Over the past weekend, more than 30,000 people braved the chilly wind and rain at the West Kowloon promenade for the second Freespace Fest – the two-day arts and cultural festival organised by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. Despite the final turnout being half of what organisers had hoped for (organisers had earlier said that they hoped to attract 60,000 attendees), it was still 10,000 more than last year’s Freespace Fest. In spite of such terrible weather conditions, which forced the cancellation of some dance and parkour programmes, attendance wasn’t bad at all.
Freespace Fest was the last of a feast of outdoor festivals in three consecutive weekends, following Clockenflap and Blohk Party. This was the second year Hong Kong saw three outdoor festivals taking place within a month at the site of the future West Kowloon Cultural District. Now it’s time to look back and do a bit of math.
Last year Renaissance Festival, Clockenflap and Freespace Fest took place over three weekends. Renaissance Festival and Freespace Fest were free. Clockenflap charged HK$590 for a two-day weekend pass and HK$390 for a day pass. The three festivals totalled 46,000 attendance within one month: Renaissance Festival, which promoted Chinese, Taiwanese and local rock in addition to local indie music, reportedly had a maximum of 6,000 capacity; Clockenflap, which featured local indie bands alongside an international line-up such as Primal Scream and De La Soul, and Freespace Fest, which featured a variety of performing arts and cultural events, each had 20,000.
This year, Clockenflap, featuring Franz Ferdinand and Cui Jian as headliners and put more attention on local acts, drew 33,000. Blohk Party, with a heavy emphasis on relatively niche DJ and hip hop culture headlined by US singer-songwriter-producer Pharrell Williams, had an audience of 8,000. Freespace Fest, which had a hybrid line-up of slightly alternative music and dance programmes as well as other creative stages, had 30,000.
The three events totalled 71,000 – a 25,000 increase in attendance. Two of the three events were charging more for tickets: tickets to Blohk Party were HK$788 (advance), HK$888 (door) and HK$1,288 (VIP). Clockenflap charged HK$1,280 for a three-day weekend pass (116 per cent up from two-day weekend pass in 2012), HK$680 for a day pass on Saturday or Sunday (74 per cent up from a day pass in 2012), and HK$580 for a day pass on Friday (48.7 per cent up from a day pass in 2012). Considering that today going to a concert of a major Western act costs somewhere between HK$500 and HK$800 or beyond, the tickets weren't a bad deal but percentage increase is indeed high.
Can the higher attendance and increasingly expensive tickets be translated into measurable market potential for cultural events in Hong Kong? The numbers look positive on the surface but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Are these events sustainable in their books? Do these figures say anything on the quality of the programme curation, especially when some headliners were foreign instead of local acts? And in future, can Hong Kong produce enough indigenous acts that are talented and interesting enough to fill the programmes?
Two other gigs - the Alan Tam and Hacken Lee Live in Hong Kong taking place at the Coliseum across the other end of Kowloon around the same time (December 6 – 15) – were almost sold-out. The two Canto-pop veterans even had to stage three afternoon shows (a total of 13 shows had an estimated audience of more than 100,000). How can these outdoor cultural events earn more attention in the mainstream than Tam and Lee? The truth is, with more than 900,000 voting at TVB’s anniversary awards, the masses care more about who wins best TV actor than these outdoor festivals, which in fact have more benefit to Hongkongers (going outdoors is certainly healthier than gluing yourself to the small screen at home).
Perhaps Hong Kong needs more trial and error to decide what kind of cultural events fit our city and figure out how to make them relevant to people’s lives.