Monday, 28 October 2013

Updates from China

Right now, Volcano AD Ross Manson is in Shanghai for the China Shanghai Performing Arts Fair, alongside delegates from all over the world - including a strong Canadian contingent! He's sent us some updates from 12 hours away, including tips that conference presenters have shared on breaking into the Chinese market...

Tues, Oct 15

China. My first trip.

I depart Vancouver at 11am, and spend the next 13 hours or so on an airplane. Four movies, three meals and a sleep. This is the longest flight I've ever been on.

Wed, Oct. 16

Shanghai Pudong Airport

I arrive at Shanghai Pudong Airport in time for rush hour. I'm met at the arrival area (wasn't expecting this), and climb in a car with David Baile - a Canadian who now runs ISPA (the International Society for the Performing Arts) in New York. We drive.

Shanghai is now the biggest city on earth. It has added millions to its population over the past decade or so, and a great amount of infrastructure. There are now over 23 million people living here. That is almost three New Yorks. Despite this, the traffic moves quite smoothly on a plethora of well-built highways. Everything seems relatively clean and orderly and functional. I think about how horrific traffic is in Toronto, about the squabbling over four new subway stops, and the planned diesel train link to our airport (there is a magnetic levitation train here that travels at over 400km/h - whisking people downtown in 8 minutes), and I wonder at how far behind we are. With its sea of high buildings, Shanghai seems like the future.

Holiday Inn "Downtown"

I check into the Holiday Inn. This will be my home for the next six days. I go outside to wander around. The neighbourhood is not one to write home about: near a train station, full of multilane roads and fast food outlets - far from the famous concession neighbourhoods and the Bund (where all the skyscrapers are). But I still get a terrific meal of noodles. I have managed to keep myself awake for 24 hours, and have eaten five meals in that time to keep going. I go to bed at a Shanghai bedtime, and hope I can deal with the jet lag (a 12 hour time difference from Toronto).

I'm here.

Thurs, Oct 17: Afternoon

The big event today is a workshop for all the foreign delegates on "How to access the Chinese market." I take notes:

How to Access the Chinese Market Panelists

1) KE Chaoping speaks. He is the General Manager of Hangzhou Theatre, the guy in charge of the Eastern China Venue Alliance, and the Executive Director of the China International Venue Alliance. So: a big deal guy. 
  • there are venue alliances in China: North, South, East, West, Delta. They program work together, and operate, as far as I can tell, something like the various touring schemes in the UK. They recently came together to form the national organization that Mr. Ke chairs. 
  • The China International Venue Alliance has 263 members. 
  • 50 of these are viewed as presenters.
  • the HQ is in Beijing.
  • 30 provinces are represented.
  • the Alliance has a license to operate from the Ministry of Culture (I begin to gather that licenses from the government are key in China).
  • the Alliance prefers to deal directly with overseas artists, and they particularly look for longterm relationships. Given the size of this Alliance, I am not sure WHO to connect with to begin such a relationship (a delegate from the Philadelphia Orchestra asks the same questions, and gets a non-answer: essentially "make friends, and see what develops").
  • the Alliance prioritizes work that meets the demands of the various venues. I'm not sure what these demands are.
  • a foreign company must find the right partner inside China. Mr. Ke mentions that there are tiers of alliance partners, such as hotels, stadia, and "professional stages."
  • in China, taking a show for a one month, or even a one week run is very difficult. Currently, bookings are more likely to be for one performance, or a for just a few performances.
  • again, finding a reliable partner in China is key. The Alliance is a way to ensure that partners are reliable.

2) BAO Chaoyang speaks next. He runs the Western China Alliance, is the General Manager of the Kunming Theatre, and the Vice President of the China Alliance. Here's what he said:  
  • he's from Western China. Several (although not all) of the cities in his region will take Western touring projects.
  • in China, there are many many arts companies, but very few with longterm strategic capability.
  • the Chinese market is very sensitive to cost. This is a way to say they don't have much money. So a low-cost project is an advantage.

3) Vivian Yu speaks next. South China venue partner. Runs the Xinghai Concert Hall
  • she emphasizes that foreigners need an understanding of the Chinese performing arts market, and Chinese government policy.
  • she hears a lot of complaints from foreign arts companies: Chinese tax burden, paperwork, regulations, having to provide receipts, etc. So, she says, touring in China requires patience.
  • she underlines the fact that there exist some enormous cultural difference between China and the West. An example: Chinese presenters will not worry about making changes at the last minute, despite whatever communication has occurred in email, etc. The only changes that are not fair ground are things specifically agreed to in contracts. 
  • face-to-face meetings are preferred to virtual meetings. Similarly, seeing work live is preferred.

4) Frank Chen (who is one of the Shanghai SPAF heads, and who has been chairing this workshop) speaks:
  • touring groups need a license from the government.
  • nowadays (after a 20 year struggle), only one month is needed to obtain a license. Licenses are also granted by cities, rather than on a national level. It's unclear to me whether this is an advantage, but Frank seems to think it is. A question from the crowd asks about possible pitfalls, i.e. what happens if some local licenses are granted, and some are not. There is not yet a clear answer to this.
  • taxation. A favourable policy is still in process. Frank asks that his foreign friends write with examples of a fair taxation policy for visiting arts companies. 

5) HUANG Jian (Jeff) speaks next. He is the founder of - the first online ticketing service in China.
  • Jeff doubts whether China is actually a big market.
  • that said, he launches into some statistics: 100 Billion RMB in tickets sold every year.
  • 20-25 billion RMB in tickets sold in Shanghai.
  • 30 billion RMB in tickets sold in Beijing.
  • he speaks of tiers in Chinese cities: 1st tier have a per capita average GDP of $5k USD; 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier cities have a per capita average GDP of about $3k USD.
  • more than 10 million people in China buy tickets to 4-6 performances per year.
  • 15-20 year olds buy cheaper tickets (movies, concerts).
  • older demographic buys live performing arts tickets.
  • there is a high correlation between the GDP of a city and the strength of its performing arts market, so it's wise to pay attention to this measure.
  • the most popular performances in China: 1) pop star concerts; 2) k-pop; 3) music of what he calls "fashionable" or "fancy" shows.
  • the drama market is particularly strong in both Beijing and Shanghai, with sales rates coming close to rates seen for movies.
  • Jeff predicts that the post-90s generation will be the biggest consumers of performing arts in China.

That's it. We all chat and exchange business cards. Frank introduces me to a rep from a Beijing dance company, saying that their work is close to Volcano's in terms of innovation and multi-disciplinary forms. We set up a meeting for when I get to Beijing next week. Nice guy.

My impression of the whole session is that all the language is capitalist - the talk is entirely about markets and stats and sales, and nothing is said about art. Of course, these are managers, not artists, but I find it ironic that market speech dominates this conference in a communist country...

Thurs, Oct 17: Evening

Shanghai, seen from the river

Shanghai, seen from the river

We all climb into buses and are taken to the harbour for a boat cruise. This is jaw-dropping. The river is populated with skyscrapers. We see what is going to be the second tallest building in the world, currently under construction and nestled among already extra-tall buildings. Shanghai has spent unimaginable amount of money on construction. 

We cruise the river, and talk and drink and eat. I end up at a table with Chris Lorway from Soundstreams and a delightful plethora of Australians (A Barbie of Australians? An Irony of Australians?). This is a fun group.

Two of the Infamous Aussies

After the cruise, we climb in taxis and, on Chris' suggestion, we travel to the Waldorf Astoria.

Waldorf Astoria, Shanghai

Wow. This is a magnificent 1911 building. Old world luxury. We drink some $20 drinks and have a blast. At the next table, there is a group of Chinese guests wearing tuxedos and gowns. In this perfect time capsule bar, with silk bow ties and an American jazz singer, it feels like a romantic recreation of old Shanghai. What $20 drinks buys one...

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