by Annalisa Demarch
English version: William Stupp
Today the Melkweg of Amsterdam celebrates 50 years as one of the most popular and renowned clubs and cultural centres of Amsterdam. Due to its history influence on the hippies and other subcultures, the Melkweg has become a symbol of the diversity and multiculturalism in the art and music world.
The Melkweg (literally “Milky Way”) is located in the only industrial building on the canal of Lijnbaansgracht, in the Dutch capital. It is a former factory ﹘first built for sugar, then adapted to process milk﹘ which the club has occupied since July 17, 1970. It all began with a theater company looking for a space to put on artistic and cultural performances.
In the summer of that year, the rooms of the factory were used as a stage and became known as “a gathering of hippies”, says John van Luyn, official music promoter of the Melkweg for more than 30 years.
Thanks to the huge success, in the 1973 the Melkweg officially became a permanent institution, open all year around, sponsored and subsidized by the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Amsterdam.
The Melkweg is now, together with the Paradiso, one of the main attractions of Amsterdam’s “magic centrum”. At the time, the city was like a magnet for people seeking out alternative lifestyles from around the continent: travelers used to come to the capital to listen to rock music, attend lights shows and to try marijuana, all in the name of “love and peace”.
The hippie influence was not the only culture which has affected the space over the years. In the 80s, the hippies stopped going there. Yet the centre grew, becoming more international and hosting more diverse events thanks to its profits and governmental subsidies. Since then, the Melkweg has continued to attract a great variety of countercultures including grunge, hip hop and punk. It has also hosted big artists like U2.
Moreover, since the 70s, it was one of the first places where cannabis buying cannabis was tolerated. “But the relationship with the authorities has always been pretty good”, specified Van Luyn, in contrast to the more troubled history of the Paradiso.
Over time things have changed though. The building has been modified to adapt to different types of events and host a greater number of visitors. Programming has increasingly taken a major role, leading to less of an emphasis on the location itself.
“In the first 10 years, people used to go there and there was also music, but no one used to go there only for the artists,” said Van Luyn. “People went there for the place. If you think about it today, none goes there only for the place. Everyone goes for the program.”
When Amsterdam was the magic centrum, there was much more flexibility and less bureaucracy. “Nowadays if you want to add the support band, you have to ask for permission,” he laments. The schedule is tight and things are less spontaneous. The music industry is now “more like an official business”.
Today the historical building hosts 2 concerts areas, a cinema, a cafè, and one space for expos and multidisciplinary arts. Due to the reconstruction of 2017, the Max room can now host up to 1250 people, making the place suitable for big concerts.
What makes the Melkweg unique still today in Amsterdam is the diversity of the program and of its audience. The unique area and the historical building, which sits in front of scenic canals, also help it to stand out. Nowadays the Melkweg offers a space for both popular names and emerging talents in many fields; from painting to photography, from music to films.
However the focus remains on concerts. “On paper we do organize also other activities. We have the theatre, a cinema and the expos. But I think 95% is music,” said Van Luyn. In fact, the Melkweg is mainly devoted to the contemporary music and pop culture: every year it hosts more than 100 shows featuring music groups and DJs from all over the world. All told, it attracts some 540.000 people.
From the beginning of the 2000s through to this day, the club has hosted artists such as the Coldplay, the Beastie Boys and Billie Eilish.
Although the Melkweg is slowly re-opening its doors to the public after a long shutdown due to the coronavirus, Van Luyn sees the future as uncertain. “I have no idea of what it will happen. Maybe we will be closed for half a year. Maybe we will start a collaboration with Paradiso, or maybe we won’t open ever again.”