Concert promoters and event organisers are to artists like bees are to pollen. In order to reach the widest audiences possible, promoters create the buzz while organisers attend to rigorous details. We know that bit already. But how do you start if you’re a ringgit-less college kid with a dream? That was the situation that Ben Law of Future Sound Asia found himself in 10 years ago…
“I don’t like being in front of the camera. I’m not really the celebrity type.” And Ben is more than right saying so buttoned up in his blue-collared working shirt. Frankly, he looks more Bill Gates than Factory Records’ Tony Wilson to us.
It’s a slap in the face if you believe that all dance-orientated event organisers-in this case the man behind this year’s hottest shows including The Rapture, Basement Jaxx, 2manydjs and Boys Noize-succumb to the 24-hour party lifestyle. “If you notice, a lot of our events don’t have our branding there. It’s not really a big thing that I need the public to know it’s a Future Sound Asia event. People in the industry will eventually know who you are,” he reassures us while multi-tasking e-mails on his BB.
About a decade ago, Ben was a college kid during the global dance phenomenon of the late 90s. “Dance music was literally exploding in Malaysia and around the world. A lot of sponsors started to see it as a new trend and lifestyle. It was a very cool new age thing and they all wanted to jump in like it was the sh!t.” However, to get those sponsors was another story.
For his 1st event in 2001, Ben brought in DJ Jurgen from Holland. At the time, Ben was hugely into Dutch trance and DJ Jurgen was up and coming on the heels of Ferry Corsten. The event drew a crowd of 1500 people to the now-defunct club Movement, but was still a financial failure. “We lost money, but it was our 1st time. Nobody knew us. And if you’re a 21 year old kid, it’s hard to get anybody to give you money,” Ben claims.
Initially, to get sponsors, Ben went through a friend who was a DJ in the scene and who had connections to corporate clients. The follow-up event a few months later saw DJ Darude-who scored a major commercial club hit at the time with ‘Sandstorm’. It was Ben’s 1st taste of success with the help of sponsors. The venue, Flux (another yesteryear club), was packed with revellers who were queuing outside all night to get in. This is the stuff dreams are made of if you’re an event organiser.
It was around this time that Ibtz Entertainment (the company that Ben and 3 other friends started) became Future Sound Asia. “Everyone was studying and we all took out money to make the company happen. I didn’t finish my studies and wasn’t into textbooks. So I said, ‘Fark the studies!’ I wanted to see this through permanently.”
After their 3rd show, Ben became the sole member; his friends left due to commitment issues. “Well, it wasn’t really a concrete job so that’s when I decided to see it through by myself. It’s not really easy to work with friends, but it’s better to let any fallout happen at an early stage rather than let them bite back at you later,” he says of the experience.
Although more sponsors were taking note of FSA, competition was stiff. The DJ community was small back then and there were about 15 to 20 promoters. Everyone was hitting on the same sponsors and DJs. That’s when the bidding wars started. Ben comments, “Whenever you wanted a good, recognised DJ, you were talking to 15 different promoters who, in turn, were talking to the same DJ.”
Still, being young and enthusiastic compensated for being broke. “It was pretty slow but to me, I always knew that it would work at least for the next 10 years. I did think that people would get bored of the DJ thing at some point. But there would be new things created by the scene. That’s when all the live elements that you see in shows now came in, and the collaborations as well,” says Ben, giving David Guetta’s recent foray into hip hop as an example.
Unknown to most people, Ben was actually into punk rock and ska in high school. “Just like rock music where new genres pop up frequently, dance music would also expand. I took rock as a benchmark, like I knew modern dance music wouldn’t just die out,” he says.
Working day jobs while running FSA was tough, but Ben saw it through for the 1st 5 years. After successfully building a solid reputation, a lot of foreign artist agencies were impressed. “There were a lot of promoters who would hide things from them. I’d rather be upfront and not have any problems later on,” he says, citing tobacco sponsorship as an example. “Some artists had a problem with it. There were cases where the promoters wouldn’t reveal that a tobacco company was sponsoring the event because they were afraid that the artists would ask for more money, let alone turn up for the gig.”
Ben’s honest work ethics paid off when FSA (which around this time became a 2-man show with Ben’s old buddy Mervin onboard) got their first big break: to book and manage the acts for the Speedzone Tour (formerly known as Redzone). The official race pre-party that happens twice a year for the Formula 1 and MotoGP were not so much events for speed freaks as they were for house and trance heads everywhere with the likes of Paul Oakenfold, Benny Benassi, Judge Jules, Lange, Ricky Stone, Mauro Picotto, Matt Darey, Seb Fontaine, Gareth Emery and more international as well as local names spinning at huge venues.
Now, there are many categories of promoters. Seeing as how things were shaping up for the better, FSA expanded into doing their own events and concerts as opposed to just booking artists. Aside from their inaugural club event at Movement in 2001, FSA had yet to create their own event, a show that would be dictated in their own terms and not by any clients. Enter UOX Play Future and 2009-the year when electro was seeing an all-time high in Malaysia.
The year before, FSA had already debuted stage-thrashing DJ Steve Aoki in Malaysia for the Black Circuit Party. Ben remembers the crazy time, “Steve was new, electro was new… At the time in Malaysia, LapSap seemed to be the only ones playing electro. It was crazy because it was the 1st time people saw a DJ crowd-surfing like a rockstar. It was a new experience for clubbers here. People wanted to grab him and when we walked back to the hotel, people were following us. It was like The Beatles! After that, everyone wanted to do electro!”
Although electro’s highpoint seemed to be short-lived by today’s standards, it was hard to convince clients to buy into it initially. “We never really had the chance to push all these electro DJs. I had clients asking me, ‘Who the hell is Justice?'” reveals Ben. “But we knew that they would be big and would be icons! And we kept telling them that. At that time, we could’ve gotten them cheap. After electro started exploding, everyone wanted them.”
So with a telco sponsor under their belt, FSA set out to organise their 1st full-blown event. As electro was still boiling hot, Steve Aoki seemed like the perfect pick to headline UOX Play Future. However, the event clashed with another outdoor rave with Above & Beyond and Ferry Corsten in Melaka and “Malaysians love outdoor festivals.” Steve Aoki was no Armin van Buuren or TiÃ«sto, but he filled up the venue with almost 4000 sweaty party people looking for something fresh and exciting.
The parable of clients unwilling to take risks and then crying over spilt milk is as old as the industry itself. Sad to say the same goes when promoting Asian artists. “It’s pretty hard to promote Asian artists in Asia, especially for dance music. I think there are some good ones like Agrikulture from Indonesia. But it’s generally hard for me to push Asian artists to clients. They don’t know them and they like to focus on Western DJs,” says a frustrated Ben.
The good times kept coming. FSA burst into 2010 with a New Year’s Eve show featuring the Bloody Beetroots and rolled on with Basement Jaxx, 2manydjs, The Rapture and, most recently, Boys Noize. Now, as the year draws to a close, FSA plans to end it with a bang. Come December, the mega-million, state-of-the-art Godskitchen Boombox at Heineken Thirst in Sepang International Circuit will see a star-studded line-up and spectacular visual effects that will make previous raves look like preschool parties.
Ben cites FSA’s ability to keep up with trends as the reason they keep growing. “Between the 10 years there were a lot of new trends, so we had to keep up. A lot of promoters started with prog house, and until today they’re still doing it. They refuse to promote trance or any new genre. But I feel, as a promoter, that I have to be diverse to provide entertainment,” he adds before admitting to his own faults, “We were known for doing cheesy commercial trance during the earlier days. But as time went by we started taking chances on new stuff. We did electro music when no one knew it.”
So what does the future hold for this aptly named events company? “We don’t want to do just DJs,” says Ben, as he gives examples of Sean Kingston (who did 2 shows in Indonesia thanks to FSA) and The Rapture. “We want to do rock festivals and more bands as well. Niche and off-centre, not too commercial…like 30 Seconds to Mars. We’d like to do [Bloc Party] as well, but we’d prefer to do MGMT and the Klaxons.”
Such ambitions don’t seem so far off anymore for FSA considering that they have achieved running their own events successfully. Yes, it might not be long until KL-ites see their own version of Parklife or Summafieldayze. “I believe KL is as good as Singapore. We have all the ingredients. It’s achievable. It takes the right sponsors to support that. Slowly, we’re moving to that,” says an optimistic Ben.
But without any sponsors, would it be possible? “I can tell you, it is very hard. But I think promoters like Soundscape are doing a hell of a good job without huge sponsors. I give my respect to him. He’s bringing in a lot of bands that nobody knows and he’s pushing the scene.”
We never would have guessed before this that so much could be accomplished by a couple of music nuts. That being said, Ben asserts that passion alone wouldn’t have been enough to make FSA work. “I am a salesman. My products are the artists. If it’s not the artists, then it’s the whole concept of the event,” says the self-made entrepreneur. “It’s not easy being one. It takes a certain kind of quality.”
And we’re guessing that that quality doesn’t come from years of partying.
For more on FSA and upcoming events, go to www.futuresoundasia.com, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.