The secret of Eurosonic Noorderslag

Maruja Limón in the Der Aa-kerk. Photo by Bart Heemskerk

What makes the festival such a success?

The secret of Eurosonic Noorderslag

Dua Lipa, Calvin Harris, James Bay, George Ezra: these and other big-name artists had no qualms travelling to Groningen to perform at Eurosonic Noorderslag. Rob Ahlers tried to figure out the secret behind the music festival’s success.
By Lydwine Huizinga
2 March om 13:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 March 2021
om 12:01 uur.
March 2 at 13:51 PM.
Last modified on March 3, 2021
at 12:01 PM.

It started in 1996 with just nineteen performances and has since grown into a four-day festival with no fewer than four hundred bands, four thousand behind-the-scenes professionals, and forty thousand visitors. Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS) is one of the most successful European music festivals, but until now, no one had tried to find out why. 

‘Sometimes we miss things because they’re so small, and sometimes because they’re so big’, says Rob Ahlers, laughing. He used to be a musician and a music teacher, but four years ago he was looking for a new challenge and decided to become an academic. On March 1, he received his PhD for his research into the success of ESNS.


‘The power of ESNS is in how multi-faceted it is’, says Ahlers. The festival isn’t just a springboard for artists, but also a great networking opportunity for the European music industry. ‘International collaboration isn’t just about coal and steel anymore; the cultural sector has become an important player.’ 

The Groningen festival plays a facilitating role in this, he says. ‘And let’s not forget the festival’s visitors. ESNS introduces new talent to a wide audience.’ 


The festival wants to counter the dominance of the American music industry, Ahlers explains. But it started out much smaller: as a music contest between Dutch and Belgian bands. Northern bands felt they were being overlooked here, which led to the creation of Noorderslag. 

These days, the festival has combined the two, providing a stage for both local and European artists. ‘The festival’s strength lies in the fact that it was conceived in Groningen and is still being held here. It’s Groningen heritage’, says Ahlers. ‘The festival would feel very different if it took place in Amsterdam.’  

Digital development

This year’s corona-proof edition was as success, which provides hope in these dark days for the cultural sector, Ahlers says. ‘Seeing things in real life is essential for visitors, but ESNS took the pandemic as an opportunity to develop digitally. The past few years, the festival was at maximum capacity in terms of visitors. This could expand the festival’s reach.’ 

These days, people are used to meeting online. For many professionals, it was an easy way to meet up after all, Ahlers says. ‘I expect the digital aspect to remain a part of the festival.’ 


He has complete faith in the future of ESNS. ‘The festival has continued to grow and innovate, which is necessary if you want to keep going. ESNS is an example to other showcase festivals, and bands are always proud to say they’re playing here. As long as the festival keeps reinventing itself, we’ll have a super cool event in our city.’


02 March 2021 | 3-3-2021, 12:01

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