Norwegian Wood rock festival turns 25

Oslo’s Norwegian Wood Festival celebrated it’s 25th Anniversary, June 15-17, 2017. But Norway’s longest running festival almost didn’t happen this year.

The rock and folk fest has boasted headliners from Bob Dylan to Band of Horses, David Bowie to Linkin Park, Patti Smith to Arcade Fire. However, after a slow decline in attendance and a rough outing in 2016 that saw it reduced to one day and moved to a new location, Norwegian Wood went back to its roots in 2017 with a lineup of only Norwegian acts.

It worked. And it rocked.

“The significance in Norway is massive of course,” Svein Bjørge, new head of Norwegian Wood, said. “It’s one of the oldest festivals in the country so it’s like the queen of the festivals.”

More than one million people have attended Norwegian Wood over the last quarter century. The festival’s long run and history have made it stand out among Norway’s multiple summer festivals.

Norwegian Wood, first hosted in 1992 in Frogner Park and named after The Beatles’ song, was founded by Jørgen Roll, Sten Fredriksen and Haakon Hartvedt.

“This festival is really cool because they always have big international headliners, like I’ve seen Tom Petty here, Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan,” Asmund Lande, vocalist and guitarist of punk band Oslo Ess, said. “It’s an important thing for Oslo and now celebrating 25 years and only Norwegian Bands. It’s a big privilege to play on this stage tonight.”

Norwegian Wood festival director Svein Bjørge. Photo/ieiMedia

Bjørge took over the festival in early 2017 and only began planning for this summer right away in January.

“Doing the Norwegian angle made it quite possible to do it fast,” Bjørge said. “Financially, if we break even it’s great. It’s next year we’re going to come back.”

Although this year’s festival is having a positive outcome, in the recent past Norwegian Wood struggled. In 2016, the festival was cut down to one day instead of the traditional three days and only hosted three musical acts.

“Last year we had almost 20 headliner names that slipped away, usually five or six slip, but not all,” Jørgen Roll, founder and former head of Norwegian Wood said.

“They almost went bankrupt two years ago,” Per Ole Hagen, professor of music at the University of Oslo said. “They asked Svein if he could try to get it up again. I would think the future looks bright because they spent a lot of time getting rid of debts.”

This struggle is reflected in this year’s all Norwegian lineup, which is due in part to a smaller budget and limited time frame.

“If you consider last year, well, this is a step up and it can go up from here,” Hagen said.

Norwegian music scene experts say Norwegian Wood’s troubles stemmed from the intense competition among music festivals in the summer months of Norway. With so many festivals in such a short amount of time it can be difficult for any event survive. And with Norwegian Wood’s typically high overhead with big name artists and its intimate festival venue near the famous Vigeland Sculpture Garden, it became harder for the famous fest to continue to provide top talent and pay the bills.

Most successful summer music festivals have a particular niche or genre they represent in order to draw in their target audience. Norwegian Wood generally sticks to a lineup including rock and Americana acts.

“The festival market is very competitive,” Ole Morten Algerøy, Bergenfest press manager, said. “I think that what we feel is that over the last couple of years it’s been make it or break it for some of the festivals in the Nordic region.”

According to a study conducted by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Cultural Industries, the festival market in Norway has been growing steadily, with as much as 40 percent of the country’s population attending a festival in 2014.

After last year’s festival, founder Jørgen Roll stepped down from Norwegian Wood after being with it from the beginning to fully pursue his position of CEO at the Oslo Concert Hall.

“It was good in one respect but you have so much empathy for it, it’s your kid,” Roll said about leaving the festival. “So it was strange but it’s been nice and I didn’t really miss it. I’ve had a normal spring. I’ve gone to sleep at normal hours since January. Another plus, this place has a roof.”

Jørgen Roll, director of Oslo Concert Hall, stepped down as Norwegian Wood chief after 25 years. Photo/Jack Hastings.

Although Roll is no longer involved with Norwegian Wood, he is still an incredible presence within the music industry through his work at the Oslo Concert Hall.

“Leaving it is of course sentimental and painful but it’s his choice and, well, you have to leave your baby someday,” Bjørge said of Roll. “It’s strange for him of course, it’s very strange. It’s the first time in 24 years he’s had a beer.”

As planning begins for the 2018 festival season, Bjørge talks of continuing to bring Norwegian Wood back to its roots.

“We’re going back to the basics of Norwegian Wood, which is international iconic rock stars, Americana, well known international names,” Bjørge said. “There will always be new festivals coming trying to take this place. Nothing lasts forever and we don’t know what will happen next year. We want to take Norwegian Wood back to being one of the biggest festivals in Norway.”

Norwegian Wood is scheduled for June 14-16, 2018. Tickets, line-up and other information can be found at https://norwegianwood.no.