Sonic Switch-Up: Eurosonic Noorderslag 2021 goes online

With a return to pre-COVID normality still elusive, the organisers of Eurosonic Noorderslag explain how they've delivered an all-virtual event for 2021

Feature by Joe Goggins | 13 Jan 2021
  • Flohio performing at Eurosonic Noorderslag 2020

When coronavirus lockdowns began to shutter the global live music industry last March, the organisers of Eurosonic Noorderslag might have felt like they’d dodged a bullet.

After all, the 2020 edition of the festival – held every year since 1986 in the Dutch city of Groningen – was able to go ahead as planned, dodging the stranglehold that COVID-19 took on Europe by mere weeks when it took place as usual in mid-January. In the early days of the pandemic, it was far from clear that live music would remain largely mothballed into 2021. As last year drew to a close, though, it became increasingly obvious that it’d be a long time before events on the scale of Eurosonic – which draws in excess of 40,000 people from around the world – would be viable.

Still, there was apparently never any question that it would continue for 2021 in some form. Eurosonic, like South by South West in the States or The Great Escape in the UK, carries an importance that goes beyond just the communion of attracting festival-goers from across the continent; it’s also a key exchange for the industry in Europe, from the associated conferences to the fact that a clutch of agenda-setting awards are handed out every year at Eurosonic, including the Music Moves Europe Talent Awards.

Accordingly, organisers including Head of Programming Robert Meijerink set about putting together an entirely virtual edition that would simultaneously deliver the kind of line-up you might expect in a normal year, as well as start conversations about what the eventual reopening of the live sector might look like, as the rollout of vaccines begins to bring it into prospect. Meijerink, who confesses the process of adapting Eurosonic for a virtual audience was a bumpy and consistently stressful one, realised early on that flexibility was going to be key.

“The intention was to keep the basic values for both the conference and festival," Meijerink says. "Normally around 350 artists play during a physical edition, but online, almost everything is different. We decided to decrease the amount of artists, because we figured out that the general attention span of the audience is pretty low. For the conference, the general focus is the road to recovery. It’s all about the current situation and future of the music industry.”

Even with a more limited programme than usual, the scope of Eurosonic’s live offer in 2021 remains impressive; in total, 189 up-and-coming artists from 36 different countries will stream sets over a four-day period. Some traditions are being preserved, such as the showcase of the newest Dutch talent at the Noorderslag event on the Saturday night, as well as the intertwining of the festival with the MME Talent Awards, a long-established and trusty barometer of fresh talent that has counted the likes of Pale Waves, Pip Blom, Daughters of Reykjavík (fka Reykjavíkurdætur), Rosalía and Sigrid among its nominees in recent years.

Preparations for the awards began in earnest as early as September, even with no decisions yet taken on whether or not an in-person ceremony would be viable. “We decided we’d work on a hybrid version of the awards to try to keep our options open,” explains Project Manager Edlef Heeling. “We communicated earlier then ever before with everyone involved, in order to produce content and interviews with all the nominated artists in case we were not able to get them over to Groningen. Six weeks ago, our strategy proved to be a lucky decision, once travel bans were in place from the beginning of December and restrictions became more severe. By that point, we’d created the Nite Hotel, a digital venue, so we were well-placed.”

The majority of the work towards the festival has been done from home, and in the collaborative spirit of Eurosonic, Meijerink and his colleagues found themselves looking across the continent for inspiration when it came to working out the nuts and bolts of a digital edition. “There were other festivals trying out these online versions, so we attended as many as we could to get a feel for what worked and what didn’t. There were a couple that stood out in particular as being really well-organised: Ireland Music Week in October, and Luminous Festival in Finland back in June. Those gave us confidence that we could keep the ecosystem of promoting new, emerging acts active and alive.”

Despite the painful rubber-stamping of the UK’s divorce from the European Union at the end of last year – as Heeling notes, the MME Talent Awards are directly backed by the EU – British artists have not been precluded from involvement in either Eurosonic itself or the awards, with Brighton upstarts Squid securing a nomination to ensure British representation post-Brexit.

The likes of Grantham singer-songwriter Holly Humberstone, Welsh post-punk trio Adwaith, Manchester garage rockers The Goa Express and alt-pop innovator Katy J Pearson will all stream sets at the festival, but Scottish involvement is limited to Isle of Skye native Brìghde Chaimbeul, the inventive piper who earned rave reviews from well beyond the Gaelic community for her 2019 debut The Reeling and who’s appetite for adaptation – her music reinterprets traditional approaches to the smallpipes and takes influence from well beyond Scotland’s borders – has served her well as the pandemic has rolled on.

"I've basically had to become a videographer," Chaimbeul laughs as she reflects on 2020. "Quite a few festivals have gone down the virtual route, so I've had to figure out how best to film and mix everything. It's a totally different way of thinking: lighting, backdrops, camera angles. It's challenging, but it's been a good thing to have to figure out how to home record and mix my own music properly as a necessity."

As heartening as it’s been for the organisers to see the entire industry adopt a can-do attitude in the face of adversity over the past year, they still, like the rest of us, hope for a fully-fledged return to normality by the 2022 festival – although Meijerink is not opposed to keeping some digital aspects in place to further Eurosonic’s reach if this year proves a success. For Heeling, meanwhile, the praise is reserved exclusively for the artists who have banded together to make this most of unusual of instalments a reality. “We’ve been very lucky in terms of their support and flexibility, given that so many of them are in such a difficult position themselves. All I can really add is this – support the artists!”

Eurosonic Noorderslag runs online from 13-16 Jan, with all sets free to view at