5 Years of Spielraum: Diego Meijers and Sven Bijma on playfully experimenting with Amsterdam’s queer electronic music scene

Diego & Sven

It’s the year 2016 in Amsterdam, after club ‘Trouw’ closes a year earlier – popular amongst the queer crowd for amongst others queer nights like ‘Is Burning’ & ‘ONtrouw’ – the city’s electronic music scene finds itself in a transitional period. In a former school building in Amsterdam, the team behind Trouw opens up a new club, ‘De School’. It takes some time, but De School later sets out to become Amsterdam’s most renowned nightclub, largely visited by the queer public. Meanwhile, club Cruquiusgilde closes its doors. The warehouse located on one of the eastern islands in Amsterdam is an important player in Amsterdam’s underground scene, known for its legendary parties and diverse crowd. The city’s (queer) electronic music scene experiences a standstill. It is only because of parties like Is Burning, that continues to exist after closing of club Trouw, that there’s a remaining event combining electronic music (however mostly focussed on house music) with a queer crowd.

Diego Meijers and Sven Bijma – feel there is a gap in Amsterdam as there is no event combining techno music with a queer crowd. Drawing inspiration from parties and clubs like Is Burning and Cruquiusgilde in Amsterdam and Herrensauna and Berghain in Berlin, they create their own event: Spielraum. The party – born in 2017 – is firstly aimed at being a good party for their friends, but quickly becomes an always-sold-out-in-under-5-minutes party that comes hot and heavy into the spotlight.

The past 5 years, Spielraum set out to become a playground for queers, it became the event to explore new formats of electronic music, people started experimenting with dressing up, it became the launching platform for resident artists like KI/KI, Afra and Polly F and came into the spotlight, quickly being picked up by channels like i-D and 3voor12. The collective had collaborations with clubs like Berghain, Tbilisi’s club Bassiani, WHOLE Festival in Berlin and with Paris’ rave scene. In recent years, the continuous element of ‘playing and experimenting’ the event highlights, has meant some serious changes in the party that Spielraum has become today. With an awareness team to educate and create safe environments for all; with its diverse line-ups, the event became a launching platform for upcoming talent; and ever present, a diverse crowd and a highly energetic, sexy and friendly atmosphere. At the event’s latest edition in club Garage Noord, it had reinvented itself to what has probably become Amsterdam’s most inclusive and diverse queer event for electronic music. 

Cadence Culture sits together with the founders to talk about 5 years of organizing Spielraum. We talk about life before Spielraum, about the evolution of the event, about the importance of the ‘spiel’ or ‘play’ element in all of their work and in nightlife in general. We talk about what personal lessons they have learned, about what being a safe space today still means, about what is needed to create a truly diverse, inclusive and queer event, on how they wish to improve themselves, on selecting artists, about the demanding challenges Amsterdam is facing for the survival of its electronic music scene and on what we can expect for Spielraum’s upcoming edition. 

Artwork: Lion Sauterleute & Alexander Pannier

Hi guys, tell me, who were Sven and Diego before Spielraum?

Sven: I’m an actor. I do voice-overs for TV and radio commercials. I’ve played in bigger musical productions but I mainly did theater and I played in films and series. I still do this on the side, but I have less time for it because of Spielraum.

Diego: I graduated as an urban planner, but I quickly found out I didn’t really want a career in that. Then I got involved in online marketing and web design and started taking freelance jobs and also worked at bars and restaurants. That’s when I started helping people working in nightlife in organizing parties.

Was that the factor that led-up to the start of Spielraum?

Sven: We started helping Snorella (promotor, drag queen and activist) with queer party ‘Flikker’ and we helped with queer event FPQ (Fucking Pop Queers). We found out we both enjoyed working in nightlife, but we wanted to do something where we could do our own thing music wise.

Diego: Meanwhile in 2016, after the closing of club Trouw, there was not much offer in clubs and events when it came to techno music. More than all, we missed a queer party focussing on techno music. We felt there was a gap and there was a lot of space to do new things.

Sven: That’s when one day we discussed how we really deserve a good party, with good friends and stellar line-ups. That’s when we started with the organization of our first Spielraum event in 2017. Back then we started with our friend Thomas Vandewalle, who later on had to stop working with us because of obligations elsewhere. With our connections at Flikker, we got in touch with Tim Schoordijk, at the time head programmer of club Radion. He helped us in conceptualizing our idea. I came up with the name Spielraum and our event had to be focussed on queer people, with a precondition being that we always wanted high quality line-ups. 

Spielraum is German for ‘space to play/free space’. How did you come up with that name? What does it represent for you?

Sven: I once heard the word ‘Klangspielraum’, in a track. Unfortunately I don’t remember what track it was anymore, but something about the ‘Spiel, playing part’ about it grasped me. Then I went on to read about the element play and found out about playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who has written a lot about the importance of the element play for people. Schiller said that it is only when people play, that they become liberated and feel free. According to Schiller “Man is only human when at play”. But I was also inspired by historian and cultural philosopher Johan Huizinga who wrote that play is the foundation of culture. Both Diego and I found this so interesting and applicable as we wanted to create a space to play with the people, music and space.

Diego: At the time, we were bothered by the fact that techno always went hand in hand with darkness. That’s also one of the reasons we introduced this play element, we wanted to give a lighter note to that. In the beginning that ‘play’ element manifested itself on a more decorative conceptual note. We had a ball pit and a claw machine at Spielraum but quickly let that physical element go, as we realized that play was already part of our event on a deeper level. Our party became a space where people could go on an explorative journey with themselves, with others, with the way they dress and the musical offer. 

Sven: Play had become an element that has become the red thread throughout organizing Spielraum.

You have also experimented with crowds a lot the past five years. The main focus of Spielraum in the beginning was the inner queer friends circle, when the article for 3voor12 came along, it kind of exploded and a lot of people outside of this scene started visiting your event. After that, the crowd at certain moments had the tendency to be rather homogenous. Whereas when the event moved to club Garage Noord during the pandemic – after residing in club Radion – the event became truly queer. How did you experience the evolution of your crowd and how did you manage that?

Diego: Curating the crowd is the biggest challenge of the event. Each edition we looked at the crowd and reflected and adjusted our course so that our next edition would be as queer as possible. In the past 5 years (-2 covid years), we have been growing harder than we were able to manage. We received a lot of publicity, that’s when our event attracted a lot of new visitors who had no idea what Spielraum was about. We had to clarify to those people that sometimes you have to be willing to let go of your privilege and make way for other people. When you’re straight, you need a space like Spielraum less than a queer person. That made us reconsider how we distribute our tickets.

Sven: We started to realize that we are not a party for ‘consumers’, at our party people actively contribute and we create the event together. That’s why you sometimes have to stand in line, but it’s an investment. So that’s also the crowd we want to attract.

Diego: It also shows how the people visiting Spielraum want to be part of the event; in managing our crowd over the years we received useful feedback from our visitors. Right now, we are the happiest we have been with our previous editions at Garage Noord. The crowd is how we always envisioned it to be.

Spielraum’s musical offer has changed over the past years. How would you say that has evolved?

Sven: In 2018 we stopped profiling ourselves as solely focussing on techno music. Because of our growth and being able to open up more than one room, we were able to expand our musical offer. 

For the upcoming weekender, you have 18 artists lined-up, with the majority being  women, non-binary, POC, and queer artists. Is it important for Spielraum to be a platform to display more diverse representation within the electronic music scene?

Sven: We are not actively booking DJs to create more diverse line-ups. We have become so attuned to automatically focussing on those artists that it happens naturally. It can therefore really set me off when people say ‘You should not just book women because they’re women, or book people of color to have people of color on your line up’. I think that is a gross insult, because there are so many talented artists out there that are so often overlooked. Open your eyes, change your perception. You owe it to the electronic music scene.

Diego: It’s something we get a lot ‘How do you do it? Where do you find that many women, queer, or POC DJs?’ Whilst in the past 3 to 4 years, those minorities have become much more visible. Also, it’s part of your job as a programmer to find talent. Do your job. It’s basically just a lot of listening. 

Taking a risk has worked for you in the past, KI/KI started at Spielraum and quickly became a big name within the electronic music scene. Is this something you want to remain, a launching platform for talent?

Sven: As a programmer you always take a risk, you never know before how the DJ is going to play. But we listen to a lot of podcasts, sets, visit DJs gigs, or invite them to come play before. Sometimes that’s taking a risk, but taking risks is worth the pay off. An example of that is KI/KI indeed. Before we booked her she played in the Jezzebel, a club where she could not play hard on Sunday morning because there was church service next door. It gave us an image that represented only half of what she could bring to the table. When we booked her, she played her debut for 6 hours, and that worked out so well.

Sven: We are also very lucky with our crowd, because of their trust in us, we are able to experiment a lot with our musical offer. We get the feedback ‘Thank you for showing us some new names’. That’s just really nice to hear. At the end of the day we’re just trying out something, but we do know what works. We’ve always tried to find new talent and add dj’s to the line up that are not known yet and share our platform with them.

What do you look for when you select artists for your event?

Sven: There is so much talent right now. What we as Spielraum find the most interesting is DJs that dare to take risks. We like to be surprised by people who are so into their music and who are focussed just on that. In Rotterdam we see a lot of interesting talent right now, like KLAUW and the Ampfeminine collective.

You are both partners as well as work partners. How do you compliment each other?

Diego: We are both really perfectionistic. We do most things together and everything has to pass besides us both. We’re very much on the same line when it comes to Spielraum so we barely have discussions about what choices to make. We have not had any discussion about the line-up for the upcoming weekend or whatsoever. It happened very naturally.

What personal lessons have you learned from organizing Spielraum?

Sven: To not stay with negative energy for too long. You have to focus on you. Trust in yourself, trust you’ll learn from the mistakes you make. There will always be people who try to bring you down. As a party that’s queer, this word means something differently for everybody. Inherently, it’s political and therefore you will receive more criticism or opinions and you have to learn how to deal with that. Sometimes those opinions are not backed, because people do not know what we’re doing behind the screens, but you can’t constantly tell everybody what you’re doing.

Diego: The most important lesson to us is that if you want to organize a party like Spielraum, you can’t do it alone. You need diverse people surrounding you and helping you to be truly diverse and inclusive. Because for example, I don’t know how an experience like Spielraum is for trans people, we need their experiences to improve ourselves to become a safer space for those people. I’m grateful that people do not come to us and tell us we have a shit party, but rather come with good feedback and tell us things we can learn from, so we can all improve Spielraum together, instead of bringing the other down. 

Sven: Our event will never be done, we are always playing and kneading and reflecting into making Spielraum a better party, together. I hope people feel that, to know they can always come to us with anything. 

You recently set-up an awareness team, to make sure that if anything goes wrong, or if people feel unsafe they can talk to someone on the team. When did you introduce this?

Sven: We introduced the awareness team in the last two editions before COVID during our first weekender. We are very happy with the security at Garage Noord, but in general in clublife and events, people do not always feel safe to talk to security. With an awareness team we create a place between the club and security, which people might experience as safer to approach.

Speaking about safe spaces, lately this term has been used a lot in nightlife by different venues and parties. Yet when it comes to taking action to actually create a safe space, we don’t see much of this on the dancefloor. How do you look at that, is this one of the reasons you opted for an awareness team?

Sven: We stopped actively promoting Spielraum as a safer space. People know by now it is. Certain terminology is commercialized. At many events, clubs, parties, words like diversity, inclusion and safe space are used to attract a certain crowd, or they just use it because it’s part of the electronic music scene. But that’s not how it works. You have to work really hard to put words into action.

What’s in the cards for the future of Spielraum?

Diego: We are going to continue playing and experimenting with our concept. We would like to go further than being a party. But Amsterdam is limited space wise and the city is becoming more and more expensive. Although we see that the municipality is motivated to contribute, they don’t really seem to know how yet. Apparently there is money available for nightlife, but most clubs and collectives aren’t eligible for it because they don’t operate as a foundation. And the city only gives subsidies to foundations, which we aren’t. We could definitely use more money to expand the team and to elaborate our concept. Funding would be an enormous help, but it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon. But we have a lot of ambitions.

So what is it you hope for Amsterdam’s electronic music scene right now? What is it that we need?

Diego: Space, affordable space for different collectives, because this city is being ruined by capitalism and neoliberalism. There is barely any space to play and to experiment, for collectives to create something different. Also for existing parties the rents are insane and promoters need to find out their own ways of dealing with it. 

Sven: The offer of clubs right now – without giving an opinion about them as a whole – are in general led by people that do not represent the people the clubs intend to represent. That is a big problem.

Diego: More queer people and people of color should be in charge.

Looking back at the past 5 years, what was your favorite moment at Spielraum?

Diego: We have had so many magical closings. The last one with THC and Byron Yeates was insane, the last 30 minutes I had goosebumps all over. I was standing on stage with my beer and I could finally relax. I looked at the crowd and thought, this is what I’m doing this for. They were playing this closing track, a remix by DJ Tooley, and it was just a magical moment.

Sven: I can remember the Spielraum x Herrensauna closing, we were all standing behind the DJ booth at Radion with the whole team and we were going crazy. Or the closing where Mama Snake, Somewhen and Afra were doing a B2B2B. It’s nice when artists stick around to have a good time with us, we care very much for our artists and it’s nice to receive that love back.

We are ready to create more magical moments, because upcoming weekend will be the 5th anniversary of Spielraum! What can we expect?

Diego: We are musically going to do some things we have never done before. We created a particular musical journey in our minds. Our visitors can expect something new each hour of the weekender. On Saturday evening we have house music upstairs, and Sunday during the day there will even be some reggaeton vibes. But the key elements will always be sexy and uplifting.

Sven: I would just say ‘Vertrouw ons maar lieve schatten’ (Just trust us honey).

So that means we’re going to have to stay the entire weekend? 

Diego: People don’t have to stay the whole 32 hours though, I’d rather have them get some sleep in between! [grins]

All other photo’s by Sven Bijma © 2022

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