After a concentrated push to develop its economy, following the death of communist leader Mao Zedong in the 1970s, China has become a major global force and the populations living standards have dramatically improved, although political controls remain tight.
Where once the idea of international acts doing tours in the region would have caused raised eye-brows, the untapped potential in the market is starting to become a reality, with international festival brands among those looking for a slice of the action.
One man who knows his way around the local live scene is senior vice president of AEG Asia Presents, Robb Spitzer, who was previously MD of Live Nation China and has been based in Shanghai since 2002.
“Though it’s been a gradual evolution, we seem to have entered a new era where China’s major cities have become solid international touring destinations,” says Spitzer.
“Artistes and managers continually look to include multiple stops here in their overall Asia and global touring plans.
“Where pop has ruled for decades, we’re now seeing potential for more genres to garner a significant Chinese audience. Between internet platforms and multi-genre festivals, audiences are getting exposure to more styles of music which then feeds into the live business.”
But there is still much work to be done, and Spitzer believes in order to become fully established, the market needs to work from the bottom up.
“There are still a few components that must develop to support organic growth of artistes from their local roots up to national scale,” he says. “Over time, I think you’ll see more small and medium-scale venues able to support emerging local artistes and a touring landscape that bridges the current divide between 1,000 capacity and arena-sized shows.”
Among AEG promotions are Katy Perry at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo Arena (cap. 11,000) and Taipei Arena (12,000) in Taiwan, Celine Dion at the Cotai Arena (11,000) in Macao and Russell Peters at Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre (6,000).
Competing alongside AEG to be the region’s dominant promoter is Live Nation China (LNC), which has recently presented concerts with OneRepublic, Ariana Grande and Imagine Dragons.
“More and more people from the younger generation are listening to western music,” says MD Edward Liu.
“OneRepublic’s Shanghai concert at Mercedes-Benz Arena [18,000] sold the most tickets during the whole Asia run, as did Imagine Dragons, and the two upcoming Bruno Mars Shanghai shows were sold-out within a couple of minutes.”
Liu also has concerns about the lack of mid-sized venues, even in the big cities.
“It’s either an 800-cap live house or 11,000-cap arena,” he says. “There is nothing in between, which prevents lots of international artistes from coming.”
Perhaps with this in mind that LNC, which stages around 20 shows a year, with EDM division Live Nation Electronic Asia (LNEA) also promoting DJ tours, has begun to change its tact lately.
“Instead of just doing arena and stadium shows, we are doing shows at all different levels and did 10 theatre-size shows last year,” says Liu. “It was surprising to see how the fans reacted to the artistes they love, even though they are not big, mainstream acts. Some fans thought these acts would never come to them.”
Forthcoming shows include Oh Wonder at Bandai Namco Shanghai Base (1,500), with tickets at 380 yuan ($60), LANY at the same venue and ticket price, and two concerts by Bruno Mars at Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena, with tickets priced at 580-2,280 yuan ($91-359).
Founded in 1997, Beijing-based Modern Sky Entertainment is one of a handful of companies that have led the festival sector, now staging Strawberry Music Festivals in more than 20 cities, having branched out from Beijing in 2010.
Event capacities range from 7,000 to 8,000 for the smaller sites and up to 100,000 in Beijing and Shanghai, where acts playing have included The Prodigy, Justice, Mogwai and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“The live music and festival market is still going strong,” says Modern’s general manager Michael LoJudice.
“The festival scene is not as crowded as it was in years past, which is quite positive for us, but those that are here are established.”
As well as promoting festivals, Modern is also a booking agency and management company and plans to put on around 500 live events this year.
“We just had The xx at Beijing Exhibition Theater [3,000, in Xizhimen], which was great and a long time in the works,” says LoJudice. “Many of the Chinese acts we manage do quite well and are big in the market. Our Strawberry Music Festivals always draws huge crowds.”
However, LoJudice says getting permits for festivals can be problematic and organisers need to have solid partners to stage large-scale outdoor events.
In recent years the company has also taken its festivals abroad, with Modern Sky Festival in New York’s Central Park and an event in Los Angeles.
“We’re working on adding more North American and European cities,” reveals LoJudice. “Things are looking good, always challenging but also always exciting.”
In Hong Kong the largest music festival is ClockenFlap (30,000), which is held on the West Kowloon harbourfront, and started out as a 1,500-capacity event.
Magnetic Asia runs the festival, as well as Sonar HK (15,000) festival, and promotes around 12 concerts annually in venues ranging in capacity from 300 to 4,000.
Upcoming shows include The xx at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld Expo (5,000), where tickets cost HK$720 (US$92), Ride at Macpherson Stadium (1,600), HK$560 (US$72), and Die Toten Hosen at KITEC MusicZone (600), priced at HK$490 (US$63).
“The market is certainly challenging and highly variable here,” says Magnetic Asia music director Justin Sweeting. “In general, tickets are not an easy sell. There isn’t a regular gig going community to draw from, and so we’re still in the process of trying to develop and grow the market.
“The lack of suitable venue space across capacities in Hong Kong is well documented and continues to hinder positive momentum for international and local development.”
Sweeting says Hong Kong lacks a comprehensive music strategy from the grassroots level upwards and education, infrastructure and support for live events all require improvements. Although he’s pleased to see more festivals entering the scene.
“We encourage this as it gives our own brands context and helps build the market,” he explains.
“The opportunity for Hong Kong is that it occupies a unique position being part of China, yet enjoys certain cultural freedoms and operational certainties which don’t exist on the mainland. However, the demand there is not here yet, and the city remains more aligned to financial rather than cultural pursuits.”
Acts for ClockenFlap in November are yet to be announced, although early-bird three-day tickets are on sale at HK$1,410 (US$180). Massive Attack, Feist, Blossoms, Supper Moment and Tinariwen were among artistes performing last year.
“Things are looking good, always challenging, but also always exciting”
AsiaWorld-Expo is the largest indoor venue in Hong Kong and has welcomed artistes such as Madonna, Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears and Ariana Grande.
“Tickets are on hot sale, especially for internationally well-known artistes coming in early 2018,” says Ivy Ng, director of business development at AsiaWorld-Expo Management, which manages the venue in partnership with the Airport Authority Hong Kong.
“Strong sales were also recorded for Korean and Japanese pop singers, namely Big Bang and BTS.”
Having opened in 2005, the arena staged 49 concerts in 2017 and aims to put on one show a week this year, except through April and October when trade events take over.
Ng says the venue is expecting to see further upturns in audience demand due to improvements in transport links between Hong Kong and mainland China, such as the Hong Kong Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, Express Rail Link and the airport’s third runway.
“Hong Kong is an important leg of any Asia tour, with frequent return rates of western artistes, while more and more Korean bands return within a year due to market demand,” adds Ng.
“There is demand for larger venues to allow flexible stage design and to accommodate more audience and generate more ticket revenue. Stage productions are getting more extravagant, which increases show costs, not to mention the artiste fee and crew expenses.”
Acts playing AsiaWorld include John Legend, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.
In Shanghai the Mercedes-Benz Arena is operated by AEG China and hosts around 100 shows a year, with Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung selling 100,000 tickets across six sell-out concerts there in 2017.
“Shanghai is a very strong market in Asia with most tours routing around Mercedes-Benz Arena,” says arena general manager Jim Foss. “Tickets generally sell-out for most shows and the market has responded positively to the ticket prices.
“Promoters do a considerable amount of due diligence regarding pricing and the sell-outs speak for themselves.”
Multiple dates with Bruno Mars in April are among the shows enjoying particular success, with tickets priced at 580-2,280 yuan ($91-359) and John Legend at 380-1,080 yuan ($60-170).
The arena complex also includes a 700-seat theatre, six-screen cinema and retail outlets. Foss says the aim is to become a “365-days-a-year entertainment destination”.
“The sky’s the limit in terms of what the future holds,” he says. “China has a huge appetite for live entertainment, particularly music. As more venues are built, look out for world tours to strategically route in and around China’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities.”
AEG also operates the Damai Center (18,000) in Dalian, which was opened in 2013 to co-host the China National Games.
The arena was previously known as the Zhongsheng Center, before a naming rights deal was agreed with ticket agency Damai. Acts playing the venue include Backstreet Boys, Zhang Jie, Li Ronghao and Jacky Cheung.
“We seem to have entered a new era where China’s major cities have become solid international touring destinations”
Shanghai-based promoter Split Works puts on an average of 14 tours each year and also runs the two-day, five stage Concrete & Grass (10,000) festival at Shanghai Community Sports club, with 60 acts performing.
Company founder and MD Archie Hamilton reports the Chinese music market as definitely taking off.
“There’s a lot of hunger for international live music,” he says. “China has been overlooked for a long time, so there’s always a particular excitement with bringing an established artiste over here for the first time.
“The market has its idiosyncrasies and particular tastes – post-rock, post-punk, UK bands, American trap and Japanese indie tend to do relatively well.
“Ticket sales depend on a host of complex factors, but broadly speaking Shanghai people tend to buy tickets in advance, with shows sold-out soon after announcement, while Beijing leans towards buying tickets at the door, or in the last week before show dates.”
Hamilton says those operating in the sector quickly become accustomed to setting aside a longer timeframe to secure the correct paperwork and develop different means of marketing, due to restrictions on internet access.
He adds that the region’s festivals are often subject to boom and bust cycles, with many failing to survive past their first year, although he expects the influx of international brands such as Live Nation Entertainment EDM events Electric Daisy Carnival and Creamfields, to have more staying power.
“We’ve seen growing interest in bringing shows outside of the so-called Tier 1 cities to places like Wuhan, Changsha, Chengdu, Xi’an and Shenzhen,” says Hamilton. “A larger number of small promoters have emerged, focusing on mid to niche-level indie and underground bands.”
Acts promoted by Split Works include Damien Rice, Cigarettes After Sex and MIKA, while it has upcoming tours with METZ at venues including Yue Space (300) in Beijing and Yuyintang (300) in Shanghai. The company also has Devendra Banhart at Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall (1,200).
Located on the autonomous peninsular province of Macau, a Portuguese colony until 1999, is Studio City Event Center (5,000), which opened in 2015.
The venue is part of a complex built by Melco Crown Entertainment, an owner-operator of casino gaming and entertainment resorts across Asia. It is managed by Spectra, a subsidiary of US facility management giant Global Spectrum.
“Entertainment shows in Macau still highly depend on tourists and visitor support, while the locals usually only take part mainly on particularly hot shows,” says Studio City assistant director of events Adriana Lucas.
“We target to have at least two shows per month and our aim is to increase the amount we have each year. Last year we had 18 shows, compared to 15 in 2016.”
Among the venue’s biggest events have been shows with Mariah Carey and Madonna, along with Alan Tam, A-Mei, Leon Lai and Han Hong. Forthcoming concerts feature Joyce Chu and Kim Jong Kook.
Meanwhile, 180 kilometres off China’s east coast in Taiwan is the 15,000-capacity Taipei Arena, owned by the city authority and operated by Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation.
The venue has played host to acts Bob Dylan, Sting and Ariana Grande, and this year will see performances from Katy Perry, Celine Dion and Wan Fang.
Previously known as the MasterCard Center, Beijing’s Cadillac Arena (18,000), which is sponsored by the car manufacturer, was built for the 2008 Olympic Games. It is managed by Bloomage International Culture & Sports Development and plans to stage 45 concerts this year.
“For a venue in Beijing, political restrictions restrain artistes who have had an unpleasant history or background from entering the Chinese market,” says general manager Jin Fei. “This limits the amount of international talent, making it so that local talent is focused on.”
Despite this, artistes playing the venue include James Blunt, Fall Out Boy, Show Lo and Pu Shu, with ticket prices ranging between 180-1,280 yuan ($28-202).
“Ticket prices are reasonable in big cities as there is a large variation that allows for all sorts of people to attend, whether they are hardcore fans or just want to experience the atmosphere,” explains Fei. “However, in second or third tier cities, these prices may be a bit high.”
This isn’t the only issue delaying progress in live entertainment, according to Fei.
“Promotion in smaller cities is lacklustre due to a lack of infrastructure and generally lower GDP,” he says. “Touring in China typically consists of only the four largest cities, whereas smaller cities are left by the side which creates a lack of diversity for both the performers and citizens in those places.”
However Fei is hopeful that change is on the way.
“Smaller venues suited to less popular artistes are beginning to sprout up around the country and I believe live music can prosper here,” he adds.
Another who is keen to see trends change is Colleen Ironside of Hong Kong-based Live Limited. Ironside began operating in the region after moving from Australia in 1999 and has promoted Elton John in the region on a number of occasions.
“China is continuing to grow as a market, with lots of acts going there these days at all levels and the festivals are also growing,” she says.
“Shanghai is still the main market and Beijing still has its problems with permits and restrictions. There can be problems with permits and police and security, although it’s a bit more relaxed in some cities than it used to be.”
“There’s always a particular excitement with bringing an established artiste over here for the first time”
Among the international festival brands arriving in China are the aforementioned Electric Daisy Carnival, which will be staged at Shanghai’s International Music Park in April (see Festival News), and Creamfields.
Having staged shows in Hong Kong and Taipei last year through Live Nation Electronic Asia, it’s Cream brand is planning a series of further events and festivals in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xiamen and returning to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“We’re looking forward to taking the brand to the next level and making an even bigger impression on what is a really exciting and ever-growing market,” says Cream MD Scott Barton.
Acts confirmed for Creamfields GuangZhao in April include Axwell & Ingrosso, Kungs and Don Diablo.
A number of Cream Presents shows will also be held in Wuhan, Hangzhou, ChangSha and Shenzhen.
“I believe in 2018 Creamfields China will open a new chapter in the country’s electronic dance music history,” says Live Nation Electronic Asia MD Jim Wong.
It certainly feels like China is turning a page in its live music story for international artistes and there are plenty of promoters and venue operators keen to help the sector grow.
Population (billion): 1.4bn
GDP per capita (US$): 68,954
Currency: Renminbi (CNY)
US$ exchange rate: 0.158
Broadband households: 567 million
Internet users: 734 million