For many outside of Belgium, the revelation that this small European kingdom of 10.5 million people has anything resembling a music industry may come as something of a surprise. The discovery that it is actually a fountain of creativity and talent will probably add shock to that. Incomprehensible as it may seem, even a large section of Belgian society is unaware of the burgeoning musical movement its little nation plays unwitting host to. All of which makes the movers, shakers, Svengalis and kingmakers behind the scenes an even more shadowy group.
These are the people who push the buttons and pull the strings; who cadge, cajole and convince the other players in the game to give their band a chance or to put a name out into the Belgian ether. They are the hidden faces of the scene, toiling behind the stardom not only against international indifference but often opposition from within their own borders. They share a common goal and yet competition between them is sometimes fierce.
As befitting a covert centre of operations, the offices of 62TV Records is an unassuming terraced house in a quiet back street of Anderlecht. Without being privy to its existence, one would walk past in ignorance, blissfully unaware that the rise of Belgian legends dEUS and current pulse raisers Girls in Hawaii was masterminded behind its shabby façade. Inside, 62TV shares space and staff with distributing and producing powerhouse Bang!, forming a collaboration which has become one of the most influential in Belgian music.
Wherever you go and whoever you speak to in the Belgian music industry, the name of Pierre van Braekel will eventually crop up. The boss of 62TV and founder of the Nada booking agency has been a major player for the past eleven years. Alongside co-founder Philippe Decoster, van Braekel has been instrumental in sculpting the Belgian musical landscape.
“Philippe and I started off booking bands in Belgium but soon found that when these bands got big, they went off and started working with larger companies,” he says. “It didn’t take us long to realise that something was wrong so we started up a management and recording business and joined with Bang to create a complete record company.”
Van Braekel, a former musician and communications graduate, delved into his past and dug up a few names which he hoped would help get his fledgling empire off the ground. “At university, I interviewed a few up-and-coming young guys in the business as part of my thesis,” he recalls. “When we started out here I looked them up and people like Thierry Coljon at Le Soir were then making their mark.”
Coljon, now Le Soir’s music editor and chief critic, acknowledges the impact of contacts made in those early days. “The whole galaxy of Bang! has definitely grown to play a huge role in the Belgian music industry alongside Le Soir,” he said. “Together they play an important role in the start-up phase of new artists in much the same way as Pure FM does on the radio and Le Botanique and the other cultural centres do on the live scene.”
While Coljon and others played their part in the early rise of 62TV/Bang!, one chance encounter changed things more than any other, not just for the company but the whole of the Belgian music scene.
“We’d been putting on our bands in Brussels for a while when I met a guy from Le Botanique at a gig,” van Braekel remembers. “It was ten, fifteen years ago and at the time Le Botanique was just a chanson venue. We got talking and he offered us a space. They provided the PA and the lights and we booked the bands. That’s how Le Botanique became a rock venue and how we brought bigger and bigger bands to Brussels.”
The man whose chance encounter with van Braekel led to the establishment of one of the premier rock venues in Belgium and helped launch one of its most successful independent labels was Paul-Henri Wauters.
“When we started 20 years ago, we relied very much on the local energy and the people creating that. I think this is normal when you establish something,” Le Botanique’s artistic director says. “You gather people around you who are dynamic and want to be part of this new thing. You build it up together over a number of years and it is a process that never ends. The people and the situation are ever-changing but these foundations you build remain.”
Wauters believes that Brussels in particular is unique in terms of networks due to the cultural diversity in Belgium and the many international communities which thrive in the crossroads of Europe. Most important, he says, is the connection between Le Botanique, the cultural centre of the French-speaking community in the capital, and the Ancienne Belgique, its Flemish counterpart.
“We work together and we have the same mission: to give local bands a chance to get recognised on the international scene,” Wauters explains. “Once a year we host a small Belgian festival and we decide on that together. Other times during the year we have the situation where we have a band which can attract a good audience and we put them on at the AB one day and then the next they’re on here at Le Botanique and we make an integrated promotion for that. These events can only be achieved through cooperation. We have much more to share than to fight against.”
Le Botanique’s innovative collaboration with the Ancienne Belgique is central to a new and stable support network between the capital’s venues. But it wasn’t always that way.
“About ten years ago, the atmosphere in Brussels was very weird,” says Kurt Overbergh, Wauters’ Flemish counterpart at the Ancienne Belgique. “Everyone was very secluded in their own venues and determined to defend their own territory in a very unhealthy way. But in the last five years there has been an increase in very intriguing collaborations between the venues. The set-up with le Botanique would never have been possible a decade ago.”
According to Overbergh, the network built up between the venues could not operate if not for the links they have built up with the managers and booking agencies. “There is a real network with the venues in Brussels and throughout Belgium right now. But to organise anything with the bands you need the community of managers, tour managers and agencies. Working together in a network makes you stronger. We have a common goal to make the cultural landscape of Belgium a better place. It’s a very beautiful time for cooperation.”
Bernard Moisse has a different, less utopian view of the scene. A promoter with ten years of experience working with Belgian and international acts under his belt, Moisse has a more pragmatic outlook.
“I have regular contact with Le Soir, (Belgian magazine) Télémoustique, with Bang, with lots of labels and managers but it is not really a connection,” he says. “It is normal and it is necessary to have contact with these people when you work in the music industry. They are the players and if you want to play too you have to work with them. You don’t have a choice. It’s like family – you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. They are there and you have to be with them. You may not like it all the time but that is how it is.”
Thierry Coljon’s network of industry players has changed over the years but the teams have stayed the same. He still deals mainly with the promotional managers of the record companies who set up interviews with him and provide material for reviews, although most of those he started out with are no longer in the game.
“I’ve been in this business for 25 years, I was the first full time rock critic at Le Soir and all the promo guys I worked with in the 1980’s have since been fired,” he said. “Record companies these days see this job as a young man’s game so I now deal with a lot of fresh faces. Trouble is, some of these guys may be able to speak three languages but a few know absolutely nothing about music.”
Coljon now works in closer contact with the bands in Belgium. “This is a small country and you get to meet the bands more,” he said. “After forming initial links with the artists, I now work more directly with them, but only the Belgian bands as those signed to majors in the UK and US are harder to get in touch with.”
Francois Fabri, manager of up-and-coming bright young things The Vismets, has had many positive experiences working in the multi-layered Belgian music community but while he speaks glowingly of the advantages of networking, Fabri also believes that there are cliques within the wider community which actually oppose collaboration and create barriers.
“There is an established scene and network in Belgium which is archaic and doesn’t like change,” Fabri says. “There are some people in this established circle who criticize new bands openly without justification.
“This is a group of guys from the generation before us who are protecting their status, their acts,” he claims. “But they are eventually going to have to let go. There are so many young managers, bands and promoters coming through, that in five to ten years this old guard are going to have to step aside. You have to give these guys credit because they really pushed Belgian music forward but now they have to make way for a new generation.”
Bernard Moisse agrees. “There is some opposition, yes. Sometimes someone will say, ‘I work with this guy and no other agency’. They have their own people and they have built a relationship and trust with this agency, and that’s cool, but that sometimes stops bands working with another promoter, getting into a venue or getting on a radio show.”
Despite conflicting opinions on the nature of the behind-the-scenes networks, everyone involved says that to stay in the game, you have to play by the rules.
“It can be a lot of fun, but these relationships are business relationships and if you want to work with these people and continue to work with them, you have to be professional,” says Bernard Moisse. “Everybody is important; the musicians, the managers, the venues… Everybody plays a role in making the record or the show and what happens after that. It’s important to have a good relationship with everyone.”
“It is a small country, everyone knows each other and word of your approach spreads quickly,” adds Vismets manager Fabri. “If you’re reliable, people hear and then want to work with you. Promoters and venues respond to the fact that this project is good, this manager and this band are reliable and they’ll turn up and pay the bills. If you can get into the circle you will only stay there and earn respect by being respectful.”