GET INSPIRED: Meet 'ULTRA' entrepreneur Shaun Duvet
Few people in South Africa – if not the world – understand the multifaceted entertainment industry as well as ULTRA South Africa co-owner, Shaun Duvet.
“Club culture,” muses Shaun Duwe. The same Shaun that is Shaun Duvet - his stage moniker, borne out of a misspelt flyer early in his career. “That’s what it’s always been about for me.” Duvet epitomises what it means to have reached the pinnacle of his industry. Not only has the Capetonian (via Jozi) evolved through all the milestones in the music and club scene, but – as a 25-year veteran – many of those boxes he ticked along the way didn’t even exist before he created them.
Such as setting the trend for ‘branded entertainment’ in the country by bringing the ULTRA music property to Africa in the form of ULTRA South Africa; the local version of the 20+year festival that started in Miami and is now produced on all six continents, 26 cities and 29 countries. As well as Corona Sunsets Festival, a property which seeks to take revellers out of their routines and deeper into their essential nature.
ULTRA South Africa – although only one of this dynamic businessman’s countless achievements – is arguably what he is best known for today. The festival (which takes place in Cape Town and Johannesburg in late February) also perfectly represents how his multiple business concerns – from events management to talent booking, communications and marketing, among others – all stand alone, yet synch seamlessly together, while remaining true to the core of the culture.
“You can never lose sight of that culture,” he reiterates. “There is so much excitement and passion around what we do – around the entertainment industry – that it is easy to get caught up in the ‘lights’ and forget what it’s all about.”
If it is this core ‘culture’ credibility that has kept him relevant for well over two decades, it is the understanding of the market within that, which has made him successful.
“It is all about knowing who you’re talking to,” he says, explaining how that goes back to the club. “The best place for me to stay in tune with that market is right there on the dance floor. It is there that you see how people are communicating, what they are wearing, what phones they are using. Things like that.”
“It’s right there where you hear which artists are popular and learn which DJs are playing the hottest tracks.”Legacy
Duvet has been in tune with this culture since growing up in Johannesburg in the mid 1990s. In fact, club culture courses his veins: His father owned a nightclub, as did his grandmother before that in Germany. He fell in love with electronic music as a teen and it didn’t take long for him to get a turntable and take the next step. “I would go up to this cool record store on Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg called ‘House Africa’ - where you got the best music. Then I’d spend hours mixing records in my bedroom,” he says. “It was an exciting time for electronic music.”
It was an exhilarating time for Duvet too, as he got his semi self-manufactured early break DJing at a club called ‘206.’ “At first I was too young to visit, but I always wanted to go there,” he says. “206 was doing great stuff and all my favourite DJs were playing there. Eventually I got in, met the club owner and somehow managed to talk him into giving me a slot.”
Duvet started off by playing in one of the small back rooms to 30, maybe 40 people. Week in and week out he would be there - playing, learning. Those early sessions crystallised his love for the genre and the culture and set the tone for his very successful career as an International DJ. It is also where his evolution into the business side of things was born. “I quickly started thinking: ‘Well, I want to do my own night now.’ I wanted to book my own DJs, do my own flyers and marketing…”
By this time Duvet had finished school and was studying marketing during the day, unknowingly blending theory and practice with a ‘go out and make it happen’ philosophy, something which he subscribes to, to this day.
Beyond the music
“Eventually I took on the Saturday nights at the club,” Duvet says. “Filling the club became one of the most important things. And that was a business all on its own, you know…Booking the DJs, coming up with the names of the nights, marketing.”
Fast forward a few years and he’d built up a solid roster of DJs and was negotiating with sponsors (learning the brand side of things) and sitting down with the creative teams to conceive of creative communications content and marketing strategies.
Evolve or die
Duvet tells some riveting tales of how – late at night to avoid arrest – he and friends would put up posters on Louis Botha Avenue promoting those club nights at 206. While the game has changed and the stakes are far higher, Duvet hasn’t lost that cutting edge drive to be top-of-mind and, of speaking the right language to the right audience. It shows - in his meteoric rise in the industry, as well as his distinguished client list today.
In addition to that early grounding, Duvet believes that much of his formative ‘schooling’ in the industry came from owning (with partners) and managing his first venue, The Bang Bang Club in Cape Town. It was here that Duvet learned to really personify both Shaun Duvet the DJ and Shaun Duwe the manager and marketer. It was also here that those time-management and multi-tasking skills, morphed into delegation and understanding how to employ the best people to manage various sections.
Running the club created the organic structuring for what became The Unit, South Africa’s leading entertainment-based holding company. It comprises a collective of enterprises that service all aspects of the industry: From branded entertainment under Anything Goes to on-the-ground events management with Salute, as well as Jet Black and Bella Bookings (full spectrum talent booking agencies) and, the venues in which he is a partner - Souk (restaurant), Gold Bar and Coco among a host of others.
He is today however perhaps best known as co-founder and director of ULTRA South Africa which, now in its seventh year, will once again bring 50 000 dance-music revellers together.
“I love the idea of having ‘properties’ much like Ultra is a ‘property’ or Corona Sunsets Festival is a ‘property’,” he says. “You can finesse properties and build on them. I think that comes from those Saturday nights.” What he means is how he learnt back then to bring the brands and the youth together, to create branded entertainment through these properties. Brands such as Budweiser with Ultra and Corona with the Sunsets Festivals, both speak different languages to differing target markets, but Duvet is an expert at marrying the property with the perfect brand.
Not every night is Saturday night
“At the end of the day what we do is ‘business’ and that has kind of been the ever-evolving challenge of it all,” Duvet says. “It’s both the gift and curse of what it is,” he contends.
In terms of measures of success, he believes that selling out is a great sign, particularly with the so-called ‘properties.’ “Of course, that is always the aim. But it’s a tough business.” Duvet explains that people on the outside don’t always realise just how tough and how tight the margins are. “When we break even on a show we high five each other,” he jokes. “No seriously, we hug and we know we’ve done great!”
The ‘we’ he speaks of are his teams in the collaborative companies under The Unit.
“This is our seventh year on ULTRA. I look back and the majority of my team around me are the same,” he says. “There are obviously (always) massive challenges with the shows, but considering the strength, the unity and shared vision to create this magic we put our heads down and get together and deal with those challenges as they arise.”
“There is always a bit of anxiety in the lead-up, but in essence we are feeling good. We’re confident and positive that this is going to be another great year.”
It begs the question every leader is often asked. Is it worth the stress>? Does that stress ever become too much?
“I’m very fortunate that I really love what I do,” he says. “If I didn’t love it I would’ve gotten out a long time ago,” he says. “Plus there is no plan B for me. Never has been.”
So if there is no plan B, what is the next evolution of plan A? “Africa baby!”
“Thanks to the digital age and the amazing talent we have here, we are now at a point where we can export acts rather than work at importing international acts,” Duvet says. That, and to expand into Africa itself from out of the deep South. Something which he and his team have been working on tirelessly for some time.
In addition, he and his teams at The Unit will continue to grow and improve their local Branded Entertainment concerns while keeping it true to the club culture.
“Jet Black is an artist booking agency which I’ve just recently bought into. It focusses very much on premium electronic artists in South Africa, so we have people like Shimza on our books, Dean Fuel, Floyd Levine among others.”
“Then a new offering is ‘Paradise Springs’ - a three-day resort party. We’re taking over Goudini Springs about an hour outside Cape Town and doing a three-day party there.”
“There some exciting things in the mix. Stay tuned,” he says.