How Singapore’s ZoukOut dance festival grew into a two-day event with 40,000 in the crowd

ZoukOut was launched in 2000 in Singapore, and this year’s edition promises to be the biggest yet, with bungee jumping, swings and a sky bridge and some of the world’s most renowned DJs and dance music acts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 7:31pm

With electronic music festivals now sprouting like mushrooms in Asia, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time the landscape was essentially bare – with one notable exception. Singapore’s ZoukOut was launched in 2000 as an offshoot of the Singapore superclub Zouk, which has been going since 1991.

The first, single-day ZoukOut, headlined by Canadian techno legend Richie Hawtin, was attended by 9,000 people. These days, the two-day event, which still takes places on Sentosa island’s Siloso Beach, attracts 40,000. “It’s pretty wonderful to see that number of people dancing to the same beat,” says ZoukOut CEO Andrew Li.

This year’s line-up is headed by anonymous, bucket-wearing house and EDM DJ Marshmello; Australian future bass pioneer Flume; Axwell and Ingrosso, two thirds of supergroup Swedish House Mafia; and Asian hip hop sensations Rich Chigga and Higher Brothers. The extensive line-up also includes Yellow Claw, Robin Schulz, Claptone, Gui Boratto, DJ Snake and Amelie Lens.

In the increasingly crowded music festival market, ZoukOut has the advantages of longevity and association with Zouk the club. Still, says Li, it might soon be reaching saturation point. “I think it’s starting to happen, to be honest. So many festivals are expanding aggressively, and I often see festivals not going ahead: because of higher DJ costs and a kind of festival fatigue among regular clubbers. I think the bigger festivals can survive and the smaller boutique ones as well. But they have to provide an experience – just having DJs isn’t going to be enough.”

That desire to provide an experience will manifest itself at this year’s ZoukOut in the form of a 50-metre bungee-jumping tower, a giant dual-swing system, a vertical skywalk and a 40-metre sky bridge.

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Encouraging people at a music festival to do things involving heights might not seem the wisest decision, but they are at least provided by the company founded by the man synonymous with bungee jumping, A.J. Hackett.

“This year we’re trying to make it more of a festival, with the bungee jumping, much more effort on the food village, and a 6.30pm start,” says Li. “We’ll have to be quite strict with the bungee jump and not allow anyone inebriated to use it. I have a fear of heights myself, but I’ll probably try it, just this once.”

In the era of the superstar DJ, he adds, it’s increasingly challenging to book acts that haven’t performed in the city recently. “There are only so many big DJs, and when they play one year, you really don’t want them back the next. Luckily for us we’re a club; our relationships with DJs go back 26 years. Plus ZoukOut is such a great festival to play at – every year we get loads of requests to play from DJs.

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“It’s important for us to nurture DJ talent. For example we gave Hardwell one of his first breaks in Asia, and he remembers that. Even when he played at Ultra, he came to our club afterwards.”

Both Zouk the club and ZoukOut have undoubtedly changed since Malaysian leisure giant Genting’s Hong Kong subsidiary bought the business in 2015. For a start, most artists are now drawn from the more commercial side of dance music, although it always did feature a fair sprinkling of populist acts amid the more underground fare: the roster of ZoukOut alumni includes huge names such as Ferry Corsten, Paul van Dyk, Sasha, Tiesto, Martin Garrix, Armin van Buuren and Above & Beyond.

Then there have been the overseas forays, including last year’s ZoukOut event in Boracay, a stage at Summer Sonic in Japan and, more ambitiously, Live Edition by ZoukOut in Hong Kong, a partly live event featuring Ne-Yo and Nicky Romero, in a temporary club at Central Harbourfront in the hospitality tent for the Hong Kong ePrix. The Live Edition concept, though, has been temporarily shelved.

“Everyone who went had a great time, but the fact that you can’t stay open till late is really an issue,” says Li. “We realised that live music isn’t really our strength.”

Instead of events, Genting is planning to use physical clubs as a bridgehead into cities, perhaps with a one-off event before their launches. The company is also working on a big Zouk presence at its signature Genting Highlands development in Malaysia.

And then there’s one of Genting’s other businesses – cruise liners – with a Zouk club now installed on the Genting Dream and regular events planned in collaboration with the Singapore club. In fact, Li apologies for being “a bit slow today” during our interview, having just returned from a three-day, 3,000-person party on the Genting Dream, for which Zouk was one of the partners (“I’m one of a very small percentage who are pleased to get off,” he says).

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Featuring a combination of hip hop and electronic music, it travelled from Singapore to Phuket for a beach party and then back again. “The fact that you have a captive audience is great,” he says, “and you have the DJs interacting with the guests, but you definitely need a lot of security.”

Continuing the shake-up, in 2016 Zouk the club moved to a new Clarke Quay location from its much-loved previous home near Robertson Quay. “I think the Singapore crowd has been really responsive to the move,” says Li. “It wasn’t an easy move, but so far, so good – it’s completely rammed every weekend.”

Integrating a small company that’s always been run out of love with a large, diverse leisure corporation is always going to be tough, he adds, but it has it own rewards.

“We’re making it into a business now, with compliance and financial security. Although we’ve made a lot of ground this year, being here is a challenge every day, but the nostalgia people get with Zouk is not something I’ve felt in my career in hospitality before; they really feel it’s part of their selves. It’s important to keep that.”

ZoukOut 2017, Dec 8-9, Siloso Beach, Sentosa, Singapore

One-day pass from S$138 (US$102), two-day pass from S$228