Midi and Strawberry Music Festivals 2013: An Audience Matures

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This blog does a pretty good job of reviewing and complaining about music festivals happening in Beijing, Shanghai, and sometimes even other cities (by our tireless contributors). However, from an audience perspective, we have precious few gripes this year for 2 of China’s longest-running music festivals, Midi and Strawberry.

Your Radar correspondents, split between Beijing and Shanghai, attended the first day of Strawberry in Beijing, the third day of Midi in Beijing and day three of Strawberry in Shanghai. Miracle of miracles, there was beer for sale at Strawberry in Beijing. More importantly, it didn’t come in tepid cans out of a sketchy backpack. Danish beer juggernaut Tuborg claimed sponsorship duties at Modern Sky’s flagship festival, complete with VIP “pavilion,” microphone-toting MC and plenty of scantily clad Tuborg honeys. There are unsubstantiated rumors that the beer was only there the first day – can any of our readers shed some light on the situation? In Shanghai, we were pretty outraged to find out that Strawberry had (seemingly) sold exclusive alcohol rights to Bacardi. While this is good for the coffers in the short run and great for a brand to force everyone that wants to drink alcohol to drink theirs, it’s moves like this that destroy the long term credibility of a festival. It is simply greed that is driving a festival to deny consumers choice to make MORE money.

Usually strongest with their domestic lineup, Strawberry’s foreign headliners this year was Travis, they of the inoffensive between-Oasis-and-Coldplay Britrock persuasion; experimental pop savants Deerhoof; and Lenka, who played at Modern Sky 2011. We stayed for the entirety of Travis’ set, and enjoyed it very much, to our great surprise. There were no surprises in the domestic lineup, from New Pants taking the slot before the headliner for the second year in a row to Xie Tian Xiao’s 75th appearance to close out the festival (more on that in a bit), but the sheer number of people at the festival – the organizers stopped selling door tickets at 3PM – speaks to it’s success, even with single day tickets priced at 150 RMB.

Midi Festival took over the space at China Music Valley in Pinggu district this year, extending the festival’s eternal quest to find the furthest possible location whilst still remaining within Beijing’s municipal borders. In past years, the China Music Valley Festival (of Avril Lavigne and Jesus and Mary Chain notoriety) have installed two stages in the entire area, and alternated set times so that only one act would be playing at any given time. Midi brought 5 stages. The sonic experience was…interesting. However, the festival experience was not lacking. From 20 RMB beers and 5 RMB water to donuts that were “much better than they had to be” (quoth one enthusiastic festivalgoer), parking yourself in front of a stage and letting the music wash over you was not a bad way to pass the day.For both events, branding was everywhere, from the Veet flower wall in front of the Strawberry Lifestyle Pavilion and Yili-sponsored Love Stage at Strawberry to the Mini Cooper-shaped stage and House of Vans at Midi. But regardless of the commercial presence, this is the first year that both venerated China music festivals captured part of the “festival spirit” seen at international stalwarts Coachella or Reading and Leeds. Strawberry was the first to seize onto this kind of consistency, which breeds reliability and consumer loyalty. The same location, similar lineups and even the same layout year after year. For many Chinese music lovers, weekly or even monthly outings to see live music simply aren’t feasible. So while scene insiders complain about lack of innovation (and we are guilty as charged), the festival organizers have actually identified their audience desires and tailor to those expectations. In an industry where solvency is five years removed from the initial investment at best, these festivals have their eyes on the prize: sustainability.

But wait: although we applaud this move to sustainability and the provision of better facilities to the audience, we can’t write this without bemoaning the fact that this consistency IS FUCKING BORING. The lineups of these festivals have not evolved at all in the last 5 years.  Miserable Faith headlining Midi: check. Lenka back for Strawberry: check. Queen Sea Big Shark, Re-Tros, Xie Tian Xiao, New Pants all getting key slots at 草莓: checkcheckcheckcheck. Muma and Third Party, Twisted Machine all headlining Midi stages: you get the idea… It’s like the organizers are dialing in, again and again and again, either that or nobody at either of these companies actually listen to new music, or are prepared to give anyone new a shot.

You want to know what we think? Midi and Modern Sky are more interested in nationwide domination (and in Strawberry’s case, rinsing margins) than actually offering anything new to consumers. Strawberry is in 6 or 7 cities this year, Midi something similar, becoming akin to cookie cutter festival formulas. Strawberry seems happy to make a small fortune by selling every square inch of real estate to any brand that will buy, which meant the experience at the mainstage in Shanghai was similar to going to a really down-at-heel Yinchuan mall. Branded booths were all blaring their own music completely randomly and at odds with the music on stage. The sound clashes were really horrible. Once again, although this will benefit the festivals financially in the short term, and while festival newbies in Xi’an and Shenzhen will appreciate the newness of a Strawberry or Midi in their city, it’s only a matter of time (in fact it has already started) before consumers in the strongholds of Shanghai and Beijing start to look for something new.

Midi, the older of the two festivals, started out with the reputation of being the less commercially-minded of the two. But in past years, with sponsorships from Vans, Jagermeister and Tiger amongst others, it is undeniable that the sponsors make for a better festival experience IF DONE WELL.  Kinder and Bacardi take note. Perhaps in another ten years the market will be ready for a festival without either a car on stage, or a car-shaped stage.

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