We spoke to China’s biggest dance promoter on roadblocks and opportunities in the country’s burgeoning dance scene [Interview]

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Though commercial dance music has saturated almost every market over the past decade, growth in China — the world’s most populous market — has been more gradual. While home to 20% of the planet’s population — with a large portion of Chinese millennials increasingly aware of and passionate about the genre — the country’s infrastructure to support dance music’s spread hasn’t developed at the same pace. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, through which most artists share their music, announce their tours and interact with their fans, are blocked. Foreign promoters with experience in event production have encountered difficulty with the government’s notoriously difficult-to-navigate bureaucracy, and large-scale events are logistical nightmares with such a tremendous population to account for.

We spoke to Eric Zho, event promoter and founder of China’s largest electronic music festival, Budweiser STORM, about the current challenges and nearly-limitless possibilities dance music faces in the largest country — and one of the last untapped markets — in the world.

On September 29-30, Zho will help host International Music Summit Asia-Pacific in Shanghai, China, which features panel guests such as Skrillex, Alesso, Pete Tong, Lee Anderson and more. Tickets are available here.

How would you describe the current state of electronic music in China? How has it grown over the last 5-10 years?

There has been significant change in dance music industry. In China, the electronic music scene has grown rapidly in the past years. Attendance of events is rising online with the rise of the Chinese middle class. The interest for people to go to night clubs, live music events, and festivals increased significantly.

From A2LiVE prospective, from 2014-2015, attendants rate for festival grew 243%. From 2015-2016, we are looking another 278% growth in attendants. Total project for A2LiVE between 2014 and 2015 is a 500% growth. And from 2015-2016, is 240% growth. Seeing triple digit growth year on year only tells us that not only is this music sector growing, it is growing at a very fast pace.

What are some of the greatest hurdles in bringing electronic music to China?

Because of the great firewall, generally people’s inability to access to social media in the west such as Soundcloud, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Accessing this type of EDM content from China has been extremely difficult. The dance music one can access within China is mainly the tracks that are on top Billboard charts or UK charts. But still, it is difficult to find a lot of music from even well-known EDM artists if their tracks are not being represented on the mainstream charts in the West.

What is the attitude of the government towards electronic music events?

The current administration has been quite supportive to the entertainment and cultural industry. However they would like to see more home grown culture rather than imported culture. Even with government support from the central level, this may not trickle down to the local provincial or city level. In general in China, it is very difficult to host large scale outdoor events, so festivals are under scrutiny. And because of safety concerns, many indoor arenas and event space don’t allow people to stand; instead, PSB (public security bureau) will force floor seating as default decision if the promoters don’t have other means to convince them otherwise. This leaves dance music with very limited venue choices. Even when a venue has agreed to allow standing, a promoter still needs to get PSB approval. As you can, the process is tedious and sometimes very costly as well.

What are some unique aspects about China’s scene?

We are seeing a fast growth in the EDM sector for several reasons. One, A2LiVE has been actively promoting EDM events in the country across multiple cities. Two, our key sponsor, Budweiser, and many others, has been heavily investing their marketing resources behind EDM genre. Three, many affluent Chinese, are now starting to venture outside of China to attend EDM events in Ibiza, US, Europe, and other parts of Asia. They post their experiences on WeChat moments, which influences others to be more interested in the music genre and the electronic music culture in general. The dance scene is still relatively weak, but China has had a long tradition of table service culture, and this is why to run an EDM event in China, the promoter almost always have a VIP table sector to accommodate the VIPs that wants that service. Of course the table service is still a smaller % of the total EDM fanbase, but the income generated from these high spends sometimes out strip the entire ticket sale volume of the GA audience.

The scene I believe, is definitely on the rise, I see more and more people who goes to clubs talking about DJs, who they are, and what these DJ have done. The more importantly, local DJs now also are starting to have a presence, with some of them touring across the country as well.

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What part of China’s scene holds the most promise for development / growth over the next few years?

One, the music scene will grow as more EDM labels work with online music streaming companies in China. Last research had suggested that the number-two highest streamed music on Netease’s music platform is EDM. This is quite a surprise because just one year ago this would be impossible.

Second, the live events space is certainly the fastest growing. Besides large scale festivals, tier 1 and tier 2 cities are now seeing a vibrant underground scene sprouting. I also see large-scale promoters who previously focused their shows on musicians from Taiwan and Hong Kong now taking an interest in electronic music artists. I believe with more education and more access of the dance music genre in China, these promoters will start to also start to enter the EDM genre. When this happens, you will see an explosive growth that will be in the three-digit growth scale across all of China.

Where would you like to see China’s scene in 10 years?

I believe the electronic music culture will become one of the mainstream music cultures to take root in China in the years to come. There will be many localized EDM tracks with Chinese vocals. Millennials will no longer think that EDM is a foreign origin, rather, they will start to consider it as local. This is when the music genre has become a mainstream music genre. Remember, if EDM penetration in China within youth equals that that of the United States, China will need to host more than 350 festivals per year the size of Budweiser STORM to satisfy that demand.

What role has STORM Festival played in developing the scene in China?

Since 2013, when we made headlines with STORM Electronic Music Festival in Shanghai, STORM has become the largest festival of its kind in Asia with 20,000 people. The attendance rate for the festival has been growing from year to year. This year, our ambition with STORM has taken us to Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai. We will be looking at taking STORM to even more cities next year.

As leading force behind the growth of the dance music industry in China, we will keep bringing music experiences and EDM culture to Chinese music lovers. Because of STORM’s success, we have seen many more promoters across the country trying to emulate us. However, not many are at the same level, albeit it’s great that more players are entering into the music sector to support and help grow the entire music genre.

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What was the original inspiration behind the festival?

Because of my personal background as a TV creator and producer for many years, I wanted to create something that can cross over to other entertainment areas, such as filmed entertainment and gaming. This was why I decided to choose an alien theme for STORM festival. Using aliens and their culture as the backdrop of the festival, we are paving the way for the IP to grow in other entertainment areas in the near future.

How have you managed to grow the festival so significantly over the past few years?

1.) Unique marketing campaign – unlike most promoters, we need to be more creative to market a lesser-known music genre to attract newcomers. Most people in China will be confused at looking at a billing posters with all the names of the DJs. Most respond better with images that represent the festival.

2.) Innovative ticketing strategy – We are constantly using gamification help our ticketing efforts. From using digital platform that allows people to “line up” before they are allowed to purchase tickets, and gamify the queue by allow people to get ahead of other if they perform a certain task we ask them to do (i.e. to help us get the word out), to incentivizing key opinion leaders with a large social media account, we often count on ticketing gamification to gain awareness and to sell tickets fast.

3.) Long-term partners with similar goals – we like to choose long term partners that also have identified the EDM genre as part of their communication strategy. These partners are more likely to also help promote the genre in their own marketing initiatives.

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How did the partnership with International Music Summit come about?

Our goal for IMS Asia Pacific is to clear any red tape and support those who have an interest in the region, to further grow and penetrate a territory more than 60% of the world’s population calls home. With Ben Turner’s (co-founder of the Summit) experience and foresight, combined with our own experience in the region, we believe IMS Asia Pacific will be the key to help open those doors for the dance music industry

What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming IMS Asia-Pacific?

I’m looking forward to meet global artists, thought-leaders and industry figureheads to explore the growing influence of electronic music and the issues, challenges and opportunities that face the industry globally and in Asia.

Read more:

1 Billion and Counting: Eric Zho on the massive untapped electronic music market in China

The Great Wall of China prepares for underground dance music festival