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Collective Minds founder Zaran Vachha details a promoters plight against COVID-19 in Asia

"Reclaim it and turn it into something positive”

  • Charles Budd
  • 19 May 2020

Ask Zaran Vachha who he had on the pipeline to tour in Asia this year, and he would have told you Gilles Peterson, Stormzy and Caribou. He and his team at Collective Minds were onto big things, having previously booked a string of big names like Craig David, Pharcyde, DJ Maseo (De La Soul) Gorgon City, Thundercat, Bohan Phoenix, Kamasi Washington, Yaeji, AlunaGeorge, Toro y Moi, Jordan Rakei, José González and Anderson Paak. This was supposed to be their year. Then COVID-19 happened.

Zaran grew up in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, but honed his mastery as a promoter and man about music in London after moving there at the age of “18 with an attitude”. Zaran Vachha is the brains and splendour behind Collective Minds Asia — a collaborative event and talent agency that prides itself on its community-based approach and ethos. Before founding Collective Minds together with his partner Alfred Castillo, Zaran was hustling and grinding like a promoter should be, booking and scouting credible artists for fashion brands to nightclubs and festivals. He then founded and opened a performance venue in Singapore where he has now been residing for the last two years — his first venue, The Rooms, opened last year in Hong Kong. His latest venture, 222 Arts Club in Singapore, is a perfect new addition to the agency he operates. The raw and industrial venue space opened in February of this year to serve the deserving music community of the Lion City. He’s paid his dues, taken risks and continues to do so — but a global pandemic changed everything. His streak of great shows was put on a hiatus thanks to what Zaran describes as “this new species of cockroach that’s here to stay”, also known as COVID-19, and now, he's questioning if he can even survive.

The man with the prolific beard (who has seen more shows from backstage than your average groupie) talked to us about how he and his team have been dealing with the “cockroach”, and how he’s hoping to adapt to new ways while being mindful of his priorities and passion.

As soon as the news broke beyond the shores of China that the virus was spreading globally, Zaran and his team were preparing to shut down shop for a month or two, but certainly not for the whole year. “We have had our whole year wiped out — Gilles Peterson, Raveena, Ari Lennox, Rex Orange County, Stormzy, Yuna, Bonobo, Caribou — the list could go on and on. We are trying our best to look forward to next year and are in constant contact with artists and their management teams to ensure we are ready for 2021.”

During the early stages of the outbreak, it was easy enough and fair to assume that it would be like the SARS outbreak in 2002, and everyone thought it would blow over within a couple of months, especially given that we live in a world with access to advanced medical technology. But then those who endured SARS started to panic, and “we knew we had to brace ourselves for bigger. Trouble was coming."

Imagine just opening a venue for the first time, one of those moments that you tick off your career bucket list, and the 200 plus tours and shows you’d lined up to play there and across an entire continent, all get cancelled literally overnight. The sole purpose of 222 Arts Club was to bring people together — it was meant to be a centre point for the creative community. Collective Minds had great plans for the space and they put every ounce of their heart and soul into it. From opening to closing, Z (as he’s known amongst his friends and dance floor buddies), was only able to run shows for just under three weeks. “It was heartbreaking — we really wanted to do something for the community. We were so close. We hope to open back up in the next couple of months, but we’ll have to see.”

While writing this, a heavy sense of emotional grief runs through my nerves, making the hairs on my arm stand in pure discomfort. I’ve also been a venue owner, a promoter and a booking consultant but I made plenty of mistakes that brought me to eventually embracing challenges better in my endeavours, and so had Z in the past, like the rest of us. This time, the formula for Z was pretty much bullet-proof. The hype around the opening proved it — he had the attention of every industry player in Asia.

The first call of action was to reschedule everything they could in the fastest possible time. The second and most crucial step was to ensure that surviving this lull was going to be feasible — no business owner likes to turn to their books knowing that income and revenue have become the least tangible and most unpredictable elements of the operation, but Zaran is honest to admit that “shit just got real."

"We have cancelled or postponed 200 shows this year. That is a hell of a lot of work and planning down the drain. The financial burden on us is continuing, but there is very little ability for us to make revenue in any shape or form. We have had to make some very difficult decisions. We have had to put our two venues on hold and we have had to switch to a skeleton team. We are in two modes right now - survival and aggressively planning. We want to be as ready as possible for when things open back up.”

Enter step three — what the fuck do they do now? Knowing you have to survive isn’t the same as actually surviving. It took just ten days to set up SELECTS Singapore, which launched last month on April 14. Z tells us, “I can't thank my team enough, we had to rope in all the help we can get and take a crash course in e-commerce. We were going into lockdown but we were still fully committed to helping the people around us and figure out our needs as a Collective, to ensure the survival of our partners’ respective scenes.”

SELECTS is a curated alcohol delivery company with a focus on independent local and regionally produced brands. Integrating what they were already skilled at from running Collective Minds, the team piled in their vast knowledge of marketing, curating and presenting small-batch, boutique and independent alcohol brands that have seen a major downturn due to the crisis — most of these products are only seen on shelves of boutique retailers or in refined boozing establishments, they rarely see tee the inside of people’s homes. And like his shows, “people have been responding well to the online shop, I believe it's because we are giving them a variety of products that are not mainstream — just like we do at Collective Minds we go against the grain.”

With Z, no business or social endeavour is complete without implementing core pillars of community and music, which is where the recently announced Selector Selects series comes into play. Using the new brand platform, the team picks an influential person in the local Singapore scene to curate a Spotify playlist that can be enjoyed with said artists’ favourite drink. LIONCITYBOY is their first pick and he’s a fan of whiskey. Pour yourself a peg or two over some ice and check out the playlist below.

LIONCITYBOY has been the guiding light for a lot of the hip hop community in Singapore. Future guests on the bill include the founder of Kilo Group (Kilo Kitchen and Kilo Lounge), Javier Perez. Perez has been a catalyst in the Singapore scene, massively changing the F&B and clubbing landscape of Singapore. He is followed by local influencer and role model for many young women in Singapore, Nadia Kishlan — her voice resonates indifference across the city, “her championing of sustainability and self-love is infectious”, says Z. Others pipelined for the series include musician Jon Chua and streetwear and youth culture guru Earn Chen.

Z recently spoke on a local Singapore-based podcast called Just So We’re Clear, and he spoke in-depth about supporting local acts, giving them new and highly deserved limelight. Z and his team reveal some of their future plans — “our focus will be supporting the local scene rebuild. We have a venue that will host music and arts events as soon as humanly possible. One of these will be Majulah Fest in Singapore that will see 20 local artists performing across two days."

Ensuring that artists have the ability to perform, and get paid to perform, is of absolute essence to the survival of the music industry. Whether it be digital or live, preparing now for later is one of the few sensible things we can push on during this time, I mean, when else are you going to have this much time to throw your mind into deep ideation, to plan and prepare for things you never had the time to before.

What does Zaran see different in this new world that we’re walking into? He believes the electronic music scene will come back much faster than live music or festivals. “The audience is dying to dance. I'm more worried about the clubs not being able to survive this pandemic — a lot of them are still paying rent. When things open up they will open up in steps — for instance at, 30% capacity, then 50%, etc. — but will still have high overheads in terms of rent and staff.”

And Zaran is right; the economics of running a nightclub in a major city in Asia was already tough enough pre-COVID-19, and more so if you prioritised a quality and niche music programme. The future of nightclubs may be bleak for the moment, so the only and best thing Z believes we should all be doing is to support — we’re all in the same boat here, supporting yourself probably won’t help you, as you will need others around to be a part of something new or bigger in the future.

“I see a lot of clubs and venues going under. It is going to be a very, very sad state of affairs. I'm worried that the people who were most passionate about this industry will have lost a lot or everything. They might not bounce back or will have become disillusioned with the industry. This is an important time for support.”

Although he feels DJs will start touring again in Asia, it’s going to take a long time to go back to where it was because of travel costs and restrictions. “Hong Kong seems to be the first out of the gate and we are planning right now for international tours in 2021. We are going to look locally first and then regionally. This will be a step by step approach — every city will be different. One thing is certain, however — our industry will be the last to achieve a state of new normal.”

But that’s not going to stop Zaran from thinking about and planning for what may come next, as he prepares to unveil his close-to-concrete plans. "Our venue in Hong Kong will open up in June and we’re looking at Singapore to open in July or August. The Rooms (previously in HK) has pivoted and is now the umbrella brand for four venues including 222 Arts Club in Singapore. In Hong Kong, there is Block Nine (formerly The Rooms) and two new, smaller venues we are managing mainly for art events — Kong Art Space on Staunton Street and GOD Art Space in PMQ.”

We asked Z if he has a message to share to the artist community of Asia, and he says that survival really comes down to being part of a greater evolution of yourself. If there’s a lesson to take away from what we’ve learned about Zaran’s story, it is that sitting idles takes you nowhere — be active, be adaptive and certainly be aware.

"Create, create and create," he says. That’s what artists need to be spending their abundant time on instead of allowing the excuse of unpredictability dictate the course of our lives. “Also, while survival is key right now, this isn't going to last forever. Make sure you are keeping one eye on being fed and one eye on using this time to develop your career in the best possible way. We won't have a period like this where the whole world stops turning ever again. Reclaim it and turn it into something positive. This time is yours.”

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