Modern Sky Grows Strawberry Festival Around China Despite Beijing Cancellation

Strawberry Music Festival
Xiao Lu Chu/Getty Images

A general view of Strawberry Music Festival 2014 on May 3, 2014, Beijing, China.

Modern Sky Entertainment is one of the key indie music companies in China and it's taking a 360-degree role in building up the industry. Founded by Shen Lihui in 1997 as a way to distribute his friends and his own band's music, the company blossomed into an active label right away. It held its first festival, Modern Sky, ten years after its founding, featuring international act the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Chinese artists New Pants, Peng Tan and Queen Sea Big Shark. The company re-named the now-leading music event the Strawberry Music Festival in 2009.

When asked about his company Shen, the founder and CEO of Modern Sky, notes, "We didn't base our outfit on any international model. We are a record company, an agent, a promoter, a ticketing company and a venue owner!" 

The Strawberry Music Festival expanded outward from Beijing in 2010, jumping to Xi'an and making its way to Shanghai in 2012. Last year, Modern Sky brought the fest to an astonishing 12 Chinese cities for a total attendance of 710,000, according to organizers. Beijing saw 150,000 attend and Shanghai 100,000.

The younger generations of China are clearly hungry for Modern Sky's indie music offering and their bottom line reflects this growth. The company makes 75 percent of its income from festivals and the general revenue has increased over 300 percent in the last three years.

Shen observes, "This success for Strawberry Festival is really a success for Modern Sky as a company, which we've been building for 18 years. It's also a success for live music in China, and especially indie music."

Syrupy ballads and crooners still dominate the television shows and government-owned networks, but not Modern Sky. Shen notes, "None of the bands we book appear on TV or anything like that. They are outside mainstream Chinese media. Building the overall indie scene is the primary thing for us. When we see the indie scene flourishing like this, that's our success."

Despite, or perhaps because of, Modern Sky's impressive growth, the authorities in China did not allow Strawberry Festival Beijing 2015 to take place. "Beijing Strawberry Fest is the largest music festival in China," notes Shen. "We put on eight stages or more for that event, so the safety issue is a significant one. We've discussed holding Strawberry further out in the countryside."

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However, in spite of a horrendous tragedy in downtown Shanghai on New Year's Eve, where 36 people were trampled to death, the Strawberry Shanghai went off as planned. Held on the long weekend of May 1-3 at Shanghai Expo Park in the shadow of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, international acts The Hives, Carly Rae Jepsen, Dinosaur Jr. and Tricky headlined. 

Modern Sky intends to keep up the expansion of the fest with 19 or 20 cities planed for this year.

Yet Shen Yue, Modern Sky executive partner and director of business development, sees a limit. "We are expanding Strawberry Music Festival, but of course there is a limit to the growth. Perhaps it's 25 cities in China, perhaps it's 40 -- but there is a limit. So we have to figure out other ways to grow."

Strawberry took on 17 major sponsors, including Tuborg Beer and Intel, for Shanghai Strawberry, but Shen Yue says, "the balance between ticket sales and sponsorship revenue is 70 percent 30 percent. I think this is very organic. We don't allow one sponsor to come in and change the nature of the fest."

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Modern Sky is already moving ahead with other areas of growth. On October 4-5, 2014 over 6,500 attended the Modern Sky festival in New York's Central Park, which featured Western acts Cat Power, The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo) and Chinese band Second Hand Rose.

Shen Yue is ready to capitalize on this start. "We can expand internationally. This year we'll hold fests in Helsinki, New York and Seattle, so the international expansion is happening. And, we can move the fest online. We'll evolve into an online streaming company.

In Shen Yue's vision, the company would mount the fest as an exclusive product, parts of which would be pay-per-view. "There are great opportunities to co-brand with sponsors."