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Q&A: Zach Kim opens up on nine years of Blackout Agency

Stories & accounts from the man leading the charge of enriching Singapore's alternative dance scene

  • Words: Amira Waworuntu | Images: Colossal Photos
  • 18 October 2023

We at Mixmag Asia consider Zach Kim, also known by his DJ alias Zig Zach, a prized possession of the Singapore electronic music circuit. At the helm of the visionary Blackout Agency that specialises in curating exciting and eclectic DJ bookings and tours, his efforts to enliven the local and regional circuit also include crafting groundbreaking content and concepts that resonate with the passions of electronic music enthusiasts.

Throughout its nine-year existence, Blackout Agency has invited top-quality names such as Radio Slave, Interstellar Funk, Que Sakamoto, Prins Thomas, Gerd Janson, John Talabot, Roman Flügel, Manfredas and most recently Paramida over to the Lion City, arguably cementing its head honcho as the guy who fuelled the alternative dance scene in Singapore.

Additionally, the pool of local talents has also made the most of this, as Zach and Blackout Agency's events have also helped put them on the map, allowing Singapore's choice DJs and producers to play alongside their international counterparts.

Taking the time to speak with Mixmag Asia, Zach unravels the history behind his endeavours to breathe even more life into the Singapore scene — a nine-year journey that culminates with an anniversary event on October 28, featuring the kaleidoscopic sounds and mixing mastery of London's Midland.

Come meet the mastermind behind Blackout Agency and see what makes him tick in the interview below.

Hi, Zach! First of all, we just had to ask; how does an “Anti Social Butterfly” (as mentioned in your IG bio) become one of the country’s most prominent party promoters?

Hey Mixmag Asia! Funny that you should ask about the "Anti-Social Butterfly" in my bio. It's just a playful way of acknowledging that, despite being a party promoter at events, I personally tend to be introverted or reserved in my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I have to really force myself to go out or reach out to people.

Before you started Blackout, you went from competitive Muay Thai to being a DJ. What happened there?

Yeah, I was a Professional Muay Thai fighter for most of my 20s. I lived and breathed the sport, living and fighting in Thailand and in many other countries. I stopped fighting and had 35 Pro Fights. I was the first Singaporean to win the WMC Muay Thai Against Drugs Belt and was the first to win at the original Lumpinee Stadium, which is like the Mecca for all Muay Thai fighters.

I stopped because I was exhausted from the gruelling training, weight cuts and uncertainty from injuries and fight cancellations. Eventually, watching friends my age travel and meet up for nice meals at restaurants, they were all having fun. Sleeping in boxing camps and sweating my ass off in a sweatsuit to make weight for fights made it harder and harder for me to fuel that fire in me to fight. You have to really want to train hard and fight, or you’re gonna get hurt badly.

I’ve always been into clubbing and DJing from a young age. I started collecting records and practised DJing from 19 and I DJ’d whenever I wasn’t scheduled to fight and had time off training. Even while I was competing, if there was an act I wanted to catch I’d go out, stay sober and would make it for the early morning training sessions. I trained hard during competitions, but I partied even harder during the off-season, haha!

When I finally stopped fighting, I was just DJing a lot more regularly, one gig after another, then the agency happened and nine years later here we are. Pretty crazy, since I never ever wanted to be a DJ! I only knew I wanted to be a fighter ever since I was 15. So, it’s really nice that it kind of all just happened naturally.

Why did you start Blackout Agency? How did it come to fruition?

I started Blackout with Danny Fry back in 2014. Initially, we were just running a monthly night at the old Kilo Lounge in Kampong Bugis. Initially, it was just about having a fun gig to play at, but I remembered that none of the clubs were bringing the acts I wanted to see in Singapore, and the only way I’d get to listen to them is by listening to their sets online, or catch them when I travel to Europe (which wasn’t so often).

So, with the help of Danny, who was the booker at W Bali, and other friends in the industry, I learnt the ropes quickly and started doing my own bookings and events not long after.

How would you define your role in Singapore’s electronic music scene?

I think I’ve played a small role in kickstarting the pop-up party culture, and also for regularly bringing top-quality artists into Singapore.

A lot of the events back in the day were mostly in clubs and bars. It all got a bit same-same for a while. We were actively doing boat parties and warehouse parties, we took over beautiful houses for our Secret Villa parties, and we did parties on neighbouring Islands. I think it showed a lot of people that parties didn’t necessarily have to be just… in a club anymore.

I’ve also been inviting a number of interesting names for my Ritual and Escape 56 nights over the years, we’ve always been ahead of the curve with our bookings and were very selective on who we got to play for us. Curating lineups isn’t as easy as people think it is. Just because an artist is signed to a famous label, travels around playing some parties and festivals doesn’t automatically mean he’ll sell a shit load of tickets in Singapore.

Read this next: Singapore’s post-pandemic renaissance

Singapore had it pretty rough during the lockdown; now, how do you rate its comeback?

The days of COVID-19 were a horrible time in Singapore. Ridiculous laws crippled the industry and it had a negative impact on many people in the industry. When we finally reopened, it came back with a big bang. Everyone was trying to cash in on the revenge partying, and I can't blame them; it had been almost three years of pretty dark times, and many people could finally start making money again.

However, the barrier to entry for becoming a promoter is now just as low as it is for anyone to become a DJ. It seemed like anyone could throw 10 friends on a DJ controller with an average sound system, charge some money for tickets, and call it an "event". We went from having maybe seven promoters to more than 20 promoters or collectives and eight to 10 parties a weekend. Pretty crazy.

In your opinion, will Singapore’s scene return to the hype it had in previous years; is there a new scene being developed?

There's definitely a new scene in Singapore now, and it has become a lot more diverse. It's not all bad that there are so many promoters now because it's great to see different sounds being promoted. This just means that the numbers are slowly growing, and more and more people are discovering the subculture and electronic music scene here, beyond the bottle service-oriented scene.

Eventually, they'll dig a little deeper and develop an appreciation for different sounds, wanting to experience various party scenes. So, it's a good thing for the industry in general.

What do diversity and equality mean at your events?

If you delve into the history of electronic music, you'll find that it was originally started by the LGBTQ+ community back in the day. I have a lot of respect for how the scene began with these queer parties and has since evolved into the music scene we know today.

Over the years, in conjunction with our Sunday Social Market events, we have consistently supported the LGBTQ+ communities and have partnered with Pinkdot and Pinkfest annually during Pride month for the "Pasar Pink" (Pink Market) – an inclusive market featuring over 40 vendors selling artisanal products. We also invite both queer and straight DJs to play music throughout the day.

For our upcoming anniversary party with Midland, we have extended invitations to numerous LGBTQ+ collectives, including Pinkfest, Fomo Homo, Catch Us Move, Superfreak Boutique, Club Kiki, Ringtone, and Orbit to be part of our event. We're offering them job opportunities, assisting with designing the artwork, setting up the stage, providing dancers for the night, and even supplying staff to manage the door.

There is a lot of pressure to play popular music and sell tickets. What’s your stance on that?

I’ve always been very true to myself and try to book artists that I know are pushing quality sounds and fit our brand. I also do understand that venues or promoters need to book hype artists to sell tickets, pack out the place and cover operational costs. It’s a business at the end of the day, we all gotta survive.

You've been touring international artists across the region for almost a decade. Can you share some of the struggles of bringing artists to Asia?

Singapore and much of Asia can be very name-driven at times. It would be great if, someday, we could sell out events without revealing artist names and hope that people trust our curation, knowing that when they buy a ticket, they will always experience an interesting act we bring.

There are a lot of DJs and producers that have been making great music or just really great selectors, but what I like doesn’t always equate to a lot of high sales. At the end of the day, I have to see this as a business and sometimes I make compromises, but never too much. So I do understand when venues and promoters book hype acts; essentially, we all gotta make money.

Read this next: Pump up the rainbow: Stories from Asia's loud & proud scenes

What's your policy on guest lists?

I could probably write a whole thesis on how it’s detrimental to the industry, haha! Personally, I really hate it. You would never go to a restaurant and ask for a free meal, so it's strange how people assume it's always okay to just ask for a guestlist spot. I still buy tickets to events of other promoters, to support them.

I don't think people actually realise how much it costs to organise a pop-up event from scratch in Singapore. It involves exorbitant venue rentals, headliner DJ fees, flights, hotels, sound systems, security, bar staff, cost of goods, set design, and artwork. Inflation has significantly increased over the years, and we try to keep our prices low. You can't really compare our event to, let's say, a local lineup of DJs in a club or bar where it's a plug-and-play situation. We still maintain competitive prices when compared to some other nights.

There are promoters here who organise events "for fun" while having day jobs and wanting to be part of the DJ and party culture. They offer a high number of guestlist spots to fill venues, which only damages the industry and makes it tougher for organisers who actually make a living from events.

In your opinion, who’s the most underrated DJ in Asia?

There are soooo many good DJs in Asia, it wouldn't be fair to single out just one.

People like Dott, Elaleh, Di Linh and Mogwaa are local heroes in their cities but definitely deserve a lot more credit and should get booked a lot more over in Europe. There are also local acts in Singapore like Bongomann who is doing great things with his productions, his live show was class.

Another local DJ I’ve seen grow over the years is Sivanesh. We played Boiler Room together and jammed a few times, he’s definitely a DJ to watch out for — very technical and has a good ear for picking out killer tunes.

If you had to describe your events in five words, what would they be?

Quality. Music Driven. Different. Class.

Blackout Agency is turning nine; how does this year’s festivities differ from past ones?

Over the years we focus mostly on the music and the artist that we bring, but recently we’ve been work with different visuals and set designers to spice up our aesthetics at events. I generally still like it to be more raw and rough around the edges at my events in terms of decor. Music is still the main focus of our events.

Any spoilers for the big 1-0 anniversary?

A magician never reveals his tricks! But, one thing we are looking at in 2024 is diversifying our bookings and have some bands or live performances. We have our eyes on some artists but it’s too early to say and we don’t want to jinx it.

You recently acquired a new Void Acoustics rig — what's the game plan?

Yup! We recently invested in a whole range of Void Acoustics system for our events, and we’re the only ones in Singapore with this system. I wanted something truly unique and wanted to stand out from all the other parties. Void’s sound is as amazing as it looks, and its functionality and practicality ticked all my boxes when I was doing my research on sound systems.

I want people who come to our events to experience better sound quality and also protect people’s ears from slowly going deaf from crappy sound! We’ve been renting speakers over the last 9 years, and sometimes due to budget or room factors, we haven’t always been able to achieve the quality level we want. Hopefully, now that we have the system, we have less room for error and we’ll be able to give everyone top-quality sound and the music experience they deserve.

Together with Motifv8 Projects who are the Void Distributors, and also very experienced concert sound engineers, we set up - and are planning to rent out the system for promoters or event organisers who value high-quality sound for their parties or corporate events.

Read this next: A post-party food guide by dedicated clubbers in Asia

We heard you coined the term “Singabore”; do elaborate on this, please!

Haha not sure I coined it, but I'm definitely known for using that term a lot. It’s a real love-hate relationship I have with Singapore. Sometimes I think I actually got into events and booking acts because there wasn’t really anyone or anywhere doing the events and parties I wanted to attend and I guess I had to keep myself entertained before I lost my mind here.

I knew doing these kinds of events was never easy, from high rental costs to dealing with the government; it was frustrating. The strict laws and that everything has to be by the book mentality can be exhausting and stifle creativity. We have the resources, it’s an efficient and convenient city, and we have the talents but strict rules and laws just make it difficult.

Tell us a most memorable (or wildest) moment that took place during your parties!

I think one of my favourite events was probably the one we did with Marvin & Guy at a club that had closed down. It was on the 54th floor on a patio that had a 180 view of Marina Bay Sands and all the high-rise buildings.

We created this walkway and once you got to the end of this walkway and the doors opened you’d see this STUNNING view of the skyline. It just really put everyone in such an electric mood and everyone was just feeling this crazy good vibe, it really just set the tone of the night, M&G played like 5 or 6 last tracks coz people wouldn’t leave! They even said it was one of their best parties ever. So it was definitely a highlight for me.

Being a music event promoter, would it be safe to say you've seen your fair share of backstage shenanigans…and could you indulge us with something juicy?

What happens backstage, stays backstage. Plus it’s Singapore… how juicy can it get??

Who are some of the most memorable artists you’ve brought over to Singapore?

Honestly, I count myself really lucky to be able to bring and meet so many amazing artists that I’ve looked up to. Also, very lucky that none of them have been difficult or a nightmare to deal with, I still keep in touch with a lot of them.

John Talabot will always be one of my favourite artists; musically he is always consistent and always on point with his selections, whether it’s ambient, house, techno, or electronica, his music repertoire is just mind-blowing, and every time you see him play you know you gonna leave mindblown. One of the absolute best in the industry.

Roman Flugel is one of the nicest guys out there. I’ve had the pleasure of taking him to Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand to play for my events and even tho we don’t see each other often, it’s like meeting an old friend you haven’t caught up with in a long time. We keep in touch, and I caught up with him in Berlin met his wife and friends and it’s really nice to also have a personal relation with some of them rather than be all business.

Read this next: The Mixmag Asia Clubbing Guide: Singapore

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger you, what would it be?

To not let emotions get the better of my judgement. I’ve made some very crazy decisions in my life. Some have paid off, some have cost me a fair bit of money. It’s a learning curve, but it’s one that could be avoided if I just listened to my gut feeling instead of acting on my emotions.

Every record tells a story, what record tells yours?

Apex Twin ‘Window Licker’. It’s my all-time favourite track, It’s got this beautiful melancholic vibe, with all these crazy dubby breaks, sliced-up vocals drums and then ends off in this really rock-ish sort of peak… Maybe because it’s so erratic yet beautiful, I guess it kinda would represent my whole life; a beautiful mess that just works? Haha!

Any advice or words of wisdom you want to share with other promoters?

Innovate, don’t imitate. Take risks. Surround yourself with people who have the same drive and passion. Always pay people. Don’t compare your journey to other people’s. You will do amazing things and people will still not clap or support you, and that’s ok too. Haters gonna hate. Look after your mental health. Hugs not drugs.

The music industry can be a tough place, but if your heart is in the right place and you do it for the right reasons, you’ll get where you want to be one day. (Eventually, hopefully!)

Get your tickets to Blackout V9.0 featuring Midland (UK), Shigeki, Meraki Soul & A&E here.

Amira Waworuntu is Mixmag Asia’s Managing Editor, follow her on Instagram.

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