'The Formula One of music festivals': why Ultra Music Festival is important for Singapore
It has been three years since Ultra Music Festival arrived in Singapore, bringing critically-acclaimed electronic music DJs like Hardwell, AfroJack, Axwell & Ingrosso and Steve Aoki to Ultra Park, a field across the Marina Bay Sands, to play in front of a crowd in the thousands.
Initially staged as a one day, single-stage event, also known as Road to Ultra (RTU) in 2015, organisers brought the actual Ultra event, which is held over two days with multiple stages, to Singapore the year after, when early-bird tickets for RTU sold out within 20 minutes.
Ultra Singapore was staged again in 2017 and returned this year with the addition of the worldwide stage, which is being held outside of Ultra’s home base of Miami for the first time, to its main stage and the resistance stage.
Speaking to The Drum at Ultra Park before the Singapore event in June, Ultra Singapore's executive producers Raj Datwani and Alex Chew reflected on how the event has become a success because they listened to what the festival-goers wanted.
“I think that the growth of the festival in Singapore has been interesting because what we've had to do from the Road to Ultra to now, is really put on shows and really understand the market,” says Datwani
“What we are really excited for this year is the worldwide stage for example. It is making its international debut outside of Miami for the first time. It came from a place of learning about what Singaporeans want to see and Southeast Asia, what they want to see.
“We think that's a good example of how the festival has evolved because we had the live stage for two years and then we went away from that. Now, we have the worldwide stage and that's been kind of a cool learning for us that we're excited to showcase this here.”
Chew adds: “We have seen various reactions to different sorts of artist announcements, headliners playing. I think to us, this year, like what Raj said, the Worldwide stage was very key to seeing where the evolution of the festival can go for Singapore.
“It is very polarising. Some people who are just very general festival goers, who just go to a festival for the sake of going to a festival, don't realise how many key artists there are on this billing.
“You read the meetup groups, you read all the different group chats, like all the Ultra single group chats of just random people coming to the festival. The support for DJs like R.L. Grime, NGHTMRE, Slander, Illenium ... it's just humongous.”
Keeping festival-goers and sponsors happy
Datwani, who also owns one-Michelin-starred restaurant The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and executive business lounge Madison Rooms in Singapore with Chew, notes that putting their heads together after the event is also crucial, especially with the event only held once a year.
“Every year after the show we get together and say, "okay what worked, what didn't work, what can be improved and what can we change?" That is why we have started doing things a little earlier this year in terms of booking nightclub venues for the lead up events. So, from this show into the next year, there will be more engagement,” he explains.
“We have different mobile apps, chat blogs and stuff in the works because we want to have the Ultra brand present throughout the year and engage the customers, by holding lead up parties and fun night, as opposed to just the events at the festival.”
“Going forward, it is to be a lot of engaging with the sort of loyal fan base that we have and creating cooler experiences for them and again not just making it a once a year festival.”
Chew also points out that they try to introduce something new every year, to keep festival-goers happy and sponsors like Mercedes Benz, DBS, Marina Bay Sands, Sony and Hublot coming back to hold exclusive parties at the event.
“Year one, it was bringing Kygo to play at sunset on his birthday. He was born in Singapore, hasn't been back since then. Last year with our line up, I don't think any music festival in Singapore's ever had a line-up that big,” he says.
“It's pretty cool yeah, cause when we first started we didn't expect global blue-chip brands to come in and want to throw a party with us, you know? Mercedes is doing it for the third year in a row and DBS for the second.”
A boost to Singapore, as a brand and a country
Both Datwani and Chew believe that Ultra can become a key event for Singapore and boost its reputation, like the benefits the city-state has enjoyed from hosting the Formula One for the past decade.
“Singapore has been accepting of the event, because Ultra is the biggest EDM brand in the world and to have it in sort of the crown jewel of Singapore, it is like the Formula One race where you have the buildings in the background and stuff like that, the photos we capture really reflect that,” says Datwani, in reference to the Ultra logo lighting up on Marina Bay Sands Tower One.
Singapore needs events like Ultra, adds Chew, because there is a music festival every month in countries around Southeast Asia like Thailand.
“We have got five million people here and other countries have got 10 times our population. I think Singapore needs exciting events like this to keep it in the forefront. At the end of the day, we're a very small country and we're punching above our belt." I think Ultra brings a lot of limelight to this and having it here really brings a different dimension in the entertainment industry at least,” he explains.