Teaching the nightlife business, in an era without nightlife

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Mark van Bergen (Photo: ©KIRSTENVANSANTEN)

A Q&A with Mark van Bergen – dance music journalist, author of the seminal book on Dutch electronic music, Dutch Dance, and lecturer for Fontys University’s Dance Industry minor – on his experiences teaching students about the dance music industry, whilst that industry is stuck on pause.

Mark’s own story shows the unexpected career pathways that lead into and away from nightlife, hopefully inspiring his students to persevere with their passion despite the discouraging circumstances, and shape the future of nightlife in unpredictable ways.

Last year the Dance Industry minor students reached out to us at nighttime.org looking for work experience opportunities, eventually collaborating with our team to make this timeline of the tumultuous year for nightlife that was 2020, and the interactive map of night time offices.

What motivated you to run this course, and how did you first become involved?
“It all started with a passion for electronic music and parties. I entered nightlife when house music was first popping up in the south of the Netherlands, around 1990, and soon started DJing and throwing parties.
I was about to study journalism, and later on I would combine both worlds. I never thought I would ever live from the passion, but here we are!”

“I wrote a lot about dance music and culture for various newspapers and magazines, before my first book was released in 2013: ‘Dutch Dance’, celebrating 25 years of house music culture in the Netherlands. That opened a lot of doors – in fact Fontys Academy for Creative Industries came knocking at mine. Many of their students had ambitions behind the scenes in the dance industry, but the Academy had no curriculum for it. I left the newspaper world and took on the challenge to develop a minor, a dedicated semester program. I still think it’s a great opportunity to help launch the careers of these young talents, together with my team.”

This is an industry where many people tend to learn on the job, rather than seek out a course. Why do you think some formal education is especially useful in the dance music industry? 

“Funny you say so, because that’s exactly the method we use in the minor Dance Industry program. It’s challenged based – ‘learning by doing’ – in collaboration with real and relevant clients and stakeholders. We team up with Amsterdam Dance Event, which we have a long running educational partnership with, and we also collaborate with promotors, DJs and their
managers. A group of students worked on a project for your own platform. This way, they work on real and actual challenges, gain a lot of experience and grow a network in the same time.”

“Of course, we still offer knowledge and tools from books – such as mine! – and from other written sources, but practice is the leading principle. Just look at my team: none of the members is classical teachers, we all have one leg in the industry ourselves. Myself, I still run my own electronic music blog, This Is Our House, and then we have a night mayor (Siem Nozza), a headliner artist manager (Nigel Claassen, Bassjackers) and an ADE curator (Jesler Amarins) in the team, among others. We have an intimate impression of what is happening on the scene, and all have quite some network.”

Many of the events and artists your students would usually gain work experience through didn’t happen in 2020/21, due to the pandemic. Where did you look to find alternative work experience for them, and how has that worked out?

“Of course, this was a struggle. Everybody hoped to visit Amsterdam for ADE in October, for instance. Instead, 80% of the program was offered through a screen. Still, for their experience and learning process it didn’t make a great difference in the end. The minor is built around three practical cases that the students research develop and realise themselves: a conference (with ADE as our client), an event and a music release. For the release, Covid made no difference. They were still able, together with an artist of their choice, to bring an electronic music track onto the market. For the very first edition of ADE Online, our students developed and hosted a couple of panels. As for the event, well yes, they all dreamt of events with huge crowds and shows, but the situation just wasn’t possible. And yet there was a huge need for connection and alternatives. So in separate organisations they worked on 11 online or blended event concepts, most of them streams, which were all realised but one. We had to coach hard, as the motivation dropped many times, but everybody worked their asses off and were very satisfied by the end.”

Are there any changes in the way you ran the course during the pandemic that you think might be useful to maintain when normality returns?

“To be honest, I think there is a future for blended education. A mix of on- and offline sessions. Make no mistake: location sessions stay in the core, if they are allowed. Apart from the social component that youngsters really need (as do we teachers), we need face-to-face contact for coaching, especially when it comes to interactive sessions, pitches and group work, and of course for working-in-the-field. But as far as the ‘classical’ lectures are concerned, in which it is more about transferring knowledge, I think
there is nothing wrong with offering them online. A lot of students prefer them as well, they don’t have to travel and can watch back recorded lectures, if they have more important things to do. You just have to approach those online lectures differently, with shorter time slots and more interactive components for instance.”

As the next generation of industry professionals, what have your students’ own impressions been about this time, and how it may impact their future? 

“Everybody’s just fed up with it, you know. Quarantines have a massive impact on young people, especially their social lives. The last couple of years, we’ve seen mental issues coming to the forefront more and more already. This viral era will only bring more struggles, I fear. That’s also what we’ve been coaching on, doing a lot of talks on private issues.”

“As music lovers, they also miss nightlife so much. Some visited or organised raves, and we’ve seen a lot of illegal house parties at student houses as well. It’s a bad thing for the virus, but I can understand their motives at that age; I probably would have done the same at 20. I don’t think they are insecure about their professional future though, we all believe things will recover in a couple of months. And I’m glad our students can look back on last semester quite positively. Having viewed the results of the student survey we send out at the end of each semester, it turns out they have learned and experienced a lot despite the restrictions.”

2020 was a year like no other, that will have an impact on the dance music industry for a long time to come. How do you think this unique period in history will influence what you teach your students in future?

“I think that, just as in education, there is a future in nightlife for ‘blended’ events. Where you’ll have the ‘classical’ physical event on a festival site, for locals and fans willing to travel and pay the full monty for a live experience. Then on the other hand, but also increasingly merging with what’s happening on site, there will be an online edition for fans all over the world to attend as well, or watch back afterwards. The experiences and lessons we gained on streaming in the last year are huge. The world is your market, and if you are able to stay within your concept, create extra value and drop a solid production, you can definitely monazite it. I think that’s something we’re going to apply or coach on in our education. More scenario planning, by any means.”

And how do you think this year will affect the opportunities your students may have when they complete the course?

“In our curriculum we always try to adapt to what the industry wants from future professionals, and translate this into a challenging education for our students. Let them learn by success, but also by letting them fail in a safe way, so they are well prepared. We did that in the past, and we will
maintain it. And I think one of the best things that comes out of this approach is experience, flexibility and problem solving. Last year has pushed these soft and hard skills to the max. So far, we’ve seen our graduates reach great positions in the industry, and I don’t doubt that, when
everything gets back together in a healthy way, our students are ready to build the future.”

Learn more about Fontys ACI’s Minor Dance Industry (which you can also follow as an exchange student, from partner universities around the world.

Check out nighttime.org’s 2020 nightlife timeline Fontys students helped create.

Our Features section publishes exclusive original content created by nighttime.org associates, going deeper into global COVID-19 response strategies and scene perspectives by drawing on our international network of night mayors, nightlife advocates and industry stakeholders for comment. 

If you would like to contribute, contact hello@vibe-lab.org with your pitch.