For many years, the Asian live music scene barely registered on the global consciousness, with few festivals happening around the region and even fewer having the calibre to attract overseas fans. But that’s all changed, with a raft of festivals that offer distinctive locations and infusions of local culture.
Case in point: Wonderfruit. Held on a jungle-fringed expanse of land two hours’ drive from Bangkok, the festival has drawn frequent comparisons to the legendary Burning Man festival in Nevada in the US. The four-day festival presents a varied programme of music, arts and offbeat experiences underpinned by an eco-friendly ethos. Although the music programming, which runs 24 hours a day, lies at the heart of the Wonderfruit experience, the organisers also place a significant focus on wellness (from daily yoga and meditation sessions to gong baths); TED-style talks by authors, activists and innovators; hands-on workshops on everything from jewellery-making and woodcarving to horticulture and blacksmithing; and kids’ activities in a dedicated family zone.
‘We’re not the type of festival where people come for the main headliner,’ says Wonderfruit co-founder Pranitan ‘Pete’ Phornprapha. ‘We definitely see ourselves as an international destination festival.’ About half of Wonderfruit’s attendees fly in from outside Thailand, says Phornprapha; the majority are from elsewhere in the region, but a growing contingent from the US and Europe highlights the festival’s – and Asia’s – burgeoning reputation in this sphere.
Apart from Wonderfruit, Big Mountain in Thailand, Urbanscapes and Good Vibes in Malaysia, Quest and Equation in Vietnam, Malasimbo and Wanderland in the Philippines, Organik in Taiwan, and Great Wall Run in China are among the new breed of festivals transforming the perception of live music in Asia and providing alternatives to long-established Japanese events such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic.
Although more of a lineup-driven music festival, Hong Kong’s Clockenflap is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of this new wave of Asian festivals. Starting out in 2008 as a low-key, one-day festival with 1,500 attendees, it has grown into a three-day event that attracts about 25,000 people each day and showcases over 100 top local, regional and international acts each year. According to Clockenflap music director Justin Sweeting, creating an event that reflects the personality of Hong Kong has been vital to the festival’s success.
‘The city plays such a central role in our brand and our character and the elements we like to represent,’ he says. ‘On the programming front, we’ve always looked to mirror the best aspects of the city – I’ve always wanted the lineup to be this kind of multicultural, multi-genre, East-meets-West programme that showcases new trends but also older, established artists who were pioneering in their day and are still doing relevant things.’
Playing to Hong Kong’s strengths has undoubtedly contributed to Clockenflap’s appeal to overseas visitors: the festival takes place at Central Harbourfront, a dramatic location in the heart of the city that’s also a convenient 30-minute journey from the airport. Sweeting says 25 percent of attendees now arrive from outside Hong Kong.
‘Often these audiences are coming from places that have far more of a legacy or appreciation of festivals,’ says Sweeting. ‘So when we announce our lineup, the feedback we get from places like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and so on is that they really understand the value of our offering.
And then there’s Fuji Rock. Attracting more than 100,000 fans each year and hosting some of the world’s biggest acts on multiple stages set amid scenic Japanese woodland, this is widely hailed as the godfather of modern Asian music festivals. While about 85 percent of attendees come from within Japan, Fuji has forged a cult following among overseas fans, many of whom return year after year to enjoy the festival’s unique setting and distinctly Japanese vibe. Fuji, too, has been moving with the times and adding to its non-music offerings.
‘Music changes all the time and so should the festival experience,’ says Johnnie Moylett, promoter for the festival. ‘Fuji Rock has become more of a lifestyle experience – we try to add new sections every year and expand other areas to entertain the audience with new attractions. We have been conscious recently to make the festival a little more family-oriented.’
For Philippines-based fan Diego Mapa, the growing number of music festivals in Asia presents more opportunities to see quality live music within a few hours’ travel. ‘It’s a good investment for me as a music fanatic,’ he says. ‘I get to see all these acts for a fee that would cost more if I saw them individually.’
Beijing-based Philipp Grefer, who regularly travels to music festivals elsewhere in Asia, agrees, adding: ‘What is exciting is that there are more and more festivals coming up in the region. There is a great energy at the moment.’
As well as being good news for fans, the rise of festivals in Asia is also a boon for the region’s music artists, offering greater opportunities to hone their talents playing to international crowds on bigger stages. ‘Festivals play a really critical role in the development of a scene – they’re a really important piece of the puzzle,’ says Sweeting. ‘So having more festivals around the region that are reliable, that have their own character, their own brand and something that feels authentic to their location – that’s really important.’
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