Interview with Alex Chew and Raj Datwani of Ultra Singapore: "It’s hard work! You have to love music"
By and large, music festivals are undoubtedly seen as the pinnacle of partying, especially for the "YOLO" generation. Packing high production value, a mega lineup of artists across multiple stages and genres and plenty of fringe activities compressed into a fixed number of hours or days, music festivals make other ways of spending your time pale in comparison. Having worked on the programming and marketing of ZoukOut for nine years, I know that they take blood, sweat and tears to organise, notably as we're trying to pull off so much in a short span of time.
When I heard that Ultra Music Festival will be debuting its full-fledged event in Singapore after Road to Ultra last year, I was interested to hear from the organisers themselves. Alex Chew, 31 and Raj Datwani, 34 are both the executive producers and partners for Ultra Singapore, which will grow from Road to Ultra's one-stage, one day event to a full-scale, two day outdoor festival across three stages.
Chew and Datwani are no strangers to providing the outlet for good vibes. The duo are successful restaurateurs behind The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and co-founders of private members club, Madison Rooms. With Ultra Singapore as their first festival effort, we find out what it takes to bring Ultra Music Festival onto our shores.
What made you decide to bring Ultra Music Festival to Singapore, and was it hard to get them to agree?
Alex Chew (AC): I've followed the Ultra brand for many years and have always been intrigued with large music festivals. I went to Ultra Japan during its first year to meet some of the other Asian partners and fell in love with it, but didn't actually sign a contract until the following March when we went to Miami to meet the founders. It's a long process to chase, run and own a franchise of any worthy brand. We spent over a year and a half conceptualising, making the necessary plans, getting the necessary paperwork done up, meeting the right people and making the right connections.
What does the partnership entail and how involved are the Ultra founders?
AC: We have daily conversations with the team in Miami. On the Singapore front, Raj and I get down and dirty with preparing sponsorship proposals, contracts, wooing sponsors, speaking with the DJ agents and the DJs themselves. It's a team effort, and it's hard to pinpoint each person's role in the team — every member is important.
How do you differentiate what you're doing from other big name festivals here like ZoukOut and Laneway?
Raj Datwani (RD): Ultra is a family business. The festival was founded by two brothers who have invested the last 18 years in developing an incredible proposition that has expanded to every continent bar Antartica. This sense of family extends to not just to each editions' teams, but to the artists too. There are a number of artists whose growth you can track alongside Ultra appearances. Take Skrillex and Martin Garrix — even Avicii has just done his last two Asia shows ever with Ultra. This is what being part of the Ultra family is.
What's the most rewarding and challenging parts of organising Ultra Singapore?
AC: The most rewarding part of putting the festival together is hands down the event itself. Tangible results are always the most satisfying! By the time 10 and 11 September come around, we will have spent more than a year working on the debut of the full-format edition. When doors open and thousands of fans pour into the venue, the feeling is incomparable.
There have definitely been some moments which are funny to look back on. I remember our nine foot Ultra 'U' that sits on the stage roof got stuck in customs in China a matter of days before the festival. Also last year, one artist required a sophisticated camera system for a special effect on stage that we only found out the day before. All sorted in the end though!
Tell us some of your personal highlights for the upcoming show.
AC: Two fantastic DJs to look out for are Jauz and Marshmello. These two have been rising at a meteoric pace and we're thrilled to be bringing them both to Singapore for the first time. Also, Kygo will be celebrating his 25th birthday at the festival. He was actually born in Singapore so it's a real treat to be welcoming him back to the Lion City.
Do you think the festival space is getting too crowded in Singapore?
RD: We think it's a good thing, more music festivals mean more choices. We think the festivals each cater to slightly different audiences in terms of music and experience offered. We love the fact that there are so many options now, it just means that fans will be able to see more acts throughout the year!
What does success for the festival look like to you?
AC: Ultimately, music festivals are an epicenter of fun, friendship, passion, and discovery. If fans and artists leave the festival having had the best experience, we've done our job right. Beyond the glamorous components of the festival, we do our very best to execute top notch operations across the board, offer a wide variety of F&B, provide adequate facilities, and have security measures in place to ensure the safety of our attendees. Success is all these moving parts running seamlessly.
You guys run other businesses — Bacchanalia and Madison Rooms — too, do you see a connection between these businesses that you run?
RD: Ultimately, we are in the businesses of providing experiences that we want people to remember. Each business and brand gives a different experience — if someone came in to our restaurant and had the best meal they can remember, or had the best day of their life at our festival, then we have succeeded.
Any other festival concepts up your sleeve?
RD: Nothing as of now. We have quite a lot on our plate as it is. But we will be sure to update you!
What is your hope for Ultra Singapore? Do you have a three- or five-year plan?
RD: Our goal is for Ultra Singapore to become the go-to festival for the region. We have already seen tickets purchased from 41 countries worldwide, the goal is to make sure more people fly in year after year to celebrate Ultra Singapore with us!
Any advice for other would be festival organisers?
AC: It's hard work! You have to love music.