Pinkpop’s Jan Smeets: “We’re Playing in the Champions League of Festivals” (Part 1)

It’s a busy day at Buro Pinkpop. With Pinkpop’s upcoming edition mere weeks away, the sight of people running back and forth throughout the festival offices is becoming a normal sight. The building is nestled in the community of Geleen (Zuid-Limburg), which is in the very Southern tip of Holland. Despite being so far removed from the big cities, Buro Pinkpop is a bustling community in itself which consists of Pinkpop’s central nervous system, as well as an ongoing memorabilia exhibition. Founder and head boss Jan Smeets couldn’t be more excited for what this year has to offer, leading a pack of busy employees through organizational proceedings before he sits down with All Things Loud for an in-depth, hour-long discussion. From the off, it’s very clear that the 71-year old Smeets has a lot to say.

Pinkpop 2016 is a few weeks away now. How are the preparations going?
The preparations are going good! We had a big meeting this morning (29 April) to discuss the new things that we want to do. Because time goes faster than you anticipate, some of those things get scrapped and some don’t. Pinkpop needs to remember that it’s a traditional rock festival. We’re no Lowlands, we’re no Best Kept Secret, we’re a traditional festival which revolves around the music. Everything else is of secondary importance. Having said that, though, there is one thing which we do place a lot of emphasis on – the Kalm aan Laan. We personally think that we invented the idea of a food truck at Pinkpop, because we started with that years ago. Now, it’s become a hype all of a sudden.

So what’s different this year?
There aren’t too many different things this year. We’re keeping it at four stages and the Garden of Love. We’ve got three big headliners (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rammstein and Paul McCartney), and for all of them you have to prepare a lot of different things.

Paul McCartney will be closing the festival right before your traditional fireworks display, during which you play Beatles classic All You Need is Love. Are there any plans to get McCartney involved?
We still need to discuss that with Paul. I’m not sure if he’s playing All You Need is Love on this tour, but we’ve asked his management and are still awaiting a response. As it stands, though, Paul will finish his show and we’ll do our firework show.

Lionel Richie will be supporting Paul this year on the main stage. How did you manage to book him in a spot which wasn’t at the top of the bill? Because it’s quite surprising to see a name like Lionel Richie not headlining.
We get a lot of offers from acts who want to play at Pinkpop every year. Some of them only want to headline, so we have to apologize and say, “sorry, there’s no place left for you”. For some acts it works out fine, though. Pharrell didn’t mind being sub-headliner last year, and Major Lazer thought it was okay too. With Lionel Richie you just have a lot of luck. He plays so many shows and they all sell out, so he could have just said that he didn’t want to play at Pinkpop. However, he wanted to play, and it was in our advantage that he has the same management as Paul McCartney. That makes everything easier.

It’s also a bit of The Glastonbury Effect, isn’t it? You had The Rolling Stones do Glastonbury one year and Pinkpop the next, and now Lionel Richie is doing the same.
Yeah! You do have to ask yourself one question though, “does this act fit at Pinkpop as well?” If you look at previous line-ups, then you’ll notice that we don’t book many mainstream acts. Lionel, however, is a mainstream act. Since Glastonbury I’ve seen a lot acts who I think could fit perfectly at Pinkpop. We’re very intrigued to see what will show up at Glastonbury this year, and which acts would then fit in perfectly at Pinkpop in 2017.

(c) Sascha Teschner
(c) Sascha Teschner

Have you been to Glastonbury before?
I’ve been there twice. I was there once with mud up until my knees, and another time where I had a lot of trouble with all the dust.

What’s actually the Pinkpop budget this year, if I may ask?
It’s 8 million for the music this year.

So the same as last year.
Yes. When you add all of the production costs it then becomes 15 million euros in total.

How much of that goes to the headline acts?
We’re never allowed to talk about that. I will say that it’s always in the six digits, but it’s never the same in every country. Acts get paid higher amounts in Germany, whereas they’re paid less in Denmark. We know that Roskilde, for example, always offers the least amount of money.

Why do you think that’s the case?
I talked about it with the director of Roskilde. He’s coming to Pinkpop this year for the 16th time and he thinks it’s amazing. We talk about these things, and I’ll go, “wow, did you really offer that much?” Eventually an offer is made by the festival. First you need to see if there’s really a need for that act, and then you have to decide how much you’ll offer for them. The offer should suit the reality, and Holland has always been different to France or, for example, Romania.

(c) Jack Parker
(c) Jack Parker

How do the bookings themselves actually pan out? Do you get a list of available acts, or do you go on the hunt for potential bookings?
We get a list of available acts, and we also already know exactly which bands will be touring in 2017.

Any indication for Pinkpop 2017?
In another interview I mentioned that Foo Fighters, Radiohead and Pearl Jam are the three headliners we’re planning on bidding for next year. We could have gone for Bruce Springsteen again, but he’s played it twice recently so there’s no need for a third time. He’s already playing in Den Haag three days later. Muse also wanted to come back again but we couldn’t say yes to them so soon after the last time (2015), because that just doesn’t work. Rob Trommelen is my man at Mojo who works with the big acts, with Leon Ramakers working with the biggest of them all – The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney etc. He negotiates with all the big acts for everything necessary, from the initial offer to extra requirements and things like travel. When we booked Paul McCartney, we thought he was only going to play two festivals, but that’s now become a whole tour and we didn’t see that coming. He also wants to bring his massive production with him and play the whole show.

It’s three hours long, too.
As it stands I think it’ll be shortened, because we don’t have that much time for him to play. It is the case, though, that he’s got 60,000 kilos worth of production with him. If he’s getting an extra-long set time I can’t say, because he has to be done by 11:30pm too. And that doesn’t include the maximum half hour of delays. At midnight everything has to be done.

You also just talked about how Pinkpop is a traditional rock festival, however the Friday this year is filled with mainstream pop names. Was this a conscious decision that the bookers made?
The programme this year has been specially thought up and divided. I know I often used to say that we eventually can’t avoid dance music, but a lot of people have also forgotten that we were one of the first festivals to embrace electronic acts. We had Underworld a while ago, and that was when Pinkpop lasted just two days. We’ve now gone to three days, and it won’t be any more.

No? Rock Werchter, Glastonbury, Roskilde and Sziget are all longer than three days and extremely successful.
I find longer than three days to be too long, it’s unnecessary. We’ve always got a tough battle with the law because we have to make sure that employees don’t work more than 12 hours per day. Inspectors show up to make sure of it, too. We can manage it quite nicely now, but if you extend the festival to four days it means that people will overwork themselves.

(c) Saskia Bosch
(c) Saskia Bosch

Back to dance music. Last year you had Avicii close out the 3fm Stage, and this year you’ve got at least one dance act booked on each day. How will Pinkpop now compete with dance festivals like Tomorrowland, Mysteryland and Creamfields?
I know a lot of the people in charge at dance festivals like Mysteryland, but we don’t really discuss those kinds of things. However, if we do discuss it then it’s because an act like Major Lazer will make themselves available for a show. We’ll then ask ourselves if it’s a potential competitive booking with a dance festival, and if it isn’t then we’ll tell the act that we can offer them a great slot. If the money suits, then we’ll make a deal. You see, I’ve been working with Mojo since 1986 and one of our earliest agreements was that we had to do something about the usual programme style. Back then I had folk, reggae, hard rock and things like that, with only seven bands on the poster. It was very easy to divide back then, but one day Leon Ramakers said to me that we have to book acts that are currently extremely relevant. In 1986 we had The Cure as headliner, and that was so expensive that I needed to work with Mojo to manage. If I was alone back then I wouldn’t have dared to book them.

So how does Pinkpop compete with festivals that focus more on the whole experience, such as Best Kept Secret, Rock Werchter or Sziget?
We don’t really compete with Best Kept Secret. I think they book great names there, but it’s not big headline names. At Pinkpop it really is all about the headliners, sub-headliners and then the rest. I see Pinkpop as playing on a completely different field to Best Kept Secret. We’re in a Champions League together with Werchter, Rock am Ring and Roskilde, and the rest are playing Jupiler League. It’s not meant negatively, but it’s all about the size of the festival. Best Kept Secret have also announced that they won’t sell more than 25,000 tickets. With that amount of tickets you’ll never be able to make enough money to book the really big acts.

If Pinkpop is part of the Champions League, then do you base that on the headliners or the whole line-up?
All about the headliners. We’ve got, for example, Messi and Ronaldo. If we don’t have them, then we won’t sell that many tickets. People come to see the big names, it’s the same as at a football match. You go there to see the best players and they’re the ones who sell tickets. In the last 10 years, Pinkpop has constantly kept growing. There’s been one small dip, but we usually sell out completely. Last year, the Friday with Muse only sold 12,000 day tickets, but that’s because it’s a working day. The line-up was magnificent on that day, though. Muse sold the Ziggo Dome out three times this year within minutes, meaning that it really does depend on the day. This year, though, it’s looking like the Friday will sell out.

And the other two days?
Well, the weekend tickets have sold out, but there are still some day tickets left for the Saturday. The physical sales in February accidentally messed up 3,000 tickets, which means that on the final day we’ll be having 67,000 people onsite at the festival. Pinkpop hasn’t sold out though, as the media purports. Only the weekend tickets have all gone! We started selling tickets in Primera stores this year, but they accidentally printed too many and it made for a big problem. Some tickets were half-printed, and some didn’t have a barcode. All of this while we’ve registered those tickets in the system. After thirty minutes the counter went down to 0 and we weren’t able to sell more, even though there were still plenty of tickets left.

Would it not be an idea to print tickets in advance and only sell what’s physically available?
Possibly. We’ve also looked at using a similar system to Glastonbury where you have to register to be eligible for buying tickets. Something like that gives you priority to buy tickets and puts you in an advantage.

(c) René Bradwolff
(c) René Bradwolff

And then also a picture of yourself and further information?
We’ve thought about that as well. Tomorrowland are also currently doing that, but Glastonbury have so much demand that so many people still end up missing out. It sells out instantly, but afterwards people still have to pay for the actual ticket a few months later. If they don’t, then other people have the chance. Every festival has their own system. At the moment I can say that we’ve sold 114,000 unique tickets for Pinkpop this year, and I’m very happy with that.

So what’s the split between weekend tickets and day tickets this year?
It’s 40,000 weekend tickets, and then the rest are day tickets. For example, the Paul McCartney day has sold 27,000 day tickets which means that there will be 67,000 people onsite. We have permission to host 70,000 people, meaning that the remaining 3,000 tickets are for competitions and for our sponsors. We give them tickets so that they can give them away in a competition. It all has to fit within that 70,000 figure.

I just want to ask about Pinkpop’s target audience. What is it? Because this year’s line-up is so varied that it’s very hard to pinpoint. You’ve got Bring Me the Horizon and Kygo on the same day, for example.
Pinkpop’s target audience is simply lovers of popular music. If you look at our history, you can see that three different generations of people visit Pinkpop. I also have to add that Pinkpop visitors come for progressive pop music, and not things like Andre Hazes. That’s also pop music, but not our kind of audience.

The headliners this year are all big, legendary names. But how do you see the development of future, new headliners panning out? Which acts are, according to you, potential headliners?
I can very easily talk about a band like U2, but then again they’re also massive and have been doing their thing for years. If you look at a specific style of pop music, for example the Rihanna’s of today, you’ll see that they get booked for a festival like Pukkelpop. We don’t, and never will, book an act like Rihanna for Pinkpop. I wouldn’t want that, because I don’t think she belongs at our festival. At Pukkelpop they think differently about that, though. My grandchildren would go absolutely crazy, because they love Rihanna. That just makes me think to myself, “alright, I’m getting old”, haha. Thankfully I leave the bookings to a trusted group of seven people at Mojo. They also do the bookings for Lowlands, Down the Rabbit Hole, We Are Electric and Pitch Festival. These people obviously know what they’re doing, and they know exactly which acts fit the best at each festival. Pinkpop is first and foremost their priority, though. Then you’ve got Lowlands in second, and then Down the Rabbit Hole and other events.

So how many final decisions are made by you?
Not many, I leave that to them. It used to be that they had to run everything by me, but anymore that much. Behind you there’s a whole cupboard of music magazines sorted by name, and those kind of magazines introduce me to new music which I ought to listen to. I always take a look on Pollstar to see if I missed them first time round, and I also look at the charts and how big the shows are that they play. You need to keep an eye on that for sure. In the past, we would always receive packages with lots and lots of CDs. I was always told by people that those bands would become sensations, but now all of that is different. I just go to YouTube and look at how many views their videos have. I find that a good indicator of how popular they are today. I also listen to see if it’s my taste, and then I look further to see if it really would fit at Pinkpop.

(c) Jack Parker
(c) Jack Parker

This is the end of part one. Check back next week for the second part of our interview with Jan Smeets.

Day tickets are still available for Pinkpop 2016’s first two days. Buy them here, whilst you can find more information about the whole weekend (10-12 June) here.

This interview was translated from Dutch into English.