In our new interview series, we discuss the secret ingredients of Belgium’s most successful nightlife events, starting with Antwerp’s dubstep gathering Untitled!
Sometimes a nightlife event breaks out of its niche and influences a whole generation of party-goers across the board. From humble beginnings to astronomical attendance numbers, some events perfectly captured the spirit of its time. In this new series, we take a look at the reasons why some of these parties became so impactful, why the story ended and what we can learn from their experiences. First up: Untitled! and the dubstep phenomenon that shook up Belgian nightlife between 2009 and 2012.
Many electronic music fans fondly remember the dubstep-era. Between 2006 and 2017, there was one dubstep event with subwoofers so heavy it shook the nightlife industry to its core. In its heyday, the Antwerp-based Untitled! hosted up to 2500 ravers per event, continuously booking new exciting acts you couldn't see anywhere else. For a niche party, it was punching above its weight. We sat down with its two founders, Wim De Laet (who was the first half of the resident DJ duo Kastor & Dice) and Sim Coddé, to discuss the unstoppable rise and sudden end of Untitled! and the genre it was so strongly linked with.
Dubstep by accident
In the mid-2000s, Antwerp’s nightlife was experiencing a bit of a stalemate. “We started Untitled! because we wanted to change the status quo, we wanted to bring niche music to a wide audience. There were several different scenes, like the Crookers-esque electro or Café d’Anvers-style house music, that were relatively rigid compared to today’s more diversified offer”, explains De Laet. “Of course, you had an alternative scene for experimental music, most of which was located at Café Capital, Petrol or Scheldapen (RIP, ed), but the events at these places mostly didn’t fulfil their potential”. And so, in 2006, the first Untitled! took place at that last venue.
We wanted to give fresh new electronic music a decent and well-organized platform, not because we wanted to promote dubstep.
© Untitled! flyers designs throughout the years, designed by Wim De Laet.
Unlike you might expect, Untitled! wasn’t initially centred around the genre it became known for. “We wanted to give fresh new electronic music a decent and well-organized platform, not because we wanted to promote dubstep, hence the name Untitled”, says De Laet. “If you take a look at the lineup on our first party, with UK techno-head Scuba as the headliner, you’ll see it’s not particularly a dedicated dubstep-minded evening. We played new music, and that year, dubstep was the new music, so it naturally received a fair amount of representation on our evenings”. At the time, other people were already pushing the dubstep sound in Belgium, most notably Bunzer0 and the Stainage crew in Brussels and the After 12 guys in Ghent, but no one was able to bring it to such an increasingly wide audience as Untitled!.
“Before we knew it, we became known as the dubstep party, which we have never disputed”, adds Coddé. “It’s unfortunate we’re remembered as just that. After all, we also booked names like Hudson Mohawke, Jackmaster, Kingdom, Disclosure, Bok Bok, Oneman, Leon Vynehall, etc.
Social media rocket fuel
A common misconception is that dubstep took off in Belgium immediately. To an outsider, it may have felt like it crashed on the scene out of nowhere; but it had been brewing in the UK for a few years before it caught some attention here. However, around 2010, its popularity exploded.
Dubstep – and Untitled! – were products of their time. “We were the first generation that grew up with social media, and dubstep was one of the first music genres to profit from that”, explains De Laet. “Up until that point, it could take a while before new music got around. That’s what made the rise of dubstep seem so rapid. No genre had ever gained so much attention so fast”.
We were also amongst the first to recognize social media's potential, using it as a central part of our promotion strategy.
Facebook was made available in Belgium in 2006, the same year Untitled! held its first event. “Event promotion was still very much offline. It was the era of posters and flyers, which we still printed by the thousands", says De Laet. "But we were also amongst the first to recognize social media's potential, and we doubled down on using it as a central part of our promotion strategy. For example, we were amongst the first in Belgium to see the marketing potential of hiring a professional videographer for an after movie (shout out AOOA.TV). Combine this with a target audience that's young and digitally native, and you can see why our message was so successful".
But it wasn't just Untitled! that was reaping the
benefits of this new development. Dubstep, in general, was – for better or
worse – profiting from the social media wildfire. When Facebook, Twitter,
YouTube and Soundcloud came around, the connection between artists and fans
became a lot more direct. Unsuspecting bedroom producers suddenly became
rockstars. “Many of the artists we booked were 18-year-olds who had never
travelled outside the UK”, says De Laet. “Suddenly, they’re playing the biggest
crowd they have ever seen. That often lead to rowdy backstage situations and
trashed hotel rooms (laughs)”.
Out of necessity, the Untitled!-promoters were continually looking for bigger venues to host their events. "Every time we had to expand to bigger venues, we looked for not-so-obvious locations. We were always an odd event compared to the rest of what was going on in these places. Scheldapen was used to very alternative shows, Pier 19 mostly hosted commercial house parties, Trix never did nightlife events before we arrived, and everyone was surprised when we did a one-off club edition at NOXX, which was known for its bottle service discotheque approach (which we didn’t apply that night)".
Sound quality - and specifically subwoofer bass - was another one of Untitled!’s strong points. “Even though we did switch locations often, we always wanted to have full control over the sound system quality, as the bass was the critical element in what made Untitled! so attractive”, says Coddé. "The best way to do that was to bring our own sound system". Most venues had never dealt with promoters like that, and that lead to unforeseen situations. "During soundchecks, glasses would fall from the cabinets and furniture vibrated uncontrollably. At Trix, parts of the ceiling came crashing down".
We did everything we ever wanted to do. We could have never dreamed of making such an impact when we first started.
Eventually, that place did become the home base for the organization. First, they took over the 800-capacity second room, expanding to the 1100-capacity main room later, and eventually growing into an indoor-festival with both spaces open for the entire weekend. During the 5th-anniversary event in 2012, Untitled! sold over 5000 tickets. Other than their own parties, they also hosted stages at Outlook Festival, Dour Festival and Tomorrowland and their resident DJs were getting bookings on major festivals and clubs abroad. For a dubstep party, this was uncharted territory, and looking at the numbers, you could argue that the event had become Europe’s leading dubstep event. While this was going on, the organization also launched a record label and sold thousands of t-shirts.
“We became a staple in the European scene; artists and fans came from all over the globe”, argues Coddé. “Looking back, we did everything we ever wanted to do. We could have never dreamed of making such an impact when we first started”.
Chainsaw dubstep takes over
During this time, dubstep's popularity was genuinely exploding, and it was burning through its fuel rapidly. "In just a matter of years, dubstep went from an obscure UK-garage offshoot to a global phenomenon with a multitude of subgenres", says Coddé. But even though there was plenty of variation, the more aggressive in-your-face version of the genre championed by Skrillex started to get the upper hand. To a lot of new fans, this sound became synonymous to the movement at whole.
This posed a significant problem for the Untitled!
promoters. “Once we hosted a few successful editions at the high-capacity Trix
main room with artists like Caspa, Doctor P and Funtcase,
people expected that particular commercial version of dubstep”, explains
De Laet. “Creatively, this was a far less interesting option for us. We always
aimed to book new and fresh music, and gradually we had to choose between the
commercially-viable and the cutting-edge lineups”. This dilemma was the price
Untitled! needed to pay for its explosive growth.
We always aimed to book new and fresh music, and gradually we had to choose between the commercially-viable and the cutting-edge lineups.
De Laet recalls the discussions with Coddé from that moment. “Do we keep pushing new electronic music, risking to face the complaints of our core audience? Or do we stick with the proven formula of a handful of big dubstep artists, defying our precedents? The gap between what dubstep was becoming and our initial mission statement became too wide. It was an internal battle of our creative and commercial mindsets. For a while, we decided to go for both options by adding a second room with more diverse lineups under a different banner (Level.01) but that only bought us some extra time”.
Big players want in
But dubstep’s commercial transformation brought other problems too. “For years, we booked these UK artists for normal fees – and since they loved playing here, they loved coming back. But then big booking agencies, festivals and event organizations finally realized they were missing out on something; there was money to be made, and they wanted to make up for it”, says Coddé. "Befriended DJs we had booked many times in the past for €500 suddenly costed four times as much. On top of that, new acts that hadn’t proven anything yet became overpriced too. Some of these artists would only attract a handful of people, yet Live Nation immediately reeled them in and set their fee on €2500. These developments made hosting four independent dubstep events with over a dozen artists every year a very tiring business”.
Big players finally realized they were missing out on something; there was money to be made, and they wanted to make up for it.
To make matters worse, “Trix kept raising their rent fees until it became untenable for us”, says Coddé. And so, joining forces with a large event organization in an even bigger venue could be a step forward. "At one point, we had plans to expand to Lotto Arena. To do that, you have to make deals with a few powerful partners. Unfortunately, we wanted to maintain our innovation strategy, and if you want to sell out that venue, the lineup had to be commercially viable. In the end, our creative visions just didn’t align”.
Quit while you’re ahead
The last edition at Trix took place in October 2013. After that, the guys hosted a handful of standalone Level.01 events on a much smaller scale (mostly at Stockholm S). In 2017, they gave one last present to the friends and visitors from day one with a final 10th-anniversary celebration at Het Bos. Now, many fans are left wondering if there will ever be another event. However, the duo believes it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. “Untitled! was always about forward-thinking music”, explains Coddé. “We might host another event someday, but I think people will expect the classic dubstep sound we were known for. People would expect a nostalgia night, the direct opposite of what we wanted to do. If we book relevant acts with a contemporary sound, people would just be confused”.
We raised the bar, and that’s what we’re most proud of.
For both promoters, Untitled! proved to be one giant learning experience. "We taught ourselves the ins and outs of promotion and digital marketing", says De Laet. “Looking back, it’s crazy what we achieved, and I’m grateful for all the doors it has opened in my life. I even met my wife because of it”! As all the revenue made during these years was invested into new editions, the duo never saw any big bucks on their personal accounts. “Throwing the sickest parties was always the motive, so we prioritized production spending over personal financial gains”, says Coddé.
"Every once in a while, I get a request to play an oldskool dubstep set as Kastor & Dice”, grins De Laet. "I never accept them. Even though I have fond memories of that sound, it's a closed chapter". However, as we covered this a previous article, the genre is still very much alive albeit in a different form. "Dubstep lives on in many other genres, and there's still a scene for the classic sound, but it has returned to the underground", concludes Coddé. "In hindsight, we realized we raised the bar, and that’s what we’re most proud of".