Ultra Korea, Korea’s Largest Music Festival, Attracting 180,000 People
Ultra Korea has once again smashed previous records. What is behind this?
Words : Daehwa Lee
180,000 people. You don’t see individual faces anymore, it’s more like a sea of shades of skin. On the rainy second day, the indoor main entrance was so packed that we were shifting our feet at the meagre speed of 1m/s. Shoulders bumping into shoulders. A friend looking for something to drink was lost in the sea of people for half an hour.
When Ultra Korea started in 2012, most people in the industry predicted it would fizzle out soon, thinking the Korean EDM fanbase was too small to sell all the tickets. It is true that EDM is not mainstream yet in Korea, but after Ultra Korea gained traction and rumours spread, the festival grew to rightfully claim its place amongst other established festivals.
What was behind this success? Largely three reasons. First, the line-up was top-notch on a global scale. Korean audiences want to see the hottest global artists at their doorstep. Ultra Korea was swift and smart on catching that trend. This year’s line-up was of The Chainsmokers, Axwell Λ Ingrosso, David Guetta—the majority of headliners during Ultra Miami. Second, the festival grounds were so accessible. Ultra Korea is held at Olympic stadium at the heart of Seoul, where most EDM fans live. The world’s finest line-up of EDM artists less than an hour away by metro. Third, the brand power of being the first mover. Although swimming through uncharted waters can be risky, Ultra Korea was successful in positioning itself as a trend setter, not a follower, differentiating itself from other festivals.
The Chainsmokers, Signalling a Change of Scene
It rained during the second day. Humidity and heat rising from the ground. But as soon as The Chainsmokers got on stage, the rain suddenly stopped. How refreshing it was to take off a sweaty clinging raincoat as the evening wind picked up, changing the mood immediately. Heaven’s best warm-up ever. The gods were smiling on The Chainsmokers.
The fact that the band was chosen as the headliner for the second day shows the change of winds in the festival scene. The Chainsmokers had earned their spot as headliners in a distant country like Korea, because of ‘Closer.’ ‘Closer’ had dominated the Billboard charts for 12 weeks straight. The time of pop EDM had come; electro house and big room’s gone. A few years ago, great producing put you on the map; now that was not enough—you had to have a Billboard hit. The Chainsmokers had been the headliner on the second day at Ultra Miami. Miami rode the changing tides quickly and Korea was no exception.
The Chainsmoker’s set list was heavily on bass music. Whenever the bass drop would rip the speakers, the audience went crazy. As hit songs were performed, a sea of neon blue electronic screens would follow. Social media was flooded with pictures and videos with related hashtags. Free condoms given out at the booths were blown into balloons, floating around the floor. This fun mess was recorded from all angles. Considering not all videos were not using the official hashtag #ultrakorea as Voice of Dance Music had repeatedly requested, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
What made Chainsmokers stand out was their perfect blend of live performance and DJing. Alex mixing at the booth, more like massive steps toward the alter of music; Andrew climbing them and jumping up and down at the top, singing with the audience. It is a massive advantage for a DJ duo to have strong vocals, because a DJ party can smoothly transit into a live performance and back-and-forth anytime. Screams were loudest when Andrew was standing at the top of the alter. Chants loudest when familiar hit songs were heard. ‘Everybody Hates Me’ was followed by ‘Paris’ and ‘Closer’. The audience sang along, screaming their hearts out when their favourites were played. The loudest segments were lyrics ‘say you’ll never let me go’ in ‘Roses’ and ‘I, I, I, I, I can’t stop’ in ‘Closer’.
The Chainsmoker’s stage showed how powerful DJing and live performances together can be. More bands with this combination are emerging in response. Raiden supported Sebastian Ingrosso’s ‘Reload’ with his improv guitar. Raiden has never let go of his guitar ever since middle school and loves rock as much as house music. As ‘Reload’ faded out, Muse’s ‘Knights of Cydonia’ started with the drummer joining their ranks. Though AR was played in the background, the hard rock performance was not only fresh amongst the long string of EDM songs, but genuinely enjoyable even by hardcore EDM fans. This was definitely one of the highlights of the second day, even if the stadium was not packed yet.
ZHU’s Positive Reviews
This year’s live stage functioned as a chill-out zone, too. Once passing the entrance tunnel, several types of audiences could be seen: jumping up and down, half-lying on the grass. The stage was a place of music and a cool space to chill and hang out with friends. Food trucks surrounded the football stadium-sized arena, and people were having picnics in circles. Only the mainstage had restrictions—a standing area—but the general live stage was pretty lay-back.
ZHU had stated in an interview with Billboard, “Environment is key. That’s half of what makes a great show.” Rightly so, his smooth but danceable music was perfect for such atmosphere and chill vibes. People were jumping, standing, sitting, lying and doing whether they felt like. The audience being open to a more tranquil softer beat was another factor for the warm reception.
ZHU, as always, stepped onto the stage with a guitarist and a saxophonist. The dark silhouettes faded into the stage fog, as psychedelic noir music seeped through out the stage. The famous ‘Z’ shaped stage lit up into a piercing neon blue. The whole stage frozen in a mystical time or space. The stage, even called the fourth member, goes everywhere with the band. The audience, with beer in one hand, seem to be sinking into the slower tone of the saxophone after the previous band’s hype and high energy. ‘Faded,’ ‘Working For It’ and all the other hit songs were played for the fans. Linkin Park’s ‘Faint’ was sneaked in for a delightful surprise. ZHU is a master in tightening and laxing strings of the stage, constantly shifting the mood from a concert to a chill party.
This was ZHU’s first time to Korea. Though questions were raised whether his music would be well-received in Korea, where big room and pop EDM is dominant, those speculations were silenced quickly. Just looking at the social media space, ZHU’s exposure was enough to mistake him as the day’s mainstage headliner. Audiences were thirsty for live performances than DJing, deep vibe than EDM. Ultra Korea, 7 years and counting, was evolving, as the US and European scene had.
Mind-blowing Visuals Supported by Massive Equipment
Only after 8 pm as the sun set, did the main stage lights and display show its full scale and just in time, as Zedd came up on the stage.
It is impressive to see the massive main stadium filled with pillars of light; What is more striking is the visual effects of production stage that shift and swerve on the beat. Music is visualized onto the screen and through the lighting. For example, the breakdown in ‘Spectrum’ was highlighted by laser beams sifting through the pitch-black stage in slow motion. At the build-up, white noise at its peak, the stage was vibrating in white light. Shivers sent down the spine. Tears build up. You could tell when the build-up and break-down were by just the visuals and no sound.
Total Korea’s Jinguen Choi, lighting director, stated that 400 moving lights were used for Ultra Korea, adding that most large theatres have 70 to 80. More lights in huge volumes is the trend as EDM is catching on, but Ultra Korea is exceptional. The main stage LED screen consisted 2000 panels. Yonghoon Song from Good Media said large music festivals and famous artists usually utilize around 1000 panels.
Of course, size does not guarantee impact. “The best equipment can only come to life with great vision. Even with the same set, each stage transforms entirely according to the designer’s directions—some masterpieces, others tolerable.” states Choi.
Most of this year’s headliners brought their own visual teams. Sometimes, even full teams of lighting, lasers and VJs. Zedd’s majestic performance of light and music of perfect unity was only possible due to the close collaboration of the visual team and the artist. The impact of the visual production depends on how much the organizers invest in equipment and how well the hardware is utilized. Ultra Korea 2018 was the best, in both hardware and stage production.
EDM stage production is different from other genres, including rock. First, transitions happen on the beat. Song mentions, “the switch controllers for EDM and rock festivals are different. EDM VJs have a harder task at hand, considering they have to switch the settings impromptu as the music flows—no list of directions. Kudos to them.” Jinguen Choi, in charge of lighting at Jisan Valley and Pentaport, also gave his ten cents about the difference. “In rock, the artist’s performance is captivating enough on its own; for EDM, the visuals are much more important, considering there is little live performance or strong vocals. For rock festivals, the mega display zooms-up on the artist’s face; for EDM festivals, neon colour patterns and images are painted on the screen.”
Another must-see is the fire effects. Ultra Korea is famous for fire effects that cover the ring of the main stadium’s ceiling. This year, the stadium’s ring was wrapped around twice in flames. This effect was way more expensive than what had been expected by us. But as a signature stroke of Ultra Korea, it was now a must and the organizers had prepared for it most thoroughly. Photographers communicated with walky-talkies to catch the exact moment. When the dome was lit with the brightest shower of flames, David Guetta was playing ‘One More Time’ of Daft Punk. Though THE David Guetta, during that moment, even he made sure that the main spectacle was the fire effects. Everyone looked towards the sky; you could hear gasps and screams all around as the fire lit up. The visuals so stunning, even those frantically looking for the toilet would stop to marvel. Wisps of smoke and gunpowder tingling the tips of our noses. This was definitely the highlight during Ultra Korea 2018.
Q. Do you usually like parties?
A. “Yeah, I mean, definitely when is a good party, I’m really happy about it. I think my philosophy though for doing parties might be different. Because I didn’t started out as a DJ. I started out making records in studio and stuffs, so my connection with DJing and parties is never to be the scene of attention of being the party starter, to be Mr. Party man. My intention of becoming a DJ was more about the art of playing music, being able to play my own music. So it just all happens that places to be able to play my own music are clubs and parties.”
Q. What do you consider as the most important thing when you’re djing?
A. “There has to be a connection with the people. That does not happen all the time, but it’s down to how I feel about the event, and then what the people know about me because there’s many cases where people who might know the name, but they might not know the music. People that are hearing me for the first time, they don’t know what to expect. So, like if I’m playing at some places that’s just EDM festival, then in most cases, I know what to expect, but I’m not gonna play what people think should be played at EDM festival. I am gonna play to covert people into techno fans.”
Q. What do you usually do when you come back to Detroit after tour?
A. “Well, because I’m in Europe or Asia so much part of the time, of course recovery, you know, so just try to feel a bit better and get some sleep. For the most part what I really anticipate doing is going into my studio and just watching so just you know just getting used to be in there again, making sure other equipment is working and everything is syncing correctly. Then I can start to concentrate but I do a lot of research and development, so I sit around and try to find the perfect kick drum that takes like fucking years, haha.”
Q. You’re well-known to have played long sets. What’s the pleasure of playing long sets?
A. “Few months ago I played 13 hours. and I love doing that, what’s because it allows me to play all the music that I love. And build it and tell my story. It’s like building house, you start, you know with the bass, and then you just build, build, build, build… and you come up with something new each time and I love it.”
Q. Do you have any funny story to tell us regarding these long-set plays?
A. “The funniest stories… Well, people ask me “you don’t go to the toilet? We never see you go to the toilet” and I don’t cause I forget, I’m like so taken, maybe once I did but not….”
Q. but you usually don’t drink while..
A. “I don’t drink alcohol when I’m playing, never. I only drink water, take lots of vitamin and I get high on the music, I don’t need anything else.”
Q. Which aspect of the Techno music attracted you? Why do you like Techno?
A. “Well, it’s not just techno, it’s house, all the way to techno and anything between. I like music, I live it, I breathe it. Anything that’s percussive, groovy, anything that’s from the waist to below that makes you dance like this is my kind of music. None of those ‘hands in the air, nah nah nah’ EDM shit! None of that. It’s more groove, it’s more like… “hit me in the ass baby!” hehehe it’s that.”
October 10th, 2018