Leading up to and during the Zebra Music Festival, we're featuring some of the players in Chengdu's and China's music scenes. An earlier version of this interview was published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 12 ("Outdoor").
Split Works is a music-promotion company focusing on bringing international acts to China. Headed by American Nathaniel Davis, 33, an 11-year China veteran, and Scottish Archie Hamilton, who started promoting DJs at the age of 18 and eventually moved on to organizing festivals in Europe, the company's most successful show to date has been Sonic Youth and Faithless to 2007's Yue Festival in Beijing and Shanghai. With an aim of "bring[ing] really great music to China and mix[ing] it with what's going on here," the pair founded Split Works two years ago, just after Hamilton had moved to Shanghai. In April 2008, they passed through Chengdu with Canadian hipster art-rock duo Dandi Wind and to scout out the city for a potential open-air festival. We spent some time talking to Hamilton about music in the outdoors and organizing festivals.
What constitutes a good music festival?
A good festival is encapsulated in the vibe. If the vibe is good, and everyone's having fun then that's the most important. But you need a wide range of ingredients and this is slightly my problem with MIDI. When I went to MIDI the first year, it was three days of metal. And that's fine, but even the biggest metal fests in the West have a little bit of punk, ska, emo, everything else. I think it needs a variety to allow diverse groups of people to come together and share experience. It needs activities around the side, contributions from artists, spoken word poets to comics. The ideal festival is something that incorporates a bit of everything.
A beautiful setting is another great plus in my book, but unfortunately it's a luxury in China because people don't travel really. We have to build an understanding of what it is we're doing and build enough traction that people will follow you and understand that it's more fun to be next to a lake or it's more fun to be down by the beach, and that's key. I think the Chinese need to really understand their environment to save ... our environment.
There are no parks, no [open] spaces in Chinese cities, but until people demand that and place a value on it—and it's difficult to place a value on something you don't have experience with—but with the rise of this new urban middle class, hopefully the urban planners will change their protocol a little bit and actually do more to accommodate this kind of thing. I lived in London, and the best part of London was Hyde Park—it was on my doorstep, and it was this huge wilderness in the middle of urban London—I mean yes, the real estate's worth billions of pounds—but people and the government think it's valuable enough to leave it there. [There are] a couple of parks in Beijing but nothing in Shanghai—I mean Zhongshan Park where we did our festival in Shanghai is probably the only real example that I've witnessed where there are old trees and it was started in the beginning of the 20th century, and it's a beautiful and old park, but 20 million people—one park?
You talk about being outdoors, in nature, as the pinnacle of music festivals. What does this mean in China? How does it go over with the locals here?
It's mall culture. If they do go outside, they go to very defined tourist spots, and they get off the bus there and they take some photographs, and they get back on the bus, and that's it.
What we're talking about is changing people's perceptions and ideas and saying that being outside in the fresh air and running around and playing Frisbee and listening to music is a good thing. Before you can talk about the music you have to talk to them about coming outside and hanging out in the park for a day. The Chinese kids don't want to come out for the whole day; most of the Chinese came when the doors opened which was 12, midday. By 2 o'clock most of them were melting in the sun and wanted to go home. They all wore high heels and dressed up to the nines and consumed the ways they're used to consuming.
Do you see, apart from established MIDI, other festivals coming up that you think are interesting?
[Modern Sky's festival] was a really good low-cost way for Chinese kids to enjoy a festival environment and learn what it is to be outside with friends and listening to music and exchanging ideas through flea markets, or art installations.. It's important that China has these things for youth to express themselves.
A lot of festivals are coming up. I give credit to all of them. It's such a difficult space to operate in. Modern Sky, the Beijing Pop Festival, the Snow Mountain in Lijiang—those are the ones I know, and it's not a business where anyone's making any money at the moment. A lot of people are doing it for the love of the music and they want to share what they love with as many people as possible.
What made you guys choose Chengdu to add on the map of your festival planning?
It's based on an instinct. Of all the cities outside of Shanghai and Beijing, the most interesting, progressive, open-minded scene is in Chengdu. There are people doing things here the same as we're doing things in Shanghai and all the bands are doing in Beijing. We're hoping to come down here and connect with the people that run the scene down here and try and get them to help us to do something down here. What we do have is access to the ears of sponsors who want to come here from a business perspective. It's the No. 3 city—it's much more interesting [than Guangzhou] to the alcohol brands, for example, and our major clients [including] Bacardi, Smirnoff, and Heineken are more interested.
What kind of people start festivals?
Artists and businessmen. Businessmen are still artists—there's still creativity and art that goes into it, but they are first and foremost businesspeople. Everyone starts from a position of love, and I think it morphs into one or the other. They retain that artistic integrity where it's still all about the music or it becomes a business model, and the brands take over and sponsorships everywhere and beer prices and ticket prices are high but the artists are big-money artists. That hasn't developed quite yet here; all the festivals are still run by stupid idealists. People who want to deliver something new against all the odds really.
What advantages do you have as foreigners in this business?
The advantage we have is that the Western music business will relate to us. Agents, managers—they'll trust bands with us, because there's a difference of delivery. The Chinese don't yet understand that the artists are an incredibly valuable commodity, and they need to the letter if they order organic non-dairy vegan products you can't put mapo tofu in the backstage with bacon bits in it. They demand specific technical requirements. But there's probably a slight disadvantage when we're dealing with regional bands.
UPDATE: Obviously the projected Chengdu Split Works festival didn't get off the ground in late 2008, for various reasons beyond the organizers' control. We asked Archie to give us an update about what had happened in the interim, and what other plans have evolved since then. Here's what he had to say:
"When we came to Chengdu in April 2008, we were super excited about festival possibilities in China. We had just come off the successful launch of the Yue Festival in Shanghai, and we had sponsors' and government backing to make Yue 2008 bigger, both geographically (i.e., Chengdu) and physically (more stages, more artists, more people). Then came the double whammies of the Olympics (six-month lockdown) and the global financial crisis. Our clients (the sponsors) were suddenly re-evaluating their strategies, reducing their spending on pure brand building, and concentrating on directly increasing sales. At the same time, we realized that we needed to be stronger ourselves to look seriously at doing back-to-back festivals in different cities.
"Finally, we have reevaluated the way we look at festivals in China. I personally feel that the big outdoor festival model is flawed for the moment in China due to inconsistent weather, the reaction of the local authorities (you really need massive guanxi to get this kind of thing moving from a government perspective), and the needs/desires of the average Chinese—they don't like excessive sun, rain, cold or heat and have still to embrace the great outdoors with any sort of alacrity. As a result, we launched our new urban festival concept in January 2009, JUE | MUSIC | ART, a multi-venue, multi-city, multi-disciplinary festival aimed at showcasing Chinese creativity."
This week Split Works returns to Chengdu with Canadian indy rockers Hollerado at the Little Bar on May 6.