Clockenflap 2017: Mike Hill and the Business of Culture

Massive AttackChochukmo

There were times when it seemed like Clockenflap had everything going against it. Its early editions in Cyberport were beset by noise complaints. Its 2010 edition was limited to a warehouse party in Aberdeen. And when it finally moved to the West Kowloon waterfront in 2011, with perfect weather, a lunar eclipse and stars like Santigold and Bombay Bicycle Club, the government said it couldn’t charge for admission because it was being held in a public park.

And yet the festival persevered. This year it celebrates its 10th edition with an international lineup that includes Massive Attack, The Prodigy and Feist, alongside local favourites Chochukmo and New Youth Barbershop. All told, more than 100 acts will play on the Central harbourfront over three days from November 17 to 19, 2017. And none of it could happen without Mike Hill.

Over the past three years, we’ve profiled each of Clockenflap’s three founders. First was music programmer Justin Sweeting, one of the best connected people in Hong Kong’s indie music scene. Next came Jay Forster, responsible for the the festival’s arts content, and the man behind Clockenflap’s eccentric look and feel. Now comes the entrepreneurial genius: Mike Hill, who transformed a fledgling one-day music festival into a tech-based events company.

“My approach was very much an engineering style approach,” says Hill. 

Born in the UK, he moved to Hong Kong in 1997. Though Hill worked for a variety of tech companies, music was always an interest for him; he hosted Robot parties with his Forster, and he even flew back to England to attend the Glastonbury festival. When he and Forster met Sweeting at Rockit, a festival that took place in Victoria Park from 2003 to 2006, they ended up hatching a plan to launch a small festival of their own in 2008.

Sweeting worked on booking musical acts while Forster and Hill set out planning the festival’s logistics. “It was an interesting dynamic. We had a bit of friction – [Jay] is creative, I’m logical. We were a bit of a two-headed hydra but it worked very well. We had a very similar outlook from a values perspective.”

Hill says the tipping point came in 2011, when they realised they really could stage a major international music festival – and there was enough interest in Hong Kong to sustain it. “We’re not the first [music festival], but they were done very differently,” he says. “We wanted to be an international calibre festival, which put a lot of stress on the industry in terms of what was available.”

That posed a few challenges. Few production managers in Hong Kong had experience running a festival with multiple stages playing music at the same time. And then there was conveying the idea of what Clockenflap was all about. “It’s a complicated beast,” says Hill. “You’re not just selling the artists, you’re selling the emotion, the lifestyle.”

Hill and his colleagues had to build everything from scratch. “It’s because of our control freakiness and geekiness that we decided we had to do it all ourselves,
he says. Clockenflap created its own internal marketing agency to track data from festival-goers. It launched its own cash-free RFID payment system to handle food and drink sales. When Hill took a look at existing local ticketing platforms, saw their clunky websites and emphasis on paper tickets, he decided Clockenflap would need to create its own platform. “We wanted the entire experience of purchasing and fulfillment to be online, and to be local,” he says.

That led to Ticketflap, Hong Kong’s first all-digital ticketing agency, which Hill says now accounts for up to 30 percent of business for Clockenflap’s parent company, Magnetic Asia. Thanks to its experience with Clockenflap, the company now offers event production, artist booking, ticketing and marketing services to other local organisations like the Jockey Club, Hong Kong Rugby Union and the annual AIA Carnival.

And it all happened with minimal support from the government. Maybe it was the legacy of Harbourfest, a government-sponsored music festival in 2003 that was marred by poor attendance and large cost overruns. Or maybe it was the perception that Clockenflap was a festival for expats, not locals. (Hill points out that about 50 percent of festival-goers are Hong Kong Chinese, 40 percent are expats and 10 percent are international visitors.) Whatever the reason, the event was met by official indifference.

“We just kind of kept away from the government,” says Hill, although he does credit the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority for being supportive after it took over the West Kowloon waterfront in 2012, which gave Clockenflap more freedom in how it used the space. Eventually, when the festival became a proven success, agencies like the Tourism Board and InvestHK became more interested. “[Before], there was almost like a doctrine that culture isn’t commercial,” says Hill. “Now that has changed.”

That means more music for Hongkongers – and more work for Hill. When the ticket gates open at this year’s Clockenflap, expect to find him running around making sure everything works. He remembers being blown away when New Order closed out the festival in 2015, but he also had to worry about the festival’s strict government-mandated curfew at 11pm.

“I stood there watching ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and I’m petrified about running over,” he says. “[The song] finished on the dot at 11 o’clock.” He pauses for emphasis. “And then they started playing ‘Blue Monday.’ It’s an incredible track, a massive inspiration. But I’m literally looking at my watch and thinking, ‘Will you fucking hurry up?’” He laughs. It’s the kind of thing Hill worries about so everyone else at the festival doesn’t have to.

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