- Eline Stapel
Paradiso: Cultivating, sustaining, and feeding the forces of Amsterdam’s creative network
By Pandam Published Sat Sep 26 2020
Often called ‘the Poptemple’ of Amsterdam, this labeling of the iconic music venue in the heart of the city – regarding the vast range of its events, and historic legacy – does not do it justice. Over the past five decades of its existence, it has provided a platform for small, unknown artists to perform and develop their talent, as well as for those with already legendary status. And for Paradiso, all have equal value and importance. As well as concerts, Paradiso has held a multitude of events that that range from book talks, to political debates, to fashion shows - it’s hard to give Paradiso a single label. As the organization is struggling to survive in light of the Coronavirus crisis, the story of its roots reveals how entrenched the venue is within the fabric of Amsterdam’s cultural landscape.
In 1877, the space was built by a religious group called the ‘Vrije Gemeente’. A group who practiced a ‘free religion’, following an amalgamation of Christian, Buddhist, and spiritual practices, resisting the norms of Dutch Protestantism. To say that Paradiso’s building was previously an ‘old church’ is not entirely accurate as “the Vrije Gemeente never wanted to call it a church themselves” explains Jurry, the marketing and publicity head at Paradiso. Although it retained elements of Christianity – people could get married in the building, they held masses, and had a choir – the group emphasized freedom of religious practice, wishing not to be bound by ecclesiastical dogmas. When the building was sold in in 1965, this spirit of unconventionality did not die. The building was squatted, along with many others at the time, as a response to Amsterdam’s severe housing crisis, and it quickly became a place of true freedom of expression.
Paradiso, originally named, ‘Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso’, opened in 1968 as a loosely organized, non-hierarchical “free-haven” for creative expression. Following the hippie movements from the 1960s, Paradiso was founded in a time of creative rebellion to rigid institutions, in the time of the sexual revolution, and an opening of identity expression. “Everything could happen [at Paradiso]. People were lying on the floor, there was a coffeeshop inside and graffiti on the walls. Whatever god has prohibited, it could take place here”.
“It was also a period where young people broke free from the traditions of their parents, and I think Paradiso was a place where you could do everything,” explains Jurry. “[It] was an important part of the revolution of the youth, and for the development of free spirits”. Paradiso’s role as a place where new ideas were encouraged and shared remains important in the organization’s mission today. But in terms of internal structures, Paradiso no longer functions as ‘freely’ as it began. “For a long time, there were no employees, there were no offices; the people who worked at Paradiso were more like ‘paid volunteers’”, as Jurry puts it. When I asked whether this affected Paradiso’s creative output, he said that this is not the case. The internal change of Paradiso is attributed mostly to its professionalization as an organization; from three shows a week in the first decades, Paradiso has evolved to four shows a day. “This requires the need for a really tight organization.” The value of having a non-hierarchical structure in Paradiso’s early years is that contributions could be made by anyone who cared for the space. But even though there is technically a hierarchy in place today, “it is not felt. It’s more like a clubhouse, or like a family”. Over the past decades the urban dynamics of Amsterdam have changed immensely, with many streets and areas strongly affected by the forces of commercialization and touristification. But Jurry thinks that “Paradiso was not a part of this”. Just as the original building remains standing in a gentrified city center, Paradiso remains true to its original values. It is a non-profit organization, and so everything they make, goes back into the organization.
In the past couple of years, Paradiso has worked with a multitude of venues across the city of Amsterdam. The organization’s focus is truly to facilitate the development of artists. Jurry explains that artists start by performing in smaller venues, and as their name and reputation grows, they eventually end up in the big hall at Paradiso – the money earned from these big concerts always goes back to the small ones, to start the same process. This collaborative cycle between artists and Paradiso is what continues to fuel the development of talent, and what keeps Paradiso alive.
Jurry notes that Paradiso “never called itself the Poptemple. There isn’t even ‘Paradiso’ on the building”; the primary goal is not self-promotion, and especially not just for the promotion of ‘pop’ musicians. Paradiso – and its network of venues – is an organization that aims to help artists grow, and to give audiences from all across the city access to a range of ideas and creative products.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus has hit Paradiso very hard. “Initially closed, it has been open for up to 30, and now for up to 260 people maximum in the venue. We can only break-even at 1000 people,” says Jurry. To keep the spirit of Paradiso alive, they continue to host corona-proof shows “to [keep] giving artists a stage, and also to give the audience a connection with Paradiso, and the experience of going to a concert in this venue”. They are surviving off government support, “but it’s barely enough. 60 people have lost their jobs”. A couple weeks ago, on September 2nd, there was a manifestation at Museumplein called ‘Nacht Wacht’. A long list of nightclub and venue owners, and everyone else (from DJs to stagehands) demonstrated against the lack of clarity regarding their future provided by the government. Paradiso was part of the demonstration. Jurry notes: “It’s important to mention that we did this together, and to send a really clear message”. Paradiso wanted to make its plight heard in solidarity with other nightclubs, acknowledging that they are even one of the lucky ones as they were able to host events other than club nights and keep their doors open. “We can still do events, but nightclubs can’t do anything. We’re afraid the whole nightclub industry will fall apart, that there will be nothing left. This would be a shame because we also need them, and the whole infrastructure of Amsterdam’s night culture. If that’s going to disappear, we will feel that as well.”
Jurry explains that the troubles of the night life industry, and its value in general, is not adequately understood by the government. “The night culture doesn’t even get mentioned in the weekly speeches by Rutte and de Jonge, but it’s also an important part of Dutch culture”. The Nacht Wacht manifestation proposed a list of new protocols that would allow clubs to open. They argued that opening clubs will prevent unsafe, illegal raves from continuing to happen. Also, they underlined that clubs have (or will have) installed high quality ventilation systems, that there would be health and temperature checks at the door, and that people would have to buy their tickets beforehand. However, with corona cases on the rise, in Amsterdam specifically, the serious health risks opening clubs would pose for those vulnerable in Dutch society cannot be undermined. Whether clubs should open completely, I think, is still a serious thing to consider. Nevertheless, it is also important that everyone should be heard and understood by the government; the consequences of a broken nightlife are serious, affecting numerous people and changing social dynamics, and the manifestation’s goal was to make this very clear.
As Jurry notes,“Night culture is super important for creative people to meet each other, to make new ideas. This also reflects on the museums and the arts. These people come up with a lot of their plans in the night, not in the morning at a café”. For him, the survival of the nightlife is important beyond merely financial reasons. According to Jurry, Amsterdam’s nightlife is a huge part of what defines it. “It goes further than asking for money. It’s not for nothing that Amsterdam Dance Event is one of the biggest networking events and that it takes place here. It’s because Amsterdam (and the Netherlands in general) has a great club culture, a great list of artists.” Which ties back to Paradiso’s main purpose: all these artists were given a platform by smaller venues. “If these venues disappeared, young artists wouldn’t have a place to start.”
Paradiso’s primary focus now is to keep their head above water, but there are also new discussions happening on important changes that should be made. Despite their very broad programming, Paradiso has been criticized for a lack of diversity in their staff. Jurry confirms that this is something they have to improve “so that we are a good reflection of the diversity of the city of Amsterdam”. According to him, there have been meetings with Paradiso staff and outside specialists assessing and asserting what needs to be done, and that they are planning to have weekly discussions regarding this in the future. He admits “there’s a lot of work to do, and we’re making plans for that”. Some of those plans include having an open traineeship program. In the past, such traineeship programs were only accessible for those who have connections with the staff of Paradiso, which evidently restricted opportunities for new, fresh-minded people – from across the city – to be involved with the organization, and has created somewhat of an exclusive structure that undermines Paradiso’s essential values for freedom and inclusivity. It can be said that Paradiso is quite late regarding these changes, but Jurry says they are committed.
Paradiso’s ideals have not been lost on the public, however. Paradiso is undeniably an extremely loved and supported organization. Over the past few months, frequent visitors of the venue have offered to contribute, and many have bought Paradiso’s ‘membership for life’ subscription, sharing their hope and belief in the future of the iconic venue. This money is not used at the moment to stay financially afloat, but it is saved to contribute to the future programs Paradiso has planned to keep supporting artists through their platform and record labels. “We are helped by this, but [the situation remains] really difficult”. Paradiso’s ambitions of the future require time and money, and so, depend heavily on the development of the ongoing pandemic. Government support to Paradiso, as of now, will stop after July 1st 2021, but it is impossible for Paradiso to stand on its own if the situation otherwise stays the same.
Despite the circumstances, Paradiso “wants to be there for everyone”. Jurry says they will not sacrifice their broad programming for a string of commercial acts that can earn them money back once the venue can be filled again. He explains that they are one of the few venues that still exists in the increasingly commercialized city center. They want to prevent this influx of a ‘monoculture’; “what Paradiso tries to preserve is that the city center of Amsterdam is accessible to the people who live in Amsterdam.” photography credits to Paradiso and PanDam. A big thank you to Paradiso for the interview.