Major setback for Asian indie

Evan Murray in conversation with David Frazier.

David Frazier is co-founder and program director of Urban Nomad Film Fest and Freakout Music Fest in Taiwan, heading both film and music programming since 2002. Originally from the US, he has lived in Taipei since 1995, working as a journalist, art and music critic (Taipei Times, SCMP, Art AsiaPacific, others), music festival organizer (Daniel Pearl Day, Urban Nomad), and music promoter (Diplo, Major Lazer, Guitar Wolf, Buffalo Daughter, Bob Log III). 

Hope all is well, and everyone around you is healthy. Could you tell us what the status is for your Urban Nomad festival at this time?  Give us an inside idea of how things have been happening for the festival, and how's life in Taiwan?

In late February, we made the decision to postpone the 2020 Urban Nomad Freakout Festival. I think the earliest we could possibly reschedule would be during the last three months of 2020, or if not then, we'll wait until 2021. Since about one third of the lineup is international acts, and having the wildest and weirdest overseas bands has always been part of our character, it's unfortunately necessary to just hold tight until we have some window on when and how international travel might be able to resume.

After we decided to postpone, we contacted all the bands, DJs and circus performers, and nearly all of them said they'd be happy to rejoin the festival at a later date. So in a way, we have a lineup ready to go, but we just need to wait and see what's the new normal.

David Frazier

What are some of the biggest challenges the festival is facing right now? 

We obviously lost money this year, and have no income. The losses came from costs related to early stage promotion and refunding ticket sales. Early bird tickets sold out in just a few hours in mid-February, while the virus was still only in China and the rest of the world had no travel restrictions or lockdowns.

The biggest challenge is not knowning we can restart. Also, maintaining staff may be an issue, as most of the staff works on short-term contracts, so if they need to get other jobs, some may not be available when we're ready to restart. That said, we're better off than venues, which have a lot of overhead and are really hurting. 

Are there any plans in place now incase something like this happens again? 

Not really. Most organizers are essentially deferring to the government to make policy, and then obeying the rules. Taiwan initially prohibited gatherings of more than 300 people, and now I think that's expanded to 500 people, so event promoters and venues are living with that.

Taiwan's government has also said they will not re-open normal travel links until there is a vaccine, but is now starting some test runs for important business travel, and considering using testing to lower the current 14-day mandatory quarantine period. Still, if visiting musicians need to be quarantined for some period of time, most probably won't want to come, and paying an extra 14 days hotel cost just doesn't make for an organizer. 

What do you see changing in the music industry if anything with the impact of the virus has had? 

Venues in Japan are shutting down or holding fundraisers to stay alive. In Taipei, things are a little better, as local small venues have been able to continue operation, and with no local transmissions in Taiwan for three weeks, audiences are ready to go out again. But who knows when international touring or large events can return.

As music trends roll, do you have any predictions of what's coming next? From your point of view, where is the live music industry headed?

For Taiwan, pulling up the drawbridge to this little island and cutting off all external links will definitely turn the focus of the music scene inwards to Taiwanese music, whether mainstream or indie.

It's too bad, because through showcase festivals and conferences, Asia's indie music scenes were really starting to link up in the past 2-3 years in a way they had never connected before. We started seeing Asian indie stars, and to make a couple examples, in 2019 we saw one Thai singers sell out a 1000 person venues in Taipei, and one Taiwan indie band Sunset Roller Coaster as a main stage headliner at a festival in Mongolia.

This is very cool as potential was increasing for bands to break out of their own countries, and for indie to become an Asia regional thing instead of just a national thing. 

So this development has to be put on hold. Budget airlines and cheap flights were a big part of it, and it's hard to know if that will come back. I think in the long run the Asian indie thing will happen, but maybe in a different way. 

EVAN MURRAY is Event Co-ordinator at Live at Heart, Newfoundland, Export Development Officer at Vision 360 (Canada) and Canadian Coordinator at Live at Heart, Sweden. He is also International Music Consultant at Wonderwall Media, India.