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Music Industry Focus: Archie Hamilton
Talking with the man behind Split Works and JUE Festival about brands in China, why concerts get canceled, and why he still doesn't do brunch or massages...
By Mar 5, 2015 Nightlife

TELL EVERYONE

"In terms of coin, I think promotions is a fucking idiotic game, to be completely honest. As a business model, it sucks so bad," Archie Hamilton tells me. Yet, in spite of those odds, he and his company Split Works have been producing and promoting shows in China for the last decade. They've brought everyone from Ludacris and Ghostface Killa to Swans and Taiwanese pop star Hebe Tian. It's nearly impossible to survive off of music alone in China, so to stay afloat, Split Works does work for a number of brands like Tuborg beer, Volkswagen, Apple, and Adidas, amongst others. Most impressively, they've kept it real and above board, with only one cancelled show in ten years…

This year marks Split Works' seventh annual JUE Festival, a week-long program of shows and art at dozens of venues around town. It kicks off on March 12, and ahead of that I sat down with Archie to chat about the music industry in China, the role of brands, and why he still doesn't do brunch or massages…

SmSh: A lot of people are talking about Lenny Kravitz's show being canceled. How does this shit even happen?


Archie: Well I'm really surprised because he's pulled the whole of Australia and Asia. And I understand, 'cause I knew Lenny was coming in with some weirdly dodgy promoter here, and that happens on a fairly regular basis. The agent will get some retardedly high offer, a little bit like Aerosmith. You know, they got a 1.5 million USD offer, which basically means you have to sell out that stadium – 23,000 seats – to break even, and two weeks before they'd sold like 3000 tickets or something. So, as the promoter of that show, you're like, "Do I just forgo my deposit and cancel the whole thing, or do I go through with it? And if I go through with it I'm probably gonna lose two million bucks. And if I cancel it now I'm probably gonna lose half a million bucks." And obviously that's the smart way to go.


Split Works' Swans show – probably the loudest concert ever in China

But as I said on SmartShanghai, it just bugs the shit out of me, because all these agents and managers, they're always like, "Fuck we just got burned again!" and "It's a shit market…" And you're like, "You know there are good promoters in China, because you've worked with all of them, so why don't you give the fucking shows to the good promoters?" And they're like "ahhhh yeah but the money was so good…" And generally when something sounds too good to be true, it is.

SmSh: So is the concert market in Shanghai still growing and going to continue to grow?


Archie: Oh yeah. The market's gonna keep growing. I feel that last year was definitely the end of a mini cycle, where there was so much shit going on, and everyone had kinda had enough of all it. We lost quite a lot of money on shows at the backend of last year, because we threw a little too much at the wall, and everyone else threw a little too much at the wall, and everyone was like "Phhhhh…fuck. I don't have the money or even the energy to go do any more shit." And I think there'll be some overhang from that.

SmSh: March looks big…


Archie: March is insane…just on the electronic side, Shelter and Arkham are probably having their biggest months ever. There's some great bookings, but what worries me is that if Arkham and Shelter are going big guns every weekend, something’s gotta break at some point. So it's definitely growing, but I do feel that some of the less robust organizations — people that maybe haven't thought through what they're doing and why they're doing it — they're gonna go to the wall this year and it's going to be a bit of a perfect storm because I think there will be less expats in town.

SmSh: Really? I've seen that WSJ report, but I don't know…


Archie: It's not just the report, it's a feeling I've got by being around town, being an employer. There were a lot more people coming to me looking for jobs two years ago than now, because it's harder to get jobs at the moment. In the employment scene, it's going through that cycle where companies are like, "We'll employ locals because they understand the market," but then they realize that the locals don't really understand their brand.


Fans wilding out when Split brought Dan Deacon into Yuyintang

SmSh: So, what have been the three biggest changes in doing business in China over the last decade?


Archie: One: The other cities are really interesting places now — even more interesting than Shanghai and Beijing. Two: In our industry, how quickly the ticket prices go up. Three: This huge influx of brands into all the crevices of our industry and lots of other industries.

SmSh: How are people reacting to this influx of brands?


Archie: I'm seeing much more resistance to brand involvement, and I'm seeing a lot of brands struggling to be interesting or creative, and I think that [with the] rising ticket prices, people are actually prepared to pay for the thing itself, as opposed to needing a brand to help. That's kind of an exciting progression. It'd be great if we could have a music industry where we didn't have to have brands in every single part of it...

SmSh: Do you think kids here have a conception of "selling out"?


Archie: I think over the last years they haven't, but I think human nature dictates that they'll automatically rebel against what's gone before. So the new kids coming up now will look at all that branding and bling and in-your-face messaging, and they're gonna turn around and go, "No, we don't like that. That's not artistic, that's not cool."

There has to be a mutual benefit. For me, if the brand's gonna take your attention for even a minute, I need to give you something in return. And if I'm just taking your attention, it's a very short-term perspective, because kids will work it out. And I think brands have had a strangely easy ride over the last ten years, because there has been this naivety among young Chinese kids…

Well, in one element, maybe it's naivety…we used to do these studies of the people who came to our gigs, and we'd be like, "What do you think of brands at shows?" And they'd be like, "Well actually, because so many shows are canceled... having a brand gives me a certain amount of confidence that it will be good…" So they've had kind of an easy run of it, over the last ten years, but I think now it's gonna get much harder.


Black Rabbit Festival 2011 – possibly China's best music festival ever

SmSh: What's your biggest regret in doing business here?


Archie: That we didn't do Black Rabbit in 2012. We would have had a really good festival on our hands. It's that whole thing about five years – you've gotta do something for five years to make it really worthy. Obviously we lost a lot of money in 2011, and my partner kinda pulled out. But it was such hard work, and so difficult, and we weren't really aligned on what we were trying to do.

I feel that with investors, generally you're not really aligned with them, because what I'm trying to do is create a beautiful work of art — not to sound pretentious — and they're just trying to make money. I still feel there's a space for Black Rabbit, a festival that cares about its punters. A festival built by festival-goers for festival-goers. I've been to over 1,000 festivals in the last 20 years.

SmSh: Let's talk about JUE a bit. Can you break it down for people who don't know what it is?


Archie: The idea is an urban arts festival. A whole bunch of programming in a short period of time that's diverse, and interesting, and connected to what's going on. If you wanted a feeling of what's going on in China, and you've got a week, do it during JUE, because you can do five things for a day, for a week, and they're all over the map – international stuff, local stuff, high-end stuff…and you can really just follow the programming around. A snapshot of cultural China. It's not a money thing.


Ten years deep in the China promo game and still does his own laundry

SmSh: This whole "snapshot of culture" thing – most of the headline acts are from outside of China, so how is that a snapshot of China?


Archie: Well, on the arts side, most of the stuff is Chinese. Every international show has a Chinese element to it, so they're on the posters and on the programs. We've got the Gulou Double Decker in Beijing, which is ten or twelve up-and-coming Chinese bands, we've got Wooozy Offline with all its local residents, the Wooozy emerging bands showcase, Chinese cinematographers, visual artists… It's really a very Chinese festival. Of course, the top names are international —you can't have Nonplus of Color and Jackie and Sleepless headlining the bill, because people will be like, "What the fuck?" But they're all part of it.

It still frustrates us that the people who come forward and participate in JUE tend to be foreigners, because they understand the concept of giving a little bit of their time and effort, not necessarily to make money, but to make something a little bit bigger than the sum of its parts.

Back when I grew up, we put up free parties, and we would work tirelessly… There would be no money, and everyone would work really hard to lug sound systems and put up lighting. And that doesn't really happen here. And I think until it does, there's gonna be something really fundamental missing. Because that's where the beauty happens. The corporate events we do have a 1/8th or 1/100th of the joy and excitement of something like JUE. We fucking hate doing JUE now, because it's so much work, and everyone's like "fuck, seven years…and we're still paying for everything…"

SmSh: So you don't make money on JUE?


Archie: We lose so much. We'll probably lose one million kuai on JUE this year. And it's kinda frustrating, because everyone assumes that we must be making money on JUE. There's no way to make money, and we're not really an arts foundation [laughs]. But actually, when it's all said and done and the program comes together and the festival happens, it's the best time of year for us because we're so proud of what we've done, and we're doing it just because of it, and not any ulterior motives. And that's cool, but after seven years, it gets a bit old.


Balancing pop and underground – Hebe Tian performing at Black Rabbit

SmSh: Let's talk about Chinese media and JUE. How often do you have to pay to get stuff for a festival like JUE featured?


Archie: We never pay. Media hate us [laughs] because we're always asking for stuff. You asked earlier about changes in China. One of the big, significant changes I've seen over the last two, three years is that the media are suddenly a little bit interested in stuff that's genuinely good. Maybe two, three years ago, you couldn't get anything anywhere.

SmSh: Well there's a big crackdown on corruption in media now right?


Archie: Yeah there's a big crackdown on red envelopes, but there's also a lot more competition. A lot of people are going, "Well if I write about cool stuff, then people will read it, and we'll get more ad revenue." So we're finding a lot more than the Chinese media we talk to are a bit more open to talking about stuff without being paid for it, and that's a huge change.

SmSh: Speaking of that, this is supposed to be the year where the rule of law takes shape in China – how is that going to affect the nightlife industry?


Archie: For me, there's always been a way to do it. All our shit's above board. The rules are laid out very clearly, if you take the time to listen. We've just gone through a phase where everything's been in the grey, because that's kind of the only way to let things evolve from a grassroots level. So actually the government has done it quite smartly, in as much as they've allowed scenes to grow, and venues to operate, and promoters to promote, and bands to come in, and DJs to play…

SmSh: Because they know what's going on…


Archie: Absolutely. [When The Boys tour got canceled], they went in to see them at the Cultural Ministry, they had the poster on their desk, they had all the pictures of Chachy half-naked on stage, and they're like, "We think this is gonna be a pornographic, sex-driven thing," and that's why they were so concerned.

It demonstrates to me that there is a level of pragmatism within the authority, like "We understand this has to happen. We understand this is an important part of development. We've let it happen up to now in the grey, but actually it's too big and it's too out of control from a safety/crowd-control perspective, and we need to start regulating this stuff, because every other country in the world does." It's gonna force change, and make things a little bit more expensive, but regulation always does…



SmSh: Last question: Back in the day you said you don't go to brunch or massages. Is that still the case?


Archie: I've done brunch once in ten years in Shanghai, for a business brunch. I was invited, and I hated every minute of it. It's so vulgar, right? In a world where so many people are hungry, you get all these people pigging out for like six hours.... And massages, I still feel weird about…that kind of inequality, of someone serving me, it's just weird…but those are all Shanghai institutions, and that's one of the reasons that Shanghai and I are not easy bedfellows.

***

Archie writes about the music industry regularly on China Music Radar. You can also follow him on Twitter @archiehamilton

JUE Festival 2015 goes from March 12–22. There's about, oh...888 shows at places all around town. Check the full schedule on the JUE website, and stay tuned to SmartShanghai for our picks, photo galleries, and more.

TELL EVERYONE


13 comments.

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  • 4 years ago remshanghai

    Dreamy

  • 4 years ago Pinball Lizard

    Obviously I haven't been to 1,000 festivals in the last 20 years. Poetic license.

    Thanks to Ian and Smart for all the support over the years. Love you guys

  • 4 years ago psinology

    Hats of to Archie and Split for putting their bearded balls to the wall and doing their shit for all these years. Well done. Hurrah!

  • 4 years ago Peterdixon

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHqDHyI-pcg

  • 4 years ago zmann999

    that dude looks pretty, pretty, pretty contemplative

  • 4 years ago shanghai_ultra

    Respect to Archie

  • 4 years ago searching_shanghai

    Nice Archie. Respect your commitment and idealism, less so your hatred of brunch.

    @benshipley

  • 4 years ago The Central Scrutinizer

    I want to thank Archie and Splitworks for making my 11 years here a much easier ride. Kudos to the work you do and for bringing us great entertainment. I look forward to more events in the future!

  • 4 years ago sal_hawk

    Big Up Split Works! Doing great things for great reasons. Always love thier events.

  • 4 years ago Pinball Lizard

    Thanks guys. Your support means a lot. We'll keep trying :-)

  • 4 years ago GawainMcQueen

    He's one hella charismatic guy

  • 4 years ago hyphenics

    Way to go Archie, nice interview and good insights.

  • 4 years ago CharlieD

    These S-plit guys are all right in my books.
    A big shout out to RGM, he does good work there.

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