Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 27 – The Music Man (Abe DEYO, Tour Manager, Live Nation)
Spending over a decade being a Tour Manager in China for international bands has led Abe Deyo to many destination - and to many rock and role experiences - in the Chinese indie music scene.
AD: Everything's pretty pristine, except right on the middle of that bathmat was a large pile of s**t.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
So before we get into today's episode, a quick thank you to everyone who was inspired by last week's interview with Sabrina from the Shanghai International Dance Centre, and who shared their favourite dancing stickers on WeChat. It was a nice little happy distraction from what's going on in the world right now. I use the word distraction, because I'm coming to terms with how much this has helped me over the last seven weeks here in China. So I don't want to dwell too much on the news of the Coronavirus in today's episode. But one thing I will mention is that - what is it now? - it's March 24 2020, when this episode is being released, and the situation in Shanghai is that there is a new app that you can download onto your phone that runs a continuous contagion assessment on you. It's not mandatory, but for the last two weeks, it's been increasingly difficult to enter certain buildings without having this app and showing your colour code. So if your colour code is green, it means that you are clear to enter the building. But if it's orange or red, then that means you can't enter and you should consult medical experts as soon as possible. What's going on here is that maybe the app knows that you're a confirmed COVID-19 patient, since it's linked to your identity card. Or for the same reason, maybe it knows that you've arrived from outside of China and you shouldn't be out of quarantine yet. Or maybe it traced you back to a metro car, in which a fellow passenger later tested positive for the virus. While being a dream for technology fans and epidemiologists, this example reinforced my thoughts about how every society dealing with this virus right now is balancing the conflict between public safety on the one hand, and individual privacy on the other. You can see how China's reaction has definitely been heavily geared towards public safety.
On to today's episode, which is with the tour manager, Abe Deyo. There aren't many live music shows happening right now, so that's an obvious irony in releasing this episode today. And maybe in another irony, Abe also mentions 武汉 [Wǔhàn] a couple of times in our chat. It's funny how these days things like that can make your ears prick up. It, of course, didn't register as anything out of the ordinary when we recorded this chat several weeks ago.
OF: This is Abe Deyo, the Directing Manager of Adapt, which is the Emerging Artists arm of Live Nation. Welcome to Mosaic of China. We start all these interviews by discussing an object. So have you brought your object today?
AD: I have, let me pull that out, It is a Contax T3. So when I came here, I wasn't really into music, or the music industry at all. Photography, that's kind of like my background. But being kind of a natural introvert, and someone who is very interested in documentary photography, I always had trouble meeting people to follow around, and be that wallflower.
AD: So through photography, I got into music, I started going to shows and taking pictures there. Which was fun, but it still wasn't documentary photography, which is what I love. So I had this bright idea where I was like "OK…" - well, you know, this is back in 2005 - "Well, there's not many foreign bands coming. Maybe if I invite a band, put on a tour for them, then I can just follow them around and take pictures". Because they can't really say no, if I'm the one who's organising everything.
AD: Yeah, and little did I know, there's a little bit more into organising a tour than just contacting somebody and saying "You want to come over and do some shows?" But that's how I got into it. And that's how it all started.
OF: Great. Well, tell me a story then, about when you would have used the camera.
AD: This particular camera is more recent. I have quite a few cameras. So I kind of move in between which cameras I like to use on tour. But it's always something that's with me. It's probably one of the reasons I still do what I do. I mean after 13 years of travelling to the same cities over and over and over and over again…
OF: So what cities are on a regular tour?
AD: Shanghai and Beijing are always ones that you'll find artists going to, Shanghai in particular. Because crowds in Shanghai are quite consistent, and very good, very supportive of indie music. Beijing, a little less so, but still very good. Those are the two main cities. Then, if an artist is a little more ambitious - or I should say, if the promoters are a little more ambitious - they might do 成都 [Chéngdū], 广州 [Guǎngzhōu], 武汉 [Wǔhàn], cities like that. And then you can be really ambitious, and move into like the more second or third tier cities. I've done shows now I think in 30 cities.
OF: Oh wow.
AD: Not on a regular basis. I do some once, and it's like "OK, that was interesting. But definitely not a place you want to go back to".
OF: Right. But then you never know, in a place like China, you go there one year later, and suddenly it's 100 people, right?
AD: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I guess that kind of happened with my third favourite city to do shows in, which is 洛阳 [Luòyáng].
OF: 洛阳 [Luòyáng]?
OF: OK, so why would that be your third favourite?
AD: Third favourite, because the crowds are great, always fairly consistent. You get probably about 70% of the audience as you would in like Shanghai or Beijing, which is pretty good. And everyone's just so desperate for music, you know - because there is none - that yeah, they'll go to see whatever. They're very open about it, experiencing new genres of music. And the city itself is very interesting. Because, you know, Beijing and Shanghai, obviously now with the influx of expats, they're very international, easy to get around. But 洛阳 [Luòyáng] is still very provincial. So it's just an interesting experience.
OF: So how does it happen that these artists are coming around China?
AD: Well, as a promoter, I pitch the idea for the tour. So I'll lay out the route that I think will work for them. And then, you know, they'll come back and say "Oh yeah, we're interested", or not. Because I'll put in an offer for what we can pay. And most of the time, they are very interested in doing as many cities as they can, obviously, but the more remote the city, the less they know about it, usually the more their interest is piqued. Because if you look at 洛阳 [Luòyáng], most foreigners don't really know where that is.
OF: Great. So out of 13 years, if you added up, how many of those tours do you think you've gone through 洛阳 [Luòyáng] then?
AD: I only started doing 洛阳 [Luòyáng] much later. Because I'd done 郑州 [Zhèngzhōu] and 西安 [Xī'ān] - which are very close to 洛阳 [Luòyáng] - many times. But then I'd say the first show in 洛阳 [Luòyáng] was 2012. Probably thirty. Thirty or forty.
OF: Oh, wow.
AD: Yeah. Probably closer to thirty than forty.
OF: So I guess, which are the most memorable tours that you've been a part of?
AD: This probably happened four or five years ago, I was travelling with this Swedish band, I won't say their name. And I was sharing a room with their keyboardist. Because, you know, on tours, sometimes with larger groups, you have to share rooms. It's very common. So I was rooming with their keyboardist. And I'm not a big partier - never have been - but some of the bands do like to drink. Especially the Scandinavian bands, which is all good. You know, our hotel's right across from venue, perfect. 洛阳 [Luòyáng], the place we play, my friend owns it. So he's very generous with the drink tickets. And a lot of times bands stay and have fun. So this was one of those nights, I went back early, went to sleep. The keyboardist I was staying with, I don't know when he got back, he probably got back three or four. But I had to get up early and do a little bit of work before we left. So yeah, I get up like 7:30-8. And he's in bed. Everything looks pretty normal in the room. l go into the bathroom. Everything's pretty pristine. Except right on the middle of that bathmat was a large pile of s**t.
OF: I was almost expecting you to say that.
AD: Yeah. I have no idea what he was thinking, because it was literally right next to the toilet.
OF: Next to the toilet.
AD: So I walked right back out. And I was like "You need to go clean that up." Yeah, he was quite baffled by that.
OF: Are you sure it was his?
AD: Pretty sure it was him.
OF: Mind you, if that's the worst thing that's happened, that's not as bad as it could be perhaps in other countries.
AD: Oh, yeah. No, yeah, we've never had anything horrible…
OF: Well, how about then… Well, we've heard one of the bad stories, how about one of the success stories? Have you had any bands that, through you, have then since gone on to bigger things in China?
AD: Oh, for sure. I mean, the idea when I book the bands is to help them build an audience locally, so that future tours are possible. You know, there's more money involved, and they can come back on a consistent basis. Like Postiljonen, this Swedish/Norwegian band that I've known for years and years. When they first came, they were very unknown. And they're still quite unknown to the rest of the world outside of like, Norway, Sweden and China. Yeah, so you do like small rooms, you know, 20-30 people. And now they came back last year and it was 400.
OF: Wow. And then in what way do you think that the music tastes in China are any different to anywhere else, or do you think it's more or less the same?
AD: That's a hard one. I mean, in China, obviously there are people who like all types of music, just like anywhere else. Or follow any type of music like anywhere else. Just not in the same number. Take for example - since we're using all my Nordic references - you go to somewhere like Norway and the total population is what, 4 million, 5 million.
AD: So Oslo, the capital, I don't think there's even a million people. Don't fact check me on that. I don't think there's a million people. And there's dozens of live houses. Of all sizes, you know. They're consistently doing shows. And that's a city of less than a million. China, there's over 100 of those. And in 洛阳 [Luòyáng] - what, 5-6 million people - there's one place I know of, to do shows. And they do maybe a handful a year. It's just because most people in China - and Asia in general - go towards like, more mainstream pop. They do have like, you know, little niche fan groups of everything. But, yeah.
OF: So I guess you'd call that, in other countries, the 'alternative' scene, wouldn't you?
AD: Yeah, you could call it the alternative. So basically, anything that's not K-pop or mainstream pop would be alternative.
OF: …Which would be like rock, electronica, and hip hop, and like, 30…
AD: Yeah, like everything.
AD: All under that umbrella.
OF: And is that changing? Like, do you see it at least slowly changing? Or is it still pretty much pop-based.
AD: Now it's pretty much pop-based. What changes is the revolving door of expats and foreigners coming in. Seeing these underground shows, there is a lot of energy there. It is quite nice. But then thinking like "Oh wow, this is great. This is gonna grow big". You know, "We're gonna make it like the next United States, where there's clubs everywhere, and everyone's into different types of music". And… yeah.
OF: It never happened.
AD: It never happened. It never happened.
OF: Because those people who you saw at the gig, a year later they've moved on to somewhere else. Is that what you mean?
AD: Yeah, it's just the way it is. I mean, there's no lack of rock bands in China. But they never spawned a greater movement, in those scenes. Maybe that is changing. I guess a good example now is Higher Brothers, Rap Game. You know, they've gotten a lot of press and a lot of hype. But will that translate into them being able to play arenas and stadiums around China? We'll see.
OF: Well, thank you very much. I mean, let's see. Maybe let's have another chat in five years time, and you can tell me which band popped after all.
AD: Yeah, exactly. And they actually broke out. Yeah.
OF: Well, good luck. What we'll do now is go on to Part 2.
OF: Let's jump straight in. What's your favourite China-related fact?
AD: Alright, I actually kind of already mentioned this, but my favourite fact is, China is the only place with over 100 cities with over a million people. So there's 102 cities in China with over a million people. In the US the number is 10.
OF: Wow, yeah. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
AD: I was trying to think of different ones, because I have different ones for different situations. But this is my favourite to tell artists. So 牛逼 [niúbī].
OF: OK, explain. Oh, hang on, hang on. I think I know where you're going with this. Is 牛 [niú] the cow?
AD: OK. So it means basically like 'f**king great', 'f**king awesome'.
AD: But the literal translation is 'cow vagina'.
AD: Crowds will shouted it at them during shows and stuff.
AD: Oh, yeah. So when I try to explain that to the artists, They all love it. Because it's just funny.
OF: What about, next question, what's your favourite destination within China?
AD: I do love 洛阳 [Luòyáng], I've been there so many times. 武当 [Wǔdāng] Mountain is nice. And then there are a couple of temples outside of 西宁 [Xīníng], they're also quite nice.
AD: It would be between those two.
OF: And the second one, I know where 西宁 [Xīníng] is, that's over in the northwest, right?
AD: Yeah, in 青海 [Qīnghǎi].
OF: 青海 [Qīnghǎi], right. And what about the second one you said, where's that?
AD: 武当 [Wǔdāng] Mountain is not far from 武汉 [Wǔhàn], it's like a two hour train, I believe.
AD: So it's a really pretty temple on top of this mountain. It's like sheer drops on all four sides.
OF: Oh, wow. OK.
AD: It's one of those where the emperor saw it and was like "I want a temple up there"…
AD: … And made people scale this unscalable mountain and build this massive temple.
OF: Wow. And it's a day trip from 武汉 [Wǔhàn], or is it..?
AD: Oh no. Well, it'd be a very tight day trip. You definitely wouldn't want to do that, because there are quite a few trails to walk around. But you can stay there. I haven't been in a few years, so I don't know if it's changed. But you used to be able to stay in this little…
OF: Guesthouse type thing?
AD: Yeah. A Buddhist guest house, in the temple, on the top of the mountain. Because the only way to get there is either by a cable car, or you can walk up this path along the side of the mountain that they built. But staying in the guesthouse is quite nice, because you're right there in this temple.
AD: Sunset and sunrise is very beautiful.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
AD: I guess I would miss just the way things are done in China. I mean, after 18 years, I kind of got used to how everything's done. I guess the best example of that would be something small, like even exiting an aeroplane. In China, everyone just gets up and the first person who can get into the aisle, gets off the plane. But there's an efficiency in that, because you look, there are never any gaps in between people. They're all exiting. Whereas every time I go back to the US, you've got to wait for that first row in front of you, everyone to clear out. And, my god, some people are so damn slow. So you always see, there's like a gap of like 10-20 metres.
OF: And that gap kills you.
AD: Because, in a lot of ways, there's efficiency in that chaos. So I kind of would miss that.
AD: And what would I not miss? Oh, pollution.
OF: Oh, right. I mean, I sense it's getting a little bit better. But it's still there, isn't it?
OF: Is there anything that still mystifies you about life in China?
AD: I guess what would mystify me is not anything to do with China, but a lot of the expats that come to China.
OF: Oh god. Yeah right, I hear you.
AD: And they expect China to be a certain way. And when it's not - or it's not Western enough, or whatever - they just complain and complain. But yeah, I guess that's the only thing that would semi-mystify me.
OF: I guess that's a good answer. What's your favourite place to go to, to eat, drink or hang out?
AD: Probably RnB. Just because that's, you know, where a lot of my friends go. So I'm partial to that. It's nice, like a little hole in the wall.
OF: Which part of town is it in?
AD: Right around the corner from…
OF: …Where we used to live?
AD: Yeah, where I used to live. So where you still live.
OF: OK. I'm just trying to think whether I've been there, I don't think I have. it's a record shop or..?
AD: It's a record shop / bottle shop.
OF: Right. I guess… I just worked out what RnB stands for.
AD: Yeah, Records n' Beer, Records n' Beer. Yeah, so I still like to go there when I'm in that neighbourhood.
OF: What's the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
AD: One of the best purchases, I guess, was a custom made bed we had put in the apartment, our old apartment, the one below yours. That would probably be one of the best purchases, mainly because we got to design it. And it served us very, very well.
OF: What's your favourite WeChat sticker?
AD: Well, I got a couple. This one, because it annoys my fiancée, because I do a similar face.
OF: OK, so can you explain what this one is?
AD: This one is Christian Bale doing an arrogant… Or no…
OF: Oh, I would say arrogant.
AD: Yeah. An arrogant little kissy face, like smooch. Air smooch.
OF: Yes. And there's a high level of smugness.
OF: Yeah, that would annoy a fiancée, that would.
AD: Oh yeah.
OF: And you do this face? I can't imagine you doing this face.
AD: I do that face.
OF: Oh, dude.
AD: It definitely gets me into trouble. Every time I put that sticker up, It's like "Oooh"
AD: Eye-rolling. And then - I actually made it sound better than it actually looks - but it was a drawing done by a local Shanghai designer. Oh, man. I forgot her name. It's me and my fiancée as slug-like creatures.
OF: Oh, I love it. That's really cool.
AD: And I animated it.
OF: Just two more questions. The first one is very important. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV? You being an introvert, I'm sure you have a thousand.
AD: I haven't been to KTV in a long time. But my go-to is S.H.E., Superstar.
AD: I'm not gonna sing any of it. Not on here. But that was my go-to.
OF: And does it impress people? Or was it like "Oh god, he's bringing that one out again."
AD: Oh it impressed. Because, well it's a Chinese song.
AD: You know, a Taiwanese band.
OF: Yeah. Is it easy? Because I'm still on the search for a good song to learn.
AD: It's pretty easy.
OF: It's a pretty easy one?
AD: I mean, I'll be honest, I didn't learn every word. It's easy to fake a lot of it.
AD: And you get to the chorus, "she's my superstar."
OF: And finally, what other China-related media do you rely on?
AD: Well, being in the music industry, I rely a lot on music platforms. So QQ Music is good, NetEase, 豆瓣 [Dòubàn] on occasion. Those are probably the ones I look at the most.
OF: I don't think I've been on any of those platforms. So I'll check them out. Good, well, thank you so much for your time Abe, it was great to see you.
AD: Yes, great to see you too.
OF: And tell me then, so this is the final part of the podcast, where I ask our guests, if there was someone else who I should interview next, maybe the most interesting person who you know in China, who would it be?
AD: I'd like to recommend a friend of mine, DJ BO. He's been here for about ten years. He's DJ'ed all over. Like, the first time I really got to know him is when he asked me if I wanted to go with him to North Korea to be his photographer. He was the first DJ to perform there. So he has a lot of interesting stories.
OF: That's awesome, I can't wait. And his name is 'DJ BO'?
AD: 'DJ BO', yes.
OF: OK, well I'd like to meet him, I'm not sure I would like to smell him.
OF: Well, you probably heard that Abe used to be a neighbour of mine. Since recording this interview, he's moved out of our building and has in fact moved all the way to Hong Kong, where he now manages tours across Asia. He also mentioned his fiancée, well she is now his wife, and you can see the WeChat sticker of them both as slugs on social media, please go to @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram or @mosaicofchina on Facebook, or add me on my Wechat ID: mosaicofchina*, and I'll add you to the group myself. It turns out that the artist who made the slug caricatures is called Flabjacks.
I've also posted Abe's other favourite WeChat sticker, Christian Bale doing a despicable face; there's Abe with his object, one of his many cameras; there's a depiction of Abe's favourite word or phrase in Chinese '牛逼 [niúbī]', meaning 'awesome'. Don't worry, I didn't post anything rude, this is a family show after all. I don't actually know the reason why cow means awesome in Chinese, if anyone out there knows then please share the story with the rest of us. And there's lots of other stuff there too: a photo of 武当 [Wǔdāng] Mountain, which looks incredible; and 洛阳 [Luòyáng], both the city itself and some action shots from some of the bands that Abe has taken there. And plenty of other photos too, a mixture of the cool - like tour photos - and the definitely uncool - such as images depicting the size of cities in China, and other geeky stuff there too.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, artwork by Denny Newell, and extra support from Milo de Prieto and Alston Gong. Thank you for listening, and I will see you next week for Episode 28.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.