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Awakenings: how the Dutch techno institution stays on top of the game

Originating in the late '90s, Awakenings has become the Netherlands’ leading techno party, hosting multiple festivals along with events in Amsterdam’s iconic Gashouder  — including a huge run in October for ADE. Niamh O’Connor speaks to crew, regular DJs and fans about bookings, production, and the Awakenings experience

It’s a few days after the Awakenings summer festival in Beekse Bergen in Hilvarenbeek, just outside Tilburg, when DJ Mag catches up with its founder, Rocco Veenboer. Since the Dutch native began running Awakenings in Amsterdam’s colossal, dome-shaped Gashouder in 1997, the party and festival series has blossomed into a globally renowned brand with top-tier production levels to match, attracting over 300,000 visitors from across the world annually. Shows in Pune, London and Manchester have also featured in the brand’s evolving history.

In the early ’90s, Veenboer felt that there was a gap in the market for techno, with only “mellow house music” or “hardcore” on offer at the time in The Netherlands. Having accrued experience running house-led parties at Gashouder before starting Awakenings, Veenboer felt “really ready” to fill the void for “European techno” and in March 1997 sold out the first edition of Awakenings, with Billy Nasty and local legend Angelo amongst those on the bill. “So we went on with Awakenings, and pretty soon, it started to become weekenders,” he recalls. “I was alone in the office with my fax and telephone, which is hard to imagine now.” Friends and family helped, but Veenboer hired staff to handle sound, lights and security.

These days, the line-ups at Awakenings bring together artists from both the commercial and more underground ends of techno, attracting a loyal legion of punters from The Netherlands and beyond. This year, the Awakenings spring festival at Spaarnwoude Park near Amsterdam and its summer stint in Beekse Bergen brought in a combined 170,000 visitors. Then there are the parties in Gashouder in Amsterdam. With its industrial aesthetic and spider-like light beams splayed across the ceiling, it’s the perfect place for a proper rave. There’s also the arena Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, where Awakenings hosted three of its nine parties at ADE 2023. The other six took place at Gashouder, with artists like 999999999, Adam Beyer, Adriatique, Joris Voorn, Solomun, Amelie Lens, and Reinier Zonneveld playing across both venues.

Two images of Awakenings Festival on a grey background

“It’s very honourable that they never changed music direction, never jumped on trends — they’ve always pushed the sound of techno through the ups and downs since their own inception, and they deserve huge respect for that.” – Dax J

One artist who has remained an Awakenings staple since the early days is Chicago’s DJ Rush; although he can’t remember exactly when he landed his first booking with the brand, he says it could have been 2001 or earlier. Rush recalls playing “really nice events” for different promoters in Amsterdam, but felt like “I was before my time” in some locations. “I started to feel, ‘Hmmmmmm, not much techno in The Netherlands’,” he admits. “This is what I was thinking, then I was proven wrong. I was later invited to play Awakenings, and I started to think, ‘OK, do I want to do it, will there be good party people attending?’ I was shocked, it was amazing. The energy level was top. It felt so underground, and I felt like I fit in.”

Rush plays the indoor Area U when DJ Mag visits this year’s three-day summer festival, joining artists like Adam Beyer, DVS1, Richie Hawtin, Dax J, ANNA, Daria Kolosova and DJ Seinfeld across the weekend. While the lush greenery, luminous ferris wheel and smaller, more intimate stages like the lakeside Area L and the tin-roofed Area H add a cosy feel to the festival, two gargantuan stages make it clear that this is still Awakenings terrain. On Friday night, Kölsch closes the modern-art-installation-style Area V, topped off with fireworks, while Saturday night sees Joris Voorn play The Matrix-esque Area W, where he finishes on Paul van Dyk’s ‘For An Angel’ — amid more fireworks.

The same energy, sparked by Robert Hood, Amelie Lens, Honey Dijon, I Hate Models, and many more, is due to happen on Sunday. But following weather warnings, Awakenings cancels its final day, moving the majority of campers to Beekse Bergen safari park for several hours, where there is free food and shelter. “It was devastating, to be honest, and one of the most difficult decisions we have ever made,” Shannon Schrader, who heads up PR & Communications, tells us. “But our utmost priority is the safety of our visitors. We did everything in our power to have a green light, but the risk was too high. We cannot, and won’t, gamble with people’s lives. We learned later that lightning struck in the field a few hundred metres from the festival grounds, so it was definitely the right decision.”

Two images of Awakenings Festival on a grey background

At the campsite, the two head bookers of Awakenings play an impromptu B2B, lifting everyone’s spirits with a rowdy set, leaning into classics like Laurent Garnier’s ‘Crispy Bacon’ and Dave Clarke’s remix of ‘Freaks On Hubbard’ by DJ Rush. “Every one of our team is trying to make a great effort,” says Schrader over the noise spilling out from the modest tent. “Our interns were handing out supplies in the shelters, our artist liaisons are behind the bar, and we are all doing double shifts... I’m super sad, but I’m also so proud of the team and our visitors.”

Many of those visitors are long-running Awakenings heads. “The vibe is just great, and there are specific DJs that play [for Awakenings] that keep coming back,” says one young punter from Rotterdam on Friday night. “Everything is super huge, the visuals are crazy, and the fireworks — I love that. I think the main stage, in general, is amazing.”

On Saturday evening, Dax J plays in the huge indoor tent, Area Y, for “one of the most up-for-it techno crowds”. He played his first Awakenings show in 2016 and thinks the brand has influenced the growth of techno globally through its long-running tenure as a festival and party series, and by sharing recorded sets from Awakenings online. “It’s very honourable that they never changed music direction, never jumped on trends — they’ve always pushed the sound of techno through the ups and downs since their own inception, and they deserve huge respect for that!” he says. “I meet many people who tell me that their first festival or event was Awakenings and it’s what made them fall in love with the music.”

Though the weather puts a stop to Paula Temple’s planned B2B with SNTS on Sunday, she’s already very familiar with the Awakenings crowd, having played her first show for the brand in 2017. “The energy they give you is exceptional,” she says. “People aren’t just going there to see the main stage or the headlining act, they go and see who they want to, and every stage is full of a crowd who really wants to be there.” The audience hasn’t changed too much either, she reckons. “In all honesty, I’ve noticed the crowd stays the same, which is a real testament to their trust and loyalty to Awakenings. I always see familiar faces at the festival, which is very ‘gezellig’(cosy vibes).”

Two images of Awakenings Festival on a grey background

“In all honesty, I’ve noticed the crowd stays the same, which is a real testament to their trust and loyalty to Awakenings. I always see familiar faces at the festival...” – Paula Temple

“I really love the energy of the festival, there are so many people everywhere, and they come so early to the dancefloors,” says Berlin-based artist Wallis, who soundtracks Area Y for the second year in a row. “Every year I worry that nobody comes to the tent this early, it’s always a bit nerve-wracking... and the tent always stays dramatically empty until the last 20 minutes before my set, then people start showing up in droves. The tent fills up super quick, and then I can finally relax before I go on stage. It’s also an interesting place to go check out what everyone is up to this year, ’cause there are so many stages.”

One of the main crew members responsible for the above-par production is the Technical Creative Producer for the brand, Jasper Schimmel, who works with a team of five. Describing his approach to DJ Mag, he says that there is “no storytelling” when it comes to aesthetics, so the result tends to be abstract designs. “All the things we’re creating are to give people a great musical experience where you can feel things,” he says. “We’re not creating something to see, we’re creating something to enhance the musical experience.”

An area like the summer festival’s V stage takes 17 days to build, with a crew of 40 to 80 people per day, and requires 26 people to operate during the event. Packdown starts on Monday morning, and by Friday, there’s no trace of the festival left behind, partly helped by Awakenings’ sustainable approach. Like previous years, the brand has implemented CO2 compensation, a 100% vegetarian menu, a smart energy plan, and a deposit recycling system on empty cups, cans, and bottles. 95% of Awakenings’ signage and digital screens are re-used at future events to reduce waste, and after the event the production team render the steel and wooden plates at Area W and Area V for repurpose at the Awakenings spring festivals in Amsterdam. Even the drinks tokens are melted down to produce new ones.

Three images of Awakenings Festival on a grey background

As well as opting for a more sustainable model, the music policy has shifted over the years. Dutch DJ and producer Chris Stussy, who played his first Awakenings show in 2018 in Gashouder, thinks the brand has “definitely evolved” regarding house music offerings. Artists including Moxie, Sally C, TSHA, Paramida and Chloé Caillet feature on this year’s summer festival bill, although the Gashouder parties tend to push techno-driven sounds. “I see more and more house music represented at a techno festival,” says Stussy. “I think it’s good for the growth of the overall sound. Also, new talent really gets a chance, which I think is really important to attract a new generation of people that visit the festival every year.”

The two head bookers of the brand tell DJ Mag that they are “working hard to improve and broaden” the line-ups through different means, like showcasing talent on the Awakenings podcast series and offering slots to newer names on the festival’s recently added stages. This summer, 35 artists made their Awakenings debut (or almost did, considering the cancellation), including u.r.trax, Lee Ann Roberts, Blasha & Allatt and Freddy K.

When booking headliners of the festival, we’re curious to know if they take into account the Black roots of techno. “This is not only relevant when booking headliners, we approach this in broad perspective towards the entire line-up rather than focusing purely on headliners. But yes, we celebrate the pioneers and pay tribute to the foundation they laid for techno and house music to what it has become today. Of course there’s always room for improvement, so this remains an important topic for us,” they answer, stressing the importance of creating a more inclusive and diverse environment for everyone, and not just the DJs, but on “every level in society”.

“As techno becomes more popular and reaches new heights, we still remember its origins,” they continue. “As with any creative industry, evolution is inherent, whether in fashion, art, food or music. Techno is without a doubt evolving, but we believe it’s a positive evolution. As electronic music becomes more popular, we can see its genre growing, which is a promising sign for the future. Hypes will always come and go, but quality will always be acknowledged and float to the surface, as it should be. It’s a never-ending cycle, which keeps things interesting.”

Two images of Awakenings Festival on a grey background

Rocco Veenboer recognises the “importance of addressing the lack of diversity in the techno scene as a whole” and echoes a similar sentiment. “If we want the techno scene to keep growing and evolve in a good way, we need to make sure that everyone feels included and valued. We believe that techno should be a platform for expression and a celebration of diversity.” In addition to engaging in “an ongoing dialogue to effectively address these issues,” he wants to ensure that everyone feels welcome and inspired at Awakenings. “For us, that is part of who we are, so it feels normal and natural. It’s very special and joyful for me, personally, to have been part of this open-minded scene since the late ’80s, and I will always do my best to keep the good vibes alive.”

Looking to the future, the brand’s director, Tim Middelesch, says the team has “ambitious plans”, including international expansion. “Our goal is to introduce the Awakenings experience to people all over the world, familiarise them with our brand, and ultimately invite them to experience Awakenings in the Netherlands,” he explains. “To achieve this, we plan to create a new Awakenings concept and collaborate with local promoters in different regions to bring the unique Awakenings feeling to a wider global audience. This all is not yet certain, but our ambitions are great.”

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s recent feature on how Chicago’s ARC Music Festival is bringing the global house scene home

Niamh O’Connor is a freelance writer and founder of NYXXX, which you can follow on Instagram

Pics: Elske Nissen, Stef Van Oosterhout, Jordy Brada, Mark Richter, Mark Vermeule