Electrifying techno: an interview with Voltage Festival

Pictures by Simon Leloup

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In Belgium, we’ve seen new niche festivals pop up in ancient castles, lonely beaches and vacant urban spaces. But have you seen what a techno festival in an old electricity plant looks like? From its humble beginnings, Steven Van Belle’s (also known as Parallel Circuit) Voltage Festival grew into an impressive powerhouse in the national festival circuit, while remaining true to its mission statement: focusing exclusively on techno while supporting local talent. To enforce this, the festival has launched its own record label, starting with a dazzling 4LP compilation featuring plenty of local and international talent that will come out next week. Before ravers will land by the thousands in Zwevegem for Voltage’s 5th edition on August 10 and 11, we managed to catch Van Belle for an in-depth conversation about techno, techno and techno. Btw, scroll down to listen to an exclusive premiere of the compilation by Phara.

How were you guys able to score such an amazing location for your festival?

That’s a long story. Back in 2013, I started with the Ohm radio show on a local station and not much later me and a friend wanted to host our first events too. We were supposed to throw the first one in a hangar that was owned by my friend’s family. Apparently, he didn’t tell his parents – and they found out a couple of days before the event. At this point we had already put a fair amount of our personal savings in this project, so we had to look for a new location with extremely short notice. Luckily, things worked out in the end as we were able to host that party at the Transfo site (the current location of Voltage Festival, ed.). I was in love with the location. From that moment onwards, I felt like I wanted to throw a proper festival there someday.

And that’s how you ended up there?

Not exactly. We had to do some homework first. A year later we handed over our formal festival plans to the city council, but we were too late. Another promoter had already eyed this spot before us and we had to let our dream go. After a few months, it turned out that promoter had dropped his plans to host a festival on this location because he deemed it wasn’t big enough for his plans after all. Size wasn’t an issue for us. On the contrary, a festival of relative small scale was something that’s severely lacking in Belgium at the time. The city of Zwevegem was on board and they have been supporting us ever since the first edition of Voltage Festival in 2015.

Now that things were going in the right direction, we’re finally able to maximize our potential.

Now that you are in for the fifth edition: in which ways have you seen your event grow over the years?

In every possible way. We were still young an unexperienced when we started the festival, so we had to learn everything on the go, losing money and making mistakes in the process. But that’s part of the game. Last year, we did a total rebrand of the festival and we decided to focus exclusively on techno. We raised more money for the budget of our production, line-up and promotion. For the first time, we were able to host a festival in a way that’s pretty close to the idea we had in mind when we first dreamed of it. Now that things were going in the right direction, we’re finally able to maximize our potential.

Did this have an effect on the number of visitors?

It did. Our attendees doubled, DJ’s talked about Voltage being one of their stand out festivals in the summer and our name started spreading much further than ever, even beyond Belgium. 25% of our visitors travel to our festival from abroad. Most of them come from France, but some have come from places as far as Australia, Japan and the US.

The lineup of this year’s Voltage Festival is quite overwhelming. How difficult is it to compose such an impressive bill in times of exclusivity contracts, extortionate DJ fees and murderous competition between events?

To be honest, we haven’t been affected by those things all that much. We made a big impact last year and word really got around in the international techno scene. Every DJ we contacted really wanted to play at Voltage and a lot of them even contacted us themselves. This of course had a positive effect on the DJ fees we had to pay. That said, for me there are two kind of festivals. You have those who throw a boatloads of money at everything: high DJ fees, exuberate stage design, carpet-bombing promotion and what not. They can only win their battles with money. It’s a big risk and a path I would never take. Alternatively, you have festivals with a little more soul. Those that try to add something extra to the current festival landscape. Those who try to fill a gap. It might be a longer and harder road to success for them, but once you’re past the tipping point, everyone just wants to be a part of it, from volunteers to artists to visitors. Money, exclusivity, etc. It all becomes less of an obstruction once you’ve made a name for yourselves for the right reasons. I’m happy that Voltage is now, as far as techno goes, firmly in that last category.

If techno is a bubble, it seems to be a very stable one. I don’t really believe that narrative anymore.

According to some, techno is a bubble that’s about to burst…

That’s something I’ve been hearing for two years now. If it’s a bubble, it seems to be a very stable one. I don’t really believe that narrative anymore. You can’t compare the techno scene today with the techno scene of the 90s. Nowadays, techno has a lot of subgenres and the word ‘techno’ has just become an umbrella term. How else could you put music from Drumcode and Donato Dozzy under the same label? So the ‘bubble’ doesn’t exist in my opinion. Different subcultures will rise and fall. People will listen to all sorts of different music as long as artists will stay creative. At the moment, that’s definitely still the case in the larger techno scene.

In your opinion: how is Belgium doing on a global scale, techno-wise?

I would say our clubs and festivals have a real solid reputation. Unfortunately, the current political climate is proving to be a real threat to the event scene. I hope we can soon open up a conversation with local authorities and city councils that strives for a more stable nightlife landscape. It would also be great to see more recognition for promoters who take huge financial risks to provide people a nice day/night out. I hope someone would stand up and unite Belgium’s promoters, so we can have our own contact point that advocates the positive impact of nightlife on our society and economy. Politics aside, a lot of interesting stuff is happening. New initiatives, record labels and producers seem to pop up regularly, so we haven’t reached the full potential in our little country just yet.

Speaking of new record labels, you guys may be one of the first Belgian festivals with one of their own. Why did you decide to take this step?

First of all, we wanted to celebrate our five years of existence in a cool way. We’re not the kind of festival that sets off a load of firework, we wanted to keep our emphasis on the music foremost. Our own record label is our answer to that. This gives us more options as festival bookers too. Sometimes, I really want to book an artist that I think is doing something really special, but I know that only a handful of people would buy a ticket to see him. By managing our own imprint, we can help these artists reach a larger audience, which is beneficial for the festival. It just feels like a natural extension and it helps to further shape the image I want Voltage to have. Additionally, I’ve always wanted to have my own label of course (laughs).

By managing our own imprint, we can help these artists reach a larger audience, which is beneficial for the festival too.

You’re dropping a 4LP box set, The First Transmission, as the very first release. Quite the way to start a label :)

The idea was to have one 12 inch for each subgenre of techno we hosted last year, catering to most of the different kinds of techno fans we attract. We contacted artists we know, as well as bigger names I thought would never say yes, but to my own surprise, all of our first choices wanted to join. Although we worked with some incredibly tight deadlines everything worked out really well. I have to make a shout out to my brother Phaze One. He designed the artwork for the label (as he does for all my projects) and he did a tremendous job in shaping the label to my taste. I’m really proud of how the whole package looks.

Some of these names on this compilation are young Belgian guys that haven’t really broken through. Can you tell us why people should be keeping an eye on them?

I think it’s a mission for every promotor out there to keep an eye on the young, local talent around. Our scene can only stay healthy if we help, nurture and push them as much as possible. In the end, it’s something that will benefit everyone. Look at how The Netherlands made stars from a lot of their own local acts and how this has helped their local electronic music scene. If you’re complaining about exuberant DJ fees, start supporting local talent instead.

A lot of young Belgian producers are making amazing stuff. Phara, Border One, Atis, Twan and Altinbas are some of the brightest producers out there in my opinion. They all have lots of forthcoming stuff on big record labels and their music is already being played by some of the biggest DJ’s out there. Hopefully, local audiences will catch up and give them the praise they deserve. So go ahead and take a listen, what are you waiting for?