AIR’s head of music Tom van Wijk on Amsterdam’s club scene
A week from now Amsterdam will be overrun with DJs, producers, journalists, PRs and a whole host of other music industry types as ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event) kicks off. Every year the Dutch city plays host to ADE, which has become one of the biggest and most important events of its kind – and this year revolves around an extra special celebration, 25 years of house music in Holland. Ahead of next week’s celebrations, I spoke to the head of music at one of Amsterdam’s best-known clubs, AIR, to find out more about the club’s history and to get the lowdown on the club scene in Amsterdam.
Tell me a bit about the history of AIR and how you got involved with the club?
AIR was founded by Sander Groet, Sjoerd Wynia and Niels de Geus in 2010. Sander is known for his Mysteryland Festival and ID&T background. Sjoerd and Niels were already partners as The Good Guyz, producing many major festivals. Together they started AIR, at the spot where the legendary club iT used to be in the Nineties. This was one of the places where house music emerged in Holland.
Of course, a new club needs a head of music and this is when I came in to play: I felt honoured to work on this new project within Amsterdam’s nightlife, especially as there was so much history involving many different generations of clubbers.
What was the building used for before it became a club?
AIR is actually the only club in Amsterdam which is built as such. After closing iT in the late Nineties, the owners demolished the whole venue to create a new one at exactly the same spot, which became AIR a few years later.
Who played the very first party there?
The first party was on April 29th, known as Queensnight in Holland, the biggest party weekend of the year. It was Sander Kleinenberg who invited the first guests to AIR.
How did you get involved with the club scene in Amsterdam?
When I was 18-years-old I came across the opportunity to organise a party in one of Amsterdam’s legendary venues: Mazzo. My party took place on the last day of all final high school exams. The place was packed with students celebrating this milestone. Unfortunately I was the one who didn’t pass my exam and so had plenty of time that summer to continue organising parties in Mazzo and I started my first company. Later that year I also started working as the producer for Chemistry, an important house and techno promoter at that time. Chemistry brought house music to Dutch public radio for the first time in 1995. Chemistry (founded by Eelko Anceaux and DJ Marcello) was my school and gave me the opportunity to do the things I’ve been able to do for the last 10 years in this industry.
Which DJs inspired you when you first got into house and techno?
I think it was the Dutch artist Roog, who I first started listen to, as I had some music from his project called Hardsoul. Regarding Techno, it was definitely Shinedoe’s ‘Dillema’, the B-side of her EP Alpha, that made me love techno big time. Roog inspired me with his warm soulful house, which was a style that was big at that time in Amsterdam. While Shinedoe got me with her stripped, deep techno.
Who were the big DJs in Holland back in those days?
In Holland the likes of Marcello, Eddy de Clerq, Dimitri, Joost van Bellen, Isis, Per, Roog and Erick E were the pioneers starting house music in Amsterdam. I think they were Holland’s most well-known DJs at that time. Also new generation artists like Victor Coral and Brian S were getting really popular among the new Amsterdam student generation.
How was the scene in Amsterdam when you first started going to clubs? What were the ‘hotspots’ back then?
There were obviously fewer clubs in Amsterdam than there are now. At that time Chemistry was a big influencerin Amsterdam clublife, throwing weekly R.U.S.H. nights on Thursdays and Chemistry nights on Saturdays in Escape, which were the most popular events. As they were weekly, you didn’t go there only for a dance, but they also functioned also a social hangout. Pop temples like Paradiso and Melkweg also regularly programmed with popular dance nights. Apart from the clubs there were also some so-called ‘DJ bars’ like Twisted, Vaaghuyzen, Stereo Sushi, and a smaller nightclub called Club NL where clubbers loved to hang out.
How has the club scene changed since those early days?
The world famous RoXy burned down, Mazzo was closing and so did club iT. Chemistry changed its venue, leaving Escape. Escape changed into a pretty commercial club and new clubs popped up like Panama, Studio 80, Sugar Factory, 11 (later Trouw), and so did AIR three and a half years ago.
The industry became larger as the entry barriers were becoming lower, as a result new promoters appeared thick and fast, new house genres were constantly developing and the amount of producers and DJs exploded. Bars installed DJ booths and had DJs spinning over the weekends. Minimal and Techno became more mainstream, but we also saw the rise of more commercial genres, like what many call now EDM. Also producers and DJs started to mix urban music styles with house music. This so-called eclectic genre changed the variety on the dancefloors, there was a wider cultural and social crossover.
I think the total effect of the house explosion worked out two-sided; on one hand the scene became way bigger in a small amount of time, on the other hand it became more and more segmented and served way more ‘niche-groups’ than before.
What’s the best aspect of the club scene in Amsterdam?
The Amsterdam scene is pretty big and varied in its programming and crowd with some high quality clubs. The competition is pretty fierce as there are more promotoes, clubs and festivals than ever, but everyone is pretty close with each other and sometimes working together on some projects, making Amsterdam’s scene strong as a whole and interesting for the whole world.
Any negative points?
Well, the success of the nightlife in Amsterdam combined with the big competition and the segmentation, is also a threat as such. Amsterdam is only a small city and we need to share the crowd. So sometimes you win some, and sometimes you lose some.
I also think people could party or dance more on the dancefloors. With the popularity of deeper music styles, smartphones and with so many parties going on each weekend, it looks like the crowd sometimes forgets to dance their ass off.
How could the club scene in Amsterdam be improved?
If the government allowed free closing times for all clubs. With the new mayor (Eberhard Van der Laan) it already loosened up a little bit, but it would be great if we could speed this up the coming years. However, I think he already made a great start.
But even more important, the club scene lost some of its colour over the last years. The first generation of clubbers is about to go extinct and with that so does their spirit: an open minded and positive party spirit. It seems like the extravaganza has left the dancefloors, like people don’t dare to be themselves anymore, they’re afraid to be different. This might be a result of the segmentation of all subcultures inside the dance industry? However, that is probably a task for us, as organisers to create an environment for people to enhance their feelings and to express themselves any way they want.
Who are the hottest Dutch artists right now, in your opinion?
If you look at this in a worldwide perspective then of course we are talking about the likes of Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, Nicky Romero, Hardwell, Afrojack, W&W and so on. Hitting the Beatport top 10 every day and have big careers in the USA and beyond. But that is only one side of the music scene, the more commercial styles, charted by the DJ Mag Top 100 poll. A newcomer, and one of a kind, Bakermat is incredibly popular among students in Holland but also France and other countries in Europe.
But I think there are many other artists who are in the more non-commercial shadow, as Joris Voorn is already at the top for years. And then there are talents who are really upcoming internationally as well like Tom Trago, ONNO, Makam, Egbert, ROD (aka Benny Rodrigues) guys from the Slapfunk label (Samuel Deep, Anil Aras, De Sluwe Vos), Boris Werner, Juan Sanchez and many more. I think there is so much talent at the moment, especially in the more underground sounds. Of course the more commercial names are always highlighted because of the commercial polls. However, the underground styles are getting more and more mainstream, so that is a good development.
Apart from AIR where would you recommend a newcomer to Amsterdam to visit club-wise?
I think Studio 80 and Trouw are great clubs with A-class profiles for people who are more into the tech-house/techno styles. There is also a new temporary venue called Toren, for some more alternative club program. But also for a Yoga class or to enjoy a coffee whilst overlooking the wonderful Amsterdam city sights and the main river.
How has AIR changed since it was first opened?
Program and vision-wise not much really. We still want to be a home to a diverse crowd and sounds, with the best soundsystem in Amsterdam. With an international program, but also typical Amsterdam club nights. At the other hand you need to be dynamic, and adapt your nights and sounds to what is now happing. You need to be flexible and keep your club exciting for your returning visitors.
However, we are finishing our rebuild at the moment, as we think we need to stay fresh, we have built a third room, enlarged the dancefloor big time, redecorated the club and renewed lots of other stuff, to be ready during ADE in the week of October 16-20.
What can a first-time visitor to the club expect to experience?
A pretty large club, but with an intimate feeling, a great soundsystem, friendly staff, and hopefully all other tools needed to enhance quality of life [laughs].
What do you love most about running a club? Is there anything you dislike?
I really like both day life and night life, however night life is more unpredictable and exciting. And I really think music, the socialising between people and releasing yourself is very important in this daily life. I hope I can enhance this with my work, as I think clubbing can be a good way to achieve all of this in one night.
You guys also run festivals – can you tell me a bit about that side of the business?
It is at least as fun, hardworking and satisfying as running a club. I think Holland has the most festivals per square meter then everywhere else in the world, so the competition is big. The founders of AIR all have a festival background, so it was an easy step for us to take. We added five festivals the last three years, but all with it’s own feeling and crowd. The summer season is the most difficult one for clubs, and for us it is a way to showcase ourself outdoors and work on some nice side projects alongside the club. It makes us as AIR not only a club, but moreover a facilitator in nightlife and daytime festivals. We also produce our own festivals.
What does the future hold for AIR?
We’ve actually just begun, as we started only three and a half years ago as a club and now facilitate different kind of events based on Amsterdam nightlife. Apart from the events we organise now, we are already busy with new events and venues. So to be honest, I don’t really know what the future will bring us exactly. But it probably features a lot of new stuff, to keep us moving. I think you simply need to as this industry is changing so rapidly, there’s no other option than to keep up your speed and keep moving.
Any predictions for the future of Amsterdam’s club scene?
I think it’s getting stronger and stronger. Because of the big competition, everyone involved needs to stay sharp, needs to keep moving, needs to re-develop, and I think that can only lead to better ideas, where the best will survive. However, together with the celebration of 25 years of house music this year, I also think we have entered a new era of dance music worldwide. Where house music was mainly common in European countries at first and at some places in the States, now the whole world seems to embrace dance music, from Asia, to Africa, to South America and beyond. I think because of that, the game is becoming more and more serious and I think it will change. Where will it lead to? I’m also really curious! However, I think dance music will flourish more then ever as it is one of the youngest music industry worldwide.
For more information on AIR, visit their website www.air.nl
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