Lifetime Achievement Award 2019: Dour Festival

Pictures by Olivier Bourgi, Logan Wyckhuys, Caroline Coolen, Daniil Lavrovski

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Every year, the Red Bull Elektropedia Lifetime Achievement Award is awarded to people who have made an enormous contribution to Belgian electronic music. This year, we’re handing out two of them; both to festivals that have shaped the national festival landscape for good: Pukkelpop and Dour Festival. The latter’s importance cannot be underestimated. Across the country, teenagers’ first experience with electronic music often comes from their first visit to Dour Festival. By doubling down on alternative music in all its shapes and forms, Dour was able to cultivate a loyal and ever growing following of dedicated fans across the continent during its 31 years of existence. At the same time, the festival’s expansion never came at a cost of intimacy or low ticket prices. “Dour is a community we value deeply”, says main promoter Damien Dufrasne. We visited the man at the office after this year’s edition to see what it takes to lead such a massive undertaking every year, thanking him and his team of thousands for their incredible achievements over the last 3 decades.

Dour Festival started over 31 years ago. What did the festival look like in those days?

In comparison to the most recent edition, the first one was really small. One stage, one day, a few bands and no campsite. It was a little bit of a disaster, but Carlo – founder of the Dour Festival - and his team persevered and evaluated what could be done better. Each year the festival grew step by step, but each upgrade posed new challenges. We just listened to the needs and wishes of our visitors and that’s how we ended up with 7 stages, 5 days and a massive campsite.

There’s a strong sense of community at Dour Festival. How did this come to be?

Dour Festival is a community now. We’re a music festival, but we do a lot more than just booking shows. Our visitors arrive on Wednesday and leave on Monday: that’s like going on a 6-day holiday to a vacation village. There are lots of performances in every style of music, but the campsite is just as important. Dividing this up in different themed campsites to cater to different types of visitors was a great success. Now we have a Green Camping, Comfort Camping, The Village with tipi’s, festihuts, flexotels and more; and since this year’s edition: Dour Les Bains with extra relaxation amenities. On the festival site, we add new initiatives every year, like the Green Agora, the special beer bar, etc. All these formulas are successful, so this proves the importance of offering more than just music.

It’s important to keep your unique identity and enforce it; that community feeling is crucial.

Tell us how you personally became involved in the festival and how you ended up leading the whole operation…

I started as a volunteer on the second edition, helping to build the stage. Gradually I got more responsibilities and I started to link up with the founder Carlo. Together we created a small concert hall called Rockamadour and we started Rif Raf (a former free music magazine distributed in Dutch and French across Belgium, ed.). At a certain moment, Carlo went into politics and left me in charge.

What’s your biggest rule of thumb when you organize a festival like Dour?

Listening to your visitors after each edition! If their demands are reasonable and doable, then there’s nothing holding you back to act up on them. After all, a happy festival customer is a customer that will come back next year.

Do you visit other festivals to see what they are up to?

It’s important to look at what’s happening elsewhere, but you can never replicate what happens on other festivals. Standing out with your own identity is crucial. Dour does this through its lineup, its atmosphere and maybe even by its level of production that may not be as professional as those of others, but at least it allows us to offer tickets at reasonable prices. Doing the exact same thing other festivals do is not the way, because we’ll end up with the same thing everywhere.

Have you never felt pressure to raise the ticket fees in order to further develop the festival production?

Yes, we feel that pressure, but our visitors come here exactly because of those low prices. Moreover, everything is included in the ticket: entry to the festival, parking and access to the (basic) campsite. Additionally, most of the people that visit us are young – and those are usually not the kind that have a lot of money to spend. So making sure the tickets remain affordable for everyone is really important to us. Of course, every promoters’ dream is to further raise the price so that they could offer more comfort, but in our case I believe we reached a good compromise for both sides.

Doing the exact same thing other festivals do is not the way, because we’ll end up with the same thing everywhere.

Have there ever been moments when you wanted to give up?

I think you should always remain positive, even though that’s not easy sometimes. For example: we don’t know why, but our ticket sales only start picking up very late. Sometimes we find ourselves 2 weeks before D-day and we still have a lot of tickets to sell to get breakeven. If something bad (like a national emergency or whatnot) happens during that time, it could possibly have a major impact on our sales. So yes, usually the last weeks leading up to the festival are nerve-wracking. Obviously, it’s easy to say this in hindsight, but by now we’ve learned that it’s a yearly phenomenon. Other than that, problems can always arise out of nowhere when you’re dealing with an organization like this. The rule of thumb here is to remain positive during these times of stress and hope that nothing bad will happen.

Often Dour , more than other festivals, gets framed in the media as the place where drugs are rampant. How do you deal with this?

Obviously it’s a matter we must take seriously. As the promoter of a festival you have two options: either you support prevention initiatives, but then you admit there are problems with substance abuse on your event; or you can simply deny it. Like a pater familias, you need to be honest and talk about the things as they are. In the world of events, drugs and alcohol are everywhere. We take a lot of stick because we choose to work with organisations that strive for more safety and prevention. Off course, it’s always bad news when you hear that someone had a substance problem. That hurts us, because we place ourselves in the position of the parents. But unfortunately, these things can always happen. We firmly stand behind our zero tolerance policy, but on such a big event like Dour there are always risks.

A festival should never give you the feeling that you’re just in a massive congregation of people. The human element is something you need to focus on at all times.

This year, it seemed that Dour Festival wasn’t targeted as much as other festivals. Do you have an idea why?

We were lucky to have no major drug-related incidents. Unfortunately, this year it was other festivals that had to deal with drug-related incidents and of course that’s what the press focused on in their case. As for Dour Festival, for the first time this year, together with the Red Cross we installed a centre for psychosocial help. The media mainly focused their attention on this novelty. I believe The Red Cross should be offering this service on other festivals in Belgium too. Does that mean we have more cases of harassment nowadays? I don’t know, but surely it is becoming a new major topic in the world of events and festivals. This summer, every interview I gave included a question about harassment.

How will Dour evolve in the years to come?

It’s important to keep your unique identity and enforce it; that community feeling I told you about is crucial. At the same time, we aim to further expand our activities. New stages, new initiatives, new hidden corners where people can explore new things when they have had enough of big stages for a moment. There’s definitely still a lot of room for improvement in terms of food, drinks, animation. I think you can think of it as small festivals within the festival.

At what point does a festival become too big?

A festival should never give you the feeling that you’re just in a massive congregation of people. The human element is something you need to focus on at all times. That’s why we expanded to a larger location that allows for growth in the coming years. Not to allow more people, but to give more space to our visitors.

What are you actually doing during the festival itself? Are you walking around solving problems with your walkie-talkie everywhere? Or are you enjoying some concerts?

In an ideal situation, there would be no problems, so we wouldn’t have to do anything. We have a strong production team that we’re in contact with at all times, so technically they are taking care of business during those 5 days. As for us, we need to be available at all times should a problem occur. If that’s not the case, we are walking around checking things out, taking pictures for the evaluation afterwards, answering a few emails and watching a concert if the schedule allows it. I try to avoid to party too much myself…

How do you feel about receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for your contributions to the Belgian music scene over the years?

I was a bit surprised to be honest. It felt great. Our job as festival promoter is to make sure people have a great time. We don’t really feel like our job is all that exceptional. What is remarkable is the team effort: we work with thousands of volunteers and employees. Sometimes we forget the kind of pressure we have on our shoulders, so when we heard the good news it was a pleasant surprise. I’ve never been a guy that’s super communicative about his job or his achievements; that’s not really important to me. As a promoter you need to stay humble. So yeah, thank you very much for the award!