How China and Taiwan Stage-Managed a Live-Music Resurrection
China and Taiwan have emerged as global outliers in their ability to safely host concerts for up to tens of thousands of fans.
HONG KONG — Frustrated by the shutdown of live music in the United States this summer, the dance music duo BEAUZ made a radical move: The pair left California and moved to China. After arriving in Shanghai in early August, Taiwanese-Indonesian brothers Bernie and Johan Yang quarantined for 14 days, then got to work arranging concerts in a country that had tamed the spread of the coronavirus enough to make touring possible again. Since then, BEAUZ has played 13 club shows and three festivals. “This is the most intense touring we have done in our careers,” says Bernie.
As Europe locks down again and the United States breaks daily records for new coronavirus infections, further paralyzing both live-music sectors, China and Taiwan have emerged as global outliers in their ability to safely host concerts for up to tens of thousands of fans. So while U.S. and European tour schedules for 2021 are riddled with uncertainty, dates in China are filling up fast. “For next year, our calendar of bookings looks like a normal year,” says Adam Wilkes, CEO of AEG Asia, which operates Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena.
During China’s national holiday celebrations from Oct. 1 to 8, Chinese promoters arranged more than 4,000 live performances — over 20 of them for up to 10,000 attendees — a 130% increase from the same period in 2019, according to the ticketing platform Damai. Modern Sky put on two- and three-day Strawberry Music festivals in Beijing, Chengdu and Harbin — each with pop, rock and hip-hop acts and a daily attendance of 10,000 to 20,000. Since September, Taihe Music Group has held three Rye festivals, including one in Zibo that drew 30,000 people and one in Beijing that featured headliners such as the hip-hop group Higher Brothers and the indie-rock trio Carsick Cars. Mandopop star Kris Wu also headlined the Phoenix Music Festival in Qingdao in October.
So far, concerts in China and Taiwan have featured mostly domestic artists, as international acts are required to quarantine for two weeks when they arrive, and are not always granted work visas. That has frustrated some promoters: Creamfields, for example, won’t return to China or Taiwan in 2020 unless A-list artists can more easily obtain work permits, says Jim Wong, the managing director of Live Nation Electronic Asia.
Most of the bigger shows take place outdoors, where the virus doesn’t spread as easily. But despite health screenings of fans before they enter festival grounds — temperature checks and scanning of contact-tracing smartphone apps are a must — mask use and social distancing guidelines are not strictly enforced inside the gates. At a recent Rye festival, fans huddled close in front of the stage — many in masks — while others lounged on bean bag chairs clustered together on the grass.
The concert business hasn’t come back without costly challenges. Virus flare-ups in parts of China have forced promoters to quickly cancel events. Modern Sky scrapped one planned Strawberry Music Festival in Dongying because of one reported case of an asymptomatic virus carrier in Shandong province, says Vanessa Chen, the company’s operations director for business strategy. “The stage construction was already completed,” says Chen, “but we have to take responsibility for the health and safety of our audience.”
Chinese promoters began their efforts to bring back live entertainment in May, when Shanghai Disneyland reopened at 30% capacity. By August, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism had boosted concert venue capacity limits to 50%. By September, it had raised them to 75% for large-scale outdoor events. The ramp-up has been done “through trial and error,” and only now is approaching profitable levels, says Wilkes. MercedesBenz Arena will hold its first publicly ticketed concert on Nov. 21, with singer Xie Chunhua, for up to 4,700 people (about 40% capacity). Wilkes expects the government to soon approve arena shows at 75% capacity. “Once we get to that 9,000-plus mark, then it becomes commercially viable for purely ticket-driven pop concerts,” he says.
China’s strict virus-control measures, mandated by the government, have laid the foundation for the live music comeback. Promoters may only hold events for over 10,000 in Chinese cities that have been virus-free for 60 continuous days. Some, like Modern Sky, have decided on their own to shrink audience density to 40%-50%. “Although the box-office income has declined,” says Chen, “the sense of achievement” from putting on festivals during a pandemic “is a bonus.”
Virus-tracking smartphone apps have helped health officials quickly tamp down infection clusters. (People in China have to display their color-coded QR code app to enter most buildings.) Health officials also tightly enforce quarantines: The Yang brothers say they couldn’t go into each other’s rooms during theirs, even though they were staying across the hall from each other. Government staffers wearing hazmat suits tested them for the virus without warning. “Citizens here are well aware of the damage the virus can do to the community,” says Johan Yang, recalling Asia’s struggle with the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. “They are all very compliant when asked to put on their masks, or have their temperature taken, or to show their QR codes.”
The next step, says Wilkes, could be to organize regional tours in Asia, which would require coordination among governments and promoters across the region, and possibly Australia and New Zealand. “It’s not going to be viable to have an artist come and sit in quarantine in each country,” he says. With approved itineraries and the use of airport “green lanes,” however, international acts could potentially tour Asia, even if they couldn’t perform in their home markets. Dance DJs Alesso and Kayzo have been quarantining in Taipei in order to headline Ultra’s one-day Road to Ultra Taiwan festival on Nov. 14 — the Miami company’s first event since the pandemic began.
For their part, the BEAUZ brothers say they plan to live in Shanghai for at least the next six months. Their live gigs in China have helped promote their music and made it easier to collaborate with Mandopop singers. “Once we heard there were opportunities in Asia, and that they had done the proper management [of the virus],” says Johan, “we had this big bet in our own hearts, and we took a leap of faith.”
Additional reporting from Chloe Fang.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020, issue of Billboard.