Seven years in the making: a deep dive into Djakarta Warehouse Project’s history and Indonesia’s thriving electronic music scene
Believe it or not, Indonesia’s value as a prominent Southeast Asian nation lies in much more than the volcanoes, tropical rainforests, or Bali’s iconic beaches that attract tourists from across the globe. A short history lesson for readers: Indonesia is a gargantuan archipelago of around 17,500 islands, so much so that flying from one corner to the other – from North Sumatra to West Papua – would require over 12 hours of flying time. As of 2014, the country’s population was projected to be 254 million – compared to a population of 318 million in the United States.
Positioned on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to about 150 volcanoes and a number of tropical rainforests that uphold the world’s second highest level of biodiversity, trailing closely behind Brazil. But perhaps most unique about Indonesia is its extreme cultural diversity; there exist upwards of 300 ethnic groups throughout the country. Simply put, the Southeast Asian nation is a melting pot brimming with hundreds of different customs, values, religions, and overall identities. Why, then, has Indonesia’s electronic music scene been relatively weak up until recent years?
“Now that we are in the digital media era, whatever happens in Europe or America somehow affects us in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia,” says Christian Rijanto, co-founder of Ismaya Group. “I think the growth of dance music in the region has been quite significant for the last few years…the dance music industry is widely becoming mainstream. Artists tend to collaborate with pop stars and such. It is always a good reference to look up to those who made it in the US or the UK, but we also always choose what we believe can and will work within our market.”
At its core, Ismaya Group is an agency that conceptualizes, develops, and operates countless lifestyle properties throughout Indonesia. Founded in 2003, the company has since branched out to manage establishments in the spheres of cuisine, nightlife, music publishing, and live events, which are operated beneath Ismaya Live. While Ismaya Live is known for bringing Katy Perry to Indonesia in 2012, the company’s live sector may be even more recognizable for cultivating electronic music culture in a country where it was once nonexistent. This culture has been bred in one of its flagship festivals – Djakarta Warehouse Project. Originally an underground warehouse rave that began ten years ago, DWP was born out of a movement for peace in response to a tragedy at Jakarta’s Blowfish Bar that left one dead and two injured. In other words, DWP was purely an (happy) accident.
“[When] the incident happened, we had to move because the venue and the warehouse had to be closed. It was 12 days before the event. Tickets were already sold and artists were already booked. We just had to move everything out to another venue because we did not want to disappoint the customers and the artists and wanted to deliver what we had promised. It was a pretty stressful moment for us, but it was also a blessing in disguise. That’s when DWP was born. If that incident had not occurred, we would not have had enough push to make it bigger than planned.”
CNBC once referred to Christian Rijanto as a “fearless restaurant tycoon,” but a more recent feature in Forbes acknowledged his success in pioneering Southeast Asia’s festival market. Of the mindset that music unites people from different backgrounds and cultures, DWP’s ethos is grounded in the notion that music’s influence can help reduce violence and bring peace. Similar to other parts of Asia, such as China, Indonesia is quickly latching onto the lifestyle that is so near and dear to the hearts of its American and European counterparts.
The industry veteran notes that the present is an “exciting moment” for Indonesia, as “the growth has been huge and has gone beyond [their] expectation.” Rijanto can also say with a sigh of relief that dance music has become much more than just widely accepted. Now, it is “a deeply loved and appreciated genre of music.”
Over the years, Christian has helped bring an impressive roster of dance music heavyweights like Calvin Harris, Avicii, David Guetta, Kaskade, and Zedd to Indonesia. Citing DWP’s diverse lineups as the festival’s most special quality, to say that it has undergone considerable transformations since the event’s inception would be an understatement. 2011, for example, attracted then-popular headliners Bob Sinclar, Chuckie, Cosmic Gate, and Roger Sanchez, among others. In just four years, DWP’s lineup has evolved to include current dance music stars like Axwell^Ingrosso, Jack Ü, Porter Robinson, and DJ Snake. I asked Christian if the transition into big room-oriented rosters was based on what was buzzing elsewhere, or more so on the ever-changing preferences of Southeast Asia. “Whoever we book, we know it will somehow fit to the DWP market and local flavor because we believe in their sound and the music they produce and play. In the end, it’s a balance of both. From what’s happening around the world, to things/artists that we believe will work for the market. We love introducing what’s current and what’s up-and-coming.”
With diversity at the forefront to coincide with Indonesia’s seemingly infinite assortment of cultural groups, this might explain why an artist like Jamie Jones was also booked for this year’s two-day affair. An unprecedented leader among underground electronic music, it is hopeful that festival-goers will be receptive to his clout – though admittedly, finding his name on the same flier as Kaskade, Galantis, and Tiësto is a tad unusual. But despite the lineup’s eccentricity, Christian understands that his role is not only as an educator, but a tastemaker: “I think [the underground music scene] is still developing at the moment. We want to spread the good music around and to allow people to learn not just what’s happening on the radio all the time, but what’s next and what’s up-and-coming. It’s very important to us to educate the market. It’s our way of extending our passion and love for the music to everyone attending our events.”
Ultimately, Rijanto’s vision is twofold: first, he hopes to expand DWP from a two-day to a three-day event. Second, he is moving toward establishing Ismaya Live as the chief live event organizer in Southeast Asia so that Jakarta is no longer an after-thought, but the first choice in an artist’s tour plans. In assisting Ultra Enterprises’ first foray into the Indonesian market this past September with Ultra Bali, Christian is well on his way to seeing his dreams materialize.
Though, he also is aware that the growth of electronic music’s fan base in Indonesia has lost some of its momentum – and because of the recent deluge of dance music events, most have struggled to prevail. In that regard, Christian is grateful for the success that DWP has been lucky to experience for the last seven years: “I personally think that there are still some limitations towards the growth and that it has slowed down a little. Right now, people want to jump into the scene thinking that it’s easy money and big money in the making. Little do they know, the market is actually not that big and a little saturated. It’s actually very risky doing all of this in our region, but we still do it because we love doing it and we love spreading the music.”