INTERVIEW: Alex Stevens, Dour Festival Booker
Each month BeatSwitch talks to an artist manager/promoter to share insights across and from the festival industry. Alex Stevens is the first one to go on record, and he’s a special one. He’s not just a talent buyer for Dour: he’s also part accreditation and artist manager, he prepares lineup announcements and works on the festival’s website, …
Last but not least, he also engineered MECANO – the artist management system that BeatSwitch acquired in 2015. Is there anything Alex can’t do?
Let’s dig a little deeper into the daily worklife of this computer scientist gone festival allrounder!
For clarity’s sake, let’s start with an overview of projects you’re involved in.
My main thing is Dour Festival, for which I’ve been working for 15 years now. For the moment I’m working on bookings, making offers, but also some announcements with our communication team. Lots of preproduction… We operate from a coworking space, an office we share with a couple of organizations in Liège. It just so happens that we bought a new venue here with a new coöperative today.
Wow! A new venue, that’s a big step…
Yes! So, the coöp is called Dynamo, and organizations like JauneOrange and a few others have all “bought” their share. The bigger your share, the lower your rent is for the venue, that’s the idea. We ourselves would only promote a show every 2 or 3 months, but this way we can actually cut a lot of costs. We’d like to open it in January 2017.
So how do you divide your time between Dour and these initiatives?
Dour will always be my priority. But initiatives like this mean you get to work with other people, and learn from those experiences. It’s like you get new oxygen that helps you rethink and improve your main project.
How did you get involved with Dour?
Well, back in 2000, I had just graduated as a computer scientist, and I emailed the organizer Carlo Di Antonio and told him that his festival’s website sucked. When I told him what to change about it, he said: “Well, do it yourself.” So that’s how I started working here. Besides the website, I began working on communication for the festival. But, considering my diploma, I had absolutely no experience in old-fashioned communication, so I started by building a forum on the Dour website, creating a newsletter, … Which was really new back then.
What does your year look like? Like, when do you start booking, when are you advancing, for instance?
Well, first, in September, we start working on our lineup. We visit all the agencies, mostly in London, and start locking in our headliners, because we build our lineup around them. Around then, we’re also going out a lot to see shows, and we start thinking about our broader lineup: are we going to keep the same stages, are we going to leave one out or replace it? Or even add a new one? Then in november-december, we’re already announcing our first names, so I’m coördinating the communication team to get the word out. And from 15 December until 15 January, noone in the music industry works… So neither do we, haha.
We finish our lineup around March-April, and then I spend all my time on accreditation, and help the team manage the whole setup for the festival in July. Little problems always show up, so you help solve them, you always have to overcome some obstacles.
So then we get to the culmination point: how are the festival days themselves to you, and the weeks before and after?
There’s a lot of last-minute problem solving there… A cancellation, issues with flights that force you to reschedule gigs or switch slots, … Even during the festival. But if it all goes well, then I can just go out and see the shows – which is a dream, of course.
Then after the festival, you’re dead tired, and you don’t do anything for a couple of days (laughs). But when I’ve regained strengths, I start looking at stats. How many tickets did we sell, who bought them, which stages did well, which acts did well. This is usually the time when all the fresh ideas come up, or when I write down what I came up with during the festival. I make notes of all of that so that I can look back at it during the year, with the team, when we’re preparing next year’s festival. It’s very important to hold on to that. Even if it’s just to leave for holidays with a clear mind…
How do you determine which stages, acts worked well? Do you measure that or is it a matter of experience, perhaps mixed with some gut feeling?
First of all, I’m on the festival site the whole time. I try not to be backstage. I roam the festival site on my own and try to talk to people, see how they actually experience Dour. I go to see the shows and visit the various stages and catch the atmosphere myself.
Secondly, we have around 20 000 downloads of our Dour app, where people can “favorite” artists. That is a solid indicator.
Thirdly, I just ask questions on our Facebook page: which acts did you like the most at Dour this year? Did you like stage x? I basically just try and collect as much data as possible, combined with my own experience of the festival. So a spreadsheet and a couple of days on site is what I use to make my decisions.
You built the software system MECANO, which we recently acquired. How has that tool enhanced your festival organization?
It’s so incredibly useful to have such a tool. We have 50 people working on our production each year, and I couldn’t imagine having to coördinate all of that through email and spreadsheets. Having the right data delivered to the right people almost automatically, is such a help. I’m excited to have this as part of the larger BeatSwitch platform now!
Once a booking is confirmed, I now put it in BeatSwitch and let the team work on the advancing: all info for marketing and production, hotel rooms, … It’s so easy to have all the technical riders per stage, for instance.
Then, as a closing question: Dour has a pretty unique image, and a very clear target group. How would you describe that?
Well, like I’ve mentioned before, we started really early on with newsletters and a forum. I knew when I started out that in Belgium, which is a strong market for festivals, we were going to have to define ourselves alongside giants like Rock Werchter and Pukkelpop. Both were and are still very, very solid. So I knew we would have to be different. We decided to talk directly to our festival-goers. What would you like to see? What did you think of stage x or stage y? Back then we did it on our forum, now we do it on social media.
Co-creation is in our DNA. It’s our philosophy. Even the way I started here was as a fan with feedback, with an opinion. I’ll never forget that. We’ve been working like that for 15 years now, and we will continue to do so.