Chatting with a representative of Emma, the foremost China-based promoter, last month at Fuji Rock, we learned that the company’s Director of Live Events – Marketing, A. Robb Spitzer, was leaving the company. Less than a month later, Emma’s Director of Live Events – Operations, Adam Wilkes, tells us that he is also leaving the company.
Today marks the launch of Songs for Tibet, a new compilation album from some heavy-duty superstars, including Alanis Morisette, Dave Matthews and Sting. Following its global release on iTunes — just three days before the August 8 Olympic opening ceremony — the album will be made available through other retail channels.
A project of the Art of Peace Foundation in Washington DC, Songs for Tibet also features touchy-feely artists John Mayer, Vanessa Carlton, and Damien Rice, among others.
The Art of Peace Foundation is one of many groups who see the Olympics as a flashpoint to rally support for a cause and push the Chinese government on sensitive issues. The AFP reports:
Burger King has the £85 Kobe beef burger, we have the RMB 100,000 (£7,350) entry visa. That’s not a typo. Sources tell CMR that this is the new cost of a visa for a foreign musician who wishes to perform in China. A club owner in Beijing notes that, from a government perspective, the astronomical fee is “a much more politically acceptable way to restrict foreign performances than simply to turn them down, because except for the biggest acts, this all but assures that organizers will take losses on any shows they organize, especially for bands that involve several people.” Let’s say for example that Tokyo Police Club wanted to come over and do a China tour: It would take a whopping RMB 400,000 just to get the four band members through immigration. That’s roughly the same price as 40 round-trip airfares from New York to Shanghai. For anything other than the most mainstream acts, this visa fee ensures a net loss on touring that will be too much to bear.
The irony, as the Beijing club owner mentions, is that this exorbitant new fee (which will hopefully deflate after the Olympics) won’t affect the Maroon 5s, Celine Dions and, ahem, Bjorks of the music world, “since a few hundred thousand additional RMB are probably well within the normal budget” for these international idols. Meanwhile, Chinese fans of more independent, under-the-radar music should gear up for a moratorium on international artists for the time being.
On a similarly foreboding note, we hear that last Friday a popular Beijing eatery “that had recently started a summer outdoor music series, had its show halted….According to one of the managers, a police officer simply walked up to [the] stage without saying a word to anyone in the restaurant and pulled the microphone out of the hand of the singer and said the show was over. He gave no explanation…” The silenced band, a folksy garage trio, are by all accounts apolitical. Still, authorities are keeping a close eye and a tight grip on any public setting that draws a crowd, no matter how innocuous their reasons for assembly.
On February 22, CMR posted an article entitled Big Bands in China – a bubble waiting to burst?, questioning the viability of the bloated roster of international superstars scheduled to perform in China in the coming month:
The big question now is whether or not there is enough of a market for such a heavy influx of big name, English language artists. There are more cats of this stature coming in the month of March 2008 than came in the whole of 2007. This is a massive and very sudden leap forward, and it remains to be seen if the market will bear it.
We didn’t expect what followed.
As has been discussed ad infinitum on this blog and elsewhere, Bjork put a bit of a spanner in the proverbial works with her March concert in Shanghai. The subsequent Harry Connick, Jr. concert was marred by controversy. According to the musicians, backstage was raided shortly before stage time and many of Harry’s more “incendiary” songs were barred. Then came a spat between Celine Dion, the Beijing Ministry of Culture and Emma Entertainment over the show in the Gongti Worker’s Stadium, which ended up cancelled for reasons unknown.
The final nail in the coffin has been the cancellation last week of China’s oldest and biggest festival — the institution that is Midi — and speculation that the government will offer Midi a rescheduled slot during the October holiday at Haidian Park, the preserve of the newly inaugurated Modern Sky festival.
The bubble has indeed burst, far more abruptly and corrosively than we had imagined.
So what now? Word on the street is that licensing any show before the Olympics will be impossible, and perhaps for the rest of the year. There have also been whispers that the biggest kids on the playground, Emma, will be prohibited from putting on any shows for the indefinite future (forever?), a huge setback for China’s international music scene. Regulations are in the works that, if put on the books, will make things very, very difficult for anyone in China to organize projects/events involving foreign artists.
Bjork’s “outburst” couldn’t have come at a worse time. Less than 10 days later, those now-famous whispers echoed around the world. The subsequent mess featured on front pages from London to Lhasa, and where this will lead is anyone’s guess. Speculation has ranged from international reconciliation to an increasingly tense Sino-World entente. We hope that good sense will prevail and that the alarming rise of nationalism on both sides of the Pacific will recede as everyone realises that the ferocity of the current credit and food crises will require international co-operation in order to avoid something much deeper and long term
As for the fledgling music industry here in China, we must change our own internal rules. Concert promoters here have long been operating on the edge of what the Chinese authorities deemed tolerable. Now, we must work only with bands that are interested in helping this country to develop through exposure and diversity. At the same time, we must work harder to improve the standard of the indigenous music industry, be it facilities, bands or media. That, however, is a topic for another article. Keep your fingers crossed for us – it doesn’t look good just now.
The rumour mill is spinning over Celine Dion’s cancelled gig in Beijing. See if you can make sense of the competing theories offered. Us neither.
Concert organizers Ticketmaster whom you may remember from that little Bjork flap last month, have said that the Canadian superstar’s Beijing show has been “postponed for health reasons,” which makes it seem awfully strange that she has now scheduled a show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for that same day. Meanwhile, the Beijing Evening News squashes the throat infection rumours, and quotes a Dion spokesman as saying that “the real reason for the cancellation was that the concert’s organizer ‘had sold more than 10,000 tickets, having not carried out the approval process.’”
Funny then that the Culture Ministry insists that the concert has already been approved. It’s possible that Emma Ticketmaster hastily put tickets on sale before the event had gained official approval, and though all the paperwork has now been signed and stamped, Celine’s well-oiled publicity machine is being extra-cautious following the Bjork brouhaha.
While the April 13 Beijing show has been cancelled, Celine’s April 11 tour date in Shanghai is still on. The pop diva will give her first ever performance on the Chinese mainland at the 50,000-seat Shanghai Stadium.
So, the government meetings following Bjork’s outburst at the beginning of March are continuing. The following is a summary of a report on the behind-closed-doors discussion on March 18:
Additional measures (not yet approved) from SH Cultural Bureau re foreign performers in China:
1. Organizers must sign additional guarantees that performers will not comment on political issues from stage, etc.
2. A 50% of the total potential box office must be paid as a deposit on the show to the Cultural Bureau. Should performers break the law, this deposit will be retained by the government. Additional fines may be levied.
3. Artist performances will be closely monitored to conform to the government pre-approved set-lists.
4. Artists will not be allowed an unapproved encore.
This will make it a whole lot harder for us, particularly number 2. For bigger shows, this may be near to impossible…
P2Pnet recently picked up some of our Bjork Backlash ruminations, including a couple CMR quotes in an article titled, “The Bjork Effect, echoing still.” A heated (and at times vitriolic) discussion ensued in the comments thread. We’ve posted some of the more colourful comments below.
5 Responses to “The Bjork Effect, echoing still”
- Mostly Harmless Says:
March 26th, 2008 at 11:15 am
This story is so full of hypocritical doublespeak it makes my head swim. The Chinese Government is an oppressive dictatorial regime. THEIR position is completely indefensible, right along with the money grubbing promoter who would try to defend them. It is plainly obvious that this guy sees his cash cow as being threatened. I do not believe for a second that the government of China wishes to move towards a more open, free society. If they are loosening up at all, it is out of economic necessity and the wish to appear so, all the while maintaining the tightest of grips on Chinese public perception, opinion, and behavior through brutal oppression, censorship, and propaganda. Is government sanitized art going to bring anything to the Chinese people other than some lite entertainment, and most notably, wads of filthy lucre for those slimy enough to take it? To me this promoter, and ironically the artists who take the gigs are on par with the companies that did business with the Third Reich during WWII. At least Bjork spoke out, if you can call it that.
As the guy with a “cash cow”, I think you should try to be a promoter before you wax lyrical about something you know nothing about. My company has currently “invested” (i.e. lost) considerable amounts of money bringing good, influential bands to China. We are here because we believe that the power of music can help this country to develop in a positive way. We work with environmental organisations in an attempt to increase knowledge amongst the Chinese of all the harm that they are doing to our planet. We invest significant amount of ticket revenues into the migrant worker communities (if you don’t know about migrant communities, you have no right to comment on what’s happening in China) and we are doing our best to make China a nicer place to live.
You do not believe that the government wishes to open up? This may be true, but what when the next generation (who will have been exposed to these positive influences) get into power? Perhaps they will want to change things for the better because they know better. Or what happens when the middle class increase their clamour for freedom of speech and choice? We help this process in a very small way…
Do you think Western sanctions will work here? China owns the USA, so the world’s most powerful country does not actually have a particularly powerful bargaining position. We are arguing that Bjork’s actions were ill thought out and will benefit no-one but herself. The Chinese here don’t know or care what she said…
So please wind your neck in before you accuse any of us of working with the likes of the 3rd Reich again…
It’s a difficult time for me to be in China as I feel morally involved with everything happening at the moment. Problems in the Sudan, Xinjiang and most recently, Tibet are causing schisms within the international community living in China. Can we live and work in this country with a clear conscience or are China’s interests best served by us just getting our heads down and trying to facilitate change from within? A recent incident involving Bjork has set tongues wagging…
Instinctively, I doubt whether the alleged call to arms by Icelandic singer Bjork at her recent Shanghai concert (3/3/08) has anything to do with the events currently unfolding high on the Tibetan plateau. Whilst her outburst seems timely in hindsight, it is more likely to have just been a case of opportunism that has done more for singer’s own publicity machine than for the people of Tibet. The singer allegedly closed her set with a song unauthorised by the Chinese Ministry of Culture. “Declare Independence” was seemingly a dedication, ending with the word “Tibet”, twice. I allude to doubt because of the 10 or so people I knew at the show, only one was certain that she said the word. Whatever the truth may be, the controversy has come at a time when tensions over the Beijing Olympics are beginning to run high. Steven Spielberg’s conscience has deprived us of his hand at the opening ceremony and now the Tibetans themselves seem set to keep the attention of the world’s press firmly on Beijing in the run up to the summer games.
As to Bjork, my view is simple. As music promoters in one of the most closely monitored societies in the world, we have a duty to ensure that international artists buy into the belief that the long term benefits to this country are better served by increasing exposure to external influences, rather than soapboxing and risking complete shutdown. One of the things that we do here is bring real diversity and choice to young people. Artists coming into China will leave a longer lasting legacy to their fans and newcomers alike by encouraging the Chinese kids to embrace creative thinking, diversity and individuality within the confines of both positive thinking and rhetoric. Having the chance to see role models week in, week out, from dubstep DJ’s to self funded Belgian turbo folksters can only be good for a youth obsessed with money, celebrity and materialism.
Increasing competition in the media means that Chinese youth can actually choose what to read and, although official publications still have to go through extensive censorship procedures (monthly editions must be submitted to the authorities by the 15th of the previous month), reportage is on the up in both quality and variety.
Further, many local promoters work with incoming artists to spread knowledge. Masterclasses from Beatboxers, DJ’s & producers are given free to local artists, local bands are given chances to support and learn form more experienced international ones and venues and music infrastructure are improving.
Finally, the growing music scene gives rise to increased awareness of charitable organisations. See the Midi Festival linking (and giving prominence) to Greenpeace, Shanghai’s The Shelter doing a monthly night called the Shelter Foundation where takings are donated to children and environmental charities, and Split Works taking LA based band Ozomatli to a migrant worker community for the day (and inviting some migrant workers to the show afterwards) plus extensive support for the Jane Goodall Foundation at the 2007 Yue Festival.
So, where’s this all going? In short, there are problems in China as there are in all countries, but especially so in one undergoing such an enormous development in such a short time. Problems are not sorted (or even helped) by high profile rants that frighten a government whose primary concern is an orderly society. This causes renewed repression and a reversal of many of the positive changes that we have seen recently in our industry. Change has to initiate from the ground up, with China’s citizens starting to understand the problems they face and taking account for these themselves. Change comes from education and increased enlightenment. Shouts of Tibet at a concert for the privileged (tickets were US$50 – $250) will turn back the clocks on our industry and make it harder to facilitate this change, which would be tragic in it’s own way.
–Archie Hamilton, Split Works’ Managing Director
Some are calling it an “outburst,” others refer to it as a whisper, but one thing’s for sure: Bjork’s chants of “Tibet, Tibet,” at her March 2 Shanghai concert were heard loud and clear by the Chinese government. The Icelandic chanteuse’s remarks quickly erupted into a scandal; control of Tibet is an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese government, and Bjork’s remarks even “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to the Culture Ministry.
It has now been nearly 2 weeks since the kerfuffle, and while the grandstanding songstress is comfortably beyond the reach of the arm of Chinese law, the ripples are beginning to be felt by the 1.3 billion Chinese who will now be suffering the repercussions of Bjork’s publicity stunt. Reuters has an interesting look at how the Bjork incident will affect China’s music industry. With the Culture Ministry’s recent announcement that it will “tighten controls over foreign singers and other performers,” China’s concert promoters are pointing out that the real losers in all this are the Chinese people, whose access to creative influences and diverse forms of expression will be more restricted than before.
While staff at Emma Ticketmaster, who organised the Bjork show, refused to comment for the article, other promoters voiced their worries that this incident might prove to be quite a setback for the country’s burgeoning music business.
The article also speculates that it will be promoters who will bear the brunt of financial and legal sanctions for similar incidents in the future. This speculation has the ring of truth, as the government is eager to lay the blame elsewhere, and international artists are, well, international and difficult to prosecute under Chinese law. Stay tuned for details of the fallout in the coming weeks.
“It is unfortunate that this has happened. I know artists have to stand up for their beliefs, but she can’t expect to accomplish any good in doing what she did,” said John Siegel from China West Entertainment.
“I am concerned that tougher restrictions will apply, when it was finally getting a little more relaxed. Also, artists may not want to comply with tougher restrictions and choose not to come to China altogether.”
Happy Chinese New Year! It’s been a while, but we’ve been busy. A big show at the end of January with Hard-Fi, Tom Middleton and Sasha followed by the annual Chinese shut down. Snow, death at railway stations, delayed flights and extreme cold characterized Chinese New Year 2008 for most.