Between cranes and containers: Docklands is ready to close the festival season

Pictures by Kemizz

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As the festival season draws to a close, everyone is getting ready to go out and dance in the sunshine one last time. Although this time, it's not on your usual green field somewhere in the countryside. Antwerp's Docklands Festival prepares for its second edition on Friday September 20 and Saturday September 21 on a rugged and rough harbour location on a stone's throw from the city centre. Wrap that together with a delicious lineup that samples the best of local and international talents, and you have a recipe for a hell of a good time. We asked Mats Raes (aka the man behind the scenes) a thing or two of what to expect. Don’t feel like buying a ticket? Why not try your luck and scroll down to take part in our ticket contest? We have 5x2 tickets to give away.

Tell us the story of how Docklands came to be.

When I was 15 years old, my older brother threw the Metro Techno parties in Antwerp. Back in those days, electronic music festivals weren’t really a thing. Laundry Day and Antwerp Is Burning (may both rest in peace, ed.) were the only local examples, although those looked nothing like you would expect today. The production was rather straight-forward, as it should be, and it was all about countering the dominant culture of the time. That's when the seed got planted in my head. My uncle once took me on a visit to the dry docks and ever since, the idea to organize an event here got stuck in my head. In some weird way, this location felt like home. My dream had always been to organize a music festival in this rough and unpolished harbour area. Fast forward 20 years and I finally found the time and friends to pull it off! Many things are possible with the love for music.

What sets Docklands apart?

People always say that “location is key” and I couldn’t agree more. The Droogdokkenpark, located right between the harbour and the city centre is the perfect spot for the no-nonsense and somewhat nostalgic festival that Docklands is. You have the river Schelde on one side and the impressive Zaha Hadid-designed Havenhuis on the other. All our stage hosts are from the area, and together with them, we have composed a quality lineup with talent from Belgium and beyond. Additionally, we have spent a lot of attention to the visitors' experience, offering a wide variety of alternative food and drink options, for example.

People always say that “location is key” and I couldn’t agree more.

As a small festival with a relatively small budget: how do you try to stand out from the rest? Both in terms of promotion as in terms of production.

It has become a lot harder to distinguish yourself from the rest. Even if it's tempting to look to others for inspiration, we remain confident in our strength and ideas. We have an enthusiastic grassroots approach to promotion, making sure we are visible everywhere in town. We are also very proud of the visual identity we’ve put together. It feels very close to what festival embodies. By organizing special events before the festival, like the exclusive Glints showcase (which takes place tomorrow) on a metal-recycling scrapyard, you make sure people always have your festival in the back of their minds. Lastly, as I've said already, a good location is crucial. You won't find yourself on some empty grassland, but a place with character, dressed in a rough but professional production.

What's it like to book artists in a festival circuit with big money players? (Often artists sign exclusivity deals). We can imagine you'll have to get creative sometimes. Of what’s your take on the matter?

It hasn’t become any easier from a budgetary perspective, that’s for sure. Rising artist fees and the weather’s unpredictability make it an incredibly risky undertaking. This year, we made sure to take our time to fight for the lineup we really wanted, Nic Fanciulli - Carl Cox’s B2B partner in particular. That said, we also chose to put a lot of names on the bill that many people have yet to discover. Most of the artists with potential have been given great slots on the timetable. With Stavroz and Curtis Alto we have two amazing live bands that are conquering the world. Red Axes, Glints, Tsepo, Cellini, Faisal, Nico Morano, Denis Horvat and Dollkraut are guys that can turn any party upside down. Lastly, a whole battery of residents will make sure to set the tone.

Even if it's tempting to look to others for inspiration, we remain confident in our strength and ideas.

Antwerp has seen a steep rise in the number of open-air events over the last two years. Is there still room for growth? Or is the city at maximum potential right now?

I don't know where the limit is, to be honest. We've indeed seen a lot of them pop up recently, but many of them are niche events, catering to their specific audiences. If you look at other places, nightlife and festivals have sometimes become part of the city's DNA, offering a definite added value to the social fabric of that place. With that in mind, I think there's definitely some room left for new festivals in Antwerp.

As the climate becomes more and more unpredictable, the faith of many open-air events quite vulnerable. Last year you experienced some incredible bad luck. How do you prepare for unstable weather conditions like that?

The most significant change we made is moving our main stage into a large hangar tent while our second stage remains covered like the years before. The third stage is open-air but can be covered if it's needed. All our stages will be able to offer the necessary comfort regardless. That said, Docklands isn't that dependable on the weather conditions, although a little sunshine this time wouldn't hurt (laughs).

Which artist are you most excited about?

Glints (because he is the new Mike Skinner) and Stavroz (because they made a timeless Belgian classic with The Finishing). 

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