“We Had To Pioneer Our Own Way Forward”: How Clockenflap Built A Hong Kong Industry From Scratch

Leadership

November 16, 2017 | BY Lee Williamson

Clockenflap co-founder Justin Sweeting on how a sideline project to help develop Hong Kong’s music scene grew to become one of Asia’s best festivals

“It’s a bit busy in here,” says Generation T lister Justin Sweeting as he guides us through the packed Sheung Wan offices of Magnetic Asia, Clockenflap’s parent company.

It’s the week before Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s biggest music festival, and the modest space is pulsing with energy, soundtracked by the hum of hurried conversation and the rapid-fire tapping of keyboards. In the conference room, a dozen-strong team is mapping the final layout of the concession stands; just outside, a pair pore over the design of new marketing assets.

The team seems focused, driven and unstoppable. “A bit busy" is something of understatement, but it’s perhaps typical of Hong Kong-born Sweeting, who despite his deserved reputation as one of the godfathers of modern alternative music in the city—along with his Magnetic partners and fellow Clockenflap co-founders Mike Hill and Jason Forster—is about as far from the brash, egomaniacal music industry archetype as you can imagine.

Throughout our conversation Sweeting is softly spoken, unfailingly polite, even humble. But beneath the disarmingly charming exterior lies an obvious passion, laser-focused vision and unshakeable convictions. The staff buzzing around us are clearly moving to the beat of his drum.

Clockenflap co-founder Justin Sweeting. (Photography: Nic and Bex Gaunt | Styling: Rosana Lai)

“Clockenflap is the coming together of everything we hold dear—music, art, film, food, friends and family—and setting it against the backdrop of Hong Kong, creating something that is uniquely for this city,” says Sweeting.

What is now one of Asia’s biggest festivals began as a small passion project for the three co-founders, borne out of a desire to advance Hong Kong’s alternative music scene. “It started out as a one-day event in 2008 and 1,500 believers came; last year we had 60,000 visits over the three-day weekend.”

"The scale has grown, but the vision of Clockenflap hasn’t changed a bit since day one"

In many ways, this relatively humble ambition still informs everything Magnetic does today. “The important thing is that the scale has grown, but the vision of Clockenflap hasn’t changed a bit since day one,” says Sweeting. Developing the local music scene and creating a platform where local Hong Kong talent can shine remain core to Magnetic’s business plan.

The Clockenflap origin story

“I grew up here and music was one of my main loves, but it was a pretty arid place to be if you were a music geek. If you were into maybe Celine Dion and the Eagles you’d be happy, but outside of the arena acts you didn’t really get to see much live music,” says Sweeting. 

After a stint in the UK—where he attended university, played in a band that was signed by a record label and then worked in the music industry—Sweeting returned to Hong Kong to discover that little had changed.

Clockenflap co-founder and Magnetic Asia artistic director Jason Forster. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)
Clockenflap co-founder and Magnetic Asia managing director Mike Hill. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

“There was still very little going on, and when I looked around I thought to myself: Actually, I think we can do something about this. Rather than complain about it, I think we can build the scene we always wished existed here.”

“It was largely a passion project to begin with, and our focus was ‘Look, the size of this event doesn’t matter; let’s make this the best experience we possibly can with what we have at our disposal.’” Their market research? “We thought: It can’t just be us who wants this”.

They weren’t wrong. After a couple of years of growing attendance levels, Sweeting gave up his job in media to focus on the festival full-time, with fellow co-founders Hill and Forster later following suit.

The second Clockenflap was held at Cyberport in 2009. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

Vertical growth

The problem with trying to build something new, of course, is that you first have to lay the foundations. “There wasn’t a template for us to follow. We were continuously having to pioneer our own way forward, which could be difficult, time-consuming and expensive."

“One of the issues we first came up against was the lack of a modern ticketing provider that we thought could answer our needs—so that was the birth of Ticketflap. It would have been great if there was an existing fully functioning ticketing platform back in the day, but there wasn’t so our take was to create one ourselves.”

“My happiest day at Clockenflap will be when we have a local, independent band headlining the main stage”

The lack of service providers and infrastructure to support an event of Clockenflap’s scale forced the founders to grow vertically and establish arms of the business that now make up a number of Magnetic Asia’s revenue streams. 

“We followed that logic on and created our own digital marketing business, our own events services team. We had to build the expertise because it didn’t exist and we required it for what we were doing, but we quickly realised we could offer these services out to other people, and really help benefit the scene overall.”

British band The Charlatans play Clockenflap 2010. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

“Now we’re in a position where we’re hopefully going to be reaping the rewards because of that work. We’ve laid the foundations so we’re positioned in a way that when [the market grows] we can scale.” 

Today, the festival acts as a showcase for these marketable services. “Clockenflap is becoming almost a shopfront of Magnetic’s capabilities,” says Sweeting. Magnetic’s early championing of RFID technology, the chips inside festival wristbands, has been particularly notable. Partly thanks to the pioneering work of Magnetic, festival wristbands around the world are now used for crowd control, sponsor activation and electronic payment. Clockenflap itself is a cashless event. Festival-goers add value to their wristband and use it to pay for everything on site—from beer to merchandise.

“Now, when a company approaches Magnetic for help organising an event, we can do the whole thing or carve off different parts, like just the content curation, or just the booking, ticketing or marketing—we can even provide just the Wi-Fi. Increasingly, this is an area of our business that’s getting very interesting.”

Clockenflap 2011 was the first to be held at West Kowloon Cultural District. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

Developing local talent

As much as both Clockenflap and Magnetic have grown since that first festival in 2008, the mission values remain the same, says Sweeting. Schemes like Clockenflap Pro, the industry-facing side of the festival that exposes visiting global industry executives to emerging Hong Kong talent, are still front and centre. 

“[Clockenflap Pro] is us doing what we can to push local talent out there. We’re basically pitching on the artists’ behalf [to industry executives], trying to act as a catalyst for future opportunities.”

“Our mission is how do we get more local artists on the later time slots on the biggest stages. Every band, whether local or international, has to justify its position [on the bill]. This year is great because Supper Moment is just playing before Massive Attack on the main stage, and Chochukmo is closing the second stage on Saturday.”

“To be able to put local bands in these important slots is great, and shows how things have developed in the last few years. I’ve often said that my happiest day at Clockenflap will be when we have a local, independent band headlining the main stage. We’ll get there one day.”

Clockenflap 2013. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

A growing market

Hand-in-hand with the growing local independent music scene is an evidently growing appetite for live music events. “There’s over seven million people in Hong Kong; that really should be enough to sustain more than one festival,” says Sweeting.

“With Clockenflap, the emphasis is on making it as accessible as possible—how can we make this people’s first festival experience and entry into that world—and from there we want to be able to give different experiences to different people.”

This April, Magnetic tested the ground with a more niche offering, bringing globe-trotting electronic music and arts festival Sónar to Hong Kong for the first time; plans are also in place for a new camping festival format, to be launched in 2018.

Clockenflap at Central Harbourfront in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of Clockenflap)

So what drives Magnetic to continue foraging in unchartered territory? By way of answering, Sweeting points in the direction of the office, which is still a hive of energy.

“If you look at what we do in black and white, it's really hard work. It can take over your life and there's a big risk attached. So if you don’t feel passionately about [the cause], you might as well be doing something else.”

“The great thing is we've got a team who all want to be here; they believe in the mission and vision, and they want to work hard. It feels like we're doing something right. And as long as we feel we’re continuing to make a positive difference in the city, we'll keep going for sure.”