Luxembourg: Europe's Smallest Music Market Thinks Big Via 'Sonic Visions'
The 7-year-old festival and conference puts the country's best and brightest new bands and electronic producers in front of a pan-European audience of music industry professionals.
Few people, even in Europe, think much of Luxembourg. The tiny country, bordered by Belgium to the west, Germany to the east, and France to the south, made headlines as a tax haven for corporations (see 2014's ‘Luxembourg Leaks’ financial scandal) over anything else recently. But increasingly the country aims to become known as something else for a younger generation: a hotspot for music. Multiple festivals and a growing indie scene have started to put the tiny country (under 1000 square miles large with a population of just over 500,000) on the proverbial music map.
Case in point? November's 'Sonic Visions' festival and conference, where since 2008 Luxembourg has put its best and brightest new bands and electronic producers forward in front of a pan-European audience of music industry professionals, crossed with fans coming in from neighboring countries with larger music markets, such as France. In an social media driven era when international borders mean less for a band's chances at global success (see Germany's breakout stars of 2014, Milky Chance), Luxembourg and its well funded music export office is increasingly investing in homegrown talent: hoping music can spread the country's still developing sound beyond its geographical disposition.
“We are actively trying to create a scene,” says Thomas Roscheck, who oversees marketing for Rockhal, a state of the art venue that hosts Sonic Visions where acts such as Depeche Mode rehearse before large tours.
“My co-workers and I have been working for ten years to build something here, you now can see in the past few years there are more new bands coming up and the quality of what they are doing is getting better and better.”
Roscheck says Sonic Visions, which in the past has featured local talent paired with bigger international names such as Sigur Rós, Ásgeir, Kwabs and Fritz Kalkbrenner, is the key to showcasing what the tiny country has to offer to the rest of Europe. This year, the festival and conference (taking place November 12 through 15) offers headliners like Michael Kiwanuka, Alabama Shakes and Death Cab For Cutie to help bring in more fans who (they hope) will show up earlier to catch the many local Luxembourg-bred acts also on the winter festival bill.
“We want to bring all this exciting music that we see in different festivals in EU to Luxembourg…It makes no sense to have some of these acts on a single show because they might not draw enough, but if we package all of them together in a festival setting so that people know when they come they can discover quite a lot of [new] local bands,” Roscheck says.
One of the biggest problems in the city, according to Roscheck, is not finding talent in Luxembourg, but keeping them.
“In other countries you call it a brain drain, here we’ve got a music drain,” he says of the exodus of Lux bred talent that often move to other nearby larger cities to ‘make it.’
“It is very common when you finish school, people here go to London, Paris, Brussels or some other cities….we want them to stay here, I mean, Placebo met here, but then they left.”
This year organizers are hopeful that with the opening of a new university in suburban Echt, essentially at Rokhal’s doorstep, seeds can be planted for a music tree set to truly take root into the future.
For its part, Music Luxembourg, the country’s export agency, is helping local acts take their message across Europe via helping with tour support money: something the city has in spades. In 2014, Music Luxembourg says some 972 concerts took place abroad by bands from Luxembourg, up from 910 in 2013. They played in every continent and in 45 different countries, although most of the gigs played were in neighboring countries such as in France (258), Germany (216) and then the United Kingdom (82).
However, getting Luxembourg music heard on a larger scale beyond small clubs by indie bands remains difficult, to say the least.
“They are a very small entity,” says Michael Bisping, Managing Director of Hamburg based A.S.S. concerts & promotion. “It’s 500,000 people…that’s a medium sized city in Germany and to expect a superstar to come out of Luxembourg every year is not realistic.”
Still, Bisping, who attended Sonic Visions in 2014, says there is promise in the as of yet untapped market.
“An event like Sonic Visions proves there is talent worth to be explored and exploited, however I think what they are missing in in Luxembourg is there is no real label of note, there is no music publisher that I know of, there are hardly any managers, there is no [booking] agency, which means Luxembourg musicians really are very wise if they think of the greater region…Belgium, France, Germany to explore instead of staying here.”
But Marc Nickts, who heads up the local performing rights organization SACEM Luxembourg, is more bullish on the idea that talent is staying in the city to build from home.
“In the last four years we paid out more money than the past 19 years before to our writers,” he said, adding, “we now have over 7000 users and we have RTL here, too, it’s an interesting market.”
According to the director, both the size or the market and the amount of members is growing. “We are now adding 50 or 60 members per year and we have over 850 members now in just Luxembourg.”
Nickts says local radio stations are becoming more supportive of homegrown talent, playing up to 5% of local music though they “are not forced to play local artists, like in France.” The local stations are starting to see that “there is no difference between a [Luxembourg artist] like Daniel Balthasar or another singer/songwriter from the United States.”
But for artists such as Luxembourg bred Rome (real name Jérôme Reuter), who has a decent following in Luxembourg and in neighboring countries like Germany after years of putting out records, the market still has a ways to go, echoing what others have said regarding the lack of good managers and labels locally.
“When you have great venues, you have a good scene,” he says, name checking Den Atelier and Rockhal as two that matter in Luxembourg, as well as smaller experimental space Exit 07. Still, Reuter says for most musicians in the city the most important market is Germany. “We lack the infrastructure here, you don’t see managers here, it’s just bands and fans.”
Roscheck is more optimistic about the country’s chances for producing a big band that will do well internationally, and he thinks it will happen sooner rather than later.
“At a certain point this evolution has gained its own momentum…it will happen for us,” he promises.