EXCLUSIVE: Clockenflap co-founders assert ‘autonomy’ after Live Nation acquisition, eye Asian expansion

Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s signature live music and arts festival, made a triumphant return to the city in early March, selling out for the first time in its 16-year history. No sooner had the Sunday night headliners, legendary US hip hop collective the Wu Tang Clan, closed their set than the organisers gave festival goers something to smile about: Clockenflap was coming back for a second 2023 outing in December. 

Weeks later, and another announcement emerged from the Clockenflap camp: US-based global entertainment company Live Nation Entertainment had acquired a controlling interest in Clockenflap Festivals, the brand behind the three-day event and live music series Clockenflap Presents. 

Clockenflap Festival 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Despite that majority stake – and the influence it traditionally ensures over corporate decisions – two of Clockenflap’s three co-founders, Managing Director Mike Hill and Music Director Justin Sweeting, were keen to assert their continued autonomy over operations in a video interview with HKFP on Tuesday evening. 

“We still run an independent business,” Sweeting said. “We operate independently outside of that Live Nation touring universe. Our team will continue to create and manage and produce our festivals and events like we’ve always done,” he added. 

Hill echoed his colleague, saying: “I don’t think the festivalgoers will really see any profound difference. Certainly, that’s the expectation and that’s what’s underwritten into the deal.” 

Ticketflap, an online events listing and ticketing platform that is owned by Total Ticketing and is a partner of Clockenflap’s, was not part of the acquisition. “[Ticketflap] was very much kept out of that part of the deal – that was by choice,” Hill said. “Ticketflap will continue to operate as it is and we have the rights under our deal to continue to ticket however we wish to, so, that’s what we’ll intend to do.”

When asked whether prices would rise, or festival goers would see the huge booking fees or price gouging practices of Ticketmaster – Live Nation’s ticketing platform – Hill said: “we’re not in any way required to use Ticketmaster, we have no knowledge of what their plans are for Hong Kong… we are a separate ticketing company, we work independently, I don’t know what they’re up to.” 

Mike Hill. Photo: Magnetic Asia.

He declined to say how much the acquisition was worth, but said it had been some time in the making. Since launching the festival at Cyberport in 2008, expanding to the site now occupied by West Kowloon Kowloon Cultural District and then moving to its current location at Central Harbourfront, HIll said “we’ve had many suitors.” 

What was different about the Live Nation deal, Hill and Sweeting said, was timing. 

The pandemic crippled Kong Kong’s live music scene, with a ban on performances in place for more than two years. A survey conducted by the Musicians Foundation last June found that more than half of those employed in the industry had suffered from anxiety and depression in the past year, while live music venues were among those permanently shuttered.

After the festival was cancelled at the last minute in November 2019, with organisers citing “uncertainty” amid ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the coronavirus kept Clockenflap off the city’s calendar until this month. 

Clockenflap co-founder Justin Sweeting. Photo: Magnetic Asia.

“From a live events perspective, it was devastating,” Sweeting said, although both he and Hill said they had remained optimistic, and kept busy. “There were a lot of things going on… but, yes, it was time to get out and do a festival again,” Hill said of the recent three-day event. 

Emerging from the pandemic, he said, “seemed an opportunity for us to really knuckle down and really do something and make a difference… by having the power of Live Nation behind us, that could only be better.”

Sweeting added: “This was the right time and the right deal precisely because we have this autonomy and precisely because we can have these assurances that we can do it the way we’ve always believed [we should] do it. And… they understand that’s the value that we bring to the table.” 

Part of that value came from retaining the existing team. “We’ve managed to keep them together,” Hill said. “It was expensive, but we did it,” he added. 

Clockenflap Festival 2023. Photo: Kitman Lee/Clockenflap.

“[Live Nation] see us as a really safe pair of hands, very capable, and they simply want to help us to grow and be stronger going forwards, but also take what we’ve created in Hong Kong and take it around the region,” Hill said. 

“We will be creating events, festivals in other cities around the region. Some will be called Clockenflap, some won’t, I can’t really say anymore,” he continued. “But more importantly, we’re focused on creating new festivals here in Hong Kong… one of which might require you to sleep under a piece of nylon.”

The Live Nation acquisition should not have any impact on the Clockenflap line-up, Sweeting said. “I think Live Nation are smart enough to understand that the DNA of the festival is based on how we book it and the identity we’ve created, and so that’s not going to change.” 

The onus on booking acts from Hong Kong and across Asia would continue, too, with Hill saying: “it somehow really came together this year… You could see that in the audience, you could see that the diversity and the response was unprecedented and so obviously that’s the future of the festival… to keep that balance.”

Cehryl at Clockenflap Festival 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

One thing that will not be happening, though, is a return to Clockenflap’s previous location – fan favourite West Kowloon. 

“I’m going to say this now, once and for all, it is impossible for Clockenflap to go back to West Kowloon,” Hill said. “There were some design choices that were made by the architects of the West Kowloon Cultural District which basically prevented us from going back, because there just isn’t the space.”

Hill said he hoped the festival could stay in Central. “I think Hong Kong needs a space like Central for it to be what it aspires to be, which is a world-class events hub. It’s got this fantastic, spectacular harbourfront,” he said. “But there’s always a reason to dig it up and build a shopping centre, right?” 

Since Clockenflap moved to Central Harbourfront, part of the site once used by the festival was sold for HK$50.8 billion to construct three commercial towers, government facilities and a reconstruction of the Star Ferry Clock Tower.

Henderson Land Development’s design proposal for Site 3 of the New Central Harbourfront. Photo: Henderson Land Development.

Despite losing ground to official buildings, Hill said “we’ve always found a way to work together [with the government].” 

“In the very beginning there was a lack of understanding of what a festival of the scale that we were aspiring to, why that was important,” he said. “So we soldiered on and showed people what it means and why it’s important and now we’re very much loved by the powers that be.” 

When asked about Live Nation’s safety record – with 200 deaths and 750 injuries linked to its events – Hill said: “We’re right on the bleeding edge of this.” 

He and Clockenflap’s executive producer, Matt Jones, studied crowd science “under a gentleman called professor Keith Still,” an expert in teaching the principles and applications of crowd safety and crowd risk analysis. “I take crowd science as a particular interest,” Hill said. 

Sweeting added: “And this isn’t a recent thing. Mike and Matt went off and did these qualifications many years pre-pandemic.” 

Clockenflap Festival 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Live Nation took “a strong interest in what expertise Mike and much of the team can bring to the wider group with that experience, and how we approach the crowd side of things,” Sweeting added. 

Hill said the challenge now was to “bring everyone else up to the same level and make sure that there are no disasters in Hong Kong or anywhere else in Asia.” But at Clockenflap, “you’re in safe hands.”

Looking ahead to December’s festival, Sweeting said “the line-up is lining up.” 

For Hill, that is when people will see what the Live Nation acquisition means for Clockenflap. 

“I think that people will judge us based on what it is that we actually do, rather than what we represent from a business ownership perspective,” he said. 

“And we’re confident – because we wouldn’t have done the deal that we did if that wasn’t the case – that we can continue to operate autonomously and do what we love doing.”

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