The crowd at the Zebra Music Fest at Jinshan Beach, near Shanghai. (Photo: Rob Schwartz)

SHANGHAI -- The Channel Young Zebra Music Festival has emerged as one of the potent forces in China's nascent touring scene, a market that is expanding rapidly for rock and pop music.

The Zebra Music Fest is organized by Zebra Media, a domestic Chinese TV music station and content aggregator for mobile and online that has become one of the country's leading promoters. The fest is being held in six cities across China this year, Chengdu, Suzhou, Wuhan, Shanghai, Xi'an and Hangzhou. Attendance ranges from 50,000-150,000 for each event, which are either two or three days long. Interestingly, the line-ups vary significantly between cities.

Zebra Media Founder and CEO Scarlett Li (Li Dai in Chinese), a former GM at Asia's leading music station Channel V, started her company in 2007 and got the idea to do a large music fest after the devastating earthquake that wreaked havoc on Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) in 2008. "I went to Chengdu in 2008 after the earthquake and I had a meeting with the party secretary of Chengdu," says Scarlett. "He asked me 'What can we do together to help rebuild and lift up the spirits of the people?' So I said let's do a festival. He agreed, which is very adventurous for a government official."

The first Zebra Music Fest (ZMF) was held in Chengdu in May 2009 and its success, with well over 100,000 people attending, encouraged Li to make the festival one held in cities all over China. Local government cadres in China still have tremendous power and any event must start with them. "Now the local governments are very easy to work with," notes Li, "They are very young and very open-minded. They want to do things for their cities."


The Zebra Music Festival poster.

The just-completed ZMF at Jinshan Beach, near Shanghai has been one of the fest's most ambitious to date. Held near one of China's two most important commercial centers (the other being Beijing), Zebra Music Festival Shanghai featured a host of Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Japanese and Chinese acts, with a few European bands sprinkled in.

"We are hosting this festival in the Southern part of China and this area likes Taiwanese and Hong Kong bands a lot as well as Japanese and Korean," Li said. "Also, they like more pop than rock. These are unique features of this region. If you go to the north and west of China, like Beijing or Xi'an, rock is more popular."

Billboard.Biz estimates a total of 60,000 people attended the three-day event, which had main and DJ stages, as well as numerous concessions, games areas, and an attractive beach which partygoers made use of through out the fest. Billboard.biz estimates ticket sales for Zebra Music Fest in Jinshan generated rouhgly 9.8 million Chinese Yuan or approximately $1.5 million.

A host of brands, both domestic and international, sponsored the event trying to market to China's emerging youth culture. Aigle, France's outdoor wear company that has been active in Asia, was one of the most visible. Justine Wang, the Senior Marketing Manager for Aigle China explains, "We have a long sponsorship relationship with Fuji Rock Festival (in Japan) but this is the first year we've stepped in and tried to see what kind of continuous relationship we can have with Zebra. It's the first time for us to sponsor any music event in China."

Wang indicates the exposure more than met her expectations."Aigle has only been in China for 5 years," She notes, "but the festivals are expanding very fast here. We are interested in growing with ZMF. This is a future-oriented thing. The power of entertainment in China will grow."

Jacky Jiang, Marketing Manager of Jagermeister China echoes Wang's sentiments. "We have sponsored Zebra since the beginning" he proudly states. And adds, "Like in all other countries, Jagermeister sponsors the most famous music festivals, especially for rock and roll and DJ music. We target young consumers so music events are perfect for us".

Show Luo (aka Xiao Zhu or "Little Pig") performing at the Zebra Music Festival (Photo: Rob Schwartz)

The biggest music draw at the Shanghai event was Taiwanese superstar Show Luo, known as Xiao Zhu ("Little Pig") on the mainland. The teen-idol comes from a rock background but has been a leading pop star in Taiwan since around 2004. In 2008 EMI Music Taiwan reformed as Gold Typhoon and Show and Luo stayed on as their flagship act. His 7th album Rashomon (2010) topped the G-Music chart in Taiwan and Show's dominant position in the Chinese market was cemented. This was very much in evidence at ZMF Shanghai, where fans gave him a Beatles-like reception, shrieking and cheering wildly throughout his performance. Hundreds gathered outside the backstage and production area and waited for an appearance for hours, despite the fact that Show departed 10 minutes after leaving the stage.

While the idol thrilled the crowd the real star of the fest was the headliner of the first night, Wanting Qu (Universal Music China). This Chinese-born (Harbin in Northern China), Canada-based (Vancouver) singer-songwriter put on an unparalleled set thick with emotion, energy and musical chops. Known professionally by her first name Wanting, she was the first Chinese artist to sign to Nettwerk, in 2009, and then generated considerable internet buzz with soulful, expressive voice, vulnerable lyrics and striking looks. Her single "Drenched" caught on in the Chinese-speaking world after being used in the Hong Kong film "Love in the Buff." Universal Music China has picked up the ball and run with it. They placed three of her tracks in Mercedes-Benz commercials in China and her profile has skyrocketed in the country.

Wanting - Life Is Like A Song by Nettwerk Music Group

Notes Wanting, "I moved to Canada in 2000 and still live there today. I released my album "Everything in the World" there first through Nettwerk and they signed a deal with Universal China so Universal asked me to come back here (and pursue my career)."

Though she was greeted as hometown hero at ZMF Shanghai, Wanting stresses everything is not as sudden as it seems, "It's been a long time for me to get where I am, it didn't take 6 months. It took 7 years. I started songwriting in 2005."

Pursuing dual careers in North America and China, as well as writing songs in both languages, Wanting is keenly aware of the differences between her audiences. "In Canada the audience is more quiet and they listen intensely. Here their reaction is more upfront, right away, on the spot. They'll be cheering and screaming and singing along with you."
That was is full evidence during her set at ZMF Shanghai.

Chinese ex-pat Wanting Qu's show at the Zebra Music Festival was something of a homecoming. (Photo: Rob Schwartz)

Other highlights of the three-day fest included Japanese rock chanteuse Yoko Yazawa (daughter of legendary Japanese rocker Eikichi Yazawa), the hot new Japanese rock band New Breed, and Okinawan sensation Mongol 800.

Li notes this is the first year Japanese acts have participated, "Now Japanese bands are more interested in coming to China, we've received a lot more interest from them.

Li is already looking past 2012 (though there are three more ZMFs around China this year). "We are organizing the festival in Beijing for the first time next year and we are going to try to book a big western band."