Co-founder of Clockenflap and Marco Polo Club member
HONG KONG STATE OF MIND: JUSTIN SWEETING
Marco Polo Club Member
Discover hidden secrets of our home city through the eyes of native creative entrepreneur – Justin Sweeting, Co-Founder and Music Director of Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s leading international outdoor music and arts festival.
Clockenflap has played an undeniable role in evolving the city’s music scene since its launch 2008. Last year, the event spanned three days, welcomed over 60,000 visitors and hosted top talent including New Order, A$AP Rocky, Damien Rice and Nile Rogers alongside leading local bands.
Check out what Justin has to say about the unique role Hong Kong has played in the evolution of Clockenflap, where he finds inspiration in the city, and how travelling the globe has influenced his work in the music industry.
CATHAY PACIFIC: Let’s start at the beginning. What led you to create Clockenflap, and what was your vision for Hong Kong’s music scene?
JUSTIN: From the beginning, we just felt that Clockenflap needed to happen.
It was initially a challenge to get people to understand that art and music have a value and you should pay a fair price for that. We had to shift the behaviour of people going to see specific shows by bands they know only on the weekends, to buying tickets to a three-day festival where they would see shows they might not necessarily have heard of before. We had to build trust with our audience that the Clockenflap brand would deliver a great experience.
Ultimately, we felt Hong Kong deserved an event of the nature and scale of Clockenflap. No one else was doing it, so we thought we should.
CATHAY PACIFIC: You grew up in Hong Kong but we know you spent some time studying and working in the UK’s music industry. What made you decide to return and build your music career here in Hong Kong?
JUSTIN: Hong Kong is home. I was born and raised here so I think on a basic human level I wanted to make some kind of a positive difference in the community, even in a small way.
But you know, there are opportunities that exist here that don’t exist elsewhere. Because we’re at a very early stage in the development of Hong Kong’s music scene, there’s a lot of potential to do things differently. We’re not bound by the rules or structures of a very mature market and that’s exciting because it means we can revel in the grey areas and forge our own path. It’s always more fun to be at the start of the curve than the end of it.
CATHAY PACIFIC: What do you think is unique about running a music business in Hong Kong? Being one of the first in that space you’re probably having to figure it out for the first time rather than learning from others.
JUSTIN: We’re constantly trailblazing. I think that wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, there will always be challenges. In Hong Kong, the challenges surround doing things for the first time. As there wasn’t a process in place when we started doing Clockenflap, we had to define the context of what an outdoor event of our scale and nature would mean.
CATHAY PACIFIC: In Hong Kong, sometimes we hear people complain about a lack of creative culture. Clearly, Clockenflap is one of many examples that prove this thinking wrong. What has most surprised you about Hong Kong’s response to the event, and to the evolution of the music scene?
JUSTIN: At the start, everyone told us we were crazy, that something like this could never work in Hong Kong. But our company is made of up the type of people who prefer to do something rather than complain about the challenges. I think that’s a very Hong Kong trait: that “can-do” spirit, that grit and determination, that fluidity of thought that comes from operating in a place as connected as this, Hong Kong is a great city as it will give you a chance.
You have the opportunity to make things happen and if you can actually do what you say you’re going to do, and you’re willing to put the effort into doing it, the city can be very kind to you.
CATHAY PACIFIC: You have set up your office in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong island. Why did you decide on this neighbourhood?
JUSTIN: Our company has been based in Sheung Wan since we started. In the early days, we loved it because it was an area with a lot of character. We really loved the old Hong Kong, very local touches.
When we outgrew our first office and needed to move, we made a conscious choice to stay in Sheung Wan, not only because we’d grown to love the area, but also because a lot of us who work in the company live on outlying islands, so being based somewhere that was within walking distance from ferry piers was ideal. We have very blessed lives in the sense that we can live further away where there’s more space, peace and greenery, but can easily connect back to the city.
There’s a special perspective you get when you’re coming in by sea, when you’re approaching the harbour, where the city feels so inviting. It’s great having those built-in moments in your daily life to be present and reconnect.
CATHAY PACIFIC: Where else do you find inspiration in Hong Kong? What is it about this city that keeps you here?
JUSTIN: I’m a walker. Hong Kong is such a great walking city, so much more so than most realise. When I’m looking to clear my head and get of out the office, I go on walks around Sheung Wan. As a kid, my dad worked at Hong Kong University so I grew up on a campus. I have this walk I love, where I loop from Sheung Wan through Sai Ying Pun and Sai Wan.
Every time I walk I’ll see something that I don’t expect and that’s what’s so cool about exploring Hong Kong by foot. I walk all across the city. All these new, seemingly random scenes happening all around you, it’s really cool.
CATHAY PACIFIC: We’re interested to hear your perspective on Hong Kong’s local music scene. You grew up in the city and have been involved in the music scene since you were a teenager. What places would you recommend to check out for people looking to discover Hong Kong’s local music scene?
JUSTIN: Places like Kwun Tong have for many years housed rehearsal spaces and venues, though unfortunately many practice spaces have had to move on to other areas now like Kwai Hing and Tsuen Wan. Venues are always an issue in Hong Kong due to space and licensing challenges.
We’ve hosted a few gigs via YourMum (a subsidiary of Clockenflap which hosts music events throughout the year in Hong Kong) at MacPherson Stadium in Mongkok. That space is amazing.
CATHAY PACIFIC: For someone who’s never been to Hong Kong, which local bands would you recommend checking out?
JUSTIN: When I was a kid, it was 90% metal or very hard rock bands that would make up the local scene and that has really changed. It’s been really positive to see a proliferation in the spectrum of artists there are now. My Little Airport continue to do new things and keep going to the next level which is really exciting. There are more artists pushing their boundaries like the band GDJYB and electronic artist Choi Sai Ho.
There’s a purity and sincerity with local bands in Hong Kong because it’s so hard to make a living creating music here. You have to do it for passion – there is no compromising because that compromising won’t get you anywhere. I think that makes for artists who create the kind of music they want to create, and that’s something quite special.
CATHAY PACIFIC: Looking beyond Hong Kong… in your business you travel a great deal to other music festivals and conferences around the globe. Tell us a bit more about your travel life.
JUSTIN: Traveling is something I’ve always loved about what I do – I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel frequently for music festivals and conferences. In terms of long-haul, I go to the UK two or three times a year, to the States once or twice a year, Australia maybe once or twice, then somewhere in Europe like Holland and Iceland. Then there’s a lot of travel that’s more regionally based; Singapore three or four times a year, and places like Malaysia, Korea and Japan a couple times a year.
Even now, I still get a real kind of giddy, childlike glee about flying. It’s totally mind-blowing.
Also, you may laugh, but I do still travel with an iPod. It’s great. It has everything I want to listen to and it allows me to get to that uninterrupted space you find when you travel, when you want to zone out and catch up on life. I use that time for writing, ready and with work.
Beyond the travel time itself, the perspective and inspiration from being in other places really helps what I do. It also gives really interesting context and insight about home. I think Hong Kong is a really great place to live, but sometimes it’s also important to leave it so you can approach it again with fresh eyes and appreciate what’s so wonderful about this city.
CATHAY PACIFIC: Do you have any particular travel rituals or ‘must dos’ every time you travel?
JUSTIN: I know it’s cheesy but I do try to see the more authentic, local sides of the cities I travel to. I make an effort to stay in AirBNBs and eat, drink and play in local spots. I’m fortunate that because of what I do, when I travel I’m often connected to collections of people who are very switched on locally. They are a great way to be introduced to a city, and they give you all the best things – from the grimy underbelly to the great touristy stuff.
My favourite music experiences anywhere, and this is even when compared to London and New York, have actually been in Manila. That comes down to being very locally connected with people who have provided an incredible introduction to the thriving local music scene there.
CATHAY PACIFIC: Clockenflap is coming up very soon at the end of November, what does Hong Kong have to look forward to next?
JUSTIN: Clockenflap never actually finishes, we’re already planning next year’s one. The team goes into a little bit of hibernation mode after the festival, but we have a new festival, Sónar, starting in April 2017. The event originated in Barcelona, and we’re excited to be partnering with them to create a very unique experience in Hong Kong – definitely something to look forward to.