Radar on SOTX: Live Venues and the Franchising Phenomenon

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For our first Sound of the Xity write-up, we focus on a really pertinent argument that will play itself out over the coming years in ways that could have far-reaching implications on China’s live sector. It focuses on whether or not the franchising model should be pursued by established venues, and if so, what is at stake for music fans and communities across the country.

On one side we have the view that franchising represents a natural part of a venue’s evolution – by outsourcing one successful venue’s promotions, marketing infrastructure and managerial team, the same experience can be appropriated across the country to the benefit of underserved communities. MAO Livehouse is undergoing this very process. Yanwen Gua (Beijing Lemeng Cultural Media Co., Ltd CEO) says MAO Beijing (not “THE” MAO Beijing – read here for an inside on the situation between the original BJ/SH venues) and Hangzhou will open at the end of the year. The Japanese-investor backed chain will also gravitate to other locations with a high density of universities, including Kunming and Chongqing, which could surely do wonders for kids looking for a much-needed mid-level platform. Gua referred to ‘standards’ on various occasions, and this foregrounds the counter-argument to franchising.

The very act of duplicating efforts across locations entails a certain level of prescription and top-down command and control, which at worst can rob a venue of its own unique character, or in the words of Emiel Barendsen (World Music Forum. NL. President of the Advisory Council), lead to a rationalization of the cultural landscape. Franchising can enable accumulations of power and monopolization as was the case in the UK with AEG and Live Nation; a rapid series of acquisitions in London sparked concerns that these two enterprises would have undue influence over ticket pricing, the kinds of events that would be hosted and artist selection. This same scenario could unfold in the case of MAO or Modern Sky’s Lab project. If and when it arises, will the government step in to ameliorate the situation? It’s unlikely at best given its standoffish stance. Stephen McGrath (Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall, Media and Artist Development Manager) reminds us that numerous national governments recognize the creative industries as stimuli for the wider economy; countries in the APAC region including Japan and Korea (in particular) invest heavily in music, contrary to the outlook in China which positions the arts as a sort of service industry for funneling propaganda and empowering “sweat of the brow” workers to realizing the collective socialist dream.

Lue ZhiQiang (Yugong Yishan Beijing, Founder) believes that the integrity of a venue should be preserved by focusing diligently on providing the best programming and experiences. This perhaps can’t be achieved at scale. He even suggests Yugong Yishan is at capacity: with 200 shows a year, pushing this would only increase staff fatigue and erode the venue’s reputation for delivering quality over quantity. While his venue would consider opening in Shanghai under the right circumstances (namely external investment), operating multiple venues appears to be out of the question in his case, perhaps for the better good.

Nobody doubted that generally speaking, more venues would only be a good thing for the country. However, the reality of the situation is that without government support, growth will be severely limited. Barendsen believes the industry needs to get organized before foreign investors will be willing to put up considerable money, but transnational collaborations could provide an interesting angle. Early movers with the right backing could stand to dominate the market – the question of whether this is good or bad for local communities will be answered in time. If decision-making is centralized and property ownership concentrated into the hands of the few, there will be winners and losers.

Panel Participants:

Yanwen Gua 挂延文 (Beijing Lemeng Cultural Media Co., Ltd CEO)
Lue ZhiQiang 吕志强 (Yugong Yishan Beijing, Founder)
Stanley Cui 崔人予(Beijing Eyes Wide Open Culture Communication Co., Ltd. CEO)
Stephen McGrath (Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall, Media and Artist Development Manager)
Emiel Barendsen (World Music Forum. NL. President of the Advisory Council)
Host: Liu Chao 刘超 (Rock Unity Interactive@beebee, Co-founder

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