Live Wire: The ghost of Spring Scream future

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Fri, Apr 05, 2013 - Page 11

A few years ago, I found myself at Baku Genjin, a small music festival nestled in a primeval mountain forest a few hours north of Tokyo. It was an obscure but friendly camping festival, few even in Japan had heard of it. Some lifer expats, who had come a week early and set up camp, dated its origins back to the 70s, and, despite the occasional multi-year lapse, it has happened ever since. These aging hippies came to space out for a week, drink beer and watch their 12-year-olds run around in the grass. There were bands and a dusk-till-noon psy-trance party, but it also felt like an annual group camping trip.

Before this, I had thought Spring Scream the oldest rock festival in East Asia. Given Baku Genjin’s lapses, perhaps Spring Scream is the oldest that is also continuous. Or international. But then again, maybe there is an older reggae fest in Kyushu that the wider world has forgotten about.

Spring Scream was established in 1995, two years before Japan’s Fuji Rock and a decade before Korea saw its first repeatable summer rock festival, Pentaport (established 2006). In China, the first Midi Music Festival was held in 1997, and while it closely resembles Spring Scream for its indie spirit, it has gone dormant in times of government crackdowns. In Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, only the last few years have seen events even resembling rock festivals, mostly urban day fests.

In the late 90s, Spring Scream was seen by many international journalists as the vanguard of an Asian awakening of sex and rock ‘n’ roll — the drugs would come later. The beginnings were humble, no bigger than Baku Genjin, but they were unprecedented. In its first year, the Saturday bands all had to play again on Sunday, and, as legend has it, organizers Jimi Moe and Wade Davis told many of them as they left: “If you want to come back next year, no more Nirvana covers. Write your own songs.” At the time, Taiwan was less than a decade out of martial law, and the fact of an artistic community coming together for a weekend to play music and party was in itself revolutionary. Five years later, Spring Scream had grown from 300 fans to several thousand. Copycat events sprouted throughout the Hengchun peninsula, and the idea of “Spring Scream” as a national beachy party weekend — Taiwan’s version of Fort Lauderdale Spring Break — went mainstream. By 2001, Taiwan’s first recreational drug trend — ecstasy — was sweeping the island and the event made headlines for drug busts. (The busts were all at nearby raves, not at Spring Scream itself.) The raves died under enforcement, but a new commercially-minded music festival, Spring Wave, appeared in 2006, pitting a lineup of pop stars against Spring Scream’s indie bands. Spring Scream followed suit by erecting a gigantic main stage, which saw A-Mei (張惠妹) as the headliner in 2009. But pop music fans had little interest in Spring Scream’s core of 200 plus indie bands. The disconnect was too great, the budgets were too big, and Spring Scream went back to its indie roots, a democratic arrangement of seven or eight or nine stages of identically moderate dimensions. The festival’s scale is not far from what it was 10 or 12 years ago, around 5,000 fans and 200 bands per year. Davis and Moe say that Spring Scream is closer to its roots now than ever before. Maybe it is happier that way.

But now when I think of Spring Scream, I often see the Ghost of Spring Scream Future, and it looks like Baku Genjin. Spring Scream, now in its 19th year, has been surpassed not only in Asia, but also in Taiwan. In terms of attendance, it is perhaps Taiwan’s sixth largest regular music festival behind Formoz Festival (野台開唱) (returning this summer), Megaport Music Festival (大港開唱), Simple Life Festival (簡單生活節, a biennial festival), Ho-Hai-Yan Rock Festival (台北縣貢寮國際海洋音樂祭) and Spring Wave Music and Art Festival (墾丁春浪音樂節). There are also plenty of smaller 100-band festivals. Though none of them have the same free-and-easy spirit or the camping weekend, they do boast the same opportunity to see Taiwan’s top indie bands without the now excessive cost of traveling to Kenting on the town’s most expensive weekend of the year.

I have only missed a couple of Spring Screams since my first in 1997. I am friends with its two founders, and I will never stop rooting for the festival. I see it as the crowning achievement of Taiwan’s English teacher invasion that began in the 1990s, the most visible example of a cultural loosening that cannot be separated from thousands of young, partying Westerners spending the last 20 years teaching Taiwanese children and dating its women. To the credit of the Taiwanese, they allowed it to happen. Both China and Japan are too big to feel such an impact, and Korea is too xenophobic. Both Davis and Moe were English teachers when they started the festival, and both still teach even now.

Maybe it is because I believe in Spring Scream so much that I want it to be better. The last time I went, two years ago, the only performance schedule was on an iPhone app I couldn’t access, or else a printout in 8-point type one of the organizers had on his clipboard. Without the ability to navigate, 250 bands playing over three days is not democracy, it is cacophony. Organizational efforts seem mainly channeled into whacky ideas, like towering driftwood sculptures, or, this year, a “Skype stage” where you can watch bands playing live from Israel. Those things are fine, but I would also kind of like to be able to read bios of the 20 or 30 bands that bought their own plane tickets from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea or North America. In other words, some core competence.

This is why many Taipei bands no longer bother with Spring Scream, and the festival has retrogressed as a platform for very young bands, bands from south and central Taiwan and, of course, English teachers. One can debate the festival’s idealism — all bands must apply, no one gets paid — but if it is a promotional fiasco on top of that — no one knows that you are playing, unless you tell them yourself — it fails to create an opportunity. Now going on 20 years, Spring Scream still has the chance to be more than an expensive camping trip with rock ‘n’ roll.