Article by Archie Hamilton, Split Works
This was an eventful weekend down at ChongQing and Jianguo Lus in Shanghai. We had booked two shows at the new Mao Livehouse across their opening weekend. This being China, it was probably a mistake.
Before we start, let’s get one thing straight – Shanghai needs a venue like Mao Livehouse. The advent of this space has revolutionized the live music scene in China’s second city. The new edition is a good one – a decent use of space and some interesting design touches. Still too many unlit little steps though – expect to trip a few times on each visit. This is not a rant against a very valuable stakeholder in the future of live music in China, just a series of requests for better communication and more transparency.
The balanced view: running a late night venue in China cannot be easy: local residents, drunk and disorderly, loud music, early morning endings with large groups spilling out onto a street – this is still a country where most of the above are new phenomena and as such, it takes time for a new venue to bed in, if indeed they ever really manage to (LOgO had problems for the whole of their 7 year history).
And with all that knowledge, still we chose to christen the new Mao on their opening weekend with 2 of our JUE Festival shows. Hindsight, of course is a wonderful thing.
Night 1: Shanren
Had we been writing this on Saturday morning, our tone would have been way less charitable. On Friday night, Mao made things so much more complicated than they had to. We booked the venue a couple of months back for Shanren, a Yunnan folk act that we had been excited about for quite some time. Unbeknownst to us, Mao then took another booking for this opening night, telling Beijing based collective “the M” that our show would be finished by 9.30pm and that the venue would be fine for Berlin based DJ/ producer Paul Kalkrenner to start at 11pm. Problem being, the Mao management neglected to tell us any of this – we found out through the listings and through our friends at “the M”. Honestly, we were disappointed that first, the double booking was actually made, but that second, the venue failed to communicate the situation at all, leaving the two groups of promoters to manage a potentially problematic situation not of their own making.
And so it was that tensions ran high throughout the opening night. Shanren were brusquely told by venue staff that they would have to be finished at 10pm, when doors were at 8pm and support on at 8.30pm. Shanren were not due to go on until 9.30pm and so we pushed back, telling everyone we would try to be finished by 10.30pm.
Under duress for the entire night from both the other promoters (to be fair to them, they were fighting back early arrivers for their show from about 9.30pm) and the venue (who signaled to the band more than once to come off stage, despite both Shanren and the crowd wanting encores), the situation left more than sour taste in our mouths. A sour taste made worse when we found that the opening night (both our gig and the Kalkbrenner one) had been sold to Jagermeister without our knowledge: Jager banners all around the venue plus posters printed up with massive Jager branding all over the content that the M and Split Works were providing and paying for. Negotiate with sponsors by all means, but you NEED to ask promoter permission to brand their event, and then share the money received with the artists involved – the fact that none of this happened shows a massive lack of understanding/ respect from the venue.
Finally, we asked for the venue staff to respect a band that had come down from Beijing to play to fans in Shanghai. We were finishing the show prematurely to allow the M to set up: could the crowd be left for 2 minutes after the band had come off stage to allow them some love/ applause/ appreciation?
No such luck – as Shanren were (rather confusedly) trouping off stage, The venue’s own MC came onto the microphone and demanded that
“People please leave the venue immediately. We have to get our next party in”. These instructions we communicated not once, but twice in the two minutes following the premature end to the set.
Our time had most certainly come.
Night 2: Hanggai
The next night, things went pretty smoothly up until shortly after Abaji, the support act, had gone off stage. Hanggai were dressed up, ready to roll. The room was full, excitement was palpable. Abaji had warmed them up superbly – it was going to be an incredible night.
Suddenly the new Mao Shanghai Laoban was backstage. It was the first time we had seen him all weekend and he looked upset. Sure enough, the local police had turned up and told the venue management that the show could not go on. A combination of complaints from the night before (there were allegedly 1000 people in and around the venue until 5am) and a lack of communication/ “understanding” with the district police saw us announcing to a visibly upset band first, and an obviously disappointed crowd second that Hanggai would not be able to play.
It was at this point that Mao showed (at least to our jaded eyes) that they did care. Their team tried hard, first of all, to change the police minds. Calls were made, petitions sent forth. The building that houses the new Livehouse also houses the Luwan cultural bureau. They are supportive of and fully behind the whole project down there. The problem, as it so often is, was the PSB (public security bureau) who are tasked with keeping the peace. Of course, a new venue opening with a huge weekend of festivities bringing thousands of drinking and reveling souls into the district is bound to have teething problems. The Kalkbrenner party was probably a little early in the venue’s short life to date – an extreme event that will probably only happen once or twice in the next 12 months.
But incredibly and honorably, the venue not only refunded every single ticket without complaint, but also paid us, the promoters our share of every ticket sold. This allowed us to pay the band, cover our expenses and almost break even on the evening. It won’t make up to the band for a wasted journey to Shanghai, or to the crowd for a half baked evening in Mao, but it was the fair and right thing to do and it does increase our respect for the building management.
In summary, there were serious communication issues and we are disappointed with the outcomes of the weekend. However, in the end, the venue did come through for us and we do hope that they will be able to iron out these problems and enjoy a long and successful life at the forefront of live music in China.