According to Johan van Mulken, the qualities which are crucial to organise a festival like the Downhill festival are being stubborn and passionate, having many many years of experience and a large network, being ready to take a risk, having some self-confidence, and being capable of relying on the professional team of more or less 10 persons that he usually gathers.
Johan started the Downhill festival out of frustration in 2004, when there were fewer concerts belonging to this rather specific music scene in his area. “Then I will do it myself”, he said, he did it, and he has been doing it ever since. Today the members of the core organisation are, apart from Johan, Monique in charge of artist guidance and Roger in charge of press/promotion. Johan is currently already planning the 12th edition of the festival, to be held in April 2018. Let me digress here and mention that the Downhill production also organises concerts which take place throughout the year, e.g. they had Dive performance just a few months ago.
First of all, let me just randomly mention a few bands from previous festivals: Suicide Commando, The Klinik, The Frozen Autumn, Absolute Body Control, The Neon Judgement, Funker Vogt, Unheilig, Grausame Töchter, Agent Side Grinder, The Invincible Spirit, Soko Friedhof. There will be 8 bands performing on the next festival and during its two days there will also be 2 nice after-parties with participation of the local DJ’s who will provide appropriate set lists.
Throughout the years, the festival was organised in various venues in the south of the Netherlands. But for years now, its home-base has been Poppodium Volt in Sittard, the perfect location for the artists. It’s near the Belgium and German border, which means that there is often a lot of foreign guests in the audience, who sometimes outnumber the local scene.
Downhill has become a well-known and respected festival: it has become a significant event that is often contacted by bands who want to perform on it. It is followed by a number of magazines, e.g. Monkeypress, Lumiousdash, 3voor12 VPRO, and, of course, Altvenger team, that had reviews of the festival in the past.
One thing that has to be said is that Johan and his team take really good care of their artists, including picking them up from the airports, providing them good food from perfect catering, finding them very good hotel accommodation, making sure that the backstage area is well organised. And, of course, everything on and off stage has to be perfect. Sound, lights, merchandise stands, sometimes even instruments provided by the organisation, a food truck for the hungry audience, a CD market, clean toilets, everything has to be perfect in every detail. When things are organised with attention to every detail, there is not much that can go wrong. This attention pays off when bands know that they will be taken care of. It can get strenuous for perfectionist organisers when something out of control happens, like the instances when headliners like Suicide Commando and Das Ich have to cancel the show last minute; this has actually happened twice. Despite the enormous stress, Johan always managed to organise replacements just a few days before the beginning of the festival, and that replacement has at least once come all the way from Switzerland.
Johan is also very stubborn: he will persevere to get those bands for the next edition. If he wants something, he will get it done or at least do everything in his power to accomplish it.
Johan is a real loyal man. He has worked for 10 years at the Pinkpop festival for TPF Mojo, has 15 years of experience at the Bospop festival, 22 years ‘Nu of nooit’ festival for SPL and played a big part in saving the last edition of the Eurorock festival in Belgium from becoming a total disaster. This loyalty is present in all aspects of his life: he has been working for the same firm, a bakery, for 30 years.
He is a pillar of reliability when he takes over any job. The festival organisers know it, as well as the bands coming to the Downhill festival. When things go wrong, he stays calm, overlooks the situation and acts upon it.
He is a true music fan, always willing to promote events that he considers worthy, for instance Bimfest, Judgement Fest, Dag des Oordeel, Inpoet reunie, as well as venues in his area like De Nieuwe Nor, De Bosuil en de Oefenbunker.
Of course, the Downhill festival is his main mission.
“It’s so important to have your own targets and not to let them out of sight and hold on to them.” Therefore, the Downhill refuses any kind of sponsoring. One has to keep a clear view on the goal. And of course the ticket-price has to be as low as possible. No more than 20 euros or 35 euros for the next two-day edition. It’s very important that it stays affordable because the festival is very progressive and as such not an obvious attraction to most people. Johan wants to build this annual party both for the audience and a little for himself.
That’s why he invests into it every penny that he earns by working for the other festivals. This is his dream and he is willing to make sacrifices for it.
Of course, Johan explains, how the festival will develop into the future is up to the audience.
The bands booked for the Downhill festival are not necessarily easy to understand. Of course, there are always the major ticket-selling bands, but most of the bands have this sharp edge, they are innovative in some way, they have this entertaining theatrical show and they are normally not seen in south of the Netherlands.
The festival has not yet become all that Johan wants it to be. He keeps pushing its envelope. New staff shirts, flyers and posters are being designed. Press and photo passes look amazing. But his dream is huge and it leaves lots of room for surprises in the future.
text by Bas Mercx
pics by Roger Op Den Camp