China is the ultimate enigma for the music business: It has seemingly unlimited potential as the most populous country in the world, but artists and their concert promoters are still facing unique obstacles to growth there.
After a brilliant debut Chinese performance in Guangzhou, a bizarre incident at Dua Lipa’s performance Sept. 12 in Shanghai highlighted the continued adjustments ahead for artists and promoters in the country: security officials removed fans at the Shanghai show for simply standing and dancing.
And while Ultra Music Festival managed to pull off its Beijing event last weekend (Sept. 15-16) after an unexplained postponement in June, Ultra’s Shanghai club takeover, which had been slated to start Sept. 8, was canceled just days before showtime.
Sources vary on reasons for the cancellation: The event’s public statement cryptically blamed communication and circumstances outside of expectations. Officials are a common scapegoat when event planners can’t properly complete all the proper preparations to launch an event in coordination with authorities, but Ultra’s statement didn’t blame the government or local authorities.
Doing music business in China demands a nuanced understanding of — and collaboration with — the government. The mandate from Beijing is clear: while music is meant to entertain, officials tell industry executives, it should not recklessly promote what may be seen as unhealthy ideas or dangerous behavior. Thus, every single show needs to apply for a permit before being approved the sell tickets. Background checks, lyrics of the proposed set list, and more are all critical factors subject to review by the local authorities.
Foreign mainstream acts have to be extra careful when tapping into the market’s riches. Citing his bad behavior last year without providing specific examples, the Beijing’s culture bureau deemed Justin Bieber too dangerous for the youth and inappropriate for touring. Selena Gomez was one of several artists who’ve been banned because of their associations with the Dalai Lama, though her Coach ads are still everywhere in China. Katy Perry was rejected as a proposed performer at Shanghai’s inaugural Victoria’s Secret Show because of her support for Taiwan. Many acts, including Bruno Mars, avoid Beijing altogether because of the historical higher difficulties of receiving the proper permits to perform in the government’s backyard.
Since this spring, the EDM events and festivals in Shenzhen, conveniently perched across the border of Hong Kong, have also faced heavy scrutiny. But the leading dance music brand in that region, Jungle, just managed to secure Martin Garrix, Skrillex, and other headliners in EDM’s return to second biggest market of China this month. Unsurprisingly, Phase 1 tickets were gone in minutes in the starved market.
Jungle says it has an advantage as a local company. “Building an original brand helps us control the whole thing. In the short term, it might be hard to get started, including booking big names and building the brand” that people trust, says Boyi Zhou, the CMO of Jungle, but “we think localization is very important for a music festival – it’s hard for foreign brands to change much to fit in.”
The struggle to adjust was evident earlier this year, when the government flexed its might on the country’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, inspired by Western culture. In January, Beijing instituted a temporary ban on all forms of hip-hop culture from TV, live events, and more public channels, and the ripple effects were massive: sponsorship money, show offers, and paid appearances all dried up for several of the genre’s artists as the market adjusted.
But while the government has not officially softened its stance, hip-hop is slowly reemerging back into Chinese culture as artists take more care to appeal to the government’s wishes to use the artform for good. Less than a year later, iQiyi’s hip-hop show has become one of the country’s most popular, and Kris Wu remains one of the highest paid superstars.
Despite the uncertainty, many executives believe there is a future where the industry and the government can coexist synergistically. Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, and Coldplay are still among the biggest artists on NetEase Cloud Music, China’s Western-leaning music platform with hundreds of millions of active users. But it’s clear that the government remains the Chinese music industry’s most powerful player.
Fred Hwang is an executive at music-management company TH3RD BRAIN.