Music festivals changing their tune

With more than 200 events a year, some Chinese music fans raise questions over quality, while others say that number is far from enough. 
Music festivals changing their tune

When Midi Festival, China’s first original music festival, gathered 30 bands in a school auditorium in Beijing in 2000, it was considered cool just to be one of the nearly 1,000 daily audience members during the two days.

Now there are more than 200 music festivals across the country, including veteran brands Midi and Strawberry, many newcomers associated with local tourism and established foreign brands like Ultra and Storm.

While some people say the quality and revenue are going down with quantity rocketing and more local government support is needed, others think 200 is far from enough for a country with so many young people and music fans.

“Except for a few, it’s pretty much all the same — simple stage, outdoor plaza or grass field, and even very similar line-ups,” says Xu Wen, a music festival enthusiast who has been going to at least five every year for more than 10 years.

“Even hardcore fans like me get fed up after a while. I haven’t been going as much in the past two years, unless it happened to be in a place I wanted to visit,” he adds.

According to a report issued in 2016 by China Music Business, 231 music fests were held in 32 provinces and autonomous regions, expanding quickly to tourist attractions in third- and fourth-tier cities. 

The report also pointed out how similar the line-ups were — about 50 artists were found in more than five festivals, including some who played in more than 20.

Midi and Strawberry are among those that Xu and many other festival-goers still get excited about. Both are held around the May Day holiday on May 1. The three-day holiday, when it starts to get warm, and the summer vacation are the two peak periods for music festivals.

Midi, considered the Chinese version of the Woodstock Festival in the US, has been transforming from a rock festival for loyal fans to a fun event with lots to do in addition to the music. Its organizers have built fixed bases in many cities including Suzhou, less than half an hour from Shanghai by high-speed train.

This year, Cui Jian, widely considered the godfather of Chinese rock music, will perform.

Music festivals changing their tune
Ti Gong

Cui Jian, godfather of Chinese rock music

Zhang Fan, its founder, said it was important to attract younger people. To achieve that, more electronic music performances have been planned. More camping spaces have also been added as camping over the three-day event is a big attraction for many.

Strawberry Music Festival, in its 10th year, is expected to attract more than 100,000 young fans to the three-day event in Shanghai. One of the most successful local music fest brands, Strawberry is known for its atmosphere, a unique convergence of indie and pop music and edgy elements like indie film and new technology.

Its umbrella company, Modern Sky, owns seven to eight festival brands across different music genres. Strawberry, its most successful product, is held more than 20 times a year and expanding to more cities.

Shen Lihui, the company’s CEO and the festival’s organizer, says 200 music festivals are far from enough in China. There are thousands of such events in Europe every year, 200 alone in Switzerland. He says it is more important for music fests to differentiate from each other.

“The industry here is still in its mid-early stage,” he says. “Strawberry, for example, is different from most other music fests.”

Strawberry’s line-ups are mostly domestic bands and musicians, especially unexpected appearances and hot emerging ones. In 2014, it became a headliner when film Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung (“In the Mood for Love”) who had never sung a song publicly showed up and performed on stage. 

Music festivals changing their tune

Leah Dou, daughter of diva Faye Wong and rock musician Dou Wei, will perform at this year's Strawberry Music Festival in Shanghai.

This year, its line-up in Shanghai includes many up-and-coming musicians popular with young people, including Leah Dou, daughter of diva Faye Wong and veteran rocker Dou Wei of the legendary Chinese rock band Black Panther.

The 21-year-old has been in the spotlight since she, as a baby, contributed her singing voice to one of her mother’s albums and quickly attracted her own fans when she first played at a music festival three years ago.

As Chinese audiences open up to more varieties of music, festivals featuring specific genres are also getting more popular, especially electronic music and hip-hop, thanks to the highly rated reality shows that have helped popularize the genres. Some festivals are also starting to target families and children.

“There is basically no music fest here good for kids,” says Liu Jian, founder of the Hand in Hand International Children’s Music Festival that started last year. “Most fests are too loud for children, and there is no place to change diapers.”

The 39-year-old is a big fan of music festivals but finds it difficult after he had a family. Hence he started Hand in Hand last year, which was successful as he had expected — there is a demand.

This year, the children’s music festival will be traveling to eight cities.

Music festivals changing their tune
Ti Gong

Li Zhi

Performance details

  • Midi Festival

Date: From 2pm, April 29 to 12pm, May 1

Tickets: 220 yuan (pre-sale) or 280 yuan (at door) for one day; 550 yuan (pre-sale) or 660 yuan (at door) for three days

Venue: Taihu Midi Camp, Qidu Town, Wuzhong District, Suzhou

How to get there: It takes 25 minutes from Shanghai to Suzhou by high-speed train. From the Suzhou railway station, take Metro Line 4 and then transfer to bus Wujiang Qidu Line.

  • Strawberry Music Festival

Date: April 29-May 1, 12-9pm

Tickets: 350 yuan for one day; 820 yuan for three days

Venue: Shanghai Community Sports Center

Address: 2700 Zhangyang Rd N., Pudong New Area

How to get there: Metro Line 6 Wuzhou Avenue Station

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