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So far the festival markets of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China are not integrated. In all these places government policies and sponsorship play a major role.

Hong Kong has few large open-air music festivals.

  • The government-sponsored yearly Hong Kong Arts Festival lasts several weeks and mainly makes use of indoor venues. Its programs includes pop, rock and folk music, next to the traditional arts.

 

Festivals emerged in Taiwan in the 1990s.

  • Formoz Festival was held in Taipei yearly between 1995 and 2008. The festival was known for inviting foreign headliners.
  • Spring Scream is Taiwan’s oldest festival. Since 1995 it is held yearly in the most southern tip of the island. In 2007 it invited around 230 artists.
  • Ho-Hai-Yan is sponsored by the provincial government of Taipei. The free festival is held since 2000 on a beach a few hours outside of the city.

 

Music festivals have become an important source of income for artists in mainland China. However, the development of this market has been slow and winding.

 

The 1990s, Prehistory

In the PRC, the first festivals were organized in the 1990s, often by foreigners.

  • The Beijing International Jazz Festival. Co-founded by Udo Hoffman, Robert van Kan (then employee of the Dutch Embassy) and saxophonist Liu Yuan back in 1993, the festival was held in Beijing yearly from until 2000. After a seven-year hiatus, a new jazz Festival was set up in late September 2007 a cooperative effort between the Beijing Midi School of Music and Beijing Midi Productions.
  • Heineken Beat. Held in Ditan Park in 1999 and 2000, mainly featuring local rock bands.

 

2000~2007, Building relations

The Beijing Midi School of Music started organizing a reunion for its graduates in 2000. After two years the festival moved to the campus yard. By then the festival lasted three days and attracted a few thousands visitors. In 2004 the festival moved to the Sculpture Park and the next year to Haidian Park, where it was held for three consecutive years. In the course of a few years the Midi Festival had developed from a semi-legal reunion to a four-day open-air festival that boasted 80 thousand visitors. That the parks are state-owned further illustrates the ameliorating relation of this private school with various government organizations. Although negotiations over permits caused the festival to be postponed and even canceled several times, in 2007 Midi also received a subsidy of fifty thousand RMB from the Haidian district government to be used in 2008

Already in 2004, Huang Liaoyuan had convinced local governments and entrepreneurs to support a rock festival in Gansu province, and also the Lijiang Snow Mountain festival in Yunnan province, held in 2002 and again in 2007, was only viable because of state sponsorship. This would become a new trend.

 

2007~present

After 2007 festivals in PRC proliferated. From around ten large-scale open-air festivals in 2007, there were around forty festivals in the PRC in 2010. In 2011 there were fifty one festivals around Labour Day, seventeen of which were large scale; thirty three in the last week of August (coinciding with large festivals in Japan), eight of which large scale; and seventy six around National Day (October first), forty of which large scale (Conversation, Zhang Ran, March 2012).

These large scale festivals can be divided in three broad categories.

  • Major festivals. Festivals in major metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai can often muster enough audience to predominantly rely on ticket sales – often around ten thousand each day, festivals habitually advertise inflated visitor numbers. Nevertheless, sponsor deals have become increasingly important.
  • When Midi gradually professionalized and started selling tickets, bands became disenfranchised with the financial compensation they received and the quality of the festival in general.
  • When the record company Modern Sky started organizing its festival in 2007, it proved much more apt at securing extra income from product endorsement, and was able to channel some of that profit to the bands. Similarly, Modern Sky’s other festival, Strawberry, has successfully introduced audiences to a hedonistic and somewhat consumerist music+ experience.

 

Even these two major festival brands have so far (2012) no long term contract with a specific location and have been forced to move around the city to increasingly remote parks.

A number of smaller festivals have pioneered with foreign artists. In 2005 Ian Brown and Common played at the Beijing Pop Festival, in 2006 Placebo and Supergrass and in 2007 Nine Inch Nails, Marky Ramone, New York Dolls, Public Enemy (organized by Rock for China Entertainment). In 2011 the Black Rabbit Festival brought 30 Second to Mars and Ludacris to Beijing and Shanghai (organized by Split Works). To diversify, Strawberry and other festivals throughout the country have increasingly invited foreign bands and/or pop stars from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

  • Commissioned Festivals. Since 2007, local governments have increasingly welcomed festivals. Some of these municipalities are located on the outskirts of large cities, all of them rely on tourism for local economic development. Local governments see festivals as a way of attracting young tourists and generate media exposure. The nation-wide policy concerning the cultural and creative industries (since 2000) further adds ideological and financial support. In short, these festivals are primarily sponsored by local governments and rarely rely on ticket sales. Often a substantial part of the tickets is given away to local audiences, many of whom never attended rock shows before.
  • Lijiang Snow Mountain, in Yunnan province.
  • Zebra Festival, in Chengdu, Sichuan province (co-organized by a private company and the local state-owned media conglomerate).
  • West Lake Festival, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
  • Inmusic Zhang Bei Grasslands Festival, several hours north-west of Beijing.
  • China Music Valley, in Yuegu, several hours north-east of Beijing (organized by Gehua-LiveNation, a joint venture of leading Chinese and American ticket selling companies).

 

Because local governments lack experience in organizing music festivals, they often commission a concert organizer. Established festival organizers such as Midi and Modern Sky have also tapped into this market and organized installments of their festival in various locations, effectively changing their festival into a brand name with few connections to any physical location or local community. Famously, Midi organized a festival in Zhenjiang in 2010, and was angry when they found out that Modern Sky had snatched the contract from under their nose in 2011. Modern Sky now yearly organizes Strawberry Festivals in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.

  • One-off Festivals. The market for festivals in China is still very insecure. Many festivals cease after only one edition, often advertising huge loses. I cite four main reasons:
  • It’s a relatively new market, a stable business model has yet to emerge. It’s not yet sufficiently clear who the major players are.
  • Local governments prefer big showy festivals, even if it would make more sense to promote creativity and cultivate audiences through supporting more modest initiatives such as local live houses.
  • Local governments sometimes prefer working with relatively inexperienced organizations rather than with the more expensive established festival brands.
  • Rent-seeking, last-minute changes and other complications with securing funds and permits.

 

Take for instance the Big Love festival. Held a few hours outside of Chengdu in June 2012, the first edition of the festival staged 100 artists in 4 days. Headliners included major pop stars from Taiwan and Hong Kong (Luo Dayou, Soda Green) as well as Suede and Extreme. Many visitors either bought the free tickets that locals resold or struck a deal with security personnel that offered to take visitors onto the festival terrain. The box office was a disaster. The inexperienced festival organization ran into problems the third day (unable to pay electricity), and finally advertised a deficit of around 50 million RMB. This is a huge number, enough to run a thousand live houses for a year. Only two years earlier Midi and similar festivals worked with budgets of 6 million RMB. Even with major international pop stars, running such a huge deficit only seems possible if a substantial part of the money was used to pay kickbacks to officials of various local departments.

Despite these uneven developments, there are many positive aspects to music festivals.

  • Because of music festivals, successful Chinese rock bands can now for the first time live from their music.
  • It offers a rare middle ground between governments, markets and artists. This can be interpreted as co-optation, but also more positively as an opportunity for previously stigmatized kinds of music (such as rock) to gain larger exposure.
  • It provides audiences with a larger variety of musical culture, especially those living outside the large coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Most festivals are eclectic, staging pop singers, rock bands, Djs and sometimes local ‘ethnic’ music. There are also festivals that focus on a particular genre:

                 jazz (JZ in Shanghai, Nine Gates in Beijing)

                 electronic dance music (Rave parties, Intro in Beijing)

                 folk music (Ditan Folk Festival in Beijing) 

 

For a more complete and detailed account, please download the whole chapter in PDF below