ZOUKOUT BREAKS OUT

SIN­GA­PORE'S ICONIC MU­SIC BRAND PLANS GLOBAL EX­PAN­SION

Southeast Asia Globe - - Front Page - By Euan Black

Atroupe of neon bikini-clad women and bare-chested men in Daft Punk-style hel­mets hold aloft a bot­tle of Dom Pérignon in each hand. They dance their way through a co­terie of well-heeled so­cialites to a table in an airy VIP area just a few me­tres away from ZoukOut 2017's tow­er­ing, lion-shaped stage. Some­one has just or­dered 50 bot­tles of the cham­pagne for a cool SGD29,000 (USD21,834).

A purist would ar­gue that such a scene runs counter to what a mu­sic fes­ti­val should be: an au­tonomous zone of cre­ativ­ity de­tached from ev­ery­day re­al­ity. But like it or not, VIP ex­pe­ri­ences and brand part­ner­ships play an im­por­tant role in sus­tain­ing an in­dus­try suf­fer­ing at the hands of in­ten­si­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Even ZoukOut, Asia's largest beach­front mu­sic fes­ti­val, or­gan­ised by South­east Asia's most iconic dance mu­sic brand, faces sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. Now in its 17th year of op­er­a­tions, ris­ing per­for­mance fees and evolv­ing cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions are forc­ing the brand that's widely cred­ited with bring­ing dance mu­sic to Asia to re­vamp its an­nual fes­ti­val by re­duc­ing its de­pen­dence on big head­lin­ers and ex­pand­ing its range of non-mu­si­cal of­fer­ings.

In­flated per­for­mance fees caused by in­creased com­pe­ti­tion are ZoukOut CEO Andrew Li's main bug­bear. These spi­ralling costs are the main rea­son why the fes­ti­val fails to turn a profit some years, he says.

“It's a part of the bud­get that con­stantly in­creases… some­thing that is partly fu­elled by pro­mot­ers in newer Asian fes­ti­val mar­kets who are will­ing to pay above mar­ket rates to book par­tic­u­lar artists,” he says. “China, for ex­am­ple, has re­cently started be­com­ing very ac­tive in the EDM [elec­tronic dance mu­sic] fes­ti­val scene and, with the size of its mar­ket, [fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers there] have no qualms pay­ing two or three times [the mar­ket rate]…

“Hon­estly, there are years [in] which the fes­ti­val does make money, but there are also years [in] which it did not. Last year was a good year for us. We did very well with ta­ble­ser­vice sales at our VIP ar­eas and saw also an in­crease in av­er­age spend per guest on fes­ti­val grounds.”

Marsh­mello, one of the main draws on ZoukOut's line-up in De­cem­ber, for ex­am­ple, pulled in a to­tal of $21m in earn­ings in 2016 alone,

“There are years in which the fes­ti­val makes money, but there are also years in which it did not”

which was largely thanks to a six-fig­ure per­for­mance fee, ac­cord­ing to Forbes.

He's cer­tainly made to feel like a su­per­star while per­form­ing at the fes­ti­val. Af­ter round­ing off a high-oc­tane set with his down­beat bal­lad “Si­lence” – a choice that the crowd re­spond to by singing along to ev­ery word – the sky burns bright with gold, green and pur­ple in a ten-minute fire­work dis­play, one of three seen across the two-day event. Along with the in­te­gra­tion of dry ice and fire can­nons into the mon­strous main stage, the fes­ti­val's py­rotech­nics alone took six months of plan­ning.

ZoukOut's tran­si­tion to­wards a more holis­tic artis­tic en­deav­our has also opened up more av­enues for spon­sors to in­flu­ence the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, with DBS Bank and Martell cognac both es­tab­lish­ing a no­tice­able pres­ence at this year's event. While DBS af­forded its credit card hold­ers ex­clu­sive ac­cess to a VIP bar in the main arena, Martell drew crowds with a game that in­vited fes­ti­val­go­ers to grab fall­ing fruit on a six-me­tre, mo­tion-track­ing LED screen that fea­tured an­i­mated ro­bots mim­ick­ing their move­ments.

“We wanted to drive home the mes­sage that Martell is ver­sa­tile when it comes to mix­ers and that it is a fun brand that de­vi­ates from al­co­hol brand stereo­types… and we thought that tech­nol­ogy was the [best] way to en­gage con­sumers without them feel­ing bored dur­ing the lull pe­ri­ods,” says Linda Song, as­sis­tant com­mu­nity man­ager at Martell.

Such un­apolo­getic brand­ing ex­er­cises may draw the ire of some fes­ti­val­go­ers, and al­though ticket sales re­main ZoukOut's largest source of in­come for now, even Freddie Fel­lowes, the charis­matic founder of the re­cently shut­tered Se­cret Gar­den Party – a free-spir­ited ‘pro­fes­sional party' in the UK that avoided com­mer­cial part­ner­ships through­out its 15 years of op­er­a­tions – said spon­sor ac­ti­va­tions can ac­tu­ally im­prove the fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence at some events.

“We've cer­tainly proven that you can com­pete against the mar­ket without that slice of cash… and for our event and

the de­sign of our event, we felt it wasn't ap­pro­pri­ate,” he says dur­ing a Skype call from the UK. “But I think in some artis­tic ven­tures, it's a vi­tal re­la­tion­ship. It's all about sen­si­tiv­ity and ap­pro­pri­ate­ness, which is some­thing that I think is far more preva­lent now than it was 15 years ago, with brands know­ing how to ap­proach au­di­ences a lot bet­ter and pro­mot­ers bet­ter un­der­stand­ing what they can ask from brands or tell brands be­cause, at the end of the day, they're the peo­ple that know that au­di­ence the best.”

It's a sen­ti­ment shared by Rus­sell Ward, the co­founder and owner of the Con­flu­ence, a US-based me­dia and cre­ative agency that man­ages ZoukOut's pub­lic re­la­tions in Asia, North Amer­ica and Aus­tralia. Over a vodka and orange, Ward em­pha­sises the ben­e­fits of es­tab­lish­ing strong con­nec­tions be­tween the arts and busi­ness worlds, his fea­tures lit up by the re­flec­tion of the city lights in the sea.

“It's weird, but the two can't re­ally ex­ist without each other… you need the au­then­tic­ity and cred­i­bil­ity of the arts to give the brands rel­e­vance and soul, and you need the sheer com­mer­cial power of the brands to give re­sources unto the arts,” he says be­tween the high-pitched squeals em­a­nat­ing from nearby bungee jumpers – an­other ex­am­ple of the fes­ti­val of­fer­ing a more ‘holis­tic' ex­pe­ri­ence. “Brand in­volve­ment into fes­ti­vals is on the right path if it does one of two things: cre­ate more height­ened ex­pe­ri­ences for guests or rem­edy pain points.”

Af­ter the in­ter­view, we walk past the fes­ti­val's smaller stage, where we're forced to chart a new course by a bliss­fully ine­bri­ated gym buff en­gaged in a seem­ingly never-end­ing bat­tle to stay up­right. Grav­ity even­tu­ally emerges vic­to­ri­ous, send­ing the man crash­ing into a nearby group, who lose their drinks in the process. Wear­ing a large, goofy smile, the man is helped to his feet by one of the group, be­fore the two share a hearty, al­co­hol-in­duced hug. It's 2am on ZoukOut's sec­ond night, and the fes­ti­val spirit is alive and well.

Just me­tres away, the main stage is packed with wide-eyed twen­tysome­things fran­ti­cally bounc­ing to the euphoric an­thems of Dutch duo Yel­low Claw. Each nat­u­ral lull in the per­for­mance is fol­lowed

by a ‘drop' that is in­evitably larger and louder than its pre­de­ces­sor, a pro­gres­sion of over­stim­u­la­tion spurred on by a fre­netic light­ing show that is met with the ul­ti­mate form of mod­ern-day ap­proval: a sea of smartphones ris­ing into the air.

It's a sym­bol of the on­go­ing power shift from tra­di­tional to new me­dia that has led ZoukOut to ex­plore more ef­fec­tive ways to sell the fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence to its tar­get mar­ket.

“We spend quite a lot of money on dig­i­tal ad dol­lars, and then we also spend quite a bit on videos, be­cause peo­ple share videos these days,” says Siqi Chung, ZoukOut's di­rec­tor of le­gal and mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “And for over­seas mar­kets we find a lo­cal part­ner. This year, we placed a lot of em­pha­sis on our Ten­cent QQ re­la­tion­ship in China.”

That par­tic­u­lar re­la­tion­ship saw the fes­ti­val pay to fly seven ‘so­cial in­flu­encers' over from China to broad­cast their fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence to their re­spec­tive fan bases, which range from 30,000 to three mil­lion fol­low­ers, through mul­ti­ple streams on Ten­cent's QQ Zone, the Chi­nese equiv­a­lent of Face­book Live.

The trips were, in fact, par­tially funded by the Sin­ga­pore Tourism Board, ex­plains Yock Song Law, a se­nior man­ager at the board's Guangzhou of­fice. The move is part of a wider gov­ern­men­tal “brand­ing ex­er­cise to at­tract more Chi­nese tourists” to Sin­ga­pore by show­ing them that the city-state is cool, he adds, as we watch the in­flu­encers en­gage in lots of or­ches­trated fun, like pre­sen­ters on a chil­dren's TV pro­gramme.

In ad­di­tion to build­ing re­la­tion­ships with so­cial in­flu­encers, ZoukOut formed a part­ner­ship with the pop­u­lar South­east Asian ride-hail­ing app Grab that of­fered users of the app who had ac­cu­mu­lated 3,000 loy­alty points SGD50 (USD38) off a ticket to the fes­ti­val, which started at SGD228 (USD173) for a stan­dard ad­vance two-day pass.

“Brands need to cre­ate height­ened ex­pe­ri­ences for guests or rem­edy pain points”

“That worked quite well for us,” Chung says. “The main thing is that a part­ner­ship must drive a win-win out­come. If not, there's no point in do­ing it. If you do some­thing and your part­ner's not happy, you don't want that be­cause you want a long-term re­la­tion­ship.”

A few feet away, a group of cack­ling girls queue up to take a group photo in front of a large, neon ZoukOut sign. Such “In­sta­grammable mo­ments” help the fes­ti­val re­main rel­e­vant among its key 18- to 23-year-old de­mo­graphic, Chung says.

“The next step is more art in­stal­la­tions… we feel it's what peo­ple talk about,” she says. “But, of course, we're still a busi­ness. So what­ever we do, it still has to make busi­ness sense.”

Per­haps more than any­thing, the art in­stal­la­tions and spon­sor ac­ti­va­tions

“Of course, we’re still a busi­ness. So what­ever we do, it still has to make busi­ness sense”

shine a light on the com­pany's will­ing­ness to change with the times, a process of rein­ven­tion un­doubt­edly in­ten­si­fied by the Malaysian con­glom­er­ate Gent­ing Group's pur­chase of the Zouk brand for an undis­closed fee in 2015.

Zouk has long been syn­ony­mous with dance mu­sic events for the dis­cern­ing club­ber, but the re­cent takeover ap­pears to be soft­en­ing that rep­u­ta­tion.

While ZoukOut has never been a stranger to book­ing main­stream acts, the fes­ti­val had al­ways made a point of giv­ing equal billing to less-com­mer­cial artists such as Nina Kraviz, Richie Hawtin, Loco Dice and Seth Trox­ler. In re­cent years, af­ter the Gent­ing Group took over in 2015, ZoukOut's un­der­ground fare has been grad­u­ally re­duced – at tonight's event there is just a hand­ful of such acts play­ing the fes­ti­val's con­sid­er­ably smaller sec­ond stage while most fes­ti­val­go­ers were at­tend­ing the main stage with its ex­ag­ger­ated EDM makeover.

The changes have been ac­com­pa­nied by a de­cline in at­ten­dance fig­ures, from a peak of 45,000 in 2014 to 40,000 in 2017, though the fes­ti­val also ex­pe­ri­enced an in­crease in av­er­age spend per guest in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Li.

He adds that the fes­ti­val's re­cent life­style-based changes are in­dica­tive of Gent­ing's push to make Zouk “more than just a night­club”. The aim is for it to be­come an en­ter­tain­ment and life­style brand that en­com­passes ho­tels, bars, restaurants and clubs.

That evo­lu­tion is al­ready in full swing, with Zouk hav­ing re­cently es­tab­lished a club pres­ence on the Gent­ing Dream and World Dream, two lux­ury cruise lin­ers that serve the Hong Kong and China mar­kets. The brand will also open a club in 2018 in Re­sorts World Gent­ing, a self-con­tained re­sort in the high­lands 45 min­utes away from Kuala Lumpur com­pris­ing high-street fash­ion out­lets, ex­ten­sive din­ing op­tions and an ar­ray of pre­mium ac­com­mo­da­tion.

The hope is that the on­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion will see Zouk grow far be­yond its cur­rent Asian strongholds, an am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion that the team says will start with the open­ing of a new Zouk club on the worl­drenowned Las Ve­gas strip within the next few years.

“It's very ex­cit­ing to see where the brand grows. They're in a po­si­tion to make big moves. They have re­sources, a dom­i­nant mar­ket share here in South­east Asia and grow­ing global aware­ness,” says Ward.

“And they've got a plan.”

Fes­ti­val­go­ers grab vir­tual fruit while play­ing Martell cognac’s mo­tion track­ing-en­abled gameAus­tralian DJ Flume meets a group of young fans who won a lucky draw con­test on so­cial me­diaMartell’s sub­stan­tial Fruit Loots in­stal­la­tion grabs the at­ten­tion of cu­ri­ous passersby

Marsh­mello takes a photo of ZoukOut’s crowd while fire­works il­lu­mi­nate the sky af­ter his high-en­ergy set

This year’s stage was built to pro­vide more room for rap group Higher Broth­ers (pic­tured) and In­done­sian in­ter­net sen­sa­tion Rich ChiggaZoukOut has made it a pri­or­ity to pro­vide fes­ti­val­go­ers with plenty of “In­sta­grammable mo­ments”A fes­ti­val­goer pulls a lever as part of Martell cognac’s Fruit Loots game

ZoukOut’s bikini-clad VIP wait­resses serve cham­pagne as part of a ‘Dom Pérignon train’A brave fes­ti­val­goer jumps off the fes­ti­val’s 50m bungee tower (be­low, mid­dle); the ZoukOut crowd wave their smart­phone torches along to one of Dutch duo Yel­low Claw’s more melodic num­bers (be­low, right)

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