We speak to Livescape’s Director of Live Events Rahul Kukreja about the return of one of the region’s favorite rock festivals, the future of EDM festivals and hear what really happened with this year’s Future Music Festival Asia cancellation.
It’s been a pretty wild ride for the team behind Livescape. In just over five years they’ve rapidly expanded across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to the point they’re now organizing and running around 100 events per year. In any given week they could be seeing 3000 EDM fans off on a cruise for It’s The Ship, enthralling audiences with the illusions of David Blane or reigniting teen crushes with a tour from the Backstreet Boys.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Livescape and nothing has exemplified this better than the disastrous fate of their Asian expansion of Future Music Festival. After two years in Malaysia, FMFA had grown to the point that it was the largest festival in South East Asia and lofty ambitions were held to grow it to become the largest event in Asia as a whole. And then tragedy struck. On the second day of the three day event there were six drug related deaths and another 16 hospitalizations prompting authorities to cancel Future Music Festival 2014. Kukreja is succinct in his description of it as “the worst day in my life.” Fast forward to this year and despite a new host country, increased security and organizers following all industry best practices, the festival was again scrapped. Organizers were denied permits by government officials surrounding fears of drug abuse mere days before the event, forcing Livescape to cancel the festival, refund 15,000 tickets and try to fill a gaping hole in their books. How did things go so wrong a second time around?
After it became clear that the festival could not continue in Kuala Lumpur. Kukreja explained the process of selecting a new host city for the event: “The Singapore government asked us, invited us to come over here. It was a six month decision. We were getting offers from Indonesia, we were getting offers from Korea, we were getting offers from India. The Singapore government promised a lot and they said come over.”
“We’re here to work with you guys, we’re here to work with the government. We’re here to solve that problem. What we’re not here to do is do your job. If you think there’s a drug problem here in this country, who’s not doing their job? That’s not my problem. That’s your problem. I do shows. That’s it.”
With staunch anti drug stance it seemed that changing the location to Singapore was a sensible move as the heavy enforcement of drug policy meant Livescape could concentrate on what they do, namely running a festival. Asked about how the police handled the situation when they broke up the festival in Malaysia, Kukreja remarked “We’re here to work with you guys, we’re here to work with the government. We’re here to solve that problem. What we’re not here to do is do your job. If you think there’s a drug problem here in this country, who’s not doing their job? That’s not my problem. That’s your problem. I do shows. That’s it.”
“The reason why we decided to move here is because it’s Singapore,” he said “the reason we came here is because of their drug policies. Because it’s strict.” With a world class team behind them, Livescape were confident they’d taken every precaution and safety measure to ensure crowd safety and avoid a repeat of the previous year. “We had some of the best security guys working on the security for the festival, the guys from Tomorrowland security. Then Event Aid from Australia who were here to run the medic team. We had a risk facilitator from Australia as well. We had a very global team and some of the best in the industry. We had best practices put forward… even the police themselves they were coming back to us saying no-one has done this before – this is great!” Kukreja continued
“We had best practices put forward… even the police themselves they were coming back to us saying no-one has done this before – this is great”
So what happened? According to Second Minister for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli, the cancellation of the planned festival was based on serious concerns from police about the potential for drug abuse at the event. It didn’t help that in the weeks preceding the event Future Music Festival events in Australia were peppered with drug arrests, culminating in the seizure of 7,500 ecstasy tablets that were bound for the Brisbane chapter. Masagos went on to say “considering the repeated drug-related incidents, including deaths and serious illness, that had occurred at the FMFA and FMF (Future Music Festival) events in Kuala Lumpur and Australia respectively, it would have been irresponsible to allow it to be held in Singapore without adequate safeguards and assurances,” said Mr Masagos.“The event would also not have been consistent with our zero-tolerance stance towards drugs. Therefore, the police decided to reject the application for this event to be held in Singapore.”
Ultimately Kukreja believes that “the name that was tainted.” and it’s difficult not to feel for him. When the police themselves are saying that they’ve never seen the level of organization that was displayed by his team, what were the specific safeguards and assurances were not in place? Somewhat mournfully Kukreja continues “sadly its not anything we did. There’s a lot of false information that’s out there. There’s a lot of stuff that’s been said. It’s tough.” Making things worse is that there’s never been a formal explanation, even up until this point, as to why the festival was denied the permits “To be honest there’s been no official reason up until now.”
“To be honest there’s been no official reason up until now”
So what is the future for large events in South East Asia? With the last minute cancellation of Kazantip in Cambodia earlier this year and two successive years of disaster with Future Music Festival, how difficult is it going to be to rebuild the trust of punters? “I think people are sceptical (and) it sucks because it affects consumer confidence. Look if I bought flights and accommodation, I’d be pissed but the response on our social media is that they understand” Kukreja said, referring to the customers that were out of pocket by paying for flights and accommodation for a festival that never happened. He puts this down to the transparency of Livescape “We have the best people working and if the government doesn’t want that and there’s no reasoning, there’s no communication, there’s nothing much really that we can do. We’ll have to stop doing business, or at least stop doing that brand here.” Which ultimately is a big loss in economic terms to Singapore. Kukreja continues “We’re not a fly by night promoter throwing a big drug fest. That’s not our thing. We deliver really good shows and quality international experiences and we build the tourist economy. For Future Music Festival there was over 30% tourist arrivals. If you equate that to the tourist economy, every year we contributed over 180 million ringgit to the Malaysian economy from Future Music Festival alone.”
“We’re not a fly by night promoter throwing a big drug fest. That’s not our thing. We deliver really good shows and quality international experiences and we build the tourist economy. For Future Music Festival there was over 30% tourist arrivals. If you equate that to the tourist economy, every year we contributed over 180 million ringgit to the Malaysian economy from Future Music Festival alone.”
When the Australian arm of the festival announced in early April that they would not be continuing the festival due to under performing ticket sales it was not a difficult decision for Livescape to follow suit. Successive years of cancellation had irreparably damaged the brand. A final farewell, they posted to their Facebook page “All good things must come to an end… We ask that you don’t mourn FMFA, but rather look back, remember and keep the memories you’ve had at FMFA alive” resulting in an avalanche of messages of support and reminiscences of experiences of previous festivals. Alas Future Music Festival Asia is officially a thing of the past now.
But that’s not to say that Livescape wont be putting on large scale festivals in the future. “We want to do really good productions and good shows. We try our level do our best. We don’t want to associate ourselves with bad experiences – we deliver a quality product and that’s what we’ll continue to do. Now that Future isn’t going to happen, it’s whether we take a foreign brand, whether it be from Europe or America or do we create our own festival. We definitely want to fill that gap in March or we might move it to another time of the year. As a company, we definitely want to do something of that scale” says Kukreja.
But they’re certainly not resting on their laurels there. With a keen eye for sourcing further entertainment opportunities, Livescape are actively looking to expand the brand further. They’ve just run their first successful reggae festival in Sun Splash, which they’ll be aiming to tour across Asia as a premium beach party; the already infamous It’s The Ship cruise sets sail again this November; their long running After Dark Social Club run regular club shows; they tour major artists like Backstreet Boys, Boyce Avenue and The Script and that’s not even close to enough. “I’m really keen to do more family events and building them for Malaysia particularly. The Disney properties that are out there – that’s something new we’re looking into. We did some of the YouTube artists as well, dabbled with that a bit” says Kukreja before letting slip that the iconic Rockaway festival is back on the agenda. “We stopped for a year but we’re looking to bring it back and on a larger scale. Maybe next year if we get the right acts together.”
Whilst Future Music Festival Asia may be a thing of the past, with this much momentum behind them the future is indeed looking bright for Livescape because in this industry, the show must go on.