Live Business Forecast From China: This Too Shall Pass

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South Korean boy band EXO at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo in 2019.

Experts in China estimate the live sector there will contract by 50% in 2020, but infection numbers are slowing dramatically, and offices are opening again.

As Europe and the U.S. cope with spiraling numbers of coronavirus cases, Jim Wong has a message from China for his Western counterparts in the live music industry: There's light at the end of the tunnel.

For more than two months, Wong, the managing director of Live Nation Electronic Asia, operated under a China-wide lockdown that shuttered Live Nation's offices in Shanghai and led residents of Hong Kong, where he works, to take sweeping actions to protect their own safety. The measures in mainland China, especially, not only restricted everyday life — they also completely shut down the live music business.

Fortunately, the government's actions seem to have contained the virus in China: The country recently reported no new locally transmitted cases in a 24-hour period for the first time since the pandemic began (new cases in Hong Kong have been imported from overseas, Chinese officials say). The improved situation allowed Live Nation — which promotes about a dozen festivals a year in China, as well as 600 to 700 club and theatre shows — to reopen its Hong Kong and Shanghai offices earlier this month. But that doesn't mean that the economic damage in China won't be severe, Wong says.

The China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), a trade organization, said on Feb. 20 that more than 40% of industry experts — including venue owners and those working in film, music and theater — project that the country's live music sector "would contract by 50% in 2020" in terms of revenue. Wong, who also runs the artist management company Dancing Dragon as a joint venture with Live Nation, says the temporary shutdown hit China's overbuilt nightclub business especially hard. Investors overbuilt during the boom, then got over-leveraged to the point where they couldn't withstand an economic shock. "The bubble has burst," he says.

Wong, 29, who rarely gives interviews and wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of Live Nation, spoke with Billboard to reassure his counterparts elsewhere that the situation will turn around. "Everyone's panicking and depressed," he says of U.S. executives. "But we've been through this…Spend some time, just think and relax, [there is] nothing you can do right now. We'll come back stronger."

The executive says that people in Hong Kong are still wearing masks and religiously washing their hands. But "we go to restaurants now, we go to the gym, we go to play football and people are starting to get back to normal now," Wong says. "Obviously, we worry about the second wave — the students from UK and U.S. coming back to Hong Kong [who] might bring some virus. But people are very [much] behaving, they are slowly getting back to their lives."

What does the live music sector in China look like now?
Jim Wong: Right now no [major] club is open yet. They're slowly opening very small venues, like 200-300 capacity. But for a concert or a festival or even the night clubs to come back, we’re looking at June, at least…No one is taking permit applications, no one is giving you dates for venues for before August. It's health and safety.

What does the path out of this look like?
The path forward is to realize how fragile the business is, in a way. In the future, when you plan things, you need to be more cautious, and be more secure in a way not to go too fast…[so that] if you get an impact like this how could you survive?  For the Chinese club owner and Chinese theatre owner that is how they failed now. Because it feels like, ‘Oh, I was too busy just thinking that nothing is going to go wrong and I will be super-aggressive, and I will try to open 55 clubs at the same time.’ And now [they] realize, if something [happens], the 55 clubs are all going to go out of business.

How did your job change during the outbreak?
What we do every day is book shows and talk to agents in the U.S. After the outbreak, we changed completely because there's no shows happening. What do [we] talk about? Creative stuff. How can we make our show better? How can we sell tickets better? How can we help our own artists break their music?

Is there any kind of silver lining here?
The silver lining is this: People are staying home all the time…A lot of good music is going to come out after the virus because [artists did a lot of work] when China was locked down. My gut feeling is that it’s going to be like a peak [for recorded music] in China... And hopefully there’ll be hits or new artists that break out from this…My fear is that artists will soon be announcing like 55 tours in the first [few] months…But the content that is going to come out after this is going to be solid.

Additional reporting by Benson Zhang.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 28, 2020 issue of Billboard.