A hit factory in nature

Will the Belgian charts soon be filled with songs that saw the light of day on the banks of the Ourthe? If it depends on the ambitious entrepreneurial duo Manou Maerten and Domien Cnockaert, yes. ‘It would be great if Durbuy became the epicenter of the Belgian music scene.’

“Beavers sit in the shade under those trees in the summer.” Manou Maerten points to a row of trees on the banks of the rippling Ourthe. We are standing on the terrace of what looks like an old villa from the outside. But on the inside, the building has been transformed into a cutting-edge musical playground, with recording studios, rehearsal rooms, a ‘gear room‘ chock full of instruments and a whole battery of writing rooms with a view of the natural beauty around Durbuy.

Maerten (26) is a born and raised Durbuysienne. Her father Bart has been running La Petite Merveille for many years, the forest class center that joined forces with Marc Coucke a few years ago and has since been the pacesetter of the lightning-fast commercial development of the Ardennes town.

Maerten himself seemed to be taking a different path for a long time. As a child, her great passion was music. Participation in the Ketnet talent show ‘De Cup’, ‘Eurosong for Kids’ and later the French-language version of ‘The Voice’ earned her a modest star status as a child. And even today she is working on the musical path as Le Manou with French-language electro-pop.

From Niels Destadsbader to Dikke

The walls of Durbuy Music are decorated with Polaroids of the artists who have already come to record or write. That list is starting to grow. Flemish hit machines such as Camille, Niels Destadsbader and Metejoor, dance acts such as Dave McCullen and Anouk Matton or more underground names such as Go March, Chibi Ichigo and rapper Dikke have already passed by in Durbuy.

But apples rarely really fall far from the tree. During her studies in musical production at the conservatory of Ghent, Maerten met fellow musician Domien Cnockaert (26). While he combined his studies in music production with keyboard work for Emma Bale and Hooverphonic, among others, and his own music such as Mondingo, the two started thinking about what they could do after graduation. Their own music studio, where they could combine their creativity with the technical baggage acquired in Ghent, seemed like something to them. And that’s how the musicians rolled into entrepreneurship.

Naive

Where their dream would take shape was quickly decided. The fact that father Maerten still had a location available in Durbuy helped. But right in nature is also the best place to be creative, says Cnockaert. ‘We saw that many bands went into seclusion anyway to write or record songs. We immediately thought it was a good idea to be able to offer them a place like this.’

Initially, the duo thought their creative oasis, which was christened Durbuy Music, was such a good idea that they would sell themselves. ‘We were a bit naive’, says Maerten. ‘We thought that after the start-up in 2020 people would automatically find their way to Durbuy Music. Not so. (laughs) We really had to learn that commercial thing.’ In the start-up year, Durbuy Music recorded a net loss of 97,300 euros. The company has equity of 1.2 million euros.



The commercial, we really had to learn that.

Manou Maerten

Co-founder Durbuy Music

With music veteran Luc Van Acker, known as a solo artist and as a member of bands such as Arbeid Adelt!, Ministry and Revolting Cocks, a seasoned mentor offered himself. When Van Acker ended up in Durbuy to finish a record, the 60-year-old rocker became so captivated by what he saw that he decided to put his shoulders under the project. ‘I thought it was so fantastic what they had created here that I wanted to take the lead’, says Van Acker, who previously helped set up three other studios. ‘I like to create new things. Putting the train together is much more fun than watching it run afterwards.’

The ‘gear room’, the music library that musicians can use in Durbuy.
©Kristof Vadino

Van Acker now lives in an apartment in Durbuy during the week, where he spends his time working on music and helping to devise business plans for Durbuy Music. On the wall of his personal creative space is a list of festivals to contact so they can refer bands looking for a rehearsal space. Maerten: ‘For groups starting a European tour and wanting to refresh their set, we are ideally located, right in the middle of Europe. Last week the Australians from Hollow Coves were here, who will play in the AB next week. The first thing they did when they got here was jump into the Ourthe.’ (laughs)

Epicenter

Gradually, Maerten and Cnockaert also understood that Durbuy Music had more potential than just renting out spaces and technical support. ‘What we really want is for this place to be the creative epicenter of the Belgian music scene in a few years’ time,’ says Maerten.

The surroundings of Durbuy Music.
©Kristof Vadino

How? Cnockaert: ‘What is already fully established in Los Angeles or Berlin, for example, are writing camps. Then an artist takes a break with a lot of authors to write as many songs as possible in a short time. That works great, because everyone fuels each other and creates a kind of competition to come out with the best song for the artist. A few weeks ago pop artist Camille Dhont settled here with a whole team. After five days she left with 38 new songs in her pocket.’



Camille Dhont left this after five days with 38 new songs.

Domien Cnockaert

Co-founder Durbuy Music

Durbuy Music now wants to further facilitate this itself, with a network of creative people to support it. ‘We are busy developing a network with something for everyone’, says Maerten. ‘There are currently 170 people in it. It is the intention that you can come here with all your creative wishes, and that we then put together a tailor-made team according to your expectations. Suppose you want to make French pop, then we put the best people around there, who can help you get the best out of it.’

With that message, Cnockaert, Maerten and Van Acker are currently breaking the doors of labels to lure their goldcrests to Durbuy. The hope and expectation is that the first hits written and recorded in Durbuy will soon start to seep into the charts. “That’s the best way to talk about it. Then the snowball can really start rolling.’

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