“On one hand, after the immense success of Modern Sky Festival, people have started to see the potential of Chinese music in the American market. Beginning in 2016, new booking companies have started to emerge for that specific market, but many of them struggle with the limited niche market, the limited spending power of the target audience (many of them being students), and the heavy competition with each other. As a result, staying profitable has become the #1 issue for many of these companies.
“On the other hand, unforeseen circumstances such as last-minute visa cancellations and other problems mainly due to the unpreparedness of the booking companies and promoters, are raising eyebrows as well as concerns in the young, yet growing industry.”
After the likes of Jonathan Lee, Jay Chou, May Day, and Jason Zhang, mandopop has been gaining huge popularity in the US Chinese student community in recent years. Artists such as Lao Lang, Jony J, Al Rocco, and ONO have all made appearances in the North American market, and this is largely due to the influx of Chinese students studying in the US, therefore an increase in demand for shows by Chinese artists.
On January 27th, Jony J hosted a solo event in New York.
Unfortunately, the evening didn’t go too well. According to the event organizer, Live Pro, the original venue’s safety certificate was suspended with very short notice, resulting in a last-minute change of the location of the show. The 8 pm concert was forced to start at 10.
Many disgruntled fans took to Weibo after being left in the cold for nearly 2 hours. One of the wrote, “After waiting outside the club for one hour and 50 minutes, listening to boring explanations for 40 minutes, he performed only for 49 minutes.”
There were also many fans who chose to defend their idols on Weibo, explaining that it was the organizer’s fault, not Jony J’s, and that his performance was still very sincere. They also said that Jony J has even explicitly expressed before that he didn’t want fans to go through a tedious waiting process to get into his shows.
From a video sent to us by a student that attended the show, we could see that the venue was packed with nearly 2,000 people even after the previous complications.
It has been 4 months since the last Modern Sky Festival, and at that time, the Rap of China was still one of the fastest rising shows among the Chinese audience. The New York and LA festivals left a lasting impression on those who attended, planting a “seed,” if you will, for the future of mandopop music.
Prior to his stop in New York, Jony J joined MC Pharaoh and Guibian at the Staples Center on the 20th for a “Hip Hop E.R.,” attracting yet another 2000-people crowd.
“We first saw the potential in this back in September, when the idea of ‘Hip Hop E.R.’ was still in development. We noticed that there weren’t any Chinese hip-hop shows in the L.A. area, so that’s what we set out to do.” The organizer, Pillz, was co-founded by Wang Rui, a Chinese student in Los Angeles. Wang founded the electronic music events company in south-western China, and this was their first rodeo in the U.S. market.
“When I first came to the States, aside from superstars like May Day and Eason Chan, the majority of the artists that tour here are the likes of Wakin Chau and Jonathan Lee, so the attendees were mainly the older generation. There were hardly any shows targeting the younger college students,” said Kong Xiangrui, the founder of Neo-Soul Entertainment. He told us that indie music is on the rise in China, with acts like Escape Plan and Chen Li rising to the scene; this gave him the idea to bring Chinese music to the U.S. mainstream market.
In December of 2017, Neo-Soul announced its successful angel round funding, thanks to a near-million-dollar investment from Bluechain. Last year, Neo Soul organized 8 shows in the U.S., attracting 1,000 to 1,500 people at every event.
Kong Xiangrui first came to the States in 2015 as a student. Before that, he founded “Neo-Soul Festival” and a High School Rock Alliance for high schoolers in Beijing, allowing him to accumulate precious resources and connections. The Neo-Soul brand has established partnerships with Strawberry Festival and Midi Festival since 2013.
In November of 2016, Kong decided to turn his high school era brand Neo-Soul into a discussion platform for Chinese music in North America. Currently, Neo-Soul is in negotiation with roughly 20 Chinese labels and has established partner relations with AEG Live, Live Nation, and Modern Sky, all of which have helped organize shows for Escape Plan, Ma Di, Korean band HyuKoh, and Chinese rap group Triple H.
Additionally, Neo-Soul established their own U.S.-based festival called Neo Beats, specifically targeting the college student audience.
However, as students graduate and move on with their lives, how can a company like this retain its customers and find new ones?
“There are roughly 300,000 Chinese students in America, who happens to be our main target demographic,” Kong said. He thinks that it may not be profitable in the long run to only target students, as their spending power is quite limited.
Lao Lang sells out, the middle class continues to reign supreme
Inchant, an indie-folk label based in New York was co-founded in 2016 by Gong Yuxin and Fu Die. Gong graduated from Purdue with a marketing degree, but she has always had a strong passion for music, so when she met Fu, the two decided to enter the entertainment industry.
In early 2016, Gong and Fu first experimented with an overseas spinoff of the Grassland Music Festival at a small bar with no cost to the attendees. They were expecting a turnout of maybe 50 people, but in the end, more than 200 people showed up at the venue, barely fitting into the small venue. After the fact, Gong concluded that the huge turnout was largely due to the fact that the event was the first of its kind in the area. At that time, there hadn’t been any events targeting Chinese students; their main means of entertainment were group meals or karaoke sessions. Also, because of its name, many would draw similarities between “Grassland Festival” (Cao Di) and “Strawberry Festival” (Cao Mei), due to their similar translations in Chinese.
For the rest of that year, Inchant seemingly found their rhythm and hosted many events including Wormhole Music Night, Rock for Hope XIII, and a Bojack Horseman-themed Music Party. On March 26, 2017, they successfully hosted Lao Lang’s “Love is a Song” concert in at New York’s Town Hall, a place where Bob Dylan, Richard Strauss, and Charlie Parker have all graced. This marked Inchant’s first foray into the mainstream concert market.
Prior to the show, many were telling Fu that they would definitely lose money on the show, but she thought otherwise. “I didn’t think there would be any problems. Looking back, we were pretty bold, and just thought that it would be a good opportunity; we never thought too much about the money.”
To their surprise, the tickets were sold out within the first 3 weeks. Dou Lao Fang was the main sponsor of this concert; Tsinghua University New York Alumni Association, Renmin University of China North America Alumni Association, Beijing Foreign Studies University North America Alumni Association, as well as the Long Island Chinese American Association, were all listed as partners of the show.
“We think the show was a success because we found the right market. Those that came to study in the States in the 90s were also Lao Lang’s biggest audience, and now, they’re mostly middle-class consumers with solid buying power. Before coming to the U.S., they have already been influenced largely by the popular music at the time, and Lao Lang was one of the most popular artists back then. This, when combining with the nostalgia factor, resulted in the quick sell-out,” said Fu. Chinese around the New York area love going to concerts. Usually, their lives are comprised of a nice house in the suburbs, maybe a yard, kids, and dogs, but in terms of entertainment, it is a huge void for them.
“This is also reflected in our sales data. We have people from New Jersey and Philly coming to the concert,” said Gong, “The middle class has some serious buying power. For Lang Lang’s show, the VIP tickets were sold out in just one day. We’re pretty fortunate as well to have something to offer them, and the alumni associations’ support also helped tremendously.”
Sometime after the concert, Inchant hosted the TailPlay Festival at the one and only Brooklyn Bazaar, combining indie music with interactive games to create a unique artistic experience. Gong said, “We just wanted to ‘get weird’ and provide something a little different.”
500 people attended the event, half of them being Chinese and the other half foreigners. This made the 2 founders realize that in order to create chemistry between Chinese pop culture and the American audience, there is still a long way to go. In fact, they tried to invite popular local artists to help with box sales, but the move turned out to be less than ideal. “The bigger niche acts actually provide us with less profit than something like a solo Chinese artist.”
“There are at least millions of Chinese people living in the Greater New York area, and Chinese concerts are growing at an unprecedented rate. There used to be only one or two shows for the whole year, but now there’s at least one show every month.” Gong said that the competition will increase even more in 2018. On March 24th, Inchant is also organizing a show for Aska Yang.
Unprofitability and unprofessionalism struggles
The target audience for Mandopop in the U.S. mainly consists of Chinese immigrants and college students. However, many artists simply cannot afford to go on tour in the U.S., and even for those that can, the unpredictability often slows down the entire process. For promoters, it is crucial to pick the right artists and plan the event properly.
For instance, Zhao Lei’s North American tour slated for late 2017 was canceled due to visa reasons.
According to information released by S.A.G., Zhao’s team received invitations from Live Pro (for L.A. and New York stops) and Neo-Soul (for Boston and Chicago stops) for a total of four shows. After confirming the itinerary, the team started their visa application process, but was quickly rejected by the USCIS for “insufficient material.” After gathering the necessary documents, they submitted the application for the second time but weren’t able to receive a response in time. As the tour dates neared, they were forced to cancel all the shows.
Soon after, news broke that the organizer of the tour refused to issue refunds, and S.A.G. had to take to Weibo to clarify the situation. On January 21st, they wrote, “We are closely discussing with LivePro to achieve a final solution. We’re now approaching the end of our discussion, and fans can expect to get their refunds in the very near future.” The Weibo was soon reposted by Zhao Lei himself.
“I hope everything works out and doesn’t affect his reputation in any way,” one of Zhao’s fans wrote. In China, his concerts are sold out at every stop, and the North American tour would be his first shows outside of China since his debut six years ago.
In October of 2013, it was reported that Jam Hsiao had planned to tour the U.S. in May of 2012, but was forced to cancel everything as the event organizer breached their contract and refused to pay for the artist’s performance fees and production costs. The organizer, Dream Media Production, was later ordered to pay Hsiao $8.62 million TWD for compensation and to issue a public apology.
“Say a Chinese company helps put together a show, and this company in California says, ‘Hey, let us help you do an entire tour.’ And then, they find a Canadian company to disseminate the work to the smaller, local companies, and the same goes for New York. This multi-layered structure is fairly common in China, but due to the international nature of these concerts, a lot of problems can arise,” said Xiao Jun, an avid investor in the North American concert industry.
According to Xiao’s analysis, operational costs in foreign countries are usually much higher than that of China’s. When a major artist brings a crew of 20 to 30 people, just the per diem for the team is going to cost quite a penny for the organizers. Yet, the companies will have to eat the cost, as only big-name artists can guarantee box sales. Some organizers would even agree to somewhat unreasonable conditions, only to later find out that their numbers will be seriously in the red.
“Concerts for Chinese artists are more difficult than many would think. 40-50% of the total tickets end up being gifted; only the most popular artist can bring the event organizers any profit,” said Guo Nan, an experienced agent that has dealt with many North American promoters. “A lot of the Chinese promoters here are just painful to deal with–they’re like stuck in 90s China. There are a lot of things that they just don’t know, and in general are just very unprofessional.”
“Given their experience with large concerts, the unprofessionalism in their operations is seriously appalling. Some of them even think that concert engineers only have to sit in a chair behind the sound control board to run a concert,” Guo complained, “They’re also significantly lacking in means of promotion like social media. The majority of them still only focus on offline promoting, and their ‘volunteers training’ might as well not exist–many of those ‘volunteers’ don’t even know how the venues are set up, and we have to train them on the spot, on the day of the show.”
As Chinese New Year approaches, Chinese organizers are also firing up plans for New Year Galas. To the artists, it may mean an opportunity to explore a new market, or it might just be another commercial appearance. But for the promoters, it is an annual celebration, so even if they can’t break even on the show, it is still worth it to them.
In general, Chinese music is still a droplet in the ocean that is the American music industry. The lack of a “bridge” between the two is hindering the maturation of Mandopop culture.
In the future, Gong and Fu plan to focus on live events, with a focus on their own brand. They want to eventually shift the spotlight from the artist to the company, from “using” stars to “making” them.
Currently, Pillz is in negotiation with many North American electronic music and is planning to expand their “Electronic E.R.” brand to host electronic music warehouse parties. “Electronic music parties can attract a lot of spending power, but most of the Chinese students here really only know about EDM, and has little knowledge of what other genres of electronic music there are.” Wang Rui said that while these events will be targeting Chinese students in the U.S., their main focus will still be inside China. In Chengdu, “Electronic E.R.” has already become a very influential brand in the local party scene, and they’re planning on expanding it to Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.
In a class last year, Kong used his company as a case study and was received very positively by the other students in the class. This gave him a lot of confidence and is one of the reasons why he is trying to bridge the gap between Chinese music and American culture.
“They (Americans) tell me that they don’t have the means to get exposed to good Asian music. So when an Asian artists want to enter the American market, they have to localize their marketing efforts to fit the tastes of potential audiences. If you can cater to the American culture, Chinese artists can still make a huge splash in the U.S. market.”
Today, the market is on a steady rise; this may be a good opportunity for the younger generation to explore the possibilities of this promising market.
Translated by Kane Ge
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