Asia is an important growth market for the live industry. Not only Dutch artists are going to Asia, supporting creative and production companies are also settling in the Far East more often. What are their motives, motivations and experiences?
Duncan Stutterheim’s ID&T was in 2014 one of the first Dutch parties, which realized that Asia was an important growth market. Now, more than five years later, several parties are focused on the Far East. They follow the artists, who are very successful abroad. Buma Cultuur calculated that Dutch acts in 2017 performed 421 times in the most important Asian countries, among which China, Indonesia and Japan. Production companies and their suppliers follow in their footsteps. Backbone International and Live Legends for example went to Asia several years ago, and Prolyte recently opened an office in Shanghai to put their ProLyft products on the market. NOMOBO from Amsterdam is also thinking about their possibilities on the Asian market.
Bas Scheij, from BASZ design & live operating, is one of the entrepreneurs, who are focused on Asia. Together with a British business partner he tries to get a firm foothold in China. “I’m becoming enormously enthusiastic about the Asian market”, he tells. “All clubs try to distinguish themselves from each other with quality and innovation. Therefore, you really get the space to be innovative.” Scheij has won a Mondo*dr Award for his design of the Elements night club in Beijing. “Initially, the owner asked us to only do the lighting design. He was however so enthusiastic about our plans, that he cancelled the interior designer. In the end, we took care of the complete interior, from the VIP tables to the toilets.”
According to Scheij it marks the local culture and enthusiasm for live entertainment. “The clubs are shooting up like mushrooms and there are many possibilities on the Asian market. In China, where I’m currently active, there is plenty of money. It is however very important that you speak the language and have good local partners. With the right visa you can then immediately get started in our industry.” The assignments of Scheij were the result of contacts he gained through clients, artists and local partners. For years, he travelled with artists like Afrojack, André Rieu, and Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike.
Daan Oomen, the creative director and co-founder of Live Legends, followed a similar path. Since 2007, Oomen was active as light- and set designer for Chinese theater productions, which came to the Netherlands. He also went on tour in China with these companies. “I became more and more involved in the Chinese entertainment industry and was able to build a local network. As a result, we received more assignments, also from festivals.” Live Legends created the Myth Festival in Shanghai from the ground up, one of the first EDM festivals in China. For three years is the company with offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai working for the Chinese NOA Group. Live Legends took care of the development of the One Third and OT-clubs in commission by this client. Oomen: “We take care of the entire design of the concept and interior, the implementation and show production, and we train employees locally.”
At the moment, One Third Beijing climbed up to the sixtieth position in the worldwide Top 100 Club List of 2019 by DJ Mag. “It took some time to get a foothold”, Oomen notices. “Building up a network of relations in Asia costs time and doing business is completely different from what we are used to. Business partners in Asia would like to know you first, so they can estimate whether you can be trusted. This often happens at one or more dinners, where they don’t talk about business. Only when trust is earned, the ball starts rolling.”
Oomen always was really interested in that switch, he says. “In regard to work I kept doing exactly the same as before, but I had to mainly adapt myself to interpersonal matters and cultural differences. How are people interacting with each other and how are business conversations going?” But when you finally are on board, the expectations are high, and they expect you to start immediately. “More than once I’ve been called at night by relations to start with a production. You always have to be there for someone. Because I’ve built a good network, I often succeed in complying on those requests. I can act quickly with local partners. But I’ve also refused an assignment respectfully. Often, because it could not be realized on the quality level Live Legends aims for. Luckily, this can be understood as well. The doors don’t immediately shut.”
Not only China is an important market for players from the Dutch live entertainment industry. Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand are also countries in which “we” are active. Technical production company Backbone International therefore opened an office in Hong Kong in 2014, by which the market in South East Asia is served. “We were already pretty successful in the United States”, tells Managing Director Asia Joris Joosen. “But we were also getting more requests from Asia. Because I was on the plane all the time, we’ve decided to open an office in Hong Kong. From there we’ve arranged various events in, among others, Japan, South Korea and India.”
From the office in the city state, also the show of Hardwell in the closed off Myanmar was arranged, just like the Asian editions of Sensation. The office in Hong Kong is therefore an important hub for the company. Earlier this year, Backbone International expanded with an office in the Indonesian capital city Jakarta. “In Indonesia we are catching up”, says Joosen. “The average income is increasing, and thereby the budget for leisure and entertainment. Because of this, the need for concerts and festivals is increasing”, tells Joosen. “Remarkable is that the Asian dance fans really come for the music. In Europe, the emphasis is more on the production and experience. In Asia, those are still a bit behind.”
Nevertheless, more attention for the productional side is on the rise. “The standards are becoming higher. Of course, this is because of our years of experience and the European standards we work with, but also because the visitors expect it. Tickets are, despite higher prices, more within reach of a wide audience. On the field of production is therefore also a change taking place. We are seeing this not only in Indonesia, but also in countries as India and Thailand. A couple of years ago, the production level was a lot lower.”
Oomen recognizes this development: “In China and the surrounding countries like Thailand, more attention is coming for the element of show, the experience. This process is also progressing faster. Production wise is Japan a country where everything is prepared to perfection and whereby the plans are precisely executed as they are imagined. Is this not the case, then there will be spoken of a personal failure.” That caution is mainly coming from the strict hierarchy. “When someone in for example China is higher in rang, you have to conform yourself to his wishes. In that case it is difficult to get someone to change their mind. Making mistakes is seen as a loss of face. At the same time, it is also a form of self-protection. When it goes wrong, they are not accountable for mistakes which could have be prevented. People are very careful about that. In Thailand, we’ve noticed that confrontations are avoided.”
To respond to this, it’s essential to keep investing in your network of relations. The “guanxi”-level, the network of relations with the local government, police and firefighters, is for entrepreneurs in China very important to prevent that their permits are withdrawn”, knows Oomen. “Because of the lack of a relations network, many festivals in China are often cancelled last-minute, “In China, you first show your production and line-up. Only then the decision is made about how much tickets you may sell. This work method is different than in the Netherlands, were you decide the capacity based on the size of the venue and a part of your budget.” An example of this is the World Club Dome in Chongqing for which Live Legends worked. “60.000 visitors will fit in this venue, but how much tickets you may sell? If that only will be 8.000-10.000, what will your ticket price be? The money for a production is already spend, before the official has decided how much tickets you are allowed to sell. This business model cannot be compared with doing business in the Western world.”
According to Joosen there are however many similarities with the European way of working. “In Europe all plans and permits have to be arranged timely as well. It doesn’t matter if you are organizing an event in Amsterdam, Berlin or Madrid. But doing business there is easier because of the culture. When you make an agreement, then it’s clear for everyone what you mean. In Asia, you cannot assume this directly. You have to deal with borders, different cultures, and other currencies. This asks for adaptability.” To make doing business easier, Backbone International works with local partners a lot. “We’ve hired four new employees in Indonesia. We also talk with new parties in Thailand and China, which act as intermediaries for us. That is making it easier.”
Michiel Roosjen, owner of About Asia, agrees on the importance of a local network for doing business in Asia. In 2009 he established his company in China. Roosjen helps entrepreneurs finding their way in the Asian business world, by introducing them to local entrepreneurs for example. He also helps then via his contacts within the Chinese governments. “The first contacts with business partners are often made on a short business trip. You officially need a business visa for this, but many travel on a tourist visa, because they are easier to get. Only, on this visa you cannot work in China. If you would like to get a foothold, setting up a local establishment is a requirement. Only then you can really start building your network.”
Building up this network can take years, but according to Roosjes a business can be set up within a couple of months. “A lot of administration is involved, but when that is finished, you can start within five months in most cases.” Hiring local forces is not a requirement, but it does make doing business easier. “Not only because they speak the language, they also know how it works. Chinese people like clarity and that why there is mutual contact about the smallest things. Europeans aren’t used to that, but it is essential for the trust.”
The entrepreneur has various tips for Europeans, who are making the step to Asia. “The Dutch are used to deliver customized solutions, which is thought through together with the client. Chinese people want to know directly what they get. It will be appreciated when there is a clear plan on the table, by which at a glance it’s clear what they will get. Simply said: package A is this, and with package B this will be the total amount.” In China, in contrast to Europe, it’s not about the cheapest offer for the best quality. “Of course, it’s about what they will get, but the price is less important. More important is if you are worth the trust that they give.” Further, it doesn’t help to be modest. “We aren’t used to it, but Chinese entrepreneurs often give up high about their business. The Dutch are often modest. In China, you can better tell that you are an “international operating company”, than tell that you have a small company. Small companies have simply less or no status.” When you’ve gathered the right people around you, doing business in China goes fast, states Roosjen. “If you’ve won their trust, they know to find you more often. Sometimes with questions or requests that have nothing to do with your business. I’ve been asked multiple times for possibilities outside of my scope. In such cases, I don’t turn away those people by saying that I don’t know anything about it, but I try to help them progress via other entrepreneurs.”
Because entrepreneurs in China often have to deal with bureaucracy, clubs take a unique position which makes it possible to build a sustainable, local EDM-community. “In the modern, commercial Chinese club people come to indulge.”, says Oomen. “Expensive drinks and showing of your social status are very important here. The music is more on the background.” Scheij recognizes this image. “Chinese youngsters go to the club to be seen, music really is a side issue, making it pointless to book expensive artists. At stadium events it’s the other way around. The roof goes off it there, and there is attention for the artists. The enthusiasm for the music and the show are almost incomprehensible on those moments.”