Behind every great dance artist, music festival, club or dance label, there is a business partner: otherwise known as The Other Half. Every month, we talk with these power players of the Asian dance music world — those that are behind the scenes, yet hugely influential. Through exclusive interviews, we’ll look at the hot topics of the moment, speaking with “those who know”.
This week, we speak with Iqbal Ameer, CEO of Livescape Group. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Iqbal and his team are the founders and promoters of some of Asia’s most unique music events, including Rockaway, Future Music Festival Asia, Armin Only Embrace and It’s The Ship. Iqbal has ridden the rocky waves of the musical festival landscape for almost a decade, building high-impact brands that fans love, but, more recently, having to retool the business model at the hands of the COVID-19 crisis. Iqbal spoke candidly of the challenges and rewards of building a Pan-Asian festival and event promotion business.
Otto Clubman: Hi, Iqbal. Thanks for being here. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you first get into the music business?
Iqbal Ameer: I was at University in Melbourne and my parents were only giving me a $500 a month allowance. I wanted to lead a certain lifestyle. To do so, I needed more money!
My personality and skill-set seemed a good fit for a club promoter; so, I gave it a shot. I began by targeting Asians living in Melbourne; selling tickets and getting them to go to bars that nobody would go to. I built up this business little by little, until I was making pretty good money. Then, I started promoting my own events. I started running Merdeka (Australian Independence Day) parties for Malaysians. This was really my big break. I flew in Malaysian artists to perform in Australia, and it just grew from there.
In 2009, I came back to Malaysia, unsure of what to do exactly. Believe it or not, I got into the ice cream business. I was driving around selling ice cream. Actually, I got in a lot of trouble; I’d park my van in front of Baskin Robins and entice the customers to come to me instead of going in the shop. I was selling scoops for five ringgit, rather than 13 in the store. Baskin Robins wasn’t happy with me.
One day, I contacted a big music promoter, who allowed me to drive my truck to his shows. Well…actually, he said no, but I went anyway. His ravers were in dire need of ice cream. As I sold them cones, I watched these kids having the time of their lives, loving the music, and realised this was my true calling. I sold the truck the next day, and launched Livescape.
"One day, I contacted a big music promoter, who allowed me to drive my truck to his shows. Well…actually, he said no, but I went anyway. His ravers were in dire need of ice cream. As I sold them cones, I watched these kids having the time of their lives, loving the music, and realised this was my true calling. I sold the truck the next day, and launched Livescape."
That was brave. The ice cream business seems more stable than festivals! What were some of the challenges you encountered in the early days?
We had been going with the Feature Music Festival for three years, and it was running great. We had formed a partnership with the Malaysian Tourism Board, and it was terrific PR for the country…people were flying in from all over, and discovering Malaysia. Then, the festival was shut down due to six people who died at the festival, and were thought to have overdosed on drugs, but was confirmed to be due to dehydration later on.
It was really heart-breaking. Of course, it was horrible for those that lost their lives and for their families. Also, for my team, they had worked so hard, and their dreams were shattered. We had a great group of people, and I wanted to find a way to keep them together.
How did you recover?
Sometimes crises leads to opportunity. We started brainstorming, “If we could do a festival anywhere in the world, where would we do it?”. The open waters! On a cruise ship! Why? We could play as loud as we want; never shut down. It seemed to be the perfect venue. Of course, people thought we were out of our minds. But we were able to take all the learnings from the on-land music festival, and bring it to sea. The sea actually had some big advantages. Licensing issues, site build-out…this was all much easier on a boat.
Did your investors back you right away? Or was that a difficult ask?
We went back to our investor from Future Music Festival. True, they had been burned and had lost money. But, they trusted us. They knew we were good partners; they knew treated their money carefully. The loss was due to external factors. They saw that we did everything we could to pay back suppliers and refund everyone that bought a ticket. I think this impressed them. As a result, they were willing to back our crazy boat idea.
Let’s discuss the economics of It’s The Ship. Why did it work? What made it financially successful?
It’s a high margin product. There really is a unique selling proposition: It’s on a ship. At the time, in Asia, nobody else was doing that. Later, others copied us and tried, but failed. In short, it’s a hard model to replicate.
In the first year, we knew we needed to educate people as to this new product in the market. We expected to lose money. But we thought that as long as we hit certain internal numbers — we felt confident it would survive. But…we missed those numbers. Fortunately, our investor was on the ship, saw the product, and believed in us, so they gave us another year. And it worked. By year two, we were hitting our numbers. In year three, we made money. By year four, copycats were popping up in China and Korea. We sat on the sidelines, let them fail, and then moved in and did it ourselves.
Was further expansion planned?
Yes. We had planned on expanding into Australia, Japan and the Middle East, but then COVID hit. So, we need to wait now. We’ll see what happens.
I wanted to discuss talent cost. Many festivals struggle to earn a profit due to the astronomical costs that top talent can charge. Did the “boat atmosphere” help decrease your reliance on bringing in big names to sell tickets? And were you able to get better prices from talent just because it was a cool gig to do?
When we started, we needed to pay festival prices for the artists. We billed ourselves as “The Biggest Festival at Sea” – so the agents figured they could charge us big festival prices. But we were on a boat…we couldn’t sell enough tickets to offset that cost. We learned fast to reposition ourselves and market things differently. Luckily, also, the artists themselves started having a great time on the ship, and began asking their agents to play with us. So, we were in a much better bargaining position after year one, as word of mouth spread amongst artists.
People who deal with you are struck by your energy and positivity. How important is this trait for an entrepreneur? And specifically for someone in the festival business?
I think it’s very important. Things in this industry always change quickly. You need to keep a good attitude and remain positive. Otherwise, it would just be too difficult. My team and I love connecting with people; creating a moment. We feed on energy and optimism. If someone says something can’t be done, we say “let’s try!”.
"To be honest, artists prices had gotten out of whack. They were digging a hole that we couldn’t get out of; it just wasn’t sustainable. Now, this has fallen flat and it’s time to reset and be realistic."
Any final thoughts on the state of the business and where things are going?
The world is changing forever. This is actually a good time for promoters and agents to reset the clock. To be honest, artists prices had gotten out of whack. They were digging a hole that we couldn’t get out of; it just wasn’t sustainable. Now, this has fallen flat and it’s time to reset and be realistic. We need to take this opportunity to make a sustainable and healthy market. That could be the silver lining of all of this.