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JM | Oct 15, 2020

How Joe Bogdanovich’s virtual Reggae Sumfest 2020 made a quantum leap in live performances

/ Our Today

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Virtual Reggae Sumfest 2020 was a certifiable hit with stellar performances from Ishawna (left), Sizzla Kalonji (centre) and Shenseea (right).

By Al Edwards

When Chairman and CEO of Down Sound Entertainment Joe Bogdanovich announced that Reggae Sumfest 2020 would go on despite COVID-19 but as a virtual digital performance, no one knew what to expect.

What transpired was a successful live show seen by millions in a way never executed before. It showcased the best of Jamaican dancehall and reggae talent for the world to see and became the digital Coachella of the Caribbean.

Getting Virtual Reggae Sumfest to launch on time was a three-week herculean endeavour. Coming up with a new concept, lining up the artists, production considerations; lighting, ensuring digital platforms could deliver—all having to be done in a short window of time.

How was this accomplished?

Joe Bogdanovich sat down with Our Today, to give insight into how he and his team pulled off this feat.

Since Bogdanovich took over the Reggae Sumfest brand, he has sought to establish it as an event with international appeal by using predominantly local acts.

Since its inception, Sumfest presented international acts along with the Jamaican acts. As the international acts increased in price this eventually became unsustainable. “On taking over the festival in 2016, I realised that we already had our own home-grown international acts as our reggae and dancehall stars were touring successfully across the world and so I committed to presenting a first class show using our own talent.”

Joe Bogdanovich. (Photo contributed)

The decision was seen initially as risky but once committed, Down Sound Entertainment put the necessary steps in place to ensure success and so every year since 2016 we have grown exponentially.

“I believe that it was the marketing of the event that underpinned its success. We spent a lot of money on marketing to ensure everyone knew about Sumfest, and then we saw to it that it had a distinct look and vibe with production qualities that rivalled the top festivals in the world. In successive years, we fine-tuned our strategies, spending more on digital and social media, while keeping our traditional media in place,” he said.

Bogdanovich makes the ultimate decisions for his company. That’s not to say he does not discuss matters with his team and solicit their opinions, he does. He listens, weighs it up, and then makes the call. He doesn’t rigidly adhere to centralized leadership but comes by decision-making via a journey, a process.

Great emphasis is placed on promoting Jamaican culture, reggae, and dancehall acts—that is always at the forefront of Bogdanovich’s actions concerning Sumfest.

Everything was in place for this year, with artists and independent subcontractors lined up by March 1st for the show scheduled for the end of July. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Jamaica which lead to entertainment and indeed the economy shutting down.

Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, on Friday, March 20, declaring a ban on arrivals at the island’s air and sea ports within the next 24 hours. Jamaica, buying itself time before a full-blown outbreak, had confirmed 19 coronavirus cases at the time. Entertainment events and the public school system were shuttered shortly afterwatrds. (Photo: Jamaica Information Service)

This was a knockout blow for everyone.

“The team worked assiduously to come up with creative ideas that we could pursue to keep the brand in everybody’s mind. We examined a few of them but I just didn’t have that gut feeling about any of them to make me move forward. In the meantime, the COVID-19-situation kept getting worse,” said the head of Down Sound Entertainment.

Over the last few years, the company has been nurturing a relationship with social media platform, Facebook. Bogdanovich’s team would travel to New York for launch events and would meet with interested parties and collaborators. One of those was Facebook who wanted to get involved with Sumfest this year.

Adapt now, cry later…

Bogdanovich reflects: “COVID gave us the push to think differently and when the Facebook opportunity came up it was perfect. Our YouTube audience for past shows reached 30 to 40 million people watching the live streams and excerpts from the shows and what I saw was an opportunity to marry our YouTube audience with IG and Facebook to showcase Sumfest on these platforms at the same time to millions of people.  All of a sudden, life came back to Sumfest 2020 despite the COVID-19 concerns. The numbers we could reach in this format would make the brand even stronger.” 

“It would also demonstrate that we had the team and the expertise to put on a television production which is different from putting on a live show. We always aim to be better than the previous year and the way we do that is by thinking outside of the box and bringing belief and conviction to all our efforts.  Sumfest is the benchmark that even our competitors will look at and so we always have to set the standards by doing something different each time with a different perspective.”

At the end of June this year, the company signed all the acts, the television operatives, influencers, and pushed its advertising campaigns. The target was to air live performances on July 24th and July 25th. This would call for a frenetic effort that must have been daunting.

Streamed live via Reggae Sumfest’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram pages, the millions who tuned in to the virtual staging of the mega-concert were treated to two nights of excellent production and first-class entertainment. How will Bogdanovich and the Sumfest team top this incredible effort? (Photo: Instagram @ReggaeSumfest)

“We didn’t sign Koffee until an hour before her performance even though she indicated she wanted to do it, however, having just signed to a new label, we had to make sure we satisfied all of their concerns. She really liked what we were doing. In 2019 we put her on Dancehall Night, and she was brilliant so I thought it was important for her to be on the virtual edition.”

It is always a personal goal to do seamless productions but it is not a simple or easy thing to do and I am very critical and I believe in Murphy’s Law—if you are not afraid of Murphy then you are out of business, and planning for Murphy to be there is how I plan for those unexpected eventualities.” explained the Down Sound Entertainment boss.

The plan was for Facebook to give plenty of advertising in exchange for the rights to upload the performances. Bogdanovich says at no time was he clear on what the advertising commitment from Facebook was which meant his team all had to re-think on their feet.

On the Friday that the show was due to air, Facebook finally pushed the button on its promotional drive at 3:00 pm, much to the relief of Bogdanovich. Until then, there was a great degree of trepidation on the team’s part. The feeling was no one knew about the upcoming show and so more money had to be spent on advertising and drumming up awareness.

With the stars (literally) aligned, Virtual Reggae Sumfest takes off

“Nevertheless, Facebook’s promotional machinery was phenomenal. They know what they are doing. As soon as they moved into gear, we saw the power of Facebook. They pushed the button at 3:00 pm and by 3:10pm our website had crashed. It just goes to show how powerful the market is in the big league. Our website until then had never crashed, but such was the demand. We did however manage to get it working twenty minutes before showtime.”

Jamaica’s ‘Grammy kid’ Koffee delivered an energised set during Night 2 of Virtual Reggae Sumfest 2020. (Photo: Instagram @ReggaeSumfest)

Our team did a tremendous job in creating a production that had never been seen before. I must give credit to the DSE Team even though at times we are a dysfunctional family, we always come through in the clutch. I must also give credit to Delano Forbes and his associates at Phase 3, Martin Lewis of Team Solutions, as well as all the artists and their management teams, the sponsors, the hosts, and the Reggae Sumfest fans who played a critical role in making Virtual Reggae Sumfest 2020 a success. Nothing like this was done locally before” said Bogdanovich.

The planning of the event was impeccable with performances on time. There were no mishaps and it has won international rave reviews. Between July 24-26 the show garnered 1,642,000 viewers on YouTube, 860,300 on Instagram and a further 632,600 on Facebook. A further 400,000 plus viewers across the globe saw it during international watch parties and the Reggae Sumfest website garnered 7,936 clicks. Close to four million people watched the show over the July 24th and July 26th festival weekend. 

Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Ed Bartlett said: “It was a first-class masterpiece and the organisers must be commended for putting this all together in such relatively short time.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett. (Photo: JIS)

“And what else can be said about securing that partnership with Facebook and Instagram to stream the event live…that was simply brilliant and gave our local entertainers the kind of platform that can only boost their careers.”

Paying homage to the irreplaceable Sizzla Kalonji

During the show, a mini-documentary on the artist Sizzla was incorporated which highlighted the work he has done with both youths and the rehabilitation of his community. Sizzla has provided job opportunities and taken a keen interest in the welfare of his community, contributing when he can.

Prolific reggae deejay Sizzla Kalonji. (Photo: Instagram @therealsizzlakalonji)

The idea to include this feature in the show was Bogdanovich’s. He felt it was important for viewers to see what Sizzla had accomplished through his music.

“While it was not my intention to give Sizzla any more exposure than other artists, I took the view Sizzla has done an impressive job in working in his community. He has made a focus of giving back and providing jobs in an area that is considered to be one of the most dangerous parts of Jamaica. His construction efforts to help people is a symbol of his humanitarian efforts. I wanted everyone to know what he is doing to give back. He is brilliant and did a superb job closing the show.”

Virtual Reggae Sumfest 2020 has paved the way for future shows of this ilk. It will be imitated but whether other entertainment companies will have the execution capabilities to put on a seamless show that goes off on time is another question.

The line-up combined reggae legends such as Freddie McGregor, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Maxi Priest, and Tarrus Riley along with some of today’s top dancehall acts, Shenseea, Ishawna, Agent Sasco and Ding Dong. Also performing were mega-acts Koffee, Gyptian and Sizzla among others.

Down Sound Entertainment will now attract plenty of international attention and Bogdanovich has made it clear that the company is not solely focused on Jamaican acts. He notes many international performers want to come to the “mecca” of reggae and dancehall and he welcomes collaborating with them.

Bogdanovich is now working assiduously on a virtual Christmas show.

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