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China's festival organizers fight for the right to party

By Dean Irvine, CNN
  • Large-scale music festivals becoming more popular in China
  • Government approval and being attractive to sponsors are key
  • Paying fan-base has only emerged in last few years
  • World music festival in city of Zhuhai shows interest from locals and government to different events

(CNN) -- "It's totally not sex drugs and rock 'n' roll in China," says Scarlett Li, organizer of the Zebra Music Festival that took place in Chengdu last weekend. "But there is a beer sponsor."

Zebra is the three-day annual event that attracted around 150,000 revelers who listened to Chinese pop singers and reality TV stars while flicking horn finger salutes and drinking brand-name beer.

Until just a few years ago finding an audience in China's provinces willing to pay for a festival experience wasn't possible, says Li. But the two most crucial factors in hosting a festival are securing government support and corporate sponsorship cash.

"(Provincial governments) have recognized the benefits of music festivals. Obviously music festivals overseas have negative impact -- drugs, sex, whatever -- but in China it became a project," says Li.

It's great to be able to do something cultural, but at the same time it's a great business opportunity.
--Jean-Jacques Verdun, Beishan festival organizer

Concepts of youthful rebellion often synonymous with music festivals are buried deep beneath commercial and official requirements -- or are completely non-existent.

The local government in Chengdu provided a purpose-built park for the Zebra Music Festival, now in its third year, and helped with promotion of the festival, as it controls local media.

When it came to choosing the line-up for the Zebra Music Festival, almost more important than official approval for the bands was how attractive they were to sponsors.

"Sometimes it's a conflict. Maybe you lower the quality like that," admits Li, who suggests that bands attractive to sponsors will also be liked by the audience.

"But becoming commercially viable is the key," she adds.

Li began working in music rights management in China before realizing rampant piracy meant the most value in China's music industry was going to be in promotion.

Other large scale events by Zebra Media are planned in Hangzhou, Beijing and Guangzhou later this year, as Li hopes to make Zebra festivals the leader in the emerging festival scene.

Jean-Jacques Verdun is a French entrepreneur who also spotted an opportunity to bring something culturally different to one of China's second-tier cities.

The Beishan World Music Festival in Zhuhai last month -- which claims to have been first world music festival in mainland China -- was on a much smaller scale to Li's operation, but the principles of festival production were much the same.

"Sometimes the management of the government is much more open than you may think," he says. "If you try to do it by yourself and at the last minute, you ask them for authorization they will freak out and that's not good news."

Verdun's Delta Bridges company partnered with a local PR firm and education business to promote the festival.

All sorts of people tried to lobby the government to put on local festivals and a lot of them were just shitty.
--Scarlett Li, Zebra Media

It attracted around 4,000 people, as well as headline sponsors BMW. Lines of convertibles from the German car-maker were lined up next to a 200-year-old former temple and theatre.

A jazz festival last September tested the water in terms of government and local response and world music was chosen for the latest event because it is not too politically engaged.

"(Other music) could be more problematic for sure. China is still China and they would be more careful about another kind of musician.

"It is challenging, we have to educate the people a little bit about what world music is, but sometimes it's very rewarding. It's great to be able to do something like that but at the same time it's a great business opportunity for sure."

Like other businesses in China that are finding new markets, the emerging music festival industry is just as susceptible to bad copies hoping to cash in on corporate and government support.

According to Li, last year there were too many would-be entrepreneurs who put on sub-standard events.

"All sorts of people tried to lobby the government to put on local festivals and a lot of them were just shitty.

"There were too many, they ruined the brand (of festivals). Suddenly the sponsors saw there were lots of options, but the quality wasn't good."

To build a brand in China there needs to be consistency, says Li.

"Zebra festivals won't be exactly like a cookie-cutter because the audience in (different) regions has differences in terms of musical tastes, but they will be around 60% similar," says Li.

"Between June and September in Europe there are thousands of festivals. In a way China will be like that. For most people in China aged between 15 and 25 they don't really travel, so you need to bring the show to them."