Scroll through the Instagram feed of Zouk Singapore and you’ll notice that the cheesy snapshots of cam-whoring partygoers that used to pepper the 46.7K-follower-strong account in the past few years have gradually dwindled to zero starting last September. It’s not that the revellers have stopped coming – a visit to the mammoth club at Clarke Quay on any given Saturday night, when entry queues often snake out to the main road, would affirm that.
It’s just that those generic nightlife photos have made way for a fashionable explosion of cheeky, often pop art-influenced visuals promoting the club’s events, DJs and identity, recalling its collectible flyers from a time when EDM (both the digital marketing strategy and the music genre) weren’t a thing. To lead up to its 28th anniversary in May, for example, the club released a series of hip highlighter-hued posts paying tribute to its past. “From Bjork to Grace Jones, Armin van Buuren to Hardwell, name an icon that you’ve seen at Zouk, and why you would like them to come back,” read one of them.
This hyper MTV-esque makeover of the account is just one sign of a possible cultural shift that’s taking root at the institution since its latest head of marketing Audrey Choy came on board just about a year ago. “Music goes very much hand in hand with design so I brought in the designer who worked with me at Cherry to rebrand Phuture, for example”, says the 30-year-old of the smaller, more experimental room within the over 17,000sq ft venue.
The Cherry that she speaks of is the original iteration of the vintage arcade game-decked hip hop joint at York Hotel that she helped mastermind in 2016, becoming the destination of cool for Gen Z clubbers tripping on nostalgia chic. Also on her resume: stints at some of Singapore’s most famous, if short-lived, nightspots (google Avalon) as well as the independent techno party collective No Party Here that she co-founded.
In short, she’s an industry veteran with her finger on the pulse of both the commercial and underground ends of youth culture and the electronic music scene, and her task now is to not only to keep Zouk thumping on, but also forward. “There’s a stigma with Zouk (these days) – that we are a sell-out and have gone mainstream,” she says. “Now that I’m here, I would like for Zouk to again be at the forefront of music, design and art.”
Zouk’s longevity alone makes it a legend. Its true legacy though stems from its history as an independently owned progenitor of music and cultural trends that started in its original warehouse location on Jiak Kim Street (yes, Bjork and Grace Jones were there). Today, while it still reels in the crowds, it’s owned by the Genting Hong Kong conglomerate that bought it over in 2015. And – as with any company – it faces the challenge of changing tastes and the constant lure of the shiny and new.
To re-establish the club as a cultural hotspot for music aficionados to discover the next big sound, Choy and her allies-at-work – general manager Wayne Lee and DJ booker/resident DJ Nash D – have brought in underground names ranging from techno DJs Charlotte de Witte and Jeff Mills to Chinese rappers Bohan Phoenix and Young Queenz. “The creative crowd now is into hip hop because it comes together with street wear,” says Choy. “(Names like Bohan are underrated), but people in fashion know them. And what we’re trying to do is more of educating. If I wanted to appeal to the masses, I would have just booked the Higher Brothers.”
Also usually unheard of for a super club: partnerships with independent music collectives like the Britpop and rock-playing Poptart and house and techno DJ Zig Zach who have amassed their own cult following. Says Choy: “This way, we hope to bring back different communities (that’ll see Zouk as home).”
The woman who held Choy’s position at Zouk exactly 10 years before her appointment ought to be proud. Now the founder of cultural progamming agency Present Purpose, Tracy Phillips made the clubbing experience as much about fashion and creativity as it was about music and dance during her reign as its head of marketing from 1998 to 2012. Is the Zouk spirit still alive, and what does its evolution say about nightlife and culture in general? Here, excerpts from their first-ever recorded conversation.
TP: Zouk birthed Singapore’s electronic music and clubbing scene. What do you think is its place today in local nightlife?
AC: It still represents a rite of passage to many. Every Wednesday and weekend, the university kids are still out here in full force. I don’t deny that we have lost a bit of the older community (that knows Zouk as) always being at the forefront and paving the way of music direction, and this is what we are trying to bring back.
TP: Why did you start going to Zouk as a clubber?
AC: My roots are in drum and bass and I started clubbing at independent clubs like Home Club (now Canvas). When I ventured into – for lack of a better word – more mainstream clubs, Zouk was of course the first place to be and that was when I discovered Ready Set Glo (a nudisco night introduced by Phillips in the mid-2000s). EDM was also already infiltrating the scene (and honestly) I think it’s a good gateway into electronic music. From there, I discovered electronic music and its various genres and I think this discovery process is what the kids today are still going through.
TP: I think this idea of good entryway music is important. Whatever gets people into music and onto the dance floor is good. My problem with EDM is that it’s so much more all encompassing than, say, a trance night ever was. With trance, it was still a part of nightlife and electronic music, whereas EDM is the home of radio, bottle service and all these things.
AC: It is (a very lazy strand of electronic music culture). My colleagues and I were having this conversation though about how the latest generation of clubbers grew up on EDM with it being their entry into electronic music. And we have this logic that people are always looking for harder music than what they first got into, and right now, hardstyle (a high BPM genre that mashes techno, trance and hardcore) is the ‘in’ thing.
TP: Are the expectations of what makes a good club today different from before though?
AC: Clubbers today come in knowing what they want to hear. Before, they came to discover. We really have to give respect to the DJs who must learn how to strike a balance between educating and entertaining. Now – especially at places with bottle service – there’s this mentality that because I’ve paid good money, I want to hear this particular song. A DJ has to entertain first so that people will come down to listen to him, and then slot in songs in between to educate about new sounds.
TP: Even when we were running the club, this was a problem. The idea of education has always been something ingrained in the Zouk culture, and made us speak of music the way we did. I’m sure it’s not a part of the language of many other places that have opened. For some places, it’s about making money so if a certain type of music is popular, it’d be what’s played. That’s also why many places come and go.
AC: What would you do if you were me now?
TP: Music evolves and scenes change, and things like EDM happen. These are things that change the whole scene, but what Zouk had – and still has – is that legacy. (The important thing is to be clear on what it stands for and to stick to it.) People today would have no loyalty if it’s just another venue. The booking of acts alone is not what makes a club. It’s also about who you work with; the type of communities you’re cultivating and what’s important to you; and striking that balance between the commercial and satisfying your communities. Community is still so important.