A conversation with Anton Vanderhasselt

It’s no secret that cultural institutions are been hit pretty hard by the corona crisis. Being an agency from Brussels we wanted to know how some of our favourite local hide-outs are coping with the situation. Enter, Anton Vanderhasselt. As the Music Production Officer at BOZAR he enlightens us how they are dealing with the crisis, how it reveals an eerie truth about the music industry and how and how they’re experimenting with new ways to connect to their audiences. 

Hi Anton, how are you experiencing the corona crisis on a professional level?

I am experiencing unprecedented times regarding my job and find it very ambivalent. I usually produce concerts but because this is not allowed by the government at the moment (and probably for some time to come) my job has certainly changed a lot. We usually have a very busy period from March to May at BOZAR, so apart from re-organizing the postponed concerts I’m having more time than usual to prepare for the season to come, which is great. On the other hand, this period should have been packed with awesome concerts that we unfortunately do not get to see now, which makes me very sad. So I would say the workload has changed in the sense that there is more administrative work and less on the field. 

This situation lays bare a very sad truth about the viability of the system as is.

Are there any measures that BOZAR already had prepared? Was there a sort of ‘emergency plan’ in the works?

There was not a “Pandemic Program” already in the works before this crisis hit, but BOZAR was very reactive to the crisis in my opinion (as we had an alternative program in place only one week after the lockdown went in). I want to stress that this would not have been possible without the courage, willingness and flexibility of the artists we work with.

We launched the “BOZAR at Home” online program that features the artistic and cultural diversity of BOZAR, offering live concerts, a virtual visit of the Keith Haring exhibition, singing workshops, sofa screenings, a selection of suggested literature during the crisis, and more. This is our first-ever online concert series though, so we are very proud to still spread beautiful music, even in difficult times. But do not be mistaken, it demands collaboration to set this up, for example with our artist in residence Avi Avital whose concert we had to cancel due to the lockdown. Luckily he was very flexible, and open to our suggestion of live streaming his concert via the BOZAR online network. In a weird way this situation brings us all closer together, because I never saw Avi’s living room before.

How did the artists deal with the cancellations?

I feel that most artists are taking this pretty well (considering that many of them have come to count on touring for income and exposure these days). Mostly they are open to postponing the concert to next season or finding an alternative way like a live streamed session from the artist’s home, or a workshop etc.

Our programmers try their absolute best to cancel as few concerts as possible and are still actively looking for new dates for those concerts that could not take place, like the Damon Albarn show that was supposed to première in BOZAR in May. It is not always easy, but we will get there.

How is your team dealing with it?

We still have our weekly team meeting on Zoom, so we keep in contact. Normally we work together quite a lot so this is certainly new for all of us. We get along very well so seeing each other every week to discuss how things are going at home or the progress at BOZAR is always a very fun moment. I guess everyone is dealing with it pretty well. I am so much looking forward to having lunch again together though!!

Is Bozar experimenting with alternative platforms? Or online solutions to close the physical gap?

Other than the online program that we offer on our website we are still perfecting our app (that already has some cool features). For an institution like BOZAR it is imperative that the art we program reaches the public in one way or another, so these online solutions are important for us to keep in touch with our audience (and maybe reach a new one as well, two birds with one stone-wise). The virtual tour of the Keith Haring expo is a perfect example of this, and well worth the online visit by the way!

Do you think people will change their behavior in your industry, post-corona?

I hope this crisis makes people in the industry, but also the audiences, realise the importance of live music and the venue circuit. Without it, the economic “system” for artists completely crumbles down: if they cannot play concerts touring in venues and festivals they can’t make much money selling music or merch (albums sales have been on the wane since the early 2000s anyway and streaming service royalties offer only a fraction of a cent per stream), so I wonder what remains for them after the labels and agencies have taken their cut. A government that keeps on cutting funds is certainly not helping obviously, but I do feel that either way the sector should try to be more independent from government funding.

I know the drastic measures are a matter of public health and it should always be prioritized, but this situation lays bare a very sad truth about the viability of the system as is. I think like any healthy business our industry should diversify more, so the impact of shutting down the live circuit is not as disastrous for the artists as it will  be now. Among other things this implies a different way of consumption though, so that their income can be more balanced between album sales/streams, live performing and other sources of income. A big part of this is not really in their hands, but the audience’s and the way they consume and value music. But I guess that if we all buy more albums to support them in this hard time, a lot of the money will go to the labels and agents etc. And if I’m honest, I don’t know if I trust the industry enough to say that that money is split correctly. In any case, this need to diversify will lead to creative solutions, I’m sure. This is after all a pretty creative industry.

What are you predictions for the time to come? How will a visit to Bozar look like in the future?

I think the near future will be a bit awkward in the beginning. I think we’ll see a lot of face masks and gloves, and that people will be a bit paranoid at first. I hope that this will not affect our attendances too much, but I fear for a hard time to come. It is still unsure when venues are allowed to open so it’s hard to tell for now.

I would love to see virtual experiences rise in popularity, accessibility and especially quality so many more people can experience our exhibitions and concerts. This will be key in reaching out to other audiences, both young and old. But it will never be the same as actually being in that magnificent building and seeing it unfold right in front of your eyes. I hope people don’t forget that.

And finally, any tips for our readers on how to pass the time during this crisis?

I recently started repairing some old tape recorders (one I found at my parent’s house and another I bought at the Marolles a while back) and without any real technical background managed to make them both work again. I guess these trail-and-error projects are great to pass the time with because they keep old electronics from being thrown away and you pick up a few things about mechanics. And now I can listen to all my old mixtapes again, yay!

>> Stay in the loop. Check out BOZAR’s website here.