All these acts came within a two-hour flight of Ho Chi Minh City, and none got on that plane. It’s an old story, one in which ‘Southeast Asia’ only refers to Bangkok or Singapore in touring band iconography, and the old cover-band-only clichés have gained an overwhelming, indisputable logic. Yet, Bangkok has the same cover band pitfalls. So it’s fair to ask — What is Bangkok doing right that Ho Chi Minh City isn’t?
The Money Angle
In 2011 when Bob Dylan came to town, the tickets went half-sold. There were a variety of issues that hindered the sale — from the usual intransigence on the side of the talent, to not converting the Vietnamese concert-going majority into Dylan fans — but promoter Saigon Sound System eventually had to offer discounted tickets to a once-in-a-lifetime event. They lost on it, although they’d like to think of this as an investment.
This kind of investment is something they built on at SoundFest a year later, Vietnam’s largest music festival ever by the numbers. And then they had help, too — Coca-Cola and Samsung were the event’s two co-sponsors.
Festivals are the thinking man’s tour stop, which is why so many touring bands come through Asia on one. They concentrate everything in the same place, particularly — if you’re a niche band travelling half a world away — an audience.
And if you’re thinking more altruistically, they do something for a music scene that smaller gigs have a hard time achieving. They pave the way for an exchange of music traditions, and they provide insulated audiences with a different kind of show-going experience.
Culture ONE — Bangkok’s Dance Music Festival
Culture ONE recently celebrated its fifth year with a mega-production — Dash Berlin helming a US$150,000 soundstage. From an observer’s standpoint, the profitability of the THB2,000 to THB4,000 (VND1.4 million to VND2.8 million) per ticket festival looked to be in doubt, until Berlin took the stage and the scene coalesced around his swirling, ecstatic brand of trance. Girls wore sparkles and body paint, and fluorescent shirts streaked the dance floor. 5,000 people filled the warehouse-sized room, even after all the part-timers had gone home.
This culmination of a five-stage, 32-DJ act and nine-indie band festival made it all work — the indie headliner Young Knives flown out from the UK to play to an audience of 100, the other stages with less people than that at various points in the night, the three drink tents at the back of the room Berlin would eventually play, sitting unattended, each with their own dedicated spectrum pulsing UV light from above. Yet there were things that made the festival profitable, like the cans of Shark energy drink, the other energy drink with varieties like ‘Virgin’ and ‘Foreplay’, the kitted-out Prius — but Berlin helped it all make sense, helped the crowd feel like they played a part in something more than a marketing exercise, maybe even something they’ll be able to think back on in years as a key to their misspent youth.
Big Mountain Music Festival 4
As far as festivals go, this one was a doozy. 150+ artists performing on eight stages over two days, to an estimated crowd of 40,000. There were hydraulic cow’s heads and hovering UFOs, not to be outdone by the “crazy crying purple baby stage”. Evidently BMMF has a reputation for excess, and they didn’t slow down this year, outfitting the Ferris Wheel Stage with a total of five rideable ferris wheels, incredibly positioned behind the stage at which the event’s biggest headliners played, such as the Rolling Stones-huge Carabao. Even the non-rainy season kicked in a torrent of rain, helping the event inch closer towards the title of ‘Thailand’s Glastonbury’.
This one had things clicking on every level, and it was hard to see a connection between this manifestation and the primitive level I’d been hearing Thai festivals were at five years back. There were fully-formed tent cities — filled with specially-branded BMMF4 tents, and their own stake bargain-priced at THB900 (VND630,000) — and an incredible “omelet city” — comprising 10 different omelet varietals locked into battle for your taste buds, and honour.
At Culture ONE, I had an interesting conversation on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with M. Satawin, a beatboxer turned investor and programmer. He seemed to think Thailand was well behind where it needs to be on the goals curve. Money was the primary motivator — which is a common thing for emerging economies such as Thailand, or Vietnam for that matter — and that showed in any number of things, from respectable occupations, to the way that a festival is put together.
Although Satawin felt Culture ONE was compromised, BMMF seemed free of all that. If Culture ONE showed any sign of being a marketing tool, BMMF transcended such a designation, firmly landed in the realm of true experience.
The Way Forward
In Culture ONE and BMMF we can see two directions to follow. We just need to put together the pieces to follow one of them — tight concept or atmospherically bloated blowout.
Up in Hanoi they’ve been doing some trailblazing of their own with the annual CAMA Festival, the six-year-running independent music festival that’s attracted some 70 international artists to Vietnam. But like it or not, Ho Chi Minh City is a bigger ticket, with more mainstream expectations.
Saigon Sound System is now in discussions to bring Deep Purple here, one of the pioneers of heavy metal. Though this isn’t the floodgates opening onto some psychedelic pantheon powwow, it’s another brick in the wall of Vietnamese global legitimacy. Rod Quinton, the general manager of Saigon Sound System, is encouraged by this, and sees a method in all the previous investment that led here — “[The band’s booker] wouldn’t be calling me if we hadn’t done what we’ve done.”