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Published on 25th August 2016

Eric Zho: Pioneering China's Electronic Music Awakening

Originally published on Pulse.

The presence of the International Music Summit in Shanghai this September is a clear sign of a healthy and growing local dance music scene - something which Eric Zho, CEO of A2LiVE and creator of Budweiser STORM Festival which partners IMS-Asia Pacific, knows better than most to be a comparatively recent affair. As part of our on-going series delving into the Asian electronic music market, we quizzed Zho on the development of both STORM fest and the dance music market in China, discovering a scene which is embracing global trends, with some unique differences.

The EDM take-over of the global music industry over the last ten years wasn’t quite as comprehensive as it may have seemed. Until quite recently, China’s population of approximately 1.3 billion had barely been exposed to dance music at all. When Tiesto, one of the most high profile and highly paid DJs in the world, toured the country in 2009 he was playing to rooms with less than 500 capacity. As late as 2013, when Zho started STORM festival, his team was met with wariness from China’s clubland, where bottle-service culture generally took precedence over rave culture and dance music was not the dominant music style. “When we started STORM there was a lot of pushback from club owners,” Zho recalls. They didn't really want to partner with us; they didn't know who we were and if we were taking business from them. Only after the first year, when they saw the influence of STORM, did they start realising that we are actually helping them.”

STORM quickly grew into a force to be reckoned with in music and entertainment. The first and largest of its kind, the festival now runs successfully in 5 different Chinese cities, targeting a largely college-aged demographic with a concentrated hit of big name EDM artists, high-scale production and an extra-terrestrial theme. “The story is that a bunch of aliens came to earth and created STORM, so basically the staging, the environment and the performers are all very alien-esque.” The influence of this other-worldly EDM experience has extended beyond the festival market, with clubs encouraged to push similar music in the wake of its success, and nocturnal dance floors swelling in STORM’s flagship city Shanghai and beyond. “In Shanghai club culture is pretty heavy. There’s also lots of growth in Tianjin and Chongqing, which are very close to one another. Beijing as the capital of China already has a lot of outside influence, so they are definitely already immersed in the culture… those cities are just standard, but what I've also seen is that you've got the electronic music culture coming up in Chengdu and even cities like Wuhan, where people are starting to put together big events.”

Eric Zho at IMS China 2015

Success has not come easily for STORM, however. The challenges of bringing electronic music to China on this scale are numerous, and not lightly overcome. “There are several issues,” Zho explains. “Number one - getting the permits to do it from the police is pretty difficult. The PSB [China’s Public Security Bureau] may or may not grant you a permit to run such a large scale event in its city. Number two - you have a consumer base that is very unfamiliar with dance music, so you've got to do extra hard work to try to market your event to them. Imagine looking at a billing key visual and not knowing any of the names on the poster. Even though for us, we read Afrojack or Avicii and think pretty big names, but for the average joe in China, those names don't mean anything. So how do you get their attention? I think that's the biggest challenge.” And it’s not as if the ‘average joe’ can just Google it. Outside websites are banned in China, so if any information on electronic artists is going to be found on the Internet, it has to be uploaded and disseminated locally.

Cracking into the Chinese festival market is impossible, therefore, without the doing serious time in the industry first. “As a promoter, you need to be experienced. You can't just waltz in and decide you want to promote a festival here, you need to have a track record - that’s very important. Then of course you need to have relationships. Experience will teach you how to get those relationships in your hand: who to talk to, who to watch out for…. I don’t think there's any rocket science - it’s the same thing to business in any country. You start small and you collect your knowledge and experience and you end up building big.”

The extra-terrestrial extravaganza that is Budweiser STORM Festival

 It may have taken several decades, but elsewhere in the world, dance music finally finds itself in a position of, not only mainstream popularity, but acceptance as a legitimate and valuable form of culture. Zho and the team at A2LiVE - which also has an artist management branch - are working to fast-track this process in China, where a cultural force will only truly receive legitimacy once it is considered to be homegrown. To introduce new music successfully through this patriotic filter, Zho says positioning is crucial. “There’s the music itself - rhythmic or melodic or whatever - depending on how it’s produced… but the moment you have a track with a vocal in a local language, then the music becomes Chinese. They will call it mandarin electronic pop or something. This way it’s quite easy for electronic music to cross the barrier of being termed an outside music genre into very quickly a domestic localised music genre.”

“And that's what we've been doing since 2014. We've paired Avicii and local popstar Wang Leehom on a track in 2014, we paired Tiesto with Jane Zhang on another track. Each time we do these tracks we release them, we trend a track on television on radio and internet, with the hopes that millions of listeners who follow these Chinese pop stars are slowly getting exposed to the rhythm of dance music, and over time we're hoping that this strategy will influence and encourage other local artists to do the same. I believe it’s happening right now - every year as we do more of this music we are getting asked by local artist managers to do similar things.”

“I think if you could galvanise the local music industry to support electronic music then you will see electronic music start to take route and localise in the Chinese market, and I think that's very important for this genre to become mainstream and not just an outside Western music influence into China.”

Eric Zho and many other Chinese representatives will be speaking at IMS Asia-Pacific, providing a rare opportunity to delve into the mechanisms of an immense and unique market which, because of China’s self sufficiency, unique culture and tight control over the Internet, may have previously felt like a closed circle where the music industry is concerned. As STORM, IMS and similar brands charge forward in the region, this will clearly soon be a phenomenon of the past.