Pop Culture

Time to shake up music festivals?

Music festivals seem to be banking on tried-and-tested acts, but adventurous line-ups can and do work

Dance music festival ZoukOut recently released its line-up, one that featured a host of familiar names, all of whom have played in Singapore before.

For instance, masked DJ Marshmello was one of the headliners at another electronic dance music (EDM) festival, namely last year's inaugural edition of Ultra Singapore, while Grammy-winning Australian DJ-producer Flume headlined the multi-genre Laneway Festival Singapore last year as well.

The annual beach party is even repeating acts from previous iterations. For instance, Swedish duo Axwell and Ingrosso just played at ZoukOut 2015.

As more of the world's best music acts have come through Singapore, festivals here have started to recycle acts - and within a short time from when they last played here.

Has Singapore hit saturation point with big-name music acts passing through its shores, or have festival line-ups just become unoriginal?

Already, all the biggest acts in the EDM world have played in Singapore in the past few years, including everyone on Forbes' world's top earning DJs list: Calvin Harris, Zedd, Martin Garrix, Marshmello, David Guetta, Diplo, Steve Aoki, Skrillex, The Chainsmokers, and Tiesto.

Now more than ever, there are also plenty of other options in the music festival world.

Swedish duo Axwell and Ingrosso played at ZoukOut 2015 and will be back this year.
Swedish duo Axwell and Ingrosso played at ZoukOut 2015 and will be back this year. PHOTO: ZOUK

There are those catered to niche audiences such as Wonderfruit in Thailand and Bestival in Bali. Then there are brand name international music festivals such as Belgium's Tomorrowland or Britain's Creamfields.

The priority now with festival organisers seems to have shifted to having surefire, tried-and-tested acts - the likes of Axwell and Ingrosso or Tiesto - who will draw in the biggest crowds.

Perhaps it is a good problem to have, where Singapore has become a top choice and a destination for music acts, to the point that we are spoilt for choice.

Outside the EDM world, 2017 has already proven to be a massive gig year for Singapore, with everyone from rock legends Metallica and Foo Fighters to pop music darlings Coldplay playing here.

Guns N' Roses and Britney Spears, for instance, came to Singapore for full-fledged concerts for the first time. Another first-timer was pop diva Ariana Grande, who performed at the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix.

By the end of this week, the Backstreet Boys will take on the National Stadium. Next month, British singer Harry Styles will be at the Indoor Stadium and in December, Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes comes through.

With that much quality music coming here and many of the acts in their prime, it is a far cry from 10 years ago when acts came through only when their careers were middling. Now, they return before they have released new material.

Perhaps, part of the onus is on music acts themselves to deliver new experiences for revellers. At this year's Ultra Singapore, headlining act Tiesto, who also played just six months before at ZoukOut 2016, dropped a very similar set.

Especially in the current music climate, where music streaming is king and artists have to rely on touring to rake in the dough, maybe he should take a leaf out of the book of fellow Dutchman Armin Van Buuren, who is no stranger to ZoukOut having played at the festival five times since its inception.

That said, he still brought in his multi-faceted Armin Only Embrace standalone live show to the Gardens by the Bay in April. There was plenty of spectacle, including dancers, light shows, guest vocalists and live instrumentation.

Again, some of the more succesful shows at this year's Ultra Singapore were at the Live Stage, all while the flagship main stage played host to entertaining but predictable sets by Hardwell, Dash Berlin and Nicky Romero.

American DJ-producer KSHMR for example, helmed the Live Stage and had everything from a live string and wind section to dancers for his set.

Thankfully, the likes of Laneway Festival Singapore and Neon Lights - which unfortunately has gone on hiatus - have switched it up with cutting-edge acts that keep it fresh and inject a bit of diversity for the concert-going audience here.

Next year's Laneway will feature a host of first-time acts such as Grammy-nominated hip-hop-soul act Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals and British alternative rockers Wolf Alice.

The Australia-based festival's reputation for curating acts on the cusp of cool has meant that musicians such as American singer-guitarist Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, played in Singapore in 2015, way before she started making headlines in the music world - like she is now.

Neon Lights' eclectic line-ups, that featured everyone from disco legends Chic to Scottish rockers Mogwai in the same billing, bolstered the festival scene as well.

They prove that festivals here have a great track record with adventurous line-ups that don't necessarily rely on big names to draw crowds. So perhaps EDM festivals should follow their lead and become tastemakers, instead of taste followers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Time to shake up music festivals?'. Print Edition | Subscribe