Friday, September 24, 2010

Wolfmother pull out of tobacco-sponsored Indonesian music festival; then change their minds

Hirsute Australian rockers Wolfmother have pulled out of their appearance at the Java Rockin'land 2010 music festival. They were pressured to do so as a way of taking a stand against tobacco sponsorship - the major sponsor of the festival is Indonesian cigarette giant Gudang Garam.

And then they did a U-turn, and are back in the lineup. "This one is for the fans in Indonesia who have parted with their very own cold hard cash to see Wolfmother," it says on the band's website.

Taking place in Jakarta  from the 8th to the 10th of October, Java Rockin'land (a name that sounds kinda lame, but presumably sounds cool to Indonesians who don't speak much English) it is billed as the biggest rock festival in all of South East Asia. Other international bands still on the bill include Smashing Pumpkins, Stereophonics, The Vines, Dashboard Confessional, Datarock and Arkana.

Now it may strike some of you as PC-thuggery that bands are under pressure to pull out just because of who sponsors a certain concert. Particularly as 95% of musicians seem to be smokers themselves.

But be aware that the power of the tobacco lobby in Indonesia is in a completely different league to their counterparts in most Western countries, who have long had their activities curtailed by advertising bans, enforcement on purchasing, and high taxes. When a tobacco company sponsors an event in Indonesia, it's not just a matter of putting up a few banners; it means massive banners everywhere, and frequently, free cigarette packs handed out to attendees as samples.

It is estimated that around 70% of Indonesian men smoke. We should perhaps be thankful that traditional chauvinistic notions of proper female behaviour have meant that female smoking rates are low (less than 10%). But that just means that there is a burgeoning market out there for tobacco companies to tap into, and they are already targeting young people quite effectively.  Footage of 2 year-old Ardi Rizal puffing smoke rings like a pro caused outrage worldwide recently, and while that story clearly displays some damn shoddy parenting, it needs to be viewed in the broader Indonesian context. In terms of public awareness of the dangers of smoking, Indonesia is around 50 years behind most Western nations, and it is not entirely surprising that a father would think it no big deal that his baby smoked 2 packs a day. (Little Ardi has since quit, I think.)

Bands like Wolfmother are in a difficult position. The ubiquity of tobacco sponsorship means that it is very difficult for a big-name band to play in Indonesia without a cigarette company being involved in some way. And it would be sad for Wolfmother's Indonesian fans to miss out (dozens of them!), particular as some would have already paid for their tickets.

But there are other examples that show that a principled stand is possible. Both Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson have both played in Indonesia recently, and threatened to cancel their dates if Sampoerna (a division of Philip Morris) and LA Lights (part of the Gudang Garam empire) remained as sponsors. They got their way. Obviously a major festival such as Java Rockin'land is a more complicated proposition, given the sheer number of bands involved. But if they could get their act together and threaten a boycott en masse, imagine the message that would send to Indonesian health authorities and the entertainment industry?

That sounds cool and inspiring. Of course, nothing occurs in a vacuum; in a poor country in Indonesia, if tobacco companies are taken out of the equation, it would leave a massive gap in sponsorship which would not be easily replaced. And that would quite likely constitute a massive blow to entertainment and youth culture in Indonesia, which would suck. See? Things aren't always as simple as we would like.