Interview: A2Live Bringing The Storm

Since former SFX VP of global partnerships Eric Reithler-Barros joined Eric Zho’s Shanghai-based EDM empire A2Live earlier this year as managing director and COO, the company has continued to increase its global and pan-Asian profile.  

Eric Reithler-Barros
– Eric Reithler-Barros

The Ibiza-hailed IMSAsia Pacific takes place in Shanghai Sept. 21-22 at the Hyatt on the Bund. It coincides with the staging before 35,000 of the Shanghai stop of A2Live’s flagship 5-year-old Budweiser Storm festival Sept. 23-24.

This year the festival expands from five cities (drawing 250,000 in 2016) to 11 on mainland China, and also debuts in Australia, Dec. 9 at Sydney’s Parramatta Park.

2017 also sees the launch of Storm Records in partnership with the Amsterdam-based EDM label Spinnin’ Records. It joins other pioneering A2Live divisions covering brand partnerships, artist management (A2Artist), booking (Strobe Light Talent) and streaming music (DianYinTai).

What audience numbers are you expecting for 2017?

It’s hard to say midway through the tour, but we are expecting a few hundred thousand visitors to our Budweiser Storm property this summer.  What’s interesting is that we’ve seen a rise in attribution to our live video stream.  For example, Storm 2016’s two-day Shanghai show had 22.5 million unique views of the live stream, compared to Tomorrowland Belgium’s 2017 6-day fest that had 9.5 million uniques.

What challenges does an EDM festival face in mainland China?

In live production, the professional standards of local crews tend to be sub-par.  Touring infrastructure is minimal.  It’s improving, though, with new world-class venues coming online like Shanghai International Music Park (SIMP).  Other challenges include regulatory and permitting challenges that can be unpredictable and difficult to work around.  For example, getting event permits a short time before the event can bring about marketing and operational challenges.

International artists get frustrated when set times, performance dates, even venues, seem to change sporadically.  The thing is, these changes are largely outside the hands of promoters – they’re often due to decision made by government authorities and censors.  Permits and government approvals make promoting live music in China more challenging and unpredictable than I had imagined.  Making timely offshore payments for artists and vendors is also harder to accomplish, due to strict local banking regulations that slow things down unpredictably.

To what extent is a Chinese EDM festival goers different from a Western one, say, in terms of what they expect, how their tastes are different?

Fans in China seem to be more open to different styles of electronic music (not entrenched in one or two) since the electronic scene is more nascent here. 

Economically, China is still a developing country.  The more it develops, the more musical innovation will blow up.  It’s hard for people to flourish in the arts and pursue musical dreams, when a stable quality of life still is out of reach for much of the creative class.  As China develops overall, so will its music industry and diversity of fandom. 

I’ve also been surprised to observe the massive importance of artist rankings, such as the DJ Mag Top 100 list, in determining artist popularity amongst festival goers.  This is not something we really see to this degree in American or European markets.

What trends do you see for the Chinese EDM scene, and how will these be different from the scene now?

There is really fresh electronic music happening in the Chinese underground, but sadly much of it will never see the light of day since underground doesn’t seem to be rewarded enough here.  Ironically, I’m hearing this is partly the fault of underground people “keeping the good stuff” for themselves and their friends.  This should and will change.”

What percentage of Chinese acts will be on the Budweiser Storm bills for mainland China?

I’ll start the answer to that question by pointing to international acts.  For nearly three decades I’ve lived inside the world of electronic dance music, and looking at international acts coming into China, I see bookings being overly inflated by opaque market information, coupled with pointless bidding wars between promoters. 

These are dangerous market inefficiencies that hurt the scene.  I predict we’ll look back at this as the halcyon days for global booking agencies in China, but sadly what it means is that there’s less booking budget remaining for promoters to lift local talent.  That said, we balance working with Chinese acts wherever it makes sense for our business and especially our fans.  We are a Chinese company born and raised in mainland China – nothing makes us happier than taking part in the rise of a Chinese star.

For Sydney, are you working with a local promoter?

Yes, we have a superstar Sydney project office and are working with very talented and seasoned local teams that have combined decades of experience producing and promoting music events in Australia.  They are household names in the Australian promoter scene.

 What’s your long-term strategy for your company to build up the EDM scene in China, and what role does Storm Records play in this?

As I travel around the world, China is on the tip of everybody’s tongue, everyone wants a piece of this music market.  I myself want to contribute in helping ensure that Chinese talent has a platform to export that Chinese goodness… not just import Western trends. A reciprocal flow. To me this means properly developing and platforming early-phase Chinese talent.  We’ve partnered in an exciting joint venture with Spinnin’ Records from the Netherlands one such platform, and its called Storm Records.  It will reflect the sound of our festival main stage.

There will be challenges for us.  In recorded music, core national services like earnest collection and distribution of recording royalties are not fully established in China, so people aren’t always getting paid properly.  Underground creatives seem to think they are doomed to life on the margins, with little opportunity to break out financially or creatively.  We’d like to do our part to change this as much as possible and ensure an encouraging, equitable environment for artists.

Musicians generally don’t make real money from selling music in mainland PRC.  Money is made from derivative stuff like TV shows, merch, KTV etc, so the incentive for quality music is de-emphasized.  Distribution and placement for music here overly depends on financial backing and backroom deals, not always talent, so quality musicians are sometimes discouraged from participating in the system.  These general trends can spill into the world of electronic music as well.

Rampant piracy and general disrespect for IP is also a discouraging factor for aspiring Chinese musicians.  The IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) thinks that the piracy rate for downloaded songs in China is nearly 100-percent.

How many acts has Storm Records signed, and what specifically are you looking for when you sign a local artist? Is it important they must have a global appeal as well?

“We’re just getting started on A&R and building a release pipeline.  We’re very excited with things to come.  I personally believe that many good instrumentalists and writers of any genre, often come from a classical background.  Classical music training has been engrained in Chinese children during the New Culture Movement and after the Cultural Revolution, the so called ‘Rhapsody In Red’ effect.  Today there are estimates ranging from 30-100M Chinese kids studying piano, violin or both, at school or with tutors.  Eighty percent of the world’s pianos are made in China.  Its exciting to think that amazing talents exist within the homes of the population here. 

Musical creativity – and by extension, creativity in electronic music – is engrained in the fabric of this country.  When we look at local artists specifically, we are looking for great music and a marketable individual that is dedicated and looking to grow exponentially.  So yes this would mean some level of global appeal.”

This year Australia is seeing the return of Creamfields and Sensation. What point of difference will Storm offer Australian audiences?

Aside from being focused on electronic music, I’m not sure many parallels exist between us and some of these other brands, as we appeal to a different target audience.  We’ll compete on production value and lineup, but we also hope that the market will be inquisitive and welcome this strange new brand from China!

Are there plans to launch Storm Records in Australia?

The planning around Storm Records is for it to be a globally distributed and marketed label.  We also have our eyes on creating new label concepts and brands in different sub-genres, for different audiences.

What is the background on your streaming music app, DianYinTai?

DianYinTai is an iOS/Android streaming service for electronic music.  We just fully launched the app for free download a few days ago after several months of public beta.  It’s fully developed and operated in-house at our Shanghai headquarters. It’s bilingual and designed for the Chinese market.  It works within the “Great Firewall Of China” unlike many foreign services.  We see a bright future for this service as a niche player in the music streaming market here.

In the next two years, where would you see Storm launching next? Is Southeast Asia the obvious market?

You’ll have to wait and see!