China's best-known outdoor music festival turned into an organizer's biggest nightmare during last weekend's Dragon Boat Festival, suffering huge losses.[Photo/China.org.cn]
China's best-known outdoor music festival turned into an organizer's biggest nightmare during last weekend's Dragon Boat Festival, suffering huge losses.
"I did not see a single concert during the four-day festival," said Chen Shu, president of the organizing Beijing Big Love International Media Company, "I poured all my efforts into trying to save the whole thing."
The four-day Big Love Chengdu Music Festival was held at Chengdu's International Intangible Cultural Heritage Park from June 21 – 24, featuring over 100 bands and singers, including international acts such as Extreme, Suede and Lisa Ono, as well as top Chinese artists such as Cui Jian, Wang Feng, Lo Ta-yu and Alan Tam.
However, just one day after the festival had wrapped up, the organizer faced widespread scrutiny after some dodgy financial information was leaked to the public. Due to a financial deficit, it was reported the organizer had failed to pay the accommodation fees and travel fare for over 100 staff members, who were all stuck in their hotels.
Musician Liu Wei, who attended the festival wrote on his Sina Weibo: "Dear Big Love organizers, losing money is your own business, but how can you not pay your staff? Do you know how tired they are after having worked day and night?"
According to media reports, the festival's budget was set around 60 million yuan (US$9.42 million), but it only managed to gross 3 million (US$471,306) in ticket sales.
"I would say the losses add up to over 40 million yuan (US$6.28 million)," a worn-out Chen said, "I knew we were bound to lose some money, but I never thought we would lose so big. The reality of it hit me on the first day already."
It was Chen's dream to create the greatest music festival ever hosted in China, boasting top acts, top instruments and top equipment. However, due to a series of problems, the festival ended up a financial calamity.
The long-time cultural event organizer offered his apologies to the unpaid staff, but said he still owed 8 million yuan (US$1.25 million) and would pay off this debt soon.
The huge investment has been spent on artists, venues, stage construction, and the fees of the huge 4,000-head workforce. But the artists' fees formed the biggest cost since organizers invited all the mainstream top acts they possible could. International acts like Suede charge a rough 1 - 2 million yuan for one performance.
And the chaos did not stop at the fees; the artists' entourages also caused quite the problematic stir. Many artists brought along as many family members and work staff as they could and organizers spent large sums on their every need, such as the artists' lounges.
Big Love's shocking failure was due to various reasons, but the main ones were the high ticket prices and scalpers.
As Chen believes you have to pay for quality, the organizing company set ticket prices at 298 yuan (US$46.81) a day and 800 yuan (US$125.7) for the full four days, the highest among music festivals on China mainland.
However, audiences didn't buy this. Many attendees turned to scalpers for cheaper tickets or bribed security guards to get a free pass. Chengdu's International Intangible Cultural Heritage Park covers 280 acres, so festival goers were quite hard to monitor. Even the street vendors managed to get in somewhere along the line.
"Ticket sales and management have both failed miserably," Chen said, "The collaborating companies and organizing staff allowed many people to get in for free, whereas others got into the park for a mere 70 yuan (US$10.9) !"
He didn't know scalpers were outside the premises selling tickets to people for just 30 yuan (US$4.7) to see big acts like Extreme. But Chen did note how various collaborating parties also demanded 20,000 tickets for their clients, though many of those didn't even bother to show up and sold the tickets at much lower prices, which in turn had a severe impact on official ticket sales.
When it rains, it pours. Chen estimated that about 30,000 - 50,000 people showed up during the first two days of the festival, and 50,000 - 70,000 joined in over the last two days when the biggest acts were performing. The price for a single day ticket was set at 298 yuan, so Chen argued that had events developed as they originally expected, they should normally have made at least 40 million yuan in revenues.
"But when we received the official numbers, we were horrified. Less than 2,000 tickets were sold at the entrance. After adding the ticket sales from other official channels to the total, it appeared we grossed far less over the course of all four-days than the original estimates had predicted." A bitter Chen added that he intends to file complaints with the police in order to find out the holes in the sales' mazes.
Lu Xin, a music fan who attended the festival, told China.org.cn that the festival imposed many unnecessary restrictions.
"They didn't allow you to bring in your own water, food or alcohol, because they would sell such things at higher prices on festival grounds. If you held a single day ticket, you were not allowed to camp out there; and after you'd entered the festival, you were not allowed to leave the grounds again..." Lu said. But even those approaches could not stop the freeloaders – the blame lies with the organizers themselves.
"Actually, when the high ticket prices were unveiled, many people were scared off, " Lu added, "it was no wonder the register numbers were looking gloomy,. And add to that the many restrictions and scalpers..."
In Chen's account of the events, he also admitted: "Big Love is a new brand which needs recognition and promotion." Unfortunately, by the time Chen got the government approval, that ship had already sailed. There was very little time for him to start up a promotion campaign and find big sponsors.
Chen was taken into the custody on suspicion of fraud after the hotel called police after he failed to pay for staff and artists' accommodation fees. However, police found no proof to back up these accusations and released Chen to deal with the aftermath.
"I failed miserably. How could I possibly take off with all this money as some rumors suggested?" Chen asked, "I did not run. I am here to deal with the problems."
The financial fiasco even delayed the performances of the last two days, said Shi Jin, a website manager who lives in Chongqing and attended the festival. "The staff and performers went on strike when they didn't get their money," he said, "Fans had to wait for 3-4 hours as organizers tried to work things out."
In Chen's defense, the festival was most definitely a high-standard one and indeed the best of what Chinese music festivals have to offer. It impressed industry insiders and fans alike. Famous music producer Song Ke bought tickets to witness several jaw-dropping performances and he praised the visual and audio experience, swanky stages and equipment and an overall great job on the environment protection-side of things.
China's very first music festival initiator Zhang Fan, who created the world-famous Midi Music Festival in Beijing, said the Big Love festival was "like taking a giant leap in the dark and totally lost touch with China's reality," Zhang said, "A huge and unparalleled investment like this was set to end in tragedy. "
"Even in a big city like Beijing, China's cultural capital, a festival this big is an organizational risk."
"Foreign countries hold over 40 years of experience in hosting music festivals. We only have 10 years of experience. In addition to that, the music festival market here has not yet matured and is certainly not as big as we had hoped or thought," Zhang said, "So, bravery alone simply won't do the trick."
In 2000, Zhang's Midi festival had been losing money for 6 years and the event only started to generate some cash in 2007. "If they really want to create this Big Love brand, they will have to rebuild their relationships with people and collaborators in order to regain their trust."
Chen said the nightmare might not be a bad thing altogether; it has taught him a lesson, albeit at a very high cost.
"I have set a new standard for Chinese music festivals and won some praise, but we did lose big. So I hope my colleagues and fellow organizers will draw their lessons from every aspect of this disaster," he said. On a final note he added: "Big Love will not vanish after this, it will return."