1 Billion and Counting: Eric Zho on the massive untapped electronic music market in China
Already well over a decade into the Western world’s climaxing commercial boom of the electronic music phenomenon, it seems as though there is no place left on Earth that the genre hasn’t touched. Youths all over Europe, South America, Japan, Korea, Australia and even parts of Africa have responded to the movement loudly with a resounding “yes.” Massive festival brands like Ultra, EDC, Tomorrowland and Lollapalooza have stretched beyond the borders of the West and into niche markets like Latin America, South Africa and more, each of which have been greeted with floods of eager ticket-buyers and enthusiastic fans of iconic DJs.
Yet still, in 2015, a market so large that it seems to exceed adjectives like enormous, or massive – a market with 618 million people connected to the Internet, double the entire population of the United States in total – has seemingly been ignored.
That market is China. The country is an enigmatic pocket of people that has evaded the infiltration of electronic music for years – but how? How have millions dodged the international artists, brands, and professionals that have successfully navigated multitudes of other territories? A mixture of omnipresent issues have put China in a precarious place as its own electronic music scene grows – because believe it or not, there is one, and it is growing rapidly.
Eric Zho is a Los Angeles-native Chinese-American that has pioneered the EDM movement in China, and he is likely the most qualified person to illuminate the tricky dichotomy of China’s electronic music landscape. He is the owner of A2Live, one of the largest and most prominent music concert promoters in the country, as well as a seasoned entertainment producer with leading credits behind Wo Xing Wo Show, the equivalent of China’s American Idol that billowed into the country’s most successful show with over 150 million viewers per weekend.
In short, Eric Zho is a man who knows his stuff. He speaks with conviction, but with a notable sense of ease, as he walks through the many steps behind putting on a large-scale event in China. He breezes through pieces of the process like “getting the Public Security Bureau involved” that sound leagues more complex than his tone suggests. And if I didn’t know any better, the way he chuckles as he details conversations about him gaining approval for a new 10,000 capacity event would suggest that he was speaking with a close friend, rather than Chinese governing officials.
Only when I explain how surprised I am to hear how smooth the entire process seems to be, does he hint otherwise. “If you throw a party in the US, you might have to talk to the police, but you can probably get a permit pretty easily,” In a previous life, Zho lived and worked in the United States alongside today’s recognized brands like SFX and Live Nation. He knows both markets well. “In China, it’s tough. First, you have to have a special license to even apply for a permit. If your company isn’t sanctioned to do business in the sector, [the government] won’t even look at it. We are already part of the system, since we’ve been here for over 10 years and since we’ve been doing events for so long.”
And the government is not a body that is easy to be chummy with. I asked him whether he thought the government would be open to a growing interest for newcomers and foreigners to enter into the country, and simply gave me an example. Citing a tragic event that occurred last New Year’s Eve in Shanghai where a stampede broke out at an event that killed 36 people, he explained that only few large-scale events have survived since. Most have been shut down without so much as a second thought, and he suggests that the police won’t waste a moment risking chances on newbies. “If anything happens, they’re out of a job.” He pauses. The following he says seriously, though he laughs afterwards, almost like an instinctual response to try and ease the edge off of what he’s really conveying. “They’ll get their heads chopped off.”
China’s other main problem, besides its foreboding and highly selective government presence, is its inaccessibility. From both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, China is essentially a mystery. The Great Firewall is a country-wide government-implemented Internet limitation that blocks access to every day Western tools that have especially become a staple in the web-driven industry of electronic music. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, and even Google are banned across most of China. Though the young population of China have established networks of their own (RenRen is often equivocated as the Facebook of China, and Weibo reflects a Twitter-type purpose), the population on these sites is not international, and mainly for Chinese to Chinese communication only.
Eric explains that this is the main reason why the world hasn’t heard anything from China in regards to their own homegrown talent. The producers and DJs exist – but they exist in an alternate digital world. “SoundCloud is banned in China, as is Spotify,” he says. Zho has plans to fix this issue though. He aims to build the bridge for these voiceless Chinese talents by creating a specialized platform that will give DJs, both Western and Chinese, access.
Despite the towering road blocks they face, Zho remains unwavering in his opinion. “Electronic music in China is not there yet, but it’s going to get there, eventually.” By “there,” he means at the top of Chinese pop culture, and you can’t help but believe him.
There are what seems like a million steps to watering the growing flower that is electronic music in China. Zho mentions collaborations he has helped make a reality between megastar DJs like Avcii and Tiësto with Taiwanese and Chinese pop icons Wang Leehom and Jane Zhang, respectively. These songs barely made a blip in the Western markets, but on the opposite side of the world, they skyrocketed to the No. 1 on top radio charts and remained there for weeks at a time.
And there are more signs that his, and other similar pioneering promoters’ efforts are working. In 2013, his company A2Live launched STORM Festival in Shanghai. The decision to launch in this city, and not in any of the dozens of other major metropolises in China was because of Shanghai’s incredible expat population that is enough to quantify a city of their own. They expected foreigners to respond faster and more positively to their event than locals would – and they were right. 50% of their ticket buyers were foreigners and the event was a success. In its sophomore year, Zho was surprised to see a dramatic change. The ticket buyer demographics slanted dramatically: 70% of purchasers were Chinese, and only 30% were foreign.
Additionally, more “Top 100” DJs – the Hardwells, David Guettas, and Calvin Harrises of the world – are beginning to schedule stops in China throughout their international tours. He’s getting calls from major promoters of the West like SFX and Insomniac with a serious interest in branching their franchises to China. “Everything starts with the music,” he ends.
This year, Eric Zho has partnered with International Music Summit, a Europe-based industry conference, to pry open the doors of a market that has been tightly shut for so long. He hopes that the inaugural edition of IMS China, which takes place October 2nd just a day before his own Budweiser STORM Festival opens for its third year, will be a place for both locals and newcomers of the Chinese landscape to break the barrier of inaccessibility.