In 1995, the first Spring Scream music festival took place on an improvised stage at a little-known beach in southern Taiwan. It was still two years before the first Fuji Rock Festival was held in Japan, or any other major music festival in East Asia, for that matter. Australia's Big Day Out had only arrived three years earlier, in 1992. In the eastern hemisphere, the era of the massive music festival hardly looked imminent.
"Now, Spring Scream is a tradition, just like the annual Mazu [sea goddess] pilgrimage," says Tan Pey-yun, an entertainment agent representing several TV stars and the band Murmur Show, who will perform at this year's Spring Scream. "It is a fixture in Taiwan. Thousands of people go every year."
The festival, to be held from April 3 to 7 in a grassy park near the beach town of Kenting on Taiwan's southern tip, is now in its 19th year. There will be seven music stages and 260 bands and DJs playing, selected from about 600 applicants. Young bands from Singapore to Japan - and some from even farther - will pay their own costs to play here.
For the sheer volume of performances, its dedication as a stage for unknowns and its "everybody come and play" philosophy, Spring Scream may be Asia's closest answer to the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is also a camping festival with a bit of a Woodstock vibe, where hippies mix easily with rockers.
If one thing has not changed, Spring Scream organiser Jimi Moe says, it is that "we focus on the music community. This is still a festival held by musicians and for musicians. So it is the musicians who really create the direction for the festival, and because of that it is sustainable. Having that community is why we have lasted so long."
Last year's audience was put at about 6,000, but police estimated around 100,000 flooded Kenting for related parties and other events.
At least eight major events will be held this year during the festival weekend, including the competing Spring Wave music festival, which hosts a pop line-up of Taiwanese acts including Olivia, Sodagreen, Chairman, A-Yue and others. There are also more frivolous events - Bikini Bubble Party, anyone? - which give a spring break-type vibe and try to cash in on the crowds. "Taiwan has changed a lot, and the music scene has changed a lot," says Moe. "There are more festivals now, and they are getting specialised and are good at different things. But no one else has managed to create a multi-day outdoor festival that is away from a major city."
We are professional...We have much better stages. But the spirit is something we are really trying to keep the same
In many ways, Spring Scream has survived as a devoted enclave for newbies, diehards and freakers, even as Asia's music boom of recent years swept by. Japan developed mega-festivals such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic. South Korea now brings top overseas names to the Jisan Valley and Pentaport festivals.
On the mainland, events such as the Modern Sky Festival draw tens of thousands and aggressively pursue international acts, when authorities allow them to enter. In Taiwan itself, there are now three festivals offering international acts that can draw 10,000 to 20,000 fans.
The most recent was the Mega Port Festival, held in Kaohsiung in early March, which pulled 20,000 for a line-up featuring US indiepop headliner Grizzly Bear and the Japanese experimental metal band Boris.
The Formoz Festival, which poached Fuji Rock headliners regularly through the 2000s, has been on hiatus since 2008, but will return this August. And Simple Life, held every other year in Taipei, has brought John Cale, Jarvis Cocker and other big names to massive crowds. These festivals have much closer ties to the music industry than Spring Scream, and each features close to 100 local or regional bands in addition to global stars.
"There was a time when we were unique and special, when we were an oasis in a desert of nothing," says Moe. "But we know that time is past."
However, he feels that Spring Scream's niche in Taiwan's music ecology remains firm, and that if the other festivals have grown bigger, they have also moved away from the underground music culture, while Spring Scream never really left.
"I would say that now we are closer to what we started as, compared to what we were a few years ago," says Moe. "We are certainly more professional in terms of the back end and management. We have much better stages. But the spirit is something we are really trying to keep the same."
In the late 2000s, as crowds for the Kenting weekend spiralled to new heights, Spring Scream experimented with a giant main stage for pop stars, culminating in a 2009 line-up capped by Chang Hui-mei, or A-Mei. But the pop stars, TV cameras and other such attention were changing the make-up of the festival in unwanted ways.
"We originally thought we would be able to pull in a pop-oriented crowd and expose them to other bands. But the people who came for A-Mei came for A-Mei, and when she finished they left. They also came early and sat down at the front of the stage for hours before the show, and killed the vibe for other bands," says Moe.
Cost was also a major issue, and Moe says, "We decided to go back to what was working."
Since 2011, Spring Scream has returned to a format of seven or eight stages, all exactly the same size. "There is no main stage, so the atmosphere is good whether you have 100 people or 1,000 people," says Moe.
Bands for this year include several Taiwanese indie stalwarts, such as garage rockers 88 Balaz, the suit-wearing ska stand-outs Skaraoke, soul group Funky Brothers, and post-rock group Aphasia. Murmur Show is a new singer-guitar duo fronted by Li De-hui, who launched this new project coming off a two-year contract as a solo artist for Universal Music.
The keyboard-led trio Tizzy Bac are one of the hottest tickets in Taiwan's indie scene, and The 13 Band often serve as the backing group for Sony recording artist Deserts Chang. There will also be fun expat bands such as Kid Millionaire, .22 and Blind Acid Date, plus about 250 other names to choose from.
Bring a tent, suntan lotion and a healthy attitude, because, as Moe says: "Really, we just want everyone to have fun."
Spring Scream, April 3-7, Kenting, Taiwan, five-day festival passes NT$2,400 (about HK$610). Inquiries: www.springscream.com