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Even before the Taiwan-centric troubles of this summer, China was far from a straightforward market for international artists.
In addition to the expense and logistics of making the show, incoming performers are heavily vetted and setlists and lyrics checked by censors in advance. Being a big-name artist is no defence against an outright ban, and a passing acquaintance with the Dalai Lama (Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Selena Gomez), delinquent behaviour (a younger Justin Bieber), and being South Korean (all major K-pop artists) have all been deemed valid reasons for refusal.
However, just because the interface between the Chinese market and the western business is not a frictionless one, it doesn’t mean the internal infrastructure is lacking or that international performers never make it through.
From the growing small-to-mid-scale circuit to the dance clubs that thrive on touring EDM shows, there’s a distinct network of music venues in China, even if it’s dwarfed by the sheer scale of the population it serves. There are plenty of arenas, too, and though most are usually to be found hosting Chinese pop shows, numerous international acts have made successful Chinese forays in the past decade, from Jessie J to the Rolling Stones.
From the growing small-to-mid-scale circuit to the dance clubs that thrive on touring EDM shows, there’s a distinct network of music venues in China
And the market has been growing fast. According to a report from ticketing platform Damai.cn, the Chinese live sector generated more than ¥20bn in 2019 (€2.9bn at today’s rates), although a strict policy of lockdowns froze the concert business for 18 months.
The Shanghai World Expo Cultural Center (which has since been renamed Mercedes-Benz Arena) opened in 2010 as a joint venture between AEG, the NBA, and local media and entertainment giant Oriental Pearl Group (OPG), all of which remain involved with the 18,000-capacity venue.
The Mercedes-Benz Arena remains one of the key Chinese facilities with an international profile and represents an important lesson in how western conglomerates can work closely with local corporate partners. The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and stars including Hong Kong’s Jacky Cheung and Faye Wang, and Taiwanese ‘king of Mandopop’ Jay Chou have all featured there, as have Cirque du Soleil and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
The Mercedes-Benz Arena remains one of the key Chinese facilities with an international profile
In June 2021, the Mercedes-Benz Arena hosted China’s first big show since Covid, as local post-punk veterans Re-TROS played to 10,000 people at a concert promoted by Live Nation China. International shows have not yet returned to the country, but the nation’s arenas in particular, with their full range of VIP and hospitality options, point to a market that, while not necessarily falling into step with the western business, is at least cherry-picking aspects of that model.
Ticket prices pre-pandemic were perhaps a little lower than in the west but roughly comparable: when Troye Sivan played one of the last pre-pandemic shows at the Mercedes- Benz, tickets ranged from ¥380 (€55) to ¥1,480 (€215).
In Beijing, the arena most frequented by international artists and spectacles is another AEG-managed venue, the Wukesong Arena, known since 2017 as the Cadillac Center, which juggles basketball, ice hockey and, up to 2019, a wide range of international and Chinese tours, including most of the names above.
Ticket prices pre-pandemic were perhaps a little lower than in the west but roughly comparable
All over China, in fact, gleaming and often eye-popping arenas offer a very familiar range of world-class multiuse possibilities. For the purposes of most international tours, the 13,000-capacity Shenzhen Bay Arena and the 18,000-capacity Guangzhou Sports Arena, along with the Mercedes-Benz and the Cadillac Center, complete a commonly used circuit that encompasses China’s four biggest cities, albeit sometimes with certain tweaks. Westlife, for instance, played at the National Exhibition and Convention Center on their visit to Shanghai in August 2019.
Some artists, however, dig slightly deeper. Jessie J’s 2018 dates, in the wake of her success on Chinese TV talent show Singer, paint a picture of the kind of touring that is possible from an artist with a deeper interest in the market. In addition to shows at the Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Shenzhen Bay arenas, she also stopped at big venues in Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Hunan, Wuxi, and Tianjin on her R.O.S.E. tour.
Among the rooms she found were the 12,000-capacity Wuliangye Chengdu Performing Arts Centre, which is one of the country’s newest and makes a virtue of its inhouse sound, with a semi-fixed L-Acoustics K1 system that purports to raise its standard above those of China’s many multipurpose arenas