World News

Music Festivals Are Gaining Popularity in Asia. Just Not With Officials.

Posted November 27, 2018 11:49 a.m. EST

HONG KONG — When the members of Bottlesmoker, an “indietronic” band from Indonesia, landed in Vietnam last Thursday, they were looking forward to their set at Quest Festival, an annual event billed as a “wondrous, wild wonderland of nature, art and eclectic entertainment.”

But just after 11 p.m. Friday — after bands and fans had traveled to the festival site near the capital, Hanoi — the Quest organizers told Bottlesmoker by email that the event was off. “After supporting us until today the authorities have decided to withdraw our festival license for reasons that are still unknown to us,” they wrote.

“Bottlesmoker was waiting to play at Quest Festival for, like, almost two years,” Anggung Suherman, who plays synthesizers in the band, said in an interview. “So it’s really broken our hearts.”

Asia is a growing market for Western-inspired music festivals where electronic beats blare into the wee hours, à la Coachella in California or Glastonbury in England. In China alone, the number of electronic music festivals was expected to rise to more than 150 this year from 32 in 2016, according to a recent survey of the electronic music industry by Kevin Watson, a London-based analyst.

But on top of the logistical challenges that accompany music festivals in any country, promoters across much of Asia face an additional headache: conservative governments that see the events as threats to public safety, political stability or social and religious values.

Or perhaps all of the above.

The concept of a Western-style music festival is still new to many officials in the region, and specific rules to regulate them are scarce, said Reason Xie, the program director for Looptopia, Taiwan’s largest outdoor music festival.

“Most Asian governments would rather you not do parties so you don’t cause trouble,” he said, adding that his comment did not apply to Japan or South Korea. “The authorities wouldn’t want to take responsibility because a festival, to them, is like a liability.”

The Quest event in Vietnam, a one-party state, is just one of several high-profile music festivals to be canceled across the region in recent years.

In 2015, for example, authorities in Taiwan banned the 2F: White Party music festival after an explosion at a water park in New Taipei City killed 15 people and injured hundreds. Xie said the music event had been running smoothly since 2007 but had been criticized in the local news media as a haven for drugs and even firearms.

“Which, come on, Taiwan doesn’t have firearms!” he said. “But the media can say whatever they want and the public will believe it.”

The year before, the Future Music Festival Asia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was canceled on its third day after 19 festivalgoers were arrested on suspicion of drug possession and six others died. The local news media suggested at the time that the deaths were drug-related, but a forensic pathologist later reported that they had been caused by heatstroke.

Festival organizers tried to move the event to Singapore in 2015, but officials there declined to grant them a public entertainment license. (Bottlesmoker, the Indonesian band, was among the scheduled acts.)

Iqbal Ameer, chief executive of the Livescape Group, the Kuala Lumpur-based promoter of the Future Music Festival Asia, said that while Malaysia’s electronic music scene was slowly rebuilding, his company was “still having conversations with authorities to educate them on what electronic dance music is all about.”

“Drug abuse has been around even before music festivals started becoming a norm here,” he said. “What we would want to do is encourage the relevant authorities to tackle the real problem, which is drug abuse, not music festivals.” This summer, two of China’s largest electronic music events — the Ultra festivals in Shanghai and Beijing — were not held as planned. Questions have been swirling over what happened and whether the events have a future in the country; the festival organizers did not respond to a request for comment.

Xie noted that the Chinese government is notoriously suspicious of popular subcultures, and that electronic music festivals would naturally raise red flags because they attract large crowds.

“They banned hip-hop,” he said, referring to recent efforts by Chinese officials to suppress references to the genre on television. “I guess EDM is the next thing they’re monitoring now, especially when music festivals involve thousands and thousands of people gathering together.”

In Vietnam, Quest Festival was scheduled to take place about two months after the state-run news media reported in September that seven people had died after taking drugs at the Trip to the Moon electronic music festival in Hanoi. The deaths prompted the city government to issue what it called a temporary ban on all music festivals.

The festival organizers said in a statement on Monday that Quest had been shut down on Friday morning by local officials who blocked access to the site and shut off its electricity supply.

“It is incredibly saddening and confusing that the move to block Quest from running was delayed until the final hour, as this left so many of the amazing festival staff, the wonderful volunteers and suppliers and many guests stranded on the roadside, or stuck inside the camp,” they wrote on Facebook.

But Nguyen Thai Binh, an official from the ministry, was quoted by the Vietnamese news media as saying that the event’s license had been revoked after the Trip to the Moon deaths.

A Quest Festival organizer declined to comment on the cancellation or the government’s rationale, saying only that “working in Vietnam can be very challenging.” In the days since the festival was canceled, its Facebook page has been flooded with comments — some sympathetic, others embittered and antagonistic.

“Human beings,” one user wrote. “When they want to blame, they’re just gonna blame.”

Eva Lazarus, a musician from Bristol, England, said she had flown to Vietnam to perform at Quest Festival as part of a tour that includes stops in Australia, India, Kenya, New Zealand and Uganda. She said she had never been in the lineup for a festival that was canceled on a mere day’s notice.

Lazarus said that in Britain, the regulatory “goal posts” covering security, policing or sound restrictions at festivals can shift at the last minute. But in general, she added, “when the goal posts move, it is within reason and there is a potential for the event to still go ahead.”