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An open letter to Asia from Asia: Our music community is desperate for your help

Without government support, only we can save our music culture

  • Olivia Wycech
  • 8 July 2020

On Monday, jaws dropped when the British government announced a rescue package worth £1.57 billion (US$2.5 billion) for the country’s arts and culture sector aimed at helping venues, theatres, museums, galleries and more weather the shit storm otherwise known as the coronavirus. The announcement came following pressure from key figures in the music industry last week who rallied together and launched a campaign that saw the #LetTheMusicPlay hashtag trend. The campaign received support from artists like Black Coffee, Daniel Avery, Four Tet and Skream, with London mega-venue Printworks as well as Glastonbury behemoth Block9 also backing the initiative. At the same time, a letter was penned and addressed to British culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who also announced the rescue package less than one week later while describing culture as the “soul of our nation”.

The news followed a similar response to the pandemic by the Australian government who, a little over two weeks ago, announced that it would inject AUD$250 million (US$173 million) into restarting the country’s creative economy under a COVID-19 recovery package. AUD$75 million of that will be dedicated to festivals, concerts and other live events.

All over the world — the wealthy world that is — governments have been dishing out stimulus checks, loans, grants and more to help refuel their arts sectors because culture is recognised as being paramount to a country’s identity, with live music hugely contributing to the social, cultural and economic success of a nation. In fact, the UK relief package is described by HM Treasury as the “biggest-ever one-off investment in UK culture”. It goes without saying that we’re impressed (and how many times can you say that about a government?). At the same time, we’re left scratching our heads — Asia, when is your support coming? And we’re not just posing this question to governments across the region, but also to YOU. Music communities all over the world have banded together in unprecedented ways to support one another far and wide, but Asia’s hugely fragmented music scene is largely still operating with an every man for himself mentality.

That’s not entirely a fair statement since there are small pockets of people working hard at giving back to an industry that has served them well, but in the grander scheme of things, we need to do more or we will not survive this pandemic. In almost every country across Asia, the live events industry has received little to no financial support from the government — and the region probably needs it a lot more than developed music communities around the world. Asia already sees lower salaries and higher rents than a lot of places on this planet, and many small venues operate month to month. DJs are paid by the hour, a pittance when compared with the West. Marketing, advertising and sponsorship money is nowhere near what it is in other parts of the world, corruption runs rampant and drugs, politics and religion often make it difficult for an already struggling industry to navigate through sensitive ecosystems. And this was before the novel coronavirus — now the industry is, more than ever, effectively fucked.

In Malaysia, Livescape and It’s The Ship CEO and founder Iqbal Ameer says while RM225 million has been allocated to re-energize and support the creative industry, the eligibility of these aids are difficult to meet and with a long timeline for the approval process.

“These are great initiatives as a start for the industry,” Iqbal said to Mixmag Asia. “But businesses risk closing their companies by the time they even get a sniff of the funds to aid their company. Also, the aids mentioned do not benefit freelancers, a whole industry of talents who are vulnerable during this time. They are not supported by any association or tied to a company which disqualifies them from any EPF benefits. There is no registry of freelance artists or talents as well as event workers in this country, so their voices are unheard.”

The reality on the ground, he adds, is that smaller event promoters are on the verge of shutting down their businesses. Some have been able to sustain their companies in the interim by converting their businesses to monetise in the digital sphere. “Some venues are left with no choice but to pivot to other F&B ventures or to digitise their spaces, such we did by creating a physical live streaming space for artists to use."

F&B? That doesn’t sound like a way out for a music venue.

Livescape is lucky to have the means to adapt their business model and offer something digital (for now), but this also because they operate in a country where costs are low. In neighbouring Singapore, where the city is astronomically expensive even by western standards, the situation is very different. It remains to be seen if the city’s most revered small venues like HQ or Tuff Club will still be around when Singapore is finally given the green light to reopen its clubs, which could still be months away after the government announced that nightclubs are part of the last phase of its reopening plans. Even when they do open, DJ and promoter Zig Zach fears that people in Singapore might not even have the money to party and with the virus still fermenting, people will likely be too scared to go out.

“I think that things will become more private with intimate parties or secret invite-only sort of stuff until things settle and get back to ‘normal’."

With no support from the government, “normal” could mean a city with no clubs if venues can’t pay their rent in the meantime. Zach adds that the government has set up a relief fund called the Job Support Scheme (JSS), but there's nothing specific for the live events industry. As for out-of-work DJs, many are having to abandon what they know and love, and instead look towards new prospects for an income.

“Singapore has definitely put in some serious cash into supporting the economy and local businesses here and they do cover all industries, including the arts. However most artists either work freelance or are hired on a per-job basis and so the JSS doesn't apply to some of the creatives, making it extra difficult for artists or creatives living here. There are also relief funds for people who are self-employed but there are so many criteria to be met to qualify for the funds.”

Nearby in Thailand, where rents are much lower, clubs are starting to reopen after the country managed to curb the virus with no local infections reported for over a month. Still, its government has implemented a laughable set of rules that clubs must adhere to if they want to reopen, like no dancing, no alcohol after midnight and maintaining a distance of two meters inside premises — making it impossible for clubs to operate as a… well, club.

A similar story is echoed all over Asia, like in Bali where clubs and venues remain tightly shut as the number of cases continues to rise, and in Japan where clubs have had to fundraise on their own by selling merch and setting up crowdfunding campaigns. In May, just weeks after reopening, ALL in Shanghai announced that it was facing permanent closure after incurring a substantial debt after closing for three months. Only Vietnam and Taiwan seem to have been spared the brunt of the virus. Still, in each of these countries, governments have been criticised for their cavalier handling of the live events industry.

It doesn’t matter how you look at it, many of Asia’s music communities are at the brink of extinction… and Phuong Le isn’t having it.

Known far and wide as DJ Myle, founder of the Die Empathie collective, head of talent management at Polygon and all around scene stalwart, Phuong has recently introduced United We Stream to Asia — the first official Asia-wide initiative aimed not just at saving club culture on the continent, but also bolstering the image of Asia’s music scene as one that is teeming with undiscovered talent. “There is an urgent need for a strategy to preserve club culture in Asia and to educate people about the importance of club culture economically, socially and culturally,” she said to Mixmag Asia.

United We Stream was born in Berlin as a response to the coronavirus earlier this year. One month after launching, the stream had already raised more than half a million euros (US$560,000) and three months in €1.4 million (US$1.6 million) had been raised for clubs in Berlin alone. A few months later, United We Stream launched in Asia in partnership with ClubbingTV, ARTE Concert, Clubcommission Berlin, Homeaway Agency and Mixmag Asia with the first stream taking place on May 29 in Vietnam. It has since expanded to Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Mongolia and The Philippines. Since launching, donations have been collected through a fund set up on GetGetFunding and will be used to support bars, clubs, pubs, venues, performers, freelancers and cultural organisations in need across Asia. Last week, the first round before distribution came to an end and a total of US$9,939 was raised. That's just under US$10,000 that was raised for Asia in one month versus half a million euros in Berlin at the same point in time in the campaign—let that sink in for a minute. It’s a great start, but Phuong says it’s nowhere near enough to help all the venues that participated. She also isn't surprised.

"I knew from the beginning that the donations in Asia would be much less than in Berlin where club culture is an inherent part of the city’s identity. Asia, also, unfortunately doesn’t really have a donation mentality — especially since there is a stigma against clubs and nightlife in general in many countries.”

She also added that being a DJ or musician in Asia doesn’t get you the same recognition as in western countries. “Singaporeans actually voted artists as the most non-essential job during this pandemic, so people really don't understand why they should donate to clubs, venues, artists when there are people who are in greater need.”

Having spent months preparing for the streams, collecting data and talking to the public, Phuong reports that she found many club goers don’t actually see a dire need to donate — and we’re inclined to agree. What we’re seeing is that all over the world, people are taking this time to focus on themselves and indulging in a forced wellness break from an otherwise hedonistic industry. Partygoers are taking a clean break from “parties” and while there is nothing wrong with that (hey, we’ve even found ourselves at the gym on a Sunday morning), for a lot of people it has yet to sink in that the venues and clubs they usually spend their Friday and Saturday nights in might not be there when we get on the other side of this — and that thinking (or lack thereof) needs to change.

The problem in Asia, as much as we try to deny it, is that going to a club or a festival in the East is hugely different from the West. The electronic music subculture is a relatively fresh import in Asia and a vast majority of the people that fill dance floors here do so because it’s a fun way to pass the time on weekends. They don’t live and breathe music culture in the way it's firmly rooted in dance floors across the UK, a notion that has spread into a kind of community camaraderie that is hard to find in a young scene often overshadowed by ‘business clubbing’.

In their plight, United We Stream Asia is trying to change that and educate their audience about Asia’s music scene, a scene that was on the verge of a tipping point before the pandemic. “Nightlife tends to be overlooked, underfunded or disregarded as part of a city's culture or identity and with United We Stream Asia, we want to change this mindset. We want to educate people because Asia’s nightlife culture deserves recognition.”

Round two of United We Stream Asia is now underway, with streams coming up from South Korea, Malaysia and Myanmar. The difference this time is that Phuong and her team are now looking for new ways to raise funds outside of direct donations from viewers. “It’s now even more important that venues in Asia receive some help because even though some clubs are reopening, they have amassed such a great debt that it doesn’t mean they will survive. There is also the fear that a second wave might hit so we’re going to continue on and hope that we can get more people and more brands on board who would want to collaborate with us and be willing to donate and sponsor bigger sums to United We Stream Asia.”

The “people” she's talking about are YOU. United We Stream Asia is the first such initiative that is stepping up, unifying Asia’s fragmented music communities and collectively fighting for their survival. And by supporting them, you’re supporting the DJs and clubs that have been working tirelessly (literally) for years to create a culture for you to enjoy. Already, Phuong is already seeing that culture evolve. For the first time ever, she’s seeing that by working together, countries in Asia are showing solidarity towards other countries as well. "I love this concept because it focuses on the many rather than the few. It focuses on how we can support a number of individuals and businesses. It unites audiences to offer something for every person who loves club culture.”

If there is a silver lining to this proverbial shit storm, it’s that this pandemic CAN unite our dance floors too. We will (hopefully) come out of this stronger, more enlightened and more appreciative of the way we spend our Friday and Saturday nights, and with a profound, renewed respect for those who make it happen for us every other day of the year. Maybe you can't donate, but you can pen a letter, you can lobby your government, you can start your own campaign or raise awareness for another. By virtually standing in solidarity together now, the next time we stand shoulder to shoulder on a dance floor, the difference will be that camaraderie that’s been missing from Asia for years.

Because after all, we’re all in this together.

Head here to donate.

[Images via Gregory Garde & Lloyd Chiu at B1 in Taipei]

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