An in-depth interview with Rahul Kukreja of Rockaway

We sat down for a chat with Rahul Kukreja, Director of Live Events in Livescape Asia right after he regretfully announced the premature demise of the 4 year old Rockaway festival that was his baby. One of Livescape’s key activators, Rahul has been actively involved in big scale events, including Future Music Asia, the largest music festival in Southeast Asia. Having recently decided to take a break from doing shows, presumably after the Jakim vs Lamb Of God fiasco, we ask him about the experience he’s had, and pick his brain a little as he shares his knowledge in pulling off the huge, big name shows he’s done.

Do you remember the first show you played? who organized it?

Yeah actually. It was the HELP (University College) show.

How was that show like? Especially one of that scale – a student initiative. Do you remember the experience? Playing your first show, innocent of the things you’re supposedly entitled to as the performer and of the expectations of how the organizers ought to be treating you.

It was actually quite fun! You know, it’s your first show. You’re nervous, you don’t want to mess up, and then you mess up. You know, all those things.

As a musician, when did you first realize that the organizer has that role of making sure performers are comfortable and well taken care of?

In Singapore. In Baybeats, actually. I think Baybeats never used to pay their artists a lot of money, just a couple of hundred bucks as token fee. I think that year we were lucky because they (Baybeats organizers) actually covered accommodation and all of that because we were headlining one of the stages. Singfest and huge promoters like Midas used to really take care of us too and we did a few shows with them like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and all those bands.

Singfest is also where you got to meet a lot of international acts. Is it safe to say that that was where you first established a network with international artistes?

Actually it was Fall Out Boy. It was the first international show that One Buck Short supported and opened for and we made friends with them. In a way I still talk to the guys occasionally. From then on it was always like “Hey, why don’t you guys come back to Malaysia” But I hadn’t really worked on bands yet at that point. I was doing a lot of DJs and booking them in clubs. Doing a lot of those kinds of stuffs, booking DJs from all over the region.

Was that your entry point into entertainment bookings?

Yeah, and then I worked with a booking agency that was actually based in Austin, Texas. I was running around doing the Southeast Asian bookings for them. Then we worked on acts like Akon when he first came down, and a lot of those urban acts. I booked Flo Rida for one of the first few Hennessy Artistry shows.

A lot of kids are familiar with organizing their own gigs, booking venues and doing shows really isn’t such a foreign thing in the scene, is it? but you’re experience is really on a larger scale. Let’s pick your brain a little in that regard. When was the first show that you organized?

I think it was probably smaller gigs. That was the time before we (One Buck Short) even released Halal And Loving It. We had the EP, Where Is The Mouse?! And it was quite a transitional period for us where we didn’t really have a label, we didn’t know what was going on, and we were just doing a lot of gigs. I remember at that point we were doing three gigs a week or maybe even more, playing in a lot of different states. And many of these gigs we organized ourselves. A lot of kids used to come for those. Once we released the album we started doing bigger shows. A lot of international shows and tours around the region. We were playing in China, Australia, all those countries. And that album actually did pretty well. That’s when the sponsors came in and wanted to use our songs for advertisements and stuff. And I remember them saying, “Oh we’ve got this roadshow where you guys can play in a mall”, so I said why don’t you guys just give us the money and we’ll do a rock show where we’ll call all of our friends to play too. So I thought about it for a while and I came up with the name “Rockaway” and invited friends to join the bill. I think we lost quite a bit of money doing it, but all the bands did receive a token fee and we managed to get everybody together. We got close to 15,000 people at the first Rockaway. That was the first big one that we did which was in 2009. We didn’t even expect that kind of crowd to come.

And you brought this with you when you joined Livescape, and it became a franchise that you grew together with them.

Yeah, that has been mine and One Buck Short’s for a while. I’ve been with Livescape for about three years plus now. In 2009 we did the first Rockaway and in 2010 I was doing a lot of my own stuff, a lot of One Buck Short things. I remember Iqbal (Ameer) had already started Livescape then and he was also running his ice cream truck business. Then Adam (Matthews) came and saw me. He’d just left Zouk as a marketing director and he was booking a lot of DJs and he needed some help running his shows so I helped him out. Then Iqbal came and saw me separately telling me that they(Livescape) were doing parties and all that, but what I was mainly thinking about was to do some shows with international acts. The first show I did with them was the Neon Trees tour in KL and Bali.

So it was with the knowledge that you’ve experience booking international acts like Akon and all that, they asked you to join Livescape?

Before I joined Livescape I worked with a lot of other promoters like LAMC Productions. I worked with them on a few shows like their Big Night Out shows. I was just freelancing. I worked on the first Laneway and I worked on some shows with some Hong Kong promoters – we did Kula Shaker, we did a whole tour with them around South East Asia and Hong Kong. Then I worked with LAMC on Big Night Out with Slash and Stone Temple Pilots. After the (Neon Trees) tour, I don’t think Livescape actually made any profit from it, but they were pretty adamant on growing it. Iqbal was really keen to get this going. I wasn’t too keen really because I had always worked on my own. Then Adam came and saw me and we had a sit down. Everybody was trying to do things individually before then, but that was the point when we came together. I really wanted to push Rockaway and I told Iqbal and Adam, “If you guys think that we can do it, then yeah I’ll come in and we’ll get something going.” So yeah, we took a break for 2010 but in 2011 we did Rockaway. We had The Used, Story Of The Year, etc.

Were the outcome of the Rockaway gigs you’ve done actually enough for you to be doing the next one? And did it also convince your partners who were mainly doing parties before you came in with Rockaway?

Yeah, Iqbal studied in Melbourne so he was doing a lot of parties and stuff there. They got a lot of cool, niche parties and that’s what’s Livescape also does – the Fred Perry parties, house parties and that kind of stuff. But yeah, we actually did alright with Rockaway. It went well, what we did at the car park in Bukit Jalil. That Rockaway, the one before, and a lot of the smaller shows like Dashboard Confessional and Sum 41, a lot of those shows didn’t even have any sponsorship, and many of them hadn’t actually made a lot of money neither. But some did. Some would, some wouldn’t. Last year we did it in Sepang with Soulfly on the bill, adding some metal to it. We managed about 7,000 people, but we really needed like 12,000 people.

How do you juggle that then in an economic sense? And still maintain that drive to want to do rock shows?

Well, it’s the same for any other festival. There’s always a 3-5 year period before you even see a break-even point. It’s the same with Future Music Festival Asia, which is the biggest music festival in Southeast Asia. But then again, you need to do shows to be able to get other shows. It’s just the cycle. You can’t just do one and say, “Okay, I’ll wait till I get Coldplay”. It’s never going to happen. You have to have a history of shows that you promote, you have to accept the reality that some shows are going to lose money and some shows are going to make you money. It’s a balancing act, at the end of the day, and you’ve got to know what you are getting yourself into. You also need strong investors, and they need to believe in what the brand is. They need to understand that we could lose like 2 million dollars but hey, maybe the next show we will make 3 million dollars.

I guess that brings us to talking about the relationships you need to establish in producing shows. You’ve had to deal with and maintain relationships with the various people involved in making a show possible. The agencies, the sponsors, and all these different sorts of parties involved, even the authorities. Lets go through it one by one.

Firstly, how did you get connected to these international booking agencies?

Actually, with the bands that we play with. Whether it’s My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy or whoever it could be, we’ve always kept in touch with the band. I used to take my own initiative to go to L.A or London to meet the guys and explain what I do. The two main offices are London and L.A, where the five or six main companies who book literally all the acts are. I meet up with them every year, sit down with them and say this is what we want to do and these are our plans. I go every year to maintain our relationship.

Tell us about maintaining the relationship.

You know, one agent could have a brand new band that he just signed who’s doing really well in Europe or North America but has zero presence in Asia or Australia. But say that same guy also has Foo Fighters on his roster. You really want to do a Foo Fighters show and you’re likely want to have little interest in organizing a show for the other band. But if you help these guys out and do a small little tour for the band, you’d be building your relationship with them. That guy would be like “Hey man, that time when nobody wanted to book my act Rahul actually brought the band out and sorted out good shows for them in Malaysia.” That isn’t really what’s going to happen, but I’m just giving you an example.

Yeah, it’s a matter of building trust and whatnot. Im assuming then, the whole Lamb Of God debacle would’ve effected your relationship with their booking agent quite tremendously?

Yeah. Lamb Of God is with an agency group who we work with very closely. We book a lot of acts from them in a year. But yeah, I don’t really talk to the agent right now (laughs). It’s always been a very kind of tricky relationship and the Lamb Of God show was something that we were partnering up with LAMC and Rockstar Touring, the guys who did the Metallica show in KL, so it really was very tricky. I can’t really go into details but now everything is kind of settled with the band and us but they did find it really hard to believe what was going on. Because of what happened with Lamb Of God in Prague, when all of this started to get out of control, I said we could fight it but the band didn’t want to take the risk. The manager called me up and said “You should’ve known.” Actually, I couldn’t have known. Anticipating what authorities may oppose is impossible here. It could really be anything.

Interview with Rahul Kukreja of Livescape Asia

You seem to have been quite subdued by this occurrence. In the context of Malaysia’s unique set of challenges, what’s it like dealing with all of this?

You know to be honest this is the first time this has happened, and I really did not expect it to happen. Initially when all these articles were coming out I thought it was a joke and I just kind of laughed it off. I was away in Jakarta and Bali for that whole week and a half when it just went out of control. With Livescape we’ve always done things the right way, as in, we always apply for all the necessary permits. With Lamb Of God, permits were already approved. PUSPAL were very, very helpful. They had no issues with the band but they did say that there were certain bodies that had started opposing, and when there is objection, they needed to listen to them. I don’t blame PUSPAL, and nor do I want to argue the case. The band themselves had already opted out. What else is there to do? Even though we lost money, we couldn’t take the risk by carrying on. The process is that when we confirm an act, we’ll receive their passport details and stuff. If it’s a sensitive type of artist or band we will send it in for pre-approval and stuff. Malaysia is alright, you know. But I guess, it’s just luck, isn’t it?

What about sponsors? Perhaps for the sake of some of the aspiring promoters and organizers out there, you could shed some light on that.

It’s a little bit tricky because a lot of the sponsors that have supported Rockaway have been the same guys from the tobacco and alcohol industry, which then means we have to make a ruling that firstly, the venue has to allow alcohol and tobacco partners to come in. Secondly, it has to be 18 and above. So that’s also why I think it affected us quite a bit last year when Rockaway dan an 18 and above restriction and we lost a lot of the kids who really wanted to go. So finding this balance is hard. Many of the major telcos we’ve tried proposing to we’ve had no luck with, especially for Rockaway. We work very closely with them on other shows. If there are no partners or sponsors willing to come in to keep the movement going, it’s hard to put it together.

As for words of advice, I think they kind of have to capture what their niche is. With Rockaway we have a brand and a community. We’ll still be very active online, like on facebook. We might support other rock shows that other promoters do because we have a good 32,000 people on facebook who are actively engaging with us. I can post something and it will get hundreds of replies. Same with twitter, they talk with us very closely. So we want to keep that strong. So I think for newer promoters its about building their brand, scene, and identity.

Any memorable experiences with artists that make your day all worth it in the end?

Yeah! Well, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional definitely. He came out alone with his manager, I think there were three of them. It was at KL Live and the show was selling well and it was just him. Everybody knew it was an acoustic thing but I was thinking how are people going to “layan” this guy with just his guitar? So we made KL Live kind of look like a bedroom in a way with all the drapes and stuff. People were crying in the crowd! We kind of grew up to this guy. Just before he got done and before he went out for an encore, he ran up to me and gave me a hug and said “Dude! Thank you so much for bringing me here, it’s the best crowd ever! How are they singing along to every word?”. I told him we were waiting for him for a long time and this guy was so emotional and couldn’t believe he has never been here before. He went back up, did about four songs and he was so happy. We ended up going for dinner and taking him out for drinks. He’s a good friend now! Actually when he found out about the whole Rockaway thing he sent me an email hoping everything was cool. He’s actually coming to Asia in December. I don’t know where he’s playing, but he’s going to be in the region in December. A lot of them actually keep in touch, like the guys from The Used and Circa Survive as well. It’s good that they’re like family. The sad thing is I’ve been getting a lot of good bands that now want to come and play Rockaway.

Rockaway was just about brew and getting the attention wasn’t it? Oh well. You’ve expressed an intent to sort of take a break, a breather. You have your music to go back to, that must’ve gave you an edge as a promoter eh, coming from a musician’s background yourself.

I think I tell everybody that as well. They’re like, why do you want this? I know what they go through. I’ve played shows, and I’ve sometimes been treated badly. I just do what I want people to treat me like, that’s it.

Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you make money or not. When the artist is happy, the crowd is having fun and there’s a good amount of people that come – you’re sort of satisfied.

Yeah, you are satisfied. But then again, the investors might not really agree with that line (laughs). But a good show leads to good things. I’ll just put it that way. In a business sense, we have to make money because we have staff working for us. We have overheads to pay. There is a community of fans here in Malaysia. It seems to be big enough. But I just don’t know whether sometimes they want to fork out the money. We noticed especially in the last year that ticket sales have dipped quite a bit, and not just for our shows. Just like The Killers, you would’ve expected a lot more people. They played an amazing show. All of the live stuff have just dipped quite a bit in terms of sales. But having said that, it’s not just Malaysia, but a global thing even.

Well, you’ll be tending back to your music now then huh. One Buck Short! It’s been a long, quiet run for the band and I guess that has to have been on your mind for a while now, has it? While producing all these shows, I’m sure you’ve had OBS in the back of your mind?

Yeah! We’ve hardly played any shows. Well, we did Sum 41 which was good but we haven’t played a show in a year. It’s been really quiet. But we’ve got a few demos and now that Rockaway is going to take a backseat for a bit, we’re going to start working on some new stuff. It’s kind of sad because I wanted to release something this year because this year is our 10th anniversary. I think we’re going to try and put a single out soon. I don’t know when but we’re going to do one or two gigs by the end of the year and just organize something, maybe as a Rockaway farewell kind of thing or something like that. I hope to announce that on the last (Rockaway) show on the 17th.

Catch Rockaway’s final showcase featuring Bring Me The Horizon and Enter Shikari that is happening on the 17th of October 2013. More info here

Interviewed by Azam Hisham
Transcribed by Hazlinda Elina
Photo by Aqqashah Abdul Rahim