Geo Focus: Belgium

While diminutive in landmass, there is nothing small about the European powerhouse’s role in the pro-audio industry. Matt Fellows examines the country’s growth and finds that spirits are high, unlike many of its neighbours.

Famous for its characteristic culture and enticing cuisine, Belgium continues to make a name for itself in the pro-audio industry. The home of the European Union has appeared to buck the trend and pull ahead of the pack as much of the rest of the continent battles against austerity measures and residual economic recession.

“Despite the global/European economic situation where the tendency is that most markets tend to slowly recover from the financial crisis, over here in Belgium there is some interesting room for optimism,” explains Pedro Van der Eecken, associate/mixer at film and TV specialist The Image & Sound Factory. “As we see a steady increase in international productions that come to Belgium, we can conclude that currently our country and its companies can be seen as an extremely interesting partner for various kinds of audiovisual projects.”

The market is proving its ability to excel where others are lagging behind, and this may stem from a unique positioning and economic approach.

“The Belgian market is a small but relatively busy market,” adds Paul Van Hees, MD at Apex Audio. “Besides the local public and private players, there are also the European institutions in Brussels that account for a significant part of the business. It’s a small market but most players are not only focusing on the Belgian market; most Belgian companies also address other European markets like France and Holland.”

Strength in numbers

Of particular note is Belgium’s recording sector, which enjoys a lucrative climate thanks to the government’s generous stance towards the country’s many studios and post houses, as Van der Eecken explains: “The Belgian government provides us with valued incentives with regards to production companies that want to produce film, TV and game projects in the country, ranging from subsidies to tax-shelter initiatives that make some reasonable budgets available. Due to a more specific regulation, most partners/clients have a high, let’s call it an ‘international’, level of professionalism on the financial as well as the technical side.

“Belgium always tended to target high-level expertise, especially on the technical side with a lot of well-educated professionals. There is a good amount of work available and we have a few very advanced studios and companies that can compete easily with the big names on the other side the pond.”

And this culture enables the cultivation of the international business which Van Hees notes is so key to Belgium’s success. “These incentives mean that we have seen an increase in international projects as well as the amount of local productions,” Van der Eecken continues.

“More productions mean more jobs, more facilities and far more know-how. We are located in the centre of Europe, easily reachable by many means of transport. We have a lot of know-how, state-of-the-art equipment, we speak a lot of languages and the food and beers are just great.”

Aside from economic benefits, technical expertise and good beer, Fredo Gevaert, owner of Temple of Tune studio, believes that the national character has been paramount to the country’s success: “Commitment, professional pride, self-critique and devotion to the job is what I think sets us apart from many other countries. It’s not always the lack of money that is the problem, more often it only takes a bit more effort. And we Belgians do that very well.”

Delving deeper into Belgium’s recording sector, Gevaert sheds some light on the current shape of things for post houses and studios in the country: “In Belgium we are producing a lot of TV series and movies for a very small market – 6 million inhabitants, excluding the French speaking part,” he explains. “So we learned to make the best out of the small budgets we dispose of. This has resulted in great craftsmanship and efficiency of a few people/companies. We have really excellent field recordists and audio post companies.

“As for the French-speaking part, where there is not so much local production, they have developed a fantastic and highly skilled dubbing community, which provides a substantial part of all the dubbings for France.”
 “We are doing very well. 2014 has been our best year ever, and it looks like 2015 will even surpass that,” Gevaert reveals. “The reason is that we have been in the business for over 25 years, which has enabled us to build a tight connection with our clients.”

Van der Eecken has enjoyed similar successes with many international partners from around Europe: “For all of them it is the combination of reachability on the international scale, competitive pricing and the high level standards that we keep that makes Belgium a valuable option for their productions. And not forgetting the various state incentives that make Belgium financially a very interesting place to come over to and work on their projects.”

And the bad news…

Of course, however promising the outlook may be at present, it couldn’t be without its grey clouds. As Paul Van Hees puts it: “Budgets have decreased over the last few years. Customers want the same functionality or service for less money.”

Gevaert elaborates: “The market has definitely become more sensitive regarding spending. Clients want better quality, better service and faster turnaround for less money. This means that we have to deal with more complex client relationships. We need to make quotes for easy, mostly basic jobs, which in the end turn out to be complex and time consuming. So we often end up in endless discussions where ‘the weakest link’ needs to give in. Most often this is not the client.

“This is, of course, the result of ever-shrinking budgets, and middle-men who eat a substantial part of the budget just because they can – tax shelters, consultants, fund raisers, etc. That being said, we do see a smaller part of our clientele which has become more loyal, who don’t go shopping for the lowest quote. In other words, the gap – the split between ‘cheaper’ and ‘high-end’ – is becoming wider, thereby putting pressure on the ‘value for money’ business.”

Where next?

With promising successes at its back and its feet planted firmly on the ground, Belgium looks optimistically ahead to even more lucrative times in the future. Though perennially difficult to predict, our industry professionals weighed in on their forecasts for the future.

“For the next years to come, we foresee more integration of functionalities and more compact products for the market,” says Van Hees. “Budgets are still tight so our business needs to deliver more for less money.”
For Van der Eecken, the prevalent theme of international work will continue to be one of the biggest factors: “We have seen a shift to more than 50% of our work coming from abroad and we expect that this number will still rise in the years to come.”

However, for Gevaert things do not look so optimistic as he anticipates issues which may prove to complicate work in the sector: ”We think that the gap between cheap, fast, try-to-squeeze-the-last-drop-out-of- everything-and-everybody facilities and the hottest-place-to-be-facilities will only become wider. The market of ‘value for money’ is under big stress, and only a few old-timers (like ourselves) can survive due to the loyal clientele. But I see little or no new blood in this mid-section of the business.”

But as good as things may be going now, it takes more than a favourable climate to uphold success. Belgian pro-audio companies must seize the platform presented by the upturned market, and there is much debate about exactly how to do that. For Van Hees, it is simply about building upon their product offering: “For the years to come, we will focus on the expansion of our existing product lines, both for professional audio and AV.”

For Van der Eecken, the focus is on achieving and maintaining high-quality output to secure business. “We have to keep up with the high-quality production standards that we hold, and therefore we keep investing in the latest technology in combination with the training and development of our engineers and staff,” he asserts. “Professionalism with deep technical skills in combination with a friendly atmosphere is the key to what we are achieving on an international scale and is – as far as I’m concerned – the way to continue.”