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As China Eases ‘Zero-COVID’ Policies, Live Music Recovery Will Focus on Domestic Artists

Even before the pandemic, permitting rules kept Western acts away from China and the trend is expected to continue.

HONG KONG — Zhang Haisheng feels like his business may never go back to normal under China’s strict and constantly changing pandemic policies. Zhang, who runs three live houses in Shanghai under the brand Yuyintang, struggled over the past three years to navigate China’s “zero-COVID” curbs, which shifted from blanket bans on live events in early 2020, to quarantines, to sudden city-wide lockdowns last spring when cases surged — bringing Yuyintang’s operations to a halt.

Since early 2020, Zhang has canceled close to 1,000 shows. Even during some windows when performances resumed, to meet the country’s strict testing rules he had to hire extra workers to check customers’ nucleic acid test records — and ended up operating at a loss. “In the first two years of the pandemic, sometimes performances could be held normally,” Zhang tells Billboard. “But [2022] was bad, the loss has been relatively huge.”  

Now, after a series of street protests, the Chinese government appears to be abandoning its zero-COVID strategy. On Dec. 7, it began easing mass testing requirements and allowing people who have mild symptoms to quarantine at home instead of at government-managed facilities.


More than a year after most of the world resumed concerts and festivals, China’s live industry is finally looking at a rebound. That recovery is likely to focus mostly on domestic acts, live executives tell Billboard, in part because Western artists were already electing to skip China on their Asian tour swings because of stricter Chinese permitting rules — a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

While other parts of the world were lifting travel restrictions and bracing for a reopening early last year, the fast-spreading Omicron variant spurred dozens of cities across China, including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Guangzhou, to lock down. During one virus surge, more than 4,000 performances were canceled or postponed throughout China from mid-February to mid-March of 2022, the China Association of Performing Arts estimates.

Citizens reacted angrily to the measures, triggering some of the most widespread anti-government protests in years. On Nov. 25, a fire killed 10 residents of Ürümqi in northwest China, which many suspected was linked to strict COVID policies that have trapped people in their homes. Workers, students, and residents in a dozen cities across China took to the streets, demanding changes to the Chinese government’s harsh COVID rules. Some protesters even called for China’s leader Xi Jinping to step down.

With the lockdowns lifted, musicians, live music venues and concert bookers are bracing for a surge of infections, while at the same time looking for ways to recover their previous losses. 

Zhu Ning, founder of VOX Livehouse, one of the best-known live venues in Wuhan, has been finding ways to leverage his empty venues throughout the pandemic. He ventured into the world of music training, turning his three live venues into rehearsal rooms with recording studios. Zhu also operates his own music label, which has signed bands such as Chinese Football, a four-piece indie rock group. “Since it’s impossible to perform during the pandemic, we did more work on the songwriting and recording side,” he says. 

As the founding drummer of SMZB, one of China’s early punk bands, Zhu supports and promotes new indie acts in Wuhan. “Since China’s borders were closed and foreign bands were not able to come in, there has been more space for local acts to perform, and I guess that’s one of the silver linings coming out from this pandemic,” he says. 

Starting in early December, Chinese authorities have begun to review show permits again, and he expects local performances to go back to normal levels in 2023, which for VOX would mean around 230 shows per year. “It was quite frustrating in the past three years,” Zhu says. “It affected us too much, and we are almost unable to bear the consequences.”

China Protest
Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China’s harsh Covid-19 restriction s in Beijing on November 28, 2022. NOEL CELIS/AFP via GI

While some have high hopes for the future, Ai Jing, who runs the concert booking agency Haze Sounds, is still struggling to resume operations. Touring musicians from outside of China — who have not been allowed to perform in the country for three years — are still unable to obtain a visa and show permit, since China’s borders are still closed to outside performers. 

Acts booked through Haze Sounds, such as Novo Amar, who were scheduled to perform in March of 2020, have been postponed multiple times, currently to November 2023. “I have fans who bought tickets for this performance when they were freshmen in college, and now they have all graduated,” Ai says. 

Western Artists Eschewing China For Other Asian Cities

Even with a reversal of zero-COVID policies, the reemergence of China’s live music market is likely to be almost entirely domestic for at least the first half of 2023, as global touring artists decide to skip China and perform elsewhere in Asia, one live music industry executive tells Billboard. International acts such as Arctic Monkeys, Aurora and Kings of Convenience have announced their Asia tour dates for 2023, but China is not on their schedules. 

Even before the pandemic started, Western artists were already doing fewer shows in China, often because of permitting and other challenges. Chinese officials “made it harder and harder to get permits for quite a long time, so a lot of artists just stopped going there,” the industry source says. “Everything started to somehow potentially step into the world of politics.” (Promoters typically need permits from China’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Public Security.)


Billboard review of eight major venues — including Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and Wukesong/Cadillac Arena in Beijing — shows that the number of major Western artists performing in China has been falling since 2013. In that year, 21 artists visited China, including Justin Bieber, Alicia Keys and OneRepublic, compared to only five in 2019, when The Chainsmokers and Shawn Mendes played Mercedes-Benz and Westlife visited Cadillac Arena.

Global acts have adjusted to the challenges of touring in China by finding other cities in Asia to fill out their Asian tour schedules, which typically total between eight and 12 shows. The absence of Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese cities with the most viable venues, is not affecting the profit and loss picture for most Western acts, the source says.

Ai, the concert booker, is worried about the long-term effects a border shutdown would have on China’s culture sector and global reputation. “I hope we can open to the world again,” he says. “It would be better if we could be more inclusive and accept more diversity and different voices, but I dare not expect too much.”

In Shanghai, Zhang says that if pandemic measures don’t ease soon, to cut costs he’s considering closing one of his three venues, which host mostly indie rock, folk and jazz acts and have a capacity of about 300 people each. “I hope the policy will relax gradually, because people’s demand for performances has not decreased, and their expectations for overseas bands still exist,” says Zhang. But, he adds, “it will take time for us to get back on our feet.”

Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo