Eric Zho Op-Ed: China Is a Nuanced New Frontier for Electronic Music
China, whether you’re ready or not, has arrived.
The past few years have been an exciting time for China.
Electronic music has been around for decades in the Western world, both in Europe and in select, soulful cities in the United States. It has since become an undeniable global movement, with artists and festivals rising in every corner of the world. Asia has understandably been in the sights of many major Western brands. Early adopters in the Asia-Pacific region began to emerge in Singapore and Japan, two countries which have embraced the novel culture behind electronic music. Local pioneers welcomed Western artists like the Grammy-nominated Kaskade to help establish Asia as a routine tour stop in their annual schedules with now iconic venues like Zouk Singapore, which has been operating for over two decades.
But one country on the Asian continent is unlike the rest, sitting within the market like an elephant in the room. That presence is China, a massive nation that unabashedly walks its own path, distanced and independent from the wider Asia-Pacific region. What trends and spreads throughout the wider region won’t necessarily find success in China.
It seems ironic that a country so infamous for its copycat tendencies would be so resistant to a music style that has met success so many other places in the world.
But the tables have turned. China is now the last to follow. The country resists and resists the influx of outsiders who have now come knocking on their door, eager to come in and meet the 1.3 billion people waiting inside. But the gatekeepers of China’s electronic music industry have turned their backs on outsiders, instead looking inwards in hopes of uncovering a culture that comes from within.
The blind trust that industry leaders have placed in their own country’s youth does not seem to be mistaken. The numbers are promising. International Music Summit presented a localized Business Report at IMS China 2015, which stated that with even just a minor 3 percent increase in penetration of the country’s youth population, the potential market could include 6.6 million people. The economy will also play a large role in determining how the electronic music industry develops. When China’s middle class grows, so does everything else. It means more disposable income, more urbanity and eventually, increased interest in nightlife and its surrounding culture.
My company, A2LiVE, has overseen annual events in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In 2016, we’ve seen a 200 percent increase in attendees and by 2017, we expect to receive 300%.
Exposure has been a key factor for the current climate. Promoters have worked to bring acts from the radio to their own stages and have helped to convince China’s traditionally table and bottle service club culture to move away from the stationary set-up and get out on the dance floor. Local DJs are finding their way out of the isolation of their bedrooms and are discovering more opportunities to get booked and be heard.
Brands are buying into China's promise as well. Where there’s demand, brands are eager to help supply. Following the proven triumphs of early STORM Festival editions, local promoters became excited to participate in the influx of electronic music interest, both internal and external. Given the country's existing culture of alcohol consumption, brands like our own partner Budweiser and others saw China as the perfect target for game-changing campaigns.
Finally, media has also played a major role in China’s expedited dance music explosion. China’s Internet giant Tencent and Focus Media/FountainVest Partners were involved in a new subsidiary that WME/IMG announced earlier this year which, in conjunction with Sequoia Capital China, aims to help WME/IMG “grow its operations in China.
“WME/IMG has had a formidable foothold in China for a number of years,” Neil Shen, founding and managing partner of Sequoia Capital China, said to Variety. “With the incredible growth they have been experiencing domestically, we saw this as a perfect opportunity to help them replicate that success in China within both sports and entertainment.”
So while China has been playing catch-up with the rest of the world, it’s been a hyperspeed journey.
However, significant challenges still remain for China. Foremost, The Great Firewall, an Internet-wide blackout on major social networks used by millions around the world (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, SoundCloud and even Google), rendering China an untouchable enigma to most foreign producers. With no way to break in aside from mega radio hits, it's difficult to reach Chinese fans. As a result, locals are left with a limited catalogue for electronic music discovery due to carefully controlled government censorship.
China also doesn't offer a window to the world for the few local producers that have managed to navigate a limited-platform landscape and create songs of their own. Local talents find few opportunities to obtain international exposure for their music, which has led to a lack of Chinese DJs on global stages.
Additionally, China is comprised of hundreds of separate markets that operate within the boundaries of one country. Each operates with its own agenda, and with different methods, rules and approached. For Westerners, a first foray into China is daunting enough with the culture-shock and foreign language, and it may appear impossible with with so many different actors and culture to comprehend.
But if you put in the time and patience to get to know the beast, she rewards.
I can see change afoot in China. People whisper about DJs they’ve seen, who they are and what they’ve done. Popular messaging platform WeChat's feeds are littered with photos and excited comments about events users have attended and songs they’ve heard. Important global tastemakers like Boiler Room are investing the time and effort it takes to create a window for the rest of the world to look into China and see it as a worthy piece of the electronic music puzzle. Local DJs are picking up momentum, enough to tour China, the Asia-Pacific region and for some lucky few, beyond.
If one thing about electronic music has been proven, it's that it is language-less. It's global and undeniably influential.
China, whether you’re ready or not, has arrived. Welcome to the next frontier.
Eric Zho is the founder and CEO of A2LiVE / STORM Festival in Shanghai.