BLOG – CEO Paul Reed on his Trip to Indonesia with the British Council

10 Dec 2019

Chief exec Paul Reed visited Indonesia with the British Council in October 2019. Here’s a reflection on his trip.

I represented the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) on a recent trip to Bali and Jakarta, supported by the British Council, with the aim of scoping out potential collaborative opportunities and networks between Indonesia and the UK. In addition, I hosted a roundtable discussion with Indonesian festivals, giving an overview of AIF’s work, finding out more about the sector and attending Archipelago festival in Jakarta.

Speaking to people throughout the trip strangely reminded me a bit of when I started out promoting small live gigs in Newcastle – there are close knit communities who are not commercially motivated, a punk rock spirit and a willingness to get on with it, whether ‘it’ is a festival in a skate park headlined by a veteran punk rock band called ‘Superman is Dead’ or one of the countless new creative hubs or studios that we visited.

One of our first visits in Bali was to the Potato Head Club, an impressive hotel and club which is in its own description is ‘a creative village by the ocean where music, art, design, food and wellness play together’. That is an awful lot of buzzwords in one sentence, but it has to be said, it is a hugely impressive space and we had an enjoyable evening talking to the organisers and experiencing an almost too perfect confection of a sunset. Despite this, I ultimately came away a little ambivalent about the whole set up – I wasn’t sure how comfortable locals would actually be here or how the building itself, constructed with imported (albeit carbon offset) materials, could be squared with their ethical vision for an accessible destination with sustainability at its core. This said, they are running a business and not a social enterprise, it is at least owned by Indonesians and they have plans for spaces that are more inclusive of the local community with free workshops. It also turned out their Creative Director is an affable Geordie (I am also proudly from the North East of England). I discover upon my return he is a friend of a friend. I had spent over 20 hours travelling at this point; you go all that way and Geordies are running the show, albeit on an entirely different kind of shore …

Local promoters

There have been attempts to bring UK festival brands such as Bestival to Bali and talk of others on the horizon, but I got the sense from many local promoters that simply parachuting these in isn’t really the way forward. There was a strong sense of regional identity everywhere we visited and such concepts and content don’t always translate effectively. One promoter told me stories of international artists he had booked and paid a significant amount for attracting less than 100 people while thousands packed out another stage at his festival for local artists.

Just as it is here in the UK, Indonesia’s music promoters are reliant on ancillary income including sponsors to prop up the business model and make the show viable. I noticed tobacco companies are the key sponsors of many festivals and there is a big smoking culture. While tobacco companies sponsoring music events would be considered quite shocking in the UK now, in truth, it’s not dissimilar to the presence that various alcohol companies have at many UK festivals.

There were other parallels with the UK too. Promoters turn to the private sector for support and partnerships as opposed to the Government, who perceive the live industry and festivals essentially as soft power rather than something that should be nurtured and financially supported.

There is certainly no shortage of creativity in Indonesia, though it seems there isn’t one rule for all. Many of the smaller promoters such as DIY Gig Space, and restaurant & record store Tuck and Trap have experienced pressure and in some cases corruption from Police, however I can’t imagine this was the case for the likes of the Potato Head Collective. It felt like such divisions were constantly running beneath the surface.

It’s also interesting to note that Indonesia remains relatively untouched by the corporate global forces that shape live music experiences in so many other markets- this may change as more large-scale tours such as U2 and Bon Iver come to Jakarta but there is a strong sense of independence and thriving, eclectic grassroots scene. Long may it continue.

Archipelago Festival

Archipelago Festival was hugely eclectic, from the tribal intensity of Kuntari featuring a ‘Silat’ (traditional martial arts performance misinterpreted to me at the time, worryingly, as a ‘Fight Club for the audience’), preceded by a band that was an Indonesian version of post-rock titans Mogwai and Wukir Suryadi – a somewhat awkward marriage of electronics and an amplified bamboo zither called a bambuwukir.

Following this, there was the absolute pop mania of Barakatak, a recently reformed vocal group. Their melodic take on ‘Dangdut’ prompted a prolonged stage invasion, causing the band to climb scaffolding around the stage in order to continue the show. It was a joyous culmination point for the festival and you would have to go a long way in the UK to experience such a heady mix of live music in such a short space of time.

Festival networks

During the roundtable event I joined, it became apparent that there are already embryonic attempts to set up a network similar to AIF in Indonesia. This despite the geographical challenges of dealing with multiple small islands, different time zones, different authorities and permits and various collectives constituting what were described to me as ‘little kingdoms’. I suggested that, like AIF, this doesn’t need to be formal to begin with. It is all about getting promoters around a table, perhaps even just annually to discuss shared issues, problems, commonality and potential solutions..

One recurring theme was the need to operate sustainably, and rightfully so. The capital of Indonesia is being moved from Jakarta due to the mega city gradually sinking into the sea and by 2050, its estimated that 95% of North Jakarta could be submerged. In Bali, single use plastic bags have been completely banned and there was a sense that event promoters are getting to grips with the sustainability programme, so this could be a starting point for promoters starting to work together, taking cues from AIF initiatives such as our Drastic on Plastic campaign and member pledge to completely eliminate single use plastic from events by 2021. I accept that this would be a real challenge in a country where, for the most part, tap water is not drinkable without boiling first.

The transformative power of live music

It was a hugely insightful and enjoyable journey, my companions Joel Mills at the British Council and UK journalist Kieran Yates were both great company and everyone I met without exception had an interesting story to tell – I learned a great deal. Should I wish to relive the experience, I will return to a video I took of the crowd going absolutely crazy for Barakatak – an encapsulation and reminder of the transformative power of live music and festivals to unify, uplift and transcend boundaries.