The Heartaches and Joys of Organizing Music Festivals in Taiwan

Photo: Party Like a Rock Star

Taiwan has become a hub for music festivals, both big and small, over the past two decades. The passionate organizers – many of them foreigners – work hard to put on the best show possible despite the numerous risks and challenges.

In April of 1995 two young American expats, Wade Davis and Jimi Moe, held the first Spring Scream music festival in Kenting at the southern tip of Taiwan. It wasn’t the first festival of its kind in Taiwan, and it was attended by only around 200 people, but the musical and cultural impact created by this iconic event was enormous. It also became a springboard and template for countless other festivals to come and laid the foundation for an industry in which foreigners have played an outsized role.

“Boston” Paul Davis of LUVstock. Photo: Compass Food and Music Festival

Festival organizers generally adopt one of three main business models for their income – ticket sales, corporate sponsorships or partnerships, and government bids – all of which come with their own challenges. In addition, different approaches sometimes overlap; for example, the Taichung Jazz Festival relies primarily on government bid, but also attracts corporate sponsorships. Some festivals supplement their respective model with other sources of revenue, such as vendor booth rentals and direct product sales – often of alcohol.

For organizers, the riskiest option financially is ticket sales-based events, especially those that lack significant marketing resources and are too small to sell tickets through convenience store kiosks. DJ WeiWei Huang, who has organized events under the brand Party Like a Rock Star, says that “for these kinds of special events that you are marketing, it feels like gambling on your own decisions.”

“Boston” Paul Davis, founder of the LUVstock Music and Art Festical held annually in Taichung, says that selling advance tickets is “a must” because even in the event of inclement weather, advance ticket holders will still attend. “That’s why you make them a bit cheaper,” he says, adding that many who wait to buy tickets the day of the event may decide to stay home at the first sign of rain.

Relying mainly on pre-event ticket sales is not an option for some organizers, though. Ari Shaw, a native of St. Vincent who organizes Caribbean-themed parties through his company Flvcko Events, says that due to difficulties in obtaining sponsors as a young startup, he’s been forced to adopt a direct ticket sales business model, generating revenue through door sales and VIP table purchases. “This isn’t the intended model but because of the current environment for small foreign business owners, I believe we’ve been limited to direct sales.”

Flvcko Events specializes in Caribbean-themed functions. Its founder, Ari Shaw, says that in the absence of corporate sponsorships, he must rely mainly on direct ticket sales for revenue. Photo: Flvcko Events

Corporate sponsorships are often the easiest and most risk-free option, especially if the sponsor is experienced and has a clear idea of the marketing value they hope to get. They are, however, difficult to obtain. Shaw notes that he comes from a culture that highly values events and where businesses see the branding opportunities they offer, but says that “here in Taiwan, businesses aren’t interested in aligning themselves with smaller brands.”

Well-heeled business partners are another option, but they often create conflict. The Compass Food and Music Festival organizers started out by working with a Taipei NGO but became discouraged when the partner kept changing the parameters of the cooperation – and repeatedly cut the amount they were willing to pay – right up until the event’s launch. 

Photo: The Compass Food and Music Festival

Also, a partner with more resources can end up monopolizing control, as happened with Spring Scream in 2019. The event infamously featured then Kao-hsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu performing a karaoke routine. “We were trying to do something different,” says Wade Davis. “We were hoping to organize it and the other group would sponsor it, but it didn’t work out that way.” The result was unfortunate, he says, and neither he nor co-founder Moe even attended. After the pandemic they will return to running the festival themselves.

Government bids are usually the most lucrative option for funding festivals. Larger bids can be worth well into the tens of millions of New Taiwan dollars but involve intense paperwork, which can be daunting. The bid must also be structured in a way that avoids the appearance of profit-making, as this is frowned upon. Instead, fees for services from the bidding company must be embedded in the proposal. For example, one well-known media group won the bid for the Taichung Jazz Festival – Taichung’s largest – for several years running, and a large part of the marketing budget went to their own media outlets. Smaller bidders may not have the staff needed to handle the massive amount of paperwork required or be big enough to create enough reasonably profitable services to make it worthwhile financially.

Organizers choosing this approach also risk getting outbid. Rock in Taichung, looking to grow, went to government bid. In a sense, it was highly successful; it is today Taichung’s second-largest festival. That is cold comfort to the founders of the festival, however, who after a few years ended up losing the bid to another company and have never won it back.

Additional hurdles

Beyond the difficulties involved with the business models, festival organizers face a number of other challenges and risks in putting together big events. Weather is a major factor, especially for outdoor festivals. For ticket sales-driven events held outdoors, bad weather can mean the difference between financial success and disaster. LUVstock’s Davis recounts one year when a typhoon reduced attendance from the expected 3,000 to a mere 500. Outdoor festivals – except for those like Canada Day that are geared to national days – are therefore almost all held in the spring or autumn, when the weather is more comfortable and predictable.

Spring Scream’s Wade Davis perform at the Compass Food and Music Festival.

Another major issue is securing a venue. Private venues generally involve minimal paperwork and are usually able to make decisions faster, but often aren’t very well located. Private venues can also be unreliable and change their minds on key factors as the event setup progresses, and disputes can arise over vague details in the paperwork. For example, the issue of power supply is usually negotiated between venue owner and organizer, but different expectations, such as who is to provide the power cables, can sometimes make for awkward situations.

The best locations are generally parks and government properties. Yet booking these spaces requires considerable paperwork that can take months to process. Because organizers are at the mercy of sometimes mercurial bureaucrats, this experience can be a complete nightmare, with officials rejecting everything that doesn’t meet sometimes unrealistic standards – or it can be relatively smooth if their superiors are supportive of the festival.

Compounding the difficulty of obtaining a venue are the increasing fees, restrictions, and requirements, which make it harder for less well-established festivals to get off the ground, especially if they lack political connections or are underfunded.

During the festival, all of those conditions – plus city ordinances – are often strictly enforced. Organizers must also consider how to limit sound complaints and protect the venue grounds. To avoid fines for garbage, a small army of cleaners is required to ensure the venue is spotless post-event. In spite of the organizer’s best efforts, however, it is increasingly necessary to budget not just for insurance, but also for potential fines. Compass Fest has been cited for small amounts of oil on some leaves, and Spring Scream had to pay a NT$20,000 fine after a festival-goer fell on a bush.

Although the details vary by event, festival organizers invariably cite logistics as a big challenge. Garbage, toilets, access to water, emergency entrances, vendor tents, power, tables, chairs, stage, sound, parking, the positioning of vendors to maximize their sales, and the selection and scheduling of bands are just some aspects that need to be covered. In addition, organizers must handle marketing, source volunteers and suppliers, and prepare everything required on site, from first aid kits and fire extinguishers to flashlights and signage.

Spring Scream’s Davis says some of his and Moe’s logistical duties include juggling a constantly shifting schedule of roughly 1,000 musicians, over six stages, all coming from out of town or overseas and many needing accommodations or support. He also points to the difficult task of getting visas and permits for the foreign bands and ensuring they have easy access to the proper stages.

Festival organizers take on a wide range of responsibilities, from logistics and trash cleanup, to managing sound complaints and visa work for foreign performers. Photo: Party Like a Rock Star

Even after the administrative aspects are tackled, festival organizing can be an unpredictable business. “Unexpected things happen at events and need to be solved in smart ways and on the fly,” says Party Like a Rockstar’s Huang. Davis of LUVstock remembers one year figuring out how to transport porta-potties up the mountain where the festival is held (remarkably, he succeeded). Experienced organizers manage to prepare for a lot, but not for everything.

Handling the press can also be a problem. As Spring Scream grew in size and attendance, other springtime events – often raves targeting young party-goers – begin popping up in Kenting. These parties became infamous for drug busts and wild behavior and were a far cry from the serious music fans that attended Spring Scream, which Wade Davis says has never had any legal issues or run-ins with the police. Yet the local media for a time didn’t differentiate between Spring Scream and the other parties, instead considering all news out of Kenting during that period under the category of the music festival.

Other festivals have experienced the media’s wrath as well. In 2013, a tense standoff between Taiwan and the Philippines occurred just prior to the start of that year’s Compass Fest. The headline “Anger against a common enemy, foreign-organized food festival bans Filipinos” appeared at the top of Yahoo! News soon after, followed by other articles and requests for TV interviews. Confused, the organizers issued a public statement that the claim was totally untrue, and then reiterated to TV news reporters that they would not be banning people from the festival based on nationality. It was later discovered that a reporter had asked an organizer if any Filipino bands or vendors would be present at the event. None had applied, so the organizer replied no. The answer was somehow spun into the contention that Filipinos weren’t welcome.

For the love of music

In spite of the difficulties, successfully putting together a festival can be very satisfying. Particularly fulfilling for organizers is knowing that they’ve brought happiness to hundreds or even thousands of people in one go. “It’s fulfilling. There’s nothing grander,” says LUVstock’s Paul Davis. “There is a kind of sigh of satisfaction when walking around behind the crowds while the band is playing, seeing people cheering and dancing.” Both he and Wade Davis say they also derive great satisfaction from spreading the word about art and music, indie culture, and the friendships and relationships people make at their festivals.

Although the increasing costs, red tape, and restrictions may seem to favor those with connections and large resources, there is still hope for grassroots organizers. For one thing, bureaucratically minded organizers are unable to create festivals with enough heart or authenticity to last. As Ari Shaw’s recent Uma Fest demonstrated, it is still possible to get new festivals off the ground with few resources – even in Taipei – as long as the organizer is determined and can call on friends for help.

Passion is also key. Spring Scream’s founders were foreign English teachers who were also musicians with a love of the local underground music scene. “We started this from an artist’s point of view, not a business point of view,” says Wade Davis. “Business came second.” He notes that having a business background may have helped make the venture more successful financially, but that “our heart was in creating something special and supporting live music, and it wasn’t in generating funds.” Yet he admits that “to pull it off, we have to make sure that we pay off the bills and don’t go bankrupt.”

DJs spinning at a Party Like a Rockstar event. Photo: Party Like a Rock Star

Asked what advice they’d give those planning to start their own festivals, some responded cautiously. “If you want to start one from scratch, do it because you love music, or you’re in a band, or you’re good at organizing,” says Davis of Spring Scream. LUVstock’s Paul Davis echoes that sentiment, adding, “if you want to make money, I would say don’t [do it].”

Party Like a Rock Star’s Huang encourages prospective organizers to be bold. “Don’t be afraid to lose anything,” he says. “And learn from the mistakes you made. The most important thing is to keep your enthusiasm about the things you’re doing.”