Every year, Formula One brings the biggest names in racing and fast cars to sweltering Singapore. But while the motor-heads take to the tracks, the Singapore Grand Prix is also boosting the city-state’s live music scene.
For the past few years, high-profile artists have been flying in to perform at concerts that are part of the Grand Prix celebrations. For 2015 Pharrell Williams, Jon Bon Jovi, and Maroon 5 will take the stage.
This influx has helped spark a broader interest in outdoor concerts. Early-bird tickets to this year’s inaugural “Road to Ultra” music festival, which features electronic music superstars such as Skrillex, Nicky Romero and Alesso, sold out within 21 minutes.
“People love it. It’s the escapism I think,” said Michael Roche, executive director of the Singapore Grand Prix.
“It’s just a human, emotional thing. So much is on tablets and mobiles and things like that, but people still want to get in touch with the superstar.”
Roche also heads up music promoter Live Nation-Lushington, and despite disruption in the industry, he thinks that music remains deeply relevant to people’s lives, and says that the big money has simply moved from radio and record labels into live music.
“Acts that we’d pay $100,000 before, became a million. The ones that were half a million shot to $2 million. Nobody could even conceive of that before,” he says.
You gotta fight for your right to party
But sold-out concerts don’t necessarily guarantee long-term success.
The popular Future Music Festival went bust this year after a string of high-profile cancellations . Anything from artist availability to licensing and permits can present a business risk.
Asia’s famously strict drug laws present added complications for producers and promoters.
Ultra co-executive producers Alex Chew and Raj Datwani went out of their way to ensure that their event would be safe, bringing in technology and working closely with both the Singapore Police Force and Ultra’s team in Miami to ensure that the event would be safe.
“I think the biggest risk, honestly, is the license,” said Alex Chew, Co-Executive Producer of this year’s Ultra Music Festival.” “Everything that we did right from the start, even before talking about what artists to bring in, was how to make the event safe for consumers.”
The pair are in it for long haul, and are determined to party within the rules. “We can’t grow long term unless we’ve got local support, and we can’t get local support unless we abide by the rules, which we’re happy to do,” says Datwani.
From artists to permits, putting on a live event is a gargantuan undertaking, and even the weather can get in the way – a lesson Fuji Rock learnt the hard way, when a typhoon took out its inaugural event in 1997.
This year’s Singapore Grand Prix, has taken a somewhat unorthodox approach to managing the hazy weather:
“We have a lot of bomohs, lots of onions and oranges around the circuit,” says Roche. Bomoh is the Malay word for witch doctor.
“We have a religious, inter-faith ceremony every year the week of the race, a lot of chanting to bless the track, bless the weather, bless all the staff, and we’re very earnest about it. We believe and spend a lot of time and money on it.”
Who wants to live forever
Lincoln Cheng, the 67-year old founder and Executive Chairman of Zouk brought house music to Singapore and carefully curated the space for close to a quarter of a century. However the venerated club lost its lease earlier this year.
“I started Zouk in 1991 for the love of music,” he says. “The Balearic beats that I heard then were something very new and never heard of in Asia, and I wanted to bring house music to a larger audience. That was the inspiration for Zouk.”
Cheng started out throwing house parties for his friends, and cites constant innovation, and a “fiercely loyal” team of employees for helping him stay true to his vision.
Zouk has consistently been voted one of the top 10 clubs in the world by the independent DJ Magazine, and ZoukOut, the company’s “rain or shine” music festival is now in its 15th year. The club is set to move into a new space in Clarke Quay next year.
Right here, right now
Successful homegrown events such as ZoukOut and the Singapore Grand Prix have softened the ground for future acts, and for newcomers Chew and Datwani, live music events like Ultra are the logical next step.
The Ultra pair started out 4 years ago, putting on extravagant brunches for 50 people at a time, and have plans to expand far, far beyond that.
While it’s their passion for the industry that keeps them working till 4am in the morning, Chew and Datwani are convinced that they have a viable business proposition, and are going with their gut.
“Singapore’s ready for it,” says Chew. “You see it in the market. People are looking forward to more festivals, events and DJs coming through the region. You can feel it.”