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Ten Years of JZ Festival W/Ren Yuqing

Talking with JZ founder Ren Yuqing about doing music festivals in China and why the only way to stop the ticket scalpers is to kill them.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

There's like 5,000 music festivals in Shanghai this year. Some are new, like STORM and the Top 100 DJs Festival, whereas others like MIDI and JZ festival have happened for ten years. Aside from Black Rabbit, which only happened once, JZ is my favorite festival in Shanghai. You could take your grandma there and hang out in the grass watching the sun set over the bridge while Bootsy Collins plays in the background.

Ahead of this year's JZ Festival – happening on October 18 and 19 in the Expo Park – I talked to Ren Yuqing, the founder of JZ Club and the festival. Before starting JZ, he played bass in a band with one of China's most famous rock stars Cui Jian. In 2004 he started JZ Festival in Shanghai. Now his first bar JZ Club has several offspring – JZ Latino, On Stage, Wooden Box Café, and JZ Hangzhou – and the festival has moved all over the city. Here's what Ren had to say about doing festivals in China, dealing with yellow cows (ticket scalpers), and how the government feels about festivals here.


SmSh: Can you give us an introduction to when and why you started JZ festival?

Ren: We started that in 2005. 2004 was the first jazz festival in Shanghai, but the festival was handled by the Luwan government culture bureau, and I was invited to be the music director. But in 2005, they canceled it. So I [thought], "okay I'll do it by myself."

Music festivals are great, because you can share the music and share the love with the people. That is why I'm doing this. Then later I thought "this also can make money" [laughs]. But at first I did that for love, for fun.

SmSh: What was that first jazz festival like?

Ren: That was actually just in Fuxing park, with one stage. That's it. Some bands from all the clubs. JZ club, House of Blues and Jazz, CJW.

In 2006 we put the festival in Fuxing Park and we changed the name to Jazz Revival. But they kicked us out of Fuxing Park, so we moved to TongLeFang (New Factories). The Jing'an government said "I want you guys". So we moved to the New Factories. Then in 2008 we moved to Jing'an Park and we really packed the park. The leaders really liked our things but they got some [complaints] from their leader. They said it's dangerous for that place because we had too many people. Later, we started doing indoor [concerts] in Jing'an instead of outdoor things.

I'm always touring the world and going to all the festivals. Our festival is the flag of Shanghai. The jazz capital of Asia is Japan now, but it will come back to Shanghai. Shanghai is Asia's jazz soul. So we needed to find a place that really can say Shanghai. Where? By the river.

I was a performance manager in the 2010 World Expo. When I finished, my heart was still there. So I thought ok, how about I move our festival to the Expo Park. Expo is this huge event, everything is right there. It's stable. They have electricity, you know, all this kind of thing…

Some people say [the park has] too much concrete, but I say you still see the park, you got the meadow and a river. You see the sun go down - wow, it's beautiful.

SmSh: There's more festivals than ever this year. Is the market ready?

Ren: I think the market is growing. Ready? Not ready, I think. Everything is growing, that is for sure. Outside of Shanghai, you got a lot. At that time [in 2006], in the whole China, there were only three: MIDI, Modern Sky, and JZ.

Why are people doing that [throwing music festivals]? You can smell that. I think maybe 20% [do it] for fun, 80% [do it] for money. Because they think this can make money. You know the Heng Da music festival? They have 30 [festivals].

They are a property company – a huge business company. They have a soccer team, water, everything. They have a music festival – 30, every year 30 – they open a property and put a music festival there. In one way, it's good. You [give] more people a chance to listen to the music, see the live show, and give them a different experience. But from the other ways… it's like, which kind of experience can you give them? Quantity is not about quality [laughs].

SmSh: Does the government really support music festivals, do they want that?

Ren: Well I mean, for the culture things in China, it's becoming more and more open, I think you can feel that. So the government supports that, IF you're good.

First, the government will see why are you doing this. You're doing this for culture, or only for money? If you're a business, you just do it yourself. Just don't do some illegal things. But if you're good, they will support you. Just like our festival – I got really big support from Jing'an government and also Pudong Government because a jazz festival is not a moneymaking thing. We do it for the love. Actually in the last 10 years, 9 years I lost money (laughs]. From last year we break even.

I mean just keep going. That is really something, I've [thought about] stopping [the festival. I got a lot of friends saying "you lost you lost". Eight years later, people are saying "why are you doing that, if you don't do the festival, you can save a lot of money!" We lost about 20 million rmb. But I think that is not a loss, I think that is an investment.

We still got a lot of government support. From this year, we have a new festival called JZ Spring in Jing'an. I love that model – it's free! Music for free. From the culture department, the leaders always ask me,"can you make that the biggest music festival in Asia?" And I say "yeah man". We are already right there, the top level.

SmSh: Who else in Asia is on the same level as you?

Ren: Java Jazz, in Jakarta. They are organized by the North Sea jazz guys. That one is really really good. But it's indoors, in one huge exhibition center. Because people stay indoors – you got air conditioner [laughs]. And the other one is the Jarasum Jazz Festival in Korea. That's an island. That island is one city, so the city paid the money. Huge. They don't have the really really big names, but the ticket price is also around 200 RMB. But they've also been doing that for 10 years. All the young people go there for fun. That's the biggest – about 150,000 people there.

SmSh: What was the turnout last year for JZ in Shanghai?

Ren: 30,000 [over the whole weekend]. I don't like giving people the fake number. Some people are like "ohhhh, our festival had 500,000 people!" but actually there was 5,000 people [laughs].

SmSh: I have a question about the tickets. Every year I go, there's these huangniu (scalpers) selling the tickets. They let people in through the fence. How hard is it to deal with this problem? Why can't you make this deal go away?

Ren: They never stop. The music festival is really delicious for them, because you know, there's no seats; they don't need to buy the tickets. They can make a hole. Everything is zero cost [laughs]. There are only two ways. One way is you kill them and the second way is be friends with them. That means you get dirty. You negotiate with them. "I'll give you these tickets and you can sell them, but you don't sell right here. You sell over there".

Sometimes [promoters] will give tickets to the media, and some [media] guys also sell those [to the huangniu]. So now, on every ticket, we put who we gave that too. So if we give tickets to Ian, and I see a dealer who has Ian's tickets, I will call you like "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" If you don't like it, don't sell it, give it back to me [laughs].

SmSh: A lot of music festivals like Strawberry and MIDI, they started in Beijing and then moved to Shanghai and done pretty well here. Why hasn’t JZ moved to Beijing and done festival there?

Ren: We have festival right there, three years already. But they’re really small. Really, really small. We’re just doing it indoors, at Yugong Yishan.

Back to what we were talking about before, we want to give the people a nice experience – the quality things. If you manage a whole big festival, like this kind of size, if you want to do ten of those during the whole year, you need to have a really, really fucking strong team.

I have a story to tell you. One band played in [a festival in China]. A foreign band. After that, the band tour manager talked with the festival host and said "I wanna come back" and they were like "Yeah, yeah, yeah come!" [and they said] "But not for performance. I want to bring my crew and teach you guys how to do a music festival!" [laughs].

They were fucking angry. Right now, I think [things are moving] too fast. [It's like] you’re only one chef, you can only make one dumpling at home and you make a really small tent and you can sell really well. Ten days later, you need to open 100 restaurants, like Tsui Wah. But you have no team. In China, we need professional people - sound guys, light guys, stage builders. You know, in Europe, in the States, everywhere, all the people are really professional right? Of course, because they have like 60 years history of doing that.

SmSh: But MIDI's got a long history, 20 years right?

Ren: Yeah. People right now are saying "don’t call it MIDI, call it Muddy." [Note: MIDI Festival moved way outside of the city center last year and got inundated with rain, turning the whole festival into a mud pit]. Yeah MIDI festival, that means rock. You go there, and it's like Woodstock. MIDI is totally underground culture. You can smell the hippie, you can smell the dream scene, the dream village. Everyone stays together, shares the love.

SmSh: For JZ Festival 2014, how many people do you have on your team?

Ren: 30 people. The longest has been working with me for six years. But the longest is a volunteer. Already nine years.

SmSh: Is it hard to find people who are really professional and understand this kind of thing, doing festivals?

Ren: Yeah I mean, because in China, I think right now it's like 20 years ago when everyone wants to play bass but you got no teacher. And somebody can teach you, but that guy is maybe just [playing one year longer than you]. They're also not professional, not correct, you know? That’s why I send my team to other festivals. They need to go to watch and see. Not only see the stage, they need to see behind the stage too.

SmSh: What’s the hardest thing about doing a big festival in China? Scalpers?

Ren: Yeah [laughs] that’s a really hard part. The license we can get and then the artist we can think about that. The tickets, if we have a good promotion or artist we can sell that, but only the huang niu – you’re never going to get out of that [laughs]. You know we’ve been thinking about making one computer game called Kill the Yellow Cow [laughs].

SmSh: How do you deal with brands? Because a lot of music festivals here, it’s just brands everywhere and it’s annoying. But at JZ, the brand presence is not very strong [in a good way]. Why is that?

Ren: Of course – it’s my home! [laughs]. You need to follow my rules. I’m not a hooker, you can pay me money but don’t fuck with me. Don’t fuck with me [laughs].

I love to have supporters. You guys pay us because you need to get into this space. You can come and we'll do it together, we'll share everything – good for you good for me. I just tell every brand, "[in] my festival, only our things can have [music/sound] - the rest of you guys, shut up".

SmSh: That’s a great rule. How hard is it to get the performance licenses for these bands? Bootsy Collins' band has 15 people in it right? How hard is it to get them a license?

Ren: Including the crew, it’s 35 people. They check everything. Lyrics, 45 minute videos... Always. The whole band, each face. Right now it’s getting better and better because our festival is already ten years [old]. Jazz festivals [are not like rock festivals]. There's no people on the stage saying "fuck" [laughs]. So for us, it’s more easy to [get a] pass.

SmSh: What do you think about the other music festivals, like Storm?

Ren: I think Storm is good. Yeah I like Storm. I think all the production, all the things, everything set up is really really on another level.

SmSh: How do you promote to people outside of Shanghai? Those jazz fans in Wuhan or Xian or whatever, how do you get them to come to Shanghai for this festival?

Ren: We have JZ Club. Every day and the weekend we have like 150 people, so through the whole year we can have 40,000 people. So people know. And also because we have a jazz school. That’s not once a year; we always have that.

SmSh: Yeah, totally. Cool. Anything else you want to say or mention about JZ festival or anything or?

Ren: Yeah, for JZ festival this year I want to say two things. The first thing is one sentence from a Beatles song that everybody knows – Come Together. The music festival brings all the people together. This is the first thing. The second thing is, when we come together, please pick up the garbage [laughs].


The 10th annual JZ Festival happens at Expo Park this October 18-19. This year's headliners include Bootsy Collins, Cui Jian, Kyoto Jazz Massive, Pat Metheny, Jojo Mayer, Jazzanova, Sandy Lam, and Marcus Miller. As well as that, there's jazz from Shanghai and abroad and an electronic stage with local DJs playing left-field sets. Tickets are 260rmb/day or 480rmb/two days presale and 320rmb/day on site. We have tickets available right here on SmartTicket.