The Explosive Growth Of The China Market

First things first: despite the title of the panel, is the China market really exploding? 

Photo: Barry Brecheisen
Allen Burke and Live Nation's Jason Miller, with the rest of the panel broadcast live from China. 

“Eight or 10 years ago China was this great opportunity for Western artists, this huge untapped market with enormous potential,” said Split Works’ Archie Hamilton. “Now pretty much every management company or agency or artist has someone or knows someone in China. And they’ve seen that it’s actually very slow growth and will take generations, 25 or 50 years.”

There are still landmark moments each year, including Metallica playing the  in Shanghai in 2013 and The Rolling Stones coming this year. Avril Lavigne is playing eight different Chinese cities, which is remarkable considering the Black Eyed Peas were one of the first modern arena acts to play there at all, and that was not even 10 years ago.

However, only so many artists have that kind of ability.

And, with all the extra hassle that comes with playing in the heavily regulated region – visas,culture ministry approval and only a handful of viable markets for most acts – sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it.

“Artists will say ‘Fuck it. I’ve been through it and it’s a major pain in the ass and it didn’t yield immediately,’” Hamilton said.

It’s also harder to do things on the fly.

“Metallica sold out in six minutes,” Mercedes-Benz Arena GM Michael Enoch said from a live feed in China. “Normally you’d immediately just add another date, but here you need a second permit for a second show and it takes another six weeks of approval.”

While the middle class has grown in China, most of its population is still far from able to afford concert tickets, as noted by Steve Sybesma, who has been promoting in China for more than a decade.

“There are more than 23 million people in Shanghai, but only a few who can actually afford concert tickets. By a few I mean a few million but, compared to the size of the market, it’s not something that everyone can afford,” Sybesma said, adding that ticket prices are generally a little higher than in the U.S. because of travel expenses and not being able to route a lot of dates without flying.

But the challenges are offset by the potential opportunities in the region, especially considering most of the major concerts are happening in only the three major markets of Shanghai, Beijing and sometimes Guangzhou.

AEG China’s Eric Cuthbertson says it is “certainly” a viable market, with lots of room for growth especially on the venue side.

Burke Allen, who manages , winner of “America’s Got Talent” a few years ago, played China like any emerging artist would when developing a market, starting in the smaller venue to make sure it’s a full house.

Despite the distance, it can still feel like home.

“In Shanghai there is a huge ex-pat community,” Burke said. “It’s just a massively densely populated arena. There are more English-speaking people in Shanghai than in New York City.”

That long view is important because one half-empty room can ruin future chances to play the market, where fans are all about appearances and feel like a band must be a dud if it’s not a full house.

“I think a manager who takes that one big check for that one big date that poisons the well for that artist forever, that’s just criminal,” Allen said.

With big checks and big dates comes the big boys. Sybesma was asked how he deals with the invasion of major U.S. promoters in his territory.

“It’s the same problem for an independent promoter anywhere in the world,” he said. “We try to find shows that we think will do well that they’re not necessarily interested in. We’re doing something a little bit differently.”

Live Nation senior vice president of Asia talent Jason Miller was called on to defend his company, which was accused of taking a somewhat short-term view of the China market.

“First of all, Live Nation doesn’t bid on everything,” he said, although he did mention that in the near future the company will likely add at least a couple of offices in Asia. “We recognize that the path we’re taking in building these markets across the region is that there is power in numbers.

“Having the ability to make an offer for a dozen shows in Asia is a powerful thing for a lot of artists.”

However, he welcomes more and better concerts done by any promoter in the whole Asia market, which “apart from Japan” has significant venue problems.

“We’re happy when anyone has successful, sold-out shows. It’s a win-win for everybody.”