5 people. The chairman is Pierre Ballings, who is the managing director of the Paradiso venue in Amsterdam.
How many artist submissions do you generally receive each year?
It varies between 3,000 and 5,000 submissions every year. Some of them come through Sonicbids. A lot come direct through our website. We also work in close co-operation with all of the export offices in Europe, and with all of the radio stations united in the European Broadcasting Union--the EBU--and with all of the festivals that we work with in the European Talent Exchange in the ETEP program.
You use your partners and contacts as A&R sources?
Yes. We get a lot of suggestions and tips from the export offices, festivals, and radio stations. What we try to do, and what works in some countries better than in other countries, is that we ask festivals, radio stations, and export offices to please sit down and have a meeting together, and give us a joint list of what are the best new bands coming up in their territory. If, for some reason, they are not able to do this—as you know, some radio people don’t get on with festival people or they have totally different feelings regarding an act—then they can give it (a list) to us individually.
But in most countries, people have these meetings regarding what is the best new talent coming out of their territory to present at Eurosonic. So they provide us with a lot of names of acts. We take that very seriously. Of course, we are not working solely with our partners. We want everyone to send in material. We are also looking ourselves to what is happening everywhere. Like I said, we go to a lot of events and festivals. That way, I think that we are able to present quite a good picture of what is happening, and what the new happening acts are in January.
Eurosonic Noorderslag works with festivals within the European Talent Exchange. Are those the ones providing input on talent?
We currently working with between 80 and 90 festivals. These are our strongest partners.
Is being manager of Buma Cultuur your full-time job?
Do your different jobs ever conflict?
No, I don’t think so. In 1995, I was a promoter at De Oosterpoort (a theatre in Groningen), and I owned the conference. I went to Buma Cultuur asking if they could help out. At some point, the managing director said that if I knew so well how to spend their money that I should come there.
The festival was launched as a one-off event in 1986.
I started it as Noorderslag (in 1987).
Yes, but a year earlier, there was “Holland Belgium” with 10 Dutch and 10 Belgian acts competing at De Oosterpoort. A battle of the bands which Holland won.
Yes, and that was said in the press. That was funny because at that time, in the Dutch music press at least, it was all over the place that Belgian bands were the best bands that there were. People never wrote about Dutch bands at that time. I figured that there were some great band around like Fatal Flowers, and Urban Dance Band later on.
And there was the Amsterdam rock band Claw Boys Claw.
Yes, Claw Boys Claw. We didn’t think about these (cultural) things a lot at that time. It was just that we thought we had to come up with a festival. So let’s make it between Holland and Belgium. The football (soccer) games between Holland and Belgium are always important. So we thought we’d call it “Holland Belgium” and present bands from Belgium and from Holland. Everyone thought that these bands from Belgium were great, but on the Monday when the reviews from the papers came out, journalists were writing about what great bands we had in Holland.
Eurosonic Noorderslag began to include seminars and other industry events in 1993. How did that come about?
Holland is a small country, but for people in the music business, who are all based in Hilversum, it (the festival) is quite far away. (We started the seminars) because they had discovered our event, and found that it was easy to see all of these bands in one night. It saved them from going to all of these clubs every night. A lot of press were coming, and people from the music business came. You know how it is. They were discussing (the music industry) with each other at the bar. At some point, I figured that it made sense to do that (discussion) in a more organized way, and start a conference during the day to discuss how we can improve the business in Holland.
We didn’t have money—we still don’t have much money—but I remember that I took 500 guilders, which is about 2,500 Euros, out of my budget to organize this conference. I expected about 100 people to come the first year. To my surprise about 300 people turned up. Everybody thought, “Oh, this is worthwhile having a series of debates, and rooms to discuss all kinds of items.”
Eurosonic Noorderslag 2014 will spotlight Austria and its talent. You spotlight a different country every year. What’s the reasoning behind focusing on a single country?
Each year, we get more requests from a territory than we can place. By doing a focus we have the opportunity to present more acts from a territory. It gives us hands and feet to discuss in-depth the markets, the music scene, the specifics of a market and territory to what is happening at the conference. It gives us the opportunity to go a little bit deeper into the specifics of these markets, and the scenes.
We also keep a close watch on what’s happening (in different countries). At some point, we may say, “It might be interesting to pick this territory because there are a lot of things going on there. It’ll be interesting for other people to hear what’s going on there, and to see what’s happening too.” Then we contact our partners (in the chosen territory), and see if they also feel if this is the right time to focus on their territory.
That was the case with picking Austria for 2014? That you consulted with your Austrian partners, Radio FM4, the Frequency Festival, the Nova Rock Festival, and the Waves Festival?
Yes. Together with the Austrian Music Export office. They all joined forces on this.
Austria is a great talent source with such acts as Klangkarussell, Soap & Skin, Elektro Guzzi, Bauchklang, Clara Luzia, Ginga, and Steaming Satellites.
Austria is a small market, but there are some very interesting things happening there.
For more than a decade, the European Border Breakers Awards have been presented at Eurosonic Noorderslag.
Well, the nice thing about the European Border Breakers Award is that you see several acts appear more or less unknown at Eurosonic and they are picked up by several festivals or radio stations. Because of that fact, the year after they are able to pick up a European Border Breaker Award.
[During Eurosonic Noorderslag, the European Border Breakers Awards (EBBAs), European Festival Awards, Pop Award, Pop Media Award and Interactive Awards are all presented.]
What Eurosonic is really about is discovery.
Discovery of new talents. But it’s nice to award some acts who succeeded in crossing borders because that’s the aim of the event. We want to give the opportunity (for attendees) to discover acts, and for acts to be able to cross borders.
The other thing is that it (the award) enables us—somehow this is a nice side effect—also to present some bands who are, essentially, too big for us. Sometimes we get bands applying to us saying, “We’d like to perform.” Buy we have to say, “Well, we think that you are already so well known that we don’t feel that Eurosonic is the right spot for you.
It’s noteworthy that the festival primarily focuses on unknown acts.
That’s important, I think, for the professionals and for audiences. The professionals coming are not coming to our event to see acts that they already know. They want to see bands that they don’t know.
Any festival booker knows the established acts, and can cherry pick what they want. Instead of a booker being out 5 nights a week in clubs all over Europe, they can talent shop for four days at Eurosonic.
But well-known acts have performed at Eurosonic, including Franz Ferdinand, James Blake, the XX, Wir Sind Helden, Seeed, and the Raveonettes. At what level were those acts when they played the festival?
I think with Franz Ferdinand it was their second show on the continent.
Is Eurosonic not a response to the global dominance of American music as well as Europeans needing to develop their own acts?
That’s the idea. Correct.
Was the problem a few years back that the American acts were dominating markets throughout Europe?
Well, “problem” is a big word, but I would say that it is (more) a problem for European acts.
European acts trying to tour North America certainly face hurdles.
And crossing borders in Europe. That’s pretty hard because there’s a lack of pipelines in Europe for creative talent. For an artist from Holland to work in Germany, or to work in France or vice versa, it is much more difficult than for an American act to work in these territories. That has to do with a lot of things.
It’s a combination of factors. It’s due to the way that the business is organized. It’s the way media is organized. It also has to do, of course, with media in all of the European territories all being in a different language. So there’s a lot of reasons why this is the case.
Also for European bookers, radio programmers, and audience, there’s an exoticness attached to an American act performing in Europe.
It’s exactly as you say. What you are describing 10 or 20 years ago was more the case. It’s changing, however.
[It has traditionally been difficult for European artists to find their own market in Europe. It’s not any easier today, according to a 2012 report by Emmanuel Legrand, commissioned by the European Music Office and Eurosonic Noorderslag. The 120 page report showed how difficult it is for European artists to gain pan-European success, even if their lyrics are in English. For any rock act, the report indicated that it’s practically impossible.]
What’s the reason for the change?
I would say that, first of all, throughout Europe over the last 20 years, there has been a rise in quality, and the development of some very good acts. There are more and more good acts popping up everywhere.
Also the audience, in general, is more curious than they were.
When I started Eurosonic, friends of mine who are not in the music business—they like music and go to concerts now and then—they said, “Well, Peter you don’t think that I am going to buy a ticket for a band from Poland or Portugal do you?”
At that time, people found it a strange idea (to see bands from elsewhere in Europe) because they were not familiar with these (other) territories. Nowadays, it is more common. People have experienced good acts coming from around the world, including from Africa. Everywhere. So this is something that has changed.
There’s also the fact that we have the same currency in Europe over the past few years. Europeans tend to travel more, in general, on a global level as the world has become smaller. People now travel from Amsterdam to go to a festival in Hungary or wherever. So there has been a change.
Has the European Union—the economic and political union of 28 member states--made it any easier in opening doors for talent in the different countries?
Well (laughing) that’s a long story. Over the last, I would say, almost 15 years, we have been talking to the European Commission regarding the importance of music, and the importance of artists being able to cross borders to have access to European markets.
As I said, there is not that much circulation of European repertoire in Europe which is a problem, I think, primarily for the artists. For a promoter, in a sense, it doesn’t matter where the act comes from as long as the act is good and the audience likes it. If people buy a ticket, it’s fine. An artist needs to have a market in order to make money. It’s what they need to reach the audience and to make money from it (sales and performing).
When I started working at Buma Cultuur to promote Dutch music in 1995, I pretty soon thought, “Yes, it’s important to promote Euro music. We can promote forever, but if we don’t change the system, and the marketplace it will not really work.”
That kind of thinking by you and others led to the founding of the European Music Office.
Yes. The European Music Office was developed by a number of export offices to be able to speak with one voice, and as a music sector in Europe to the (European) Commission. To explain things to them. Politicians and decision makers within the political sphere are not usually totally aware of how the music sector, and the music industry works. So when you come to these people, and say, “I would like to talk to you about pop music or rock and roll,” they are like, “What do I have to do it with?” and “What’s the problem?” They see artists all around them. They see artists getting very popular on TV, getting rich, and getting into drugs. They have no clue about how the sector really is functioning.
It took some time to address this issue, and to find the right ear to discuss all of this. But we found that we were able to inform them, and to bring them figures and they started to understand. That’s when we started the European Border Breakers Award.
What I really think is a step forward is Creative Europe, the new cultural program (launched in 2011) from the European Commission. (Earlier) it was called Culture 2000, and it was Culture 2007 and so forth. Previously, I would say it was quite a traditional cultural strategy where there was no room for rock or pop artists to work in the framework.
Classical and opera music were being emphasized?
Correct. But we did a lot of talking with the Commission, and handed over a lot of paperwork, and research and so forth and they started to understand. The current Creative Europe program is much more a creative industry program. It is more designed for sectors like pop and rock music. I’m really glad about this because it means that they recognize the role that they have to play because each individual country can only promote their own territory. If put my Buma Cultuur hat on, I promote Dutch music. I cannot promote Polish or Portuguese music.
However, you can still put various parties in touch with other which, in turn, promotes Dutch music.
Ruud Berends (international marketing & PR, ETEP), and yourself developed the European Talent Exchange in 2003 to work with local festivals and radio stations. A strategy to further develop European acts throughout the continent?
Yes. The European Talent Exchange program was basically designed….A festival has a lot of power and possibilities. Festivals in Europe are extremely popular, and there are more and more each year. They attract a lot of people.
Festivals also have relationships with the media.
Correct. What normally works is that a festival can only book bands that have a certain name, and then they do some newcomers. Usually, the newcomer bands are local bands. For festivals, it was difficult to book bands from other European countries because they were not well known. Then there’s always the classic chicken-and-egg situation where the festival says, “Why should I book this band if radio is not playing the act?” Radio says, “Why should we play this act if they don’t have a record out, and there’s nothing happening in this territory?”
Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Then they have an excuse to work with the act. We figured that if we designed a system where a festival and a radio station decide at an early stage to work with a band then they can book the band on the festival. They are a good live act. If people see the act, they will like it. If the radio station sees them, they can say, “This is an act that I can work on my radio station.’ If they both agree to do so in January (Eurosonic Noorderslag) than by summer the act has been on the radio, which is an excuse for the festival to put them on the bill, which builds the band’s name, and it does the marketing for the act.
With the European Talent Exchange, there are partnerships with Yourope, Sena Performers, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and others .
It’s very simple system. We try to hook as many partners to build more promotion for the acts that are performing in this framework. It’s a very simple tool to promote acts in another territory than their own.
Over the years, such Dutch acts as Golden Earring, Shocking Blue, the Motions, Urban Dance Squad, Herman Brood, Tiësto, and Armin van Buuren have been popular in North America. Does success in North America still remain a goal for Dutch acts?
Yes. For sure. North America is always the dream for a lot of artists. And a lot of artists are definitely trying. Blaudzun, Skip and Die, Caro Emerald, Within Temptation, and Mozes the First Born, they are all really active (in America). I think that Mozes the First Born is going to do a tour later this year. I think they’ll be doing 25 shows in the U.S. Blaudzun is released on a U.S. label (Varčse Sarabande Records). The band has been to the U.S. quite often. Now they are preparing their second for next year I think.
Today, the music scene in the Netherlands is so diverse with metal, and electronic music being popular in the mainstream.
Well, electronic music really comes from the clubs, of course.
And electronic music easily crosses all borders because it has no lyrics.
Yep. In fact, in Holland there are commercial radio stations like Radio 538 playing dance music in the day time. A lot of music that might be considered niche nighttime programming in the U.S. is day time radio here..
You have a great love for music. Did you collect music growing up?
Yep. I spent all my money on records. I was working a record store which was a heaven, of course, being 18. The best job in the world, right? It was in Groningen. I was born in Amsterdam, but I studied art history and art management at Groningen University.
I remember Medium Medium, the UK act. I had 12-inch recordings from Medium Medium. Bauhaus coming up with "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (the group's debut single in 1979 on Small Wonder Records). The 12-inch. Great! Of course, the Wipers from the U.S. (the Portland, Oregon punk band). They were great.
You were a singer in a rock band?
Yes. I started as a singer a long, long time ago in a band called the Dark Ravens of Dance. You can imagine what kind of music that we made. We were a doom (rock) type of act. We did support for Psychedelic Furs, and the Sound. They were a great band, and friends of ours. I also played in the Fuckups.
You began promoting shows after leaving the record store?
I liked booking my bands a lot. Then I started booking other bands as well. I first did Dutch acts. I went with a lot of Dutch acts to Berlin. We played in Berlin a lot. There was a very healthy scene there. I brought back German acts to Holland. At the same time, which was quite funny, we squatted in a theatre in Groningen, The Grand Theatre, which we now use as a venue during Eurosonic. We did shows there with Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Tuxedomoon and these sorts of artists. That was great.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”