The rise and rise of Dekmantel | Features | MN2S

It’s always heartening to see an organic success story like that of Amsterdam promoters Dekmantel. After half a decade of putting on some of the finest house, techno and bass line-ups the city has seen in recent years (think Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Space Dimension Controller, Joy Orbison, Carl Craig, Henrik Schwarz) the team behind the burgeoning promotion made the bold leap to staging their own two-day festival.

An acclaimed and resolute success in its first two years, Dekmantel Festival is now expanding into three venues across four days. So what’s the secret? We speak to co-founder Thomas Martojo, to try and find out the formula.

What was behind the decision to progress Dekmantel from a club / warehouse concept to a festival?

Actually the progression has been a very slow and gradual one. We started doing our first events eight years ago, and these were very small club nights with a capacity of around 150 people. From there we went to a 300-capacity venue, then a 500 one, then moved to a 1,000 one, then a 1,500 one, and then we did our first festival in 2013 – which we did with a capacity of 2,000 in the first year. Ever since, our capacity for the festival has doubled up each year. So we’ve just been taking it very slow and very gradually I think.

What went into the planning stages of the festival? Did you anticipate how much work it would be?

Oh no, absolutely not! When we did our first festival, we had no idea what was happening to us. We literally had no idea how to go about doing such a thing. We had a lot of ideas on how we wanted the festival to be, but we had not the slightest idea of how we should produce such a festival. But by that time we also happened to meet our now-partner in the company, Matthias – and he already had a long history and background in organising festivals. He was the person who was the missing link for us to make our ideas happen, so to speak.

How do you go about programming a line-up for a festival compared to one for a club night? What extra considerations are there?

It’s a completely different ballgame. If you look at Dekmantel Festival now, we’re booking close to 150 acts over the course of four days. So for that reason alone – the amount of acts you actually have to book – it’s completely different. If you do a club night, it’s very different budgets; you can book two or three guest artists and have some of your local friends play. It’s different dynamics. It’s much bigger risks, but it also requires a different way of looking at it to make it work as a whole.

Take us back to the very first festival. What worked, what didn’t and what lessons did you learn?

Well, a lot of things didn’t work and a lot of things did work – but it wasn’t anything major. It’s just small things. Especially when you start off with your first festival, you don’t really know how the people are going to walk around on the site, how things are going to work out logistically. You try to organise a festival which on paper will work out perfectly, but there are always of course little things – especially with a new venue. Things you haven’t thought about. It’s mostly small things. You just walk around and pay very close attention and look around you at what’s happening, and try to reevaluate. Year after year, you try to improve on these things, of course, but you never organise the perfect festival. There will always be things you can improve.

With the festival market at saturation point, what do you think it takes for a new festival to cut through these days?

There’s been a massive increase in festivals, but definitely here in Amsterdam it’s a pretty big market right now. You have the first open-air festivals which start around the end of March, early April and go on ‘til late September. So it’s pretty much half a year of festivals here. The majority of Dutch festivals programme pretty decent house and techno actually. So in terms of competition, it’s completely insane here in Holland. And I think that makes sure that you really have to bring your A-game.

I’m not so much in the festival business where they’re more an experience or entertainment kind of thing – it’s not really my cup of tea or my field of expertise. The thing that we’re really about is just plain and simple having a great line-up – and consequently that’s also the element which sells the tickets. So basically, just having a very good line-up. What makes a good line-up? That’s a difficult question, because it’s not necessarily about just booking the big names alone. It’s big names that will sell that tickets, but it’s just as important to book emerging acts, acts people might not have heard of, mix it up with local talent as well. It’s a difficult thing to put into words, and it’s very much an element of gut feeling and just following your instincts.

Where do you stand on cashless payment? Will you be implementing for Dekmantel 2015?

We’re following that. So far it’s always been with a lot of start-up problems. I think the technique is very much in progress but it isn’t there yet. I think it’s always good to try and embrace new technology and new things as a festival, but I think we should also try to wait for it to be working fully instead of just jumping in and trying to do the new thing for the sake of it.

The Dutch are widely recognised as being world leaders for event production. Where does this stem from? Where do your priorities lie in terms of production?

I’ve been asked this previously, and I’m not quite sure why it is. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it can also be the case that some of the biggest companies putting on festivals are founded in Holland, so maybe that trickles down, so to speak. I think just in general the Dutch people are a very organised type of people – so maybe that helps. I’m not 100% sure.

Personally, we think ourselves that it’s very important to have good sound. That’s the number one. Then secondly, we really hate overcrowded stages – so we try and make sure there’s lots of space. Being amongst too many people could really kill your overall enjoyment of being at a festival.

What are your most important channels for promoting and marketing the festival? How much is ‘traditional’ – i.e. print / posters / flyers – compared to digital? Do you advertise online as well as doing social media?

We try to do as little advertising as possible. We don’t do any banners online, we don’t even put on posters. It doesn’t really make sense for us, because the people who come to our festivals come from all sorts of different countries. So that doesn’t really add up to start a big physical poster campaign. It wouldn’t work. But in general, we don’t really fancy advertising a lot. We have a lively community through our social channels. We try to work together with media partnerships with which we can tell interesting editorial content about the festival.

What’s going to be new to the festival in 2015?

First of all we have two new venues which we just added. We have an opening day at Muziekgebouw which is architecturally one of the most beautiful venues in the whole of The Netherlands, and we have Manuel Göttsching and Autechre playing there, so that’s something we’re really looking forward to. We also have a fully-fledged night programme this year, and that will take place at Melkweg – one of the most established venues in Amsterdam – across three different rooms. We have an exclusive programme there, so not acts that are playing in the day as well – all new artists are gonna play there.

Those are the biggest changes compared to last year. As far as the day programme at Amsterdamse Bos is concerned, we’re gonna keep it much as the same as last year – because it worked really well.

What do you attribute your success with the festival and your events to?

I think it’s the line-ups. I think we don’t necessarily go with the most popular names. We do have a lot of big names playing, but the majority of the line-up is made up of more alternative or emerging or underground acts. I don’t think there’s something really similar out there. But it turns out there’s a lot of people who are interested to go to such a festival. So yeah, I guess we found a niche in terms of the line-up that really worked well.

Secondly, our venue really helps. It’s a beautiful venue where we have the festival, and it’s overall just a very enjoyable experience for the people. Especially where people from abroad are concerned, I think it really helps that it takes place in Amsterdam, because in general people love the city.

What are your feelings on the Amsterdam scene? Has Trouw left a big hole?

Well, yes and no. Trouw was a very good club – definitely the best club we had in Amsterdam – and it’s interesting to see how everybody’s gonna evolve now with Trouw out of the picture. But I’m confident that there are a lot of good things to go to. Overall it’s a very healthy scene here in Amsterdam with a lot of promoters and a lot of clubs, and there’s definitely a crowd which is educated and very interested in out-of-the-ordinary music.

What advice do you have for aspiring promoters?

There are a lot clichés: you should follow what you like to do, you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes… but I think let’s try and keep it a bit more easy. You have to know what your qualities are. If you are strong in the creative department, make sure you find a partner who can help you with the business end – and vice versa. Otherwise, you’re bound to make big mistakes, I think, if you’re not well represented on both sides.

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