TAKING TO THE HIGH SEAS
The Saturday of March 15, five years ago, was supposed to be the career highlight of Livescape Group - a homegrown events company helmed by then 26-year-old Iqbal Ameer.
From pulling off Southeast Asia’s largest music festival, Future Music Festival Asia (FMFA) - which saw the participation of some 55,000 people, the young company fell into a pool of debt.
Six festival goers died after attending the event the night before. Initial report cited drug overdose as cause of death, triggering a knee-jerk reaction from authorities to cancel the final day of the festival.
From being a 26-year-old kid, making five million ringgit overnight, we lost five million. It was a very tough lesson, to start from scratch again
A year later, a medical doctor who attended to the case revealed that the six deaths were actually caused by heat stroke, probable cause that the police failed to reveal but confirmed.
However, the damage to Livescape, was long done.
“From being a 26-year-old kid, making five million ringgit overnight, we lost five million. It was a very tough lesson, to start from scratch again.”
Iqbal revealed the refund costs and cancellation fees, on top of other bills, set the company back for years. “We only managed to pay off our debts last year.”
He speaks about the incident with sentimental nostalgia. “FMFA was the catalyst that got us on a different level.” But the tragic incident was also the most difficult moment in his life. “‘I was branded as ‘anak setan’ (the devil’s child) and was seen as the black sheep of the industry.”
The silver lining is that what happened with FMFA got Iqbal and the Livescape ‘familia’ to put their heads together to start something new - an electronic music festival on a cruise liner called It’s The Ship.
“My father told me this - pay your debts because your reputation is the most important thing right now,” recalls Iqbal soon after the incident. “But he also said that we must look ahead.”
“So, we focused on paying our debts and at the same time, we came up with It’s The Ship. That spurred us to move forward.”
It's The Ship sails the high seas out of Marina Bay, Singapore to international waters, and back on a luxurious cruise ship.
Helmed by Livescape’s lean team of 40 based out of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta, It’s The Ship has conducted six successful voyages since November 2014. It also make stops at island destinations like Phuket and Langkawi.
It's The Ship China is set to take its maiden voyage this June. The group is also looking to expand the brand to Australia, Dubai and South Korea
Known as the largest floating festival in Asia, the typically three day cruise hosts an array of international artists and thousands of shipmates from all over the world - promising a ‘24-hour non-stop, party experience’.
Last year, participation swelled up to the maximum capacity of 4,000. Iqbal says they have no intention to charter bigger ships (‘Four thousand is a ‘sweet spot’ to allow us to make sure you have the best time of your life’); instead, he is looking to bring the brand further afield.
The group recently expanded It’s The Ship to China and Japan. “We’ve went through the trials, tribulations and mistakes over the past five years, and that has allowed us to be very confident to execute the same experience internationally,” says Iqbal.
“Our local partners are helping us to make sure that the brand goes out well to the local market and that we attract the same type of sponsors that we’ve had over the past five years.”
It's The Ship China is set to take its maiden voyage this June. The group is also looking to expand the brand to Australia, Dubai and South Korea.
It's The Ship is On an International Expansion
Long term, Iqbal is looking to divest parts of the business to a ‘bigger player’ than can take the brand to the next level.
Our aim is to get six charters out every year, for the next two years
“It’s The Ship is currently valued at USD20 million, including China and Japan (charters). Our aim is to get six charters out every year, for the next two years.”
"We believe by adding more charters, plus more ancillary revenue from merchandising, the value will go up further."
“Our merchandising revenue has gone up by 50 percent year-on-year. So, we definitely see a growth there," says Iqbal.
He is also encouraged by the the rate of return among attendees, "About 30 percent of them will come back. They have an affinity to it." - giving him the confidence to replicate the business model in new markets.
“We are seeking a valuation of USD35 million for six charters and we are well on track,” says Iqbal.
Livescape may have made its mark through It’s The Ship but over 40 percent of the group’s revenue still comes from organising corporate lifestyle events.
“When you do something like It’s The Ship, you are not going to see your money until six months down the line,” Iqbal says matter-of-factly.
We have an esports platform called The Major League. We have Rockaway Festival. These are all brand platforms that cater to specific communities
“In order to make sure everybody has food on their table, we turned to corporations and we’ve been blessed! After FMFA, we couldn’t get any corporate jobs because no one wanted to be associated with us. Thankfully, companies like Red Bull International who knew us continued to give their support. That helped us rebuild our reputation in the market.”
Iqbal has always likened Livescape as an brand activation and curation agency, not just another events management company. “We are brand builders,” he says.
“This is why we build It’s The Ship. We have an esports platform. We have Rockaway Festival. These are all brand platforms that cater to specific communities.”
Two years ago, Livescape started the Academy of Esports, in collaboration with Johor’s Iskandar Development Berhad. “We organised an event last year called The Major League. We had over 300,000 thousand people streaming in.”
“Personally, it’s not an interest of mine but it has a very strong community and it is one of they key ingredients that we look at before we set up a brand.”
One type of event that you won’t find Iqbal doing though is K-Pop concerts. “It’s a totally different animal!’ he says with chuckle. “I’ve got so much respect for my friends who organise K-Pop concerts; it’s like doing the Grammys in terms of production level.”
Livescape Builds Brands
Iqbal has proved that is possible to bounce back from a major business disaster, with the silver lining being It’s The Ship, Rockaway Festival and the popular neon five-kilometre fun run, Electric Run - elevating Livescape's reputation as a credible player in the events and entertainment space.
If you want to make Malaysia the entertainment destination of Southeast Asia - it definitely has the potential to be - you need to give the private sector some sort of assurance
When asked if he would revive FMFA, or similar festivals in Malaysia, Iqbal shook his head.
“I don’t think Malaysians understood the magnitude of how bad it (FMFA cancellation) affected the events industry. I knew people who had to close down their production businesses.”
Two major international events were cancelled soon after FMFA. Authorities became more stringent in giving out approvals. Some of the events were given pre-approval only to be denied a permit at the very last minute, making Malaysia an unattractive destination.
“A lot of big music acts are excited to come to this region but they bypass Malaysia,” says Iqbal, adding that the support from the government is crucial to revive the industry.
“If you want to make Malaysia the entertainment destination of Southeast Asia - it definitely has the potential to be - you need to give the private sector some sort of assurance that these things (concerts or festivals) are going to happen and it will happen.”
The Silver Lining in FMFA
For now, Iqbal and his team are taking their dream elsewhere. The group held their first onshore music festival in Jakarta last weekend called Future Republic, in partnership with Indonesia's leading media company MNC Group.
Thailand and Indonesia have the population. They have sponsors that are hungry to get involved in live events and they have international acts that want to perform there
"It’s a five year deal and we are set to grow the festival," says Iqbal.
“Indonesia and Thailand are two countries in Southeast Asia that are very aggressive when it comes to live experiences. Singapore, in my opinion, has matured and is segregated.”
“In Singapore, people just have so many options, whereas Thailand and Indonesia have the population. They have sponsors that are hungry to get involved in live events and they have international acts that want to perform there.”
And judging from the ticket sales to Future Republic, where 20 percent were bought by Malaysians, there is a strong demand, even hunger, for such events.
“It feels like Malaysia in 2012,” says Iqbal of Indonesia. “That sort of energy, that sort of willingness to try and the mentality is there. It’s exactly how it was in 2012 when we were doing it. That’s one of the reasons why we chose Jakarta.”
The language and culture similarities, says Iqbal, makes Indonesia an ideal place to grow the business.
“We are a Malaysian brand that was built from ground up,” he says, “But the ‘future’ does come in a different shape or form.”