The Food: It's the Hello Kitty Hot Pot Restaurant. Yes, it is exactly what you think it is. There is a bistro -- this one -- and now there is also a Hello Kitty Hot Pot Restaurant. Happy days are here to stay, my friends! They do shabu-shabu Japanese style hot pot, with individual pots for each guest, for boiling up your tofu, your mushrooms, your meats, and your greens. Wherever possible they've stamped a Hello Kitty logo, and the restaurant itself is decked out in the perfectly pink graphics and logo of the perfectly pink pu-
I mean cat.
But is it shit?
The people: Archie Hamilton and Dostav Dixit are representing Shanghai-based, China-wide concert promoters Split Works. In addition to organizing national tours, club shows, and more, for Western and Chinese bands, the company is also responsible for organizing multi-day festival events like Jue Festival, Black Rabbit, and the recent Concrete & Grass. This Saturday, they're celebrating 10 years in the game with a big warehouse party down at Icon X skate park. They've got a couple of great post punk bands playing -- The Eagulls and PK 14 -- along with their own Woozy DJs. 150rmb get you in to the party.
SmSh: So, Dostav. why don’t you tell me what’s happening at the Split Works anniversary? We’ve commenced our journey.
Archie Hamilton: We’ve commenced our journey, have we?
Dostav Dixit: So, we’re doing this warehouse party. I guess the address will be leaked by the time this is published.
AH: It’s at the IconX skate park, which is in the south of Shanghai. Probably about a 20-minute cab ride from the city center. Near where the old Yuyintang used to be. It’s a bit further but it’s in that area. It’s kind of representative of the taxi ride we used to take to going to Yuyintang, and now we’re heading back down there 10 years later.
SmSh: I remember my band opened up for [Dalian post rock band] Wang Wen down there 10 years ago. Wang Wen — they showed up and lined up like 50 beers in front of themselves, sat on the street, and drank them all.
DD: Yeah, those guys are crazy.
SmSh: And they’ve gone from that to headlining Split Works’ major festivals. Have you got any other bands like that who have been with you the whole journey?
AH: Well, we’ve got to say PK14, who are actually playing the show on Saturday night. We did them in our first year — we did a [Beijing record label] Maybe Mars showcase with them. And a Converse tour. And they also headlined Black Rabbit festival. And they’re pretty emblematic of the last ten years as a whole of music in China. They were nice enough to come down and come play our party.
DD: [Putting on the Hello Kitty bib] I kind of feel like a guy who’s into Baby Metal or something.
SmSh: So, this warehouse party…
AH: Yeah, you know. It’s our ten years. So, it’s not just another gig. We wanted to do something special, hence the warehouse. We figured it was kind of important. We’ll see if the fact that it’s a “secret location” will get people coming. We could have done it at Yuyintang, but then it would probably feel like just another show at Yuyintang. With DJs between sets, all that kind of stuff. But The Shelter is hosting the after-party, and it’s their 9th birthday as well. They’ve got the community spirit sort of thing. The Shelter — it’s going to be pretty shitty when they close. I hope Gaz [Shelter manager] gets his shit together and opens another one.
SmSh: Yeah, speaking to that. It seems like a lot of underground / alternative places are closing. Especially in Beijing, but in Shanghai as well. Is this part of a larger, great urban implosion sort of thing?
AH: Yeah, it definitely feels that way. If you look at all of our businesses…
SmSh: Hey Dostav, drink this Hello Kitty cocktail and give me your opinion of it.
DD: Well… it tastes like… soap and sugar.
AH: I guess it’s not up to Constellation levels. But I guess that place is kinda lame now as well.
But no, I mean, I guess it’s a broader trend that’s been happening in the last three or four years, you know. We all knew it was kind of going to happen with the current regime in power but everyone though it was going to be tight for one year or two years max. But it’s not just a political thing — a crackdown on whatever — it’s more an economic thing as well. It’s getting harder to sustain a business. All the costs of running a small business are still going up at ridiculous rates but people’s salaries have stayed the same.
DD: And ticket prices have gone up, and people are not willing to pay. Five, six years ago it was still kind of feasible to do tours with prices of 40rmb but [with the rising production costs] you cant really do that anymore. 60rmb is sort of the minimum and a lot of people are just not willing to pay.
AH: It’s sort of a perfect storm. It’s a crackdown, plus the economy slowing down, plus rents and rates are still going up. And there is a massive over-supply of everything. Every weekend, there’s 20 things to go to, you know. Everyone’s a promoter, everyone’s a food critic…
AH: …If you look at the festival thing, there was literally a festival every weekend at Expo Park for two months straight. I think a lot of the activity now is driven by investment. Crazy investment strategies. Three years ago it became — what the fuck is this?
DD: Tofu. Yeah, that’s tofu.
AH: You know, five years ago, three years ago, it became really fashionable… Basically, what happened with the live music thing is Modern Sky got crazy valuation, and as soon as that story got out in the media, every single investor is like ‘well, we can do that too’. And that’s the thing in China, — it’s the ‘well, we can do that too” — whether it’s a cocktail bar, or a food festival, or whatever, 500 other people come in with really badly conceived, poorly thought-out, terribly executed equivalents, and that’s the way it is. There is so much investment money but the audience hasn’t really caught up with it.
On artists now, we’re bidding on them against people making fucking insane offers backed with no rationality -- for example Sum 41 last year, I was looking at them for our festival -- they don’t have any cold beer here -- I think they don’t sell a lot of beer at the Hello Kitty hot pot -- but we’re bidding against people offering 10 to 20 times what I would offer, and I’m not even making any money on it.
Like my offer for DJ Shadow was 20,000 US. They offer that he got was 200,000 US.
SmSh: Where is all this investment coming from?
AH: Well, it’s money that sort of just shifts around China looking for a home. You know, there’s not that much to invest in, in China. You know, the stock market sucks, real estate is massively overvalued, very few businesses really actually work, besides the big internet companies — and now those guys are trying to diversify the shit out of themselves and they’re sort of flailing around fucking it all up.
SmSh: So, you seem like you’re in a really happy and positive place for your ten-year anniversary.
SmSh: Just brimming with confidence for the future.
AH: Well, it’s all cyclical and roundabout. A year later, most people will be gone. Because investors don’t care what they’re investing in. They don’t care if it’s entertainment or whatever. They just want their money to make money for them. So they’ll leave when it doesn’t. But the trouble is they leave a sort of poisonous legacy. We spend years and years trying to educate the agents and managers of the world what real pricing is for China, and then these guys come in and spunk loads of money for a few years and then everyone thinks the real prices for China are 20 times what they should be. And it will take us another 10 years for us to bring it back down again.
And as soon as we do, to a point where we can make a bit of money, everyone will come back in again, and it will go the same way. I don’t know.
SmSh: Damn, that’s bleak.
AH: I think business in China is quite difficult. It is quite challenging, you know, for all the reason we previously discussed. But I think it’s going to be quite interesting to see how the next five years go. Someone has to turn around and say, ‘okay now we’ve got the corruption under control’ — I don’t know if they have or not but they’re trying — ‘we’ve cleansed society of all the outdoor seating and illegal bars for laowais and stuff, and we’ve got the drug thing down’. It would be wonderful if they took a more progressive approach to the drug thing, but you know. ‘We’ve got all that under control, now it’s time to ease up.’
I think there was a real feeling that things were getting a little bit out of control.
SmSh: What do you think of this hot pot?
AH: It’s pretty good actually! Want some bean sprouts, pal?
DD: This looks like Hello Kitty’s blood. Cheers, boss.
AH: What do you think, Dostav?
DD: About the hot pot?
AH: No. No…
DD: Um. What you said. Well, my area is putting together tours and looking at budgets. And we haven’t done a tour in a long time because everything is so fucking expensive. Hanting Hotels, for example, are like 400rmb now, and they used to be 280rmb or something. It’s like Disneyland opened and all the hotels shot up.
SmSh: You guys mainly do rock bands — live bands — but it seems China has been rather taken with the whole DJ thing.
AH: There’s definitely been some push-back from the electronic side of things. From 2005 to 2013, live music was something that everyone wanted to see. Electronic music was still there for sure but for your average kid, they really wanted to have a live experience and that has sort of changed.
DD: Like, even Wuhan has a trap music scene now.
AH: Yeah, [Wuhan live music venue] Vox is a little bit dead now. And you know that place for the last ten years has been the iconic live music house in China.
SmSh: Voice of youth, voice of freedom…
AH: Yeah, and so we asked why that is, and they said all the kids want to go to clubs and listen to trap now. So, I think we’ll have to have a real go at rebuilding it. Everything is cyclical right? Things get overexposed. I mean the brands have already jumped all into it and it’s moving in that direction of overexposure. I went to the SHFT Halloween party and it was just Absolut Vodka everywhere like it was Budweiser Storm. You know, SHFT are the hottest thing at the moment, STD were the hottest thing three years ago, and we were the hottest thing three years before that.
But someone else will come along and do something cheaper, better, flashier, and more plugged in, so you’ve got to evolve with the cycle. STD went the venue route — venue management — and we went the festival route. SHFT, I’m not sure what they’ll do — well they’re pretty mercenary; I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Actually I don’t know. Maybe it’s a roundabout, but maybe it’s just a gradual decent into madness.
DD: Indie rock is dead, Morgan.
AH: Yeah, “indie” — it’s the word now for generic, middle-of-the-road bullshit. I’ve had to ban it from all our press releases. We never refer to anything as “indie” anymore.
SmSh: Have you got anything uplifting to say there, Archie? Can we give the people something positive?
AH: [Laughs.] Well, China is still certainly the least boring place on the planet. One of the great things about China is that there is always shit to do. In terms of it’s changing all the time. You always have to be curious. I think we’re going through some troubles, but if history is any indication, that’s temporary.
But it’s not just China that I’m down on, it’s the world in general.
AH: Um. But I think there is still a while new world out there. One of the things we’re looking at in the next few years is going back into the other cities in China — Chengdu, Wuhan, Chongqing — because I think actually the scene in those cities are much more interesting than in Beijing and Shanghai. Because they’re just too expensive to live in for artists. I think Beijing and Shanghai are number 2 and number 4 for most expensive cities in the world to live in, if you look at rent as a proportion of your salary.
That’s one of the conditions for making art -- you have to have cheap rent. If you start having to chase money to have to pay for rent, restaurants, and bars or whatever — I mean, you were here five years ago, you remember. When’s the last time you could get a beer anywhere for 10rmb. Even at Perry’s it’s like 30rmb.
SmSh: Yeah, you should stick to their mojitos nights, though. Recommended. What are the kids into now?
AH: Well, I think it’s just kids consume media differently now. They’re snap chatting.
SmSh: Are you using any social media platforms that are working for you? Weibo? Douban? Everyone is on the WeChats these days.
AH: Well, yeah, everyone is looking for a new way. Facebook is dead. We’re going through another transition where everyone is looking for the new thing. They seem to die off when they get too self-promotional or promotional in general. When they turn into echo chambers. And there is too much quantity. I remember Facebook, the event function on Facebook, when you got invited to an event, you would personally respond, even if you we’re unable to make it — “Sorry I’m not in Shanghai that date but have a good one, I hope it goes well”. And WeChat started out like that as well, with people personally engaging with it. But now it’s very promotional and self-promotional which eventually causes people to turn off to it. Everyone just mutes everything.
There is a real sense of overload.
When everyone is doing something, the kids -- and I use kids here very pejoratively — say, the under-25s -- just do something else. And we don’t even know about it.
DD: I heard selling dick pics is okay now. It’s the new thing for high school students. They’re selling each other dick pics. You saw that article?
SmSh: Dostav brings it back to dick pics.
AH: One of the interesting thing about kids in China these days. This new generation, say 15 years old, is they are getting a global experience, in terms of how they are growing up. They’re playing the same computer games, listening to the same music, consuming, broadly, the same media — growing up in Chengdu now is probably not all that different from growing up in Atlanta or Birmingham. 20 years or even 10 years ago that wasn’t the case. Shanghai 10 years ago was diametrically opposite to being in LA because they 10 years before that was informed by the society at the time. Whereas now, everyone is consuming a little bit the same way. And being in Shanghai is similar to being in any other city in the world. Every day bits of Shanghai that I loved are getting knocked down and something new takes it’s place.
But there is a whole new world in that as well.
Hey, did you see this Crazy Lotus thing? The Mansion kids are trolling for investment money to run festivals — 20,000rmb a share?
SmSh: I did. Want to go halves on a share?
AH: [Laughs] It’s not a game for the faint-hearted.
SmSh: So the Concrete & Grass Festival…
DD: Yeah, it was the toughest thing we’ve ever done. Getting permits for all these artists. Biggest one ever in China for foreign artists.
AH: We’ve always been trying to get to year two. We did year one with Jue and Black Rabbit but couldn’t get to year two. I’m just grateful that it happened. Five days out it looked like it was all over. You know, I was looking at the weather forecast every hour. On the Monday, I looked at the weather forecast at it was predicting 69 millimeters of rain on the Friday. But the energy there on the Friday, despite the rain, and the beautiful Saturday we had…
DD: Yeah, it was probably the best thing we’ve ever done.
AH: We’re in a good space with Concrete & Grass. We’re in a great stage where it’s all just beginning and people are excited for it.
SmSh: Hey Dostav, tell me your favorite Split Works’ memory. Was it getting Ludacris’ his Play Stations? Rubbing elbows with Jared Leto in the Pudong airport?
AH: Owl City, obviously.
DD: Ummm. Mine was probably that first Sonic Youth show. Back in 2007 I think? April? Me and my roommate, we’re from Nepal, and we grew up on Sonic Youth, you know. But yeah, we saw they were coming and we had to go. Living in Wuhan we saved up money by eating Ramen noodles for a month to go to that show. We got standing tickets to Beijing, standing tickets home. Didn’t have any money for a hotel, went down, saw the show, sat in a restaurant overnight until the next day, and took the standing train back.
SmSh: This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.
AH: Or the greatest story ever.
DD: And then I was coming back and I thought, oh maybe I’ll work for Split Works. I get to meet my heroes. I’ve got Steve Malkmus’ number.
SmSh: That is pretty sweet. Archie what’s your favorite Split Works memory.
AH: Well, yeah the Sonic Youth…
SmSh: Back in 2007. You guys peaked early.
AH: [Laughs]. Well yeah, there was the golden age there, which for me probably stood out with that Handsome Furs show. It’s just the feeling that your at the right place and you’ve got all your mates with you in the same room enjoying the music. All facing the same direction with the same feeling. That’s something all promoters want to experience. That shared experience. And there was a lot of it then, 5 or 6 years ago. I’m sure STD felt that as well — probably at something involving Ed Banger…
SmSh: [Laughs.] I like that you were in danger of saying something nice there but chose to veer off at the last second….
DD: But for the last ten years, I’ve got to hand it to Archie, Nathaniel, and Clare. [Hamilton’s partners at Split Works.]
AH: Thank you, buddy.
SmSh: Hey, so what about this Hello Kitty Hot Pot. Recommended or no?
AH: Well, they’ll probably do better than the Barbie Store.
DD: It’s like any other hot pot really.
AH: But they have Hello Kitty branded tofu. And Hello Kitty branded cocktails that taste like soap and sugar. And probably ten times as expensive as a regular hot pot.
SmSh: Yeah… so recommended then.
Split Works 10-Year Anniversary Party is this Saturday at IconX Skate Park. The Eagulls and PK14 are playing, along with the Woozy DJs. Cover is 150rmb.