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‘It’s like the Wild West now…but China is the future of music’

China’s concert industry is on the verge of an era of “explosive growth”, according to one of its most successful homegrown music execs, with a booming middle class and ever-growing appetite for dance music laying the groundwork for the country to become a true live music colossus.

Speaking by phone from the company’s HQ in Shanghai, A2Live founder Eric Zho – whose vast EDM empire includes promotion, booking, artist management and record label divisions, as well as the property for which he is best known, the five-city Storm festival, which welcomed 250,000 attendees last year – tells IQ he is “trying to build a 360° music ecosystem” in a country home to 1.4 billion people – almost 19% of the world’s population.

Zho started Storm in 2013, and has since then been a key player in the development of the local electronic dance music (EDM) scene into what he describes as “hippest thing” among China’s young middle-class consumers. While Western pop superstars such as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber are always “definitely going to sell out” when they visit China, he says, a burgeoning nightclub culture has led to EDM being Chinese millennials’ music genre of choice.

“Something like 50% of our nightlife used to be KTV [karaoke] clubs,” Zho explains. But if I’m young and wealthy – and there’s a lot of money in China, right up to self-made millionaires and billionaires, and those with second-generation wealth – am I going to to go to a KTB club? No!

“So the nightclub industry is booming, and that’s resulted in a lot more interest in dance music – something we’re also helping grow with our festivals.”

Echoing PwC’s description of China as a “sleeping giant” music economy, Zho says the market for live music is still a nascent one, but is maturing by the day as Chinese consumers before “more refined” in their musical tastes. “We’re on the cusp of explosive growth,” he continues. “The middle class is already a market of hundreds of millions of people, and it’s going to keep growing…

“China is a unique market, and unless you figure out how to localise you’re never going to win”

Zho predicts a timeframe of two to three years for that explosion – long enough, he says, for those involved in the Chinese music business to catch up to their counterparts in the West. “Ninety per cent of people working in this business [in China] still don’t understand it,” he says.

What about the US multinationals? Do they have a part to play in China, IQ wonders – and does A2Live feel threatened at all by the likes of Live Nation and AEG?

“What you have to understand is that Live Nation, for example, is a tiny company by Chinese standards,” says Zho. “Especially compared to the big conglomerates that we see as potential partners, such as Alibaba and Tencent.

“When foreign companies come here they don’t know what to do – China is a unique market, and unless you figure out how to localise, to work with local partners, you’re never going to win. Those big American companies are already here, but they haven’t been able to grow for that reason.”

Perhaps cognisant of the difficulties facing grassroots venues and musicians in other, more mature markets, Zho says ensuring the sustainability of China’s music-industry growth is central to A2Live’s ethos.

“Most people,” he continues, “don’t think about the building blocks, of small, underground shows, of building the culture – which is the most important thing we need to do to sustain that long-term growth.

“You’ve got lots of big festivals and promoters who are seeing our success and thinking, ‘Why aren’t we in China?’. But they don’t look under the [bonnet]. The biggest problem is that there are lots of people – not just those big international players, but also rich kids who want to throw a big party – who don’t understand the music or the operational side behind it all.

“The nightclub industry is booming, and that’s resulted in a lot more interest in dance music”

“There’s a risk the industry could become very top-heavy if we don’t support the foundations.”

Perhaps of greater concern to the aforementioned international players is the ever-present danger that China’s communist government could step in to regulate the activities of foreign promoters, as has happened with the film industry, where number of Hollywood imports is currently capped at 34 per year.

“Look at the movie industry,” says Zho. “There are only a certain number of foreign films allowed in China per year, and they can’t be screened during certain periods, such as the CPC [Communist Party of China] meeting. (It was “difficult or impossible” to gain permission to stage events in the run-up to the latest such meeting, October’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Zho explains.)

“If there’s going to be a flood of foreign companies and brands coming in, you’re probably going to see the ministry of culture making new regulations. [The music business] is like the Wild West at the moment – but it could happen.”

A2Live recently announced the launch of Storm events in Australia and Taiwan, its first outside China, but Zho says the company’s focus is still on building the business in China, with Australia largely serving as an “operations centre” for touring its Chinese acts in south-east Asia.

“Sitting here in China, you can see the future is definitely here,” he concludes. “I was in Amsterdam for ADE last week and I could see the interest: everyone’s talking about China.”

 


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China’s Storm touches down in Taiwan, Australia

China’s leading electronic dance music (EDM) festival, A2Live’s Storm, will for the first time this year include two international dates.

Making good on newly appointed MD Eric Reithler-Barros’s promise to prioritise “Asian expansion”, the promoter – a division of Shanghai-based Ato Ato Integrated Media – has announced it will make its “first foray outside China” with events in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, and Sydney, Australia.

Along with a new Ultra event, Storm Australia will be one of two new EDM festivals in Australia this year, filling the vacuum left by SFX’s late Stereosonic event.

The flagship Storm festival in Shanghai (35,000-cap.) has, since its founding in 2013, hosted several major international EDM DJs, including Avicii, Skrillex, Alesso, Hardwell and Tiësto. In addition to the Taiwanese and Australian events, Storm festivals will take place in nine Chinese cities in 2017 – up from five last year – with a special show at IMS Asia-Pacific in September.

“When Storm goes abroad for the first time … China will finally become more cemented in the world view as a real pillar of the electronic music community”

At a press conference in Shanghai last Thursday (11 May), A2Live also announced the launch of a new label, Storm Records, in partnership with Amsterdam-based Spinnin’ Records.

The company says an increase in Storm events will serve as a counterbalance to the growing influence of Western dance music in China. “Historically, the electronic dance music scene in China has drawn heavily from Western influences,” reads a statement. “With increasing numbers of international festivals taking aim at the enormous consumer market in China, the genre is getting more influences from outside its borders.

“When China-born titan Storm goes abroad for the first time, pushing its blend of international electronic music stars outside its home country, China will finally become more cemented in the world view as a real pillar of the electronic music community. Due to Storm’s rapid expansion, more music lovers worldwide will experience the magical energy that Storm produces and propagates.

“China will no longer only take cues from abroad but will also play a crucial role in innovating, setting the trends and shaping the global dance music scene.”

 


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A2Live targets ‘Asian dominance’ under new MD

Former SFX Entertainment exec Eric Reithler-Barros has been named managing director and chief commercial officer of Chinese EDM behemoth A2Live.

The Shanghai-based company, founded by Eric Zho, is best known for promoting China’s largest dance music festival, the 35,000-cap. Storm in Shanghai, as well as several spin-off events. It also organises individual headline shows, and includes brand partnerships, artist management (A2Artist), booking (Strobe Light Talent) and streaming music (DianYinTai) divisions, with a record label in the works.

Reithler-Barros (pictured) is charged with “driving Asian expansion” in his new role, heading up all of the above divisions and serving as a key player in A2Live’s bid to achieve “Asian ecosystem dominance”.

As vice-president of global partnerships at SFX, Reithler-Barros was instrumental in securing several major worldwide deals, including lucrative partnerships with Viagogo and Mastercard. (Both have since fallen apart amid much post-bankruptcy bickering.)

“It’s no secret that China represents the largest and most nascent market potential for dance music culture in the world”

“We are thrilled to welcome a double threat [who] has not only two decades of functional experience in media and international business development, but also nearly three decades inside the world of electronic dance music,” comments Zho. “His rare combination of talents and specialised knowledge will add tremendous velocity to expansion of our core businesses while developing innovative new products and services to complement them”.

Reithler-Barros adds: “It’s no secret that China represents the largest and most nascent market potential for dance music culture in the world. Nothing could be more exciting than to engage it from multiple new angles, hand in hand with the talented staff and board of this visionary company.”

Jerry Gold, Reithler-Barros’s erstwhile colleague at SFX, last week joined live music streaming company LiveXLive.

 


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