|Adam Wilkes introducing Mick Jagger to Cuba's Vice
Minister of Culture after the Rolling Stones arrived in Havana.
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Adam Wilkes, president, AEG Live Asia
China’s influence on the global music business is growing, and labels and artist managers from around the world are recognizing the potential to engage with a large group of new fans while unlocking revenue opportunities.
The population of China is estimated at 1.37 billion, more than four times that of the U.S.
A notable authority in promoting live music concerts and sporting events throughout Asia, Shanghai-based Adam Wilkes has played a decisive role in developing the live event industry in the People's Republic of China.
This upstate New York native, who never finished college, first began working in China promoting club events in Shanghai.
Soon afterward he co-founded China West Entertainment which oversaw event promotion for a wide variety of acts and attractions throughout China.
Prior to joining AEG in 2011 as senior VP, Asia Music and Touring, Wilkes held executive positions at Taihe Media, Emma Ticketmaster, and Emma Entertainment overseeing live music performances, sports competitions, festivals, and touring to venues throughout China. He also served as a consultant at Sony Music in China.
Among Wilkes’ triumphant live music firsts in China have been the booking of: Celine Dion, the first Western act to top 35,000 in attendance; Linkin Park, the first Western rock concert in a Chinese stadium; and Black Eyed Peas, the first major hip hop tour there.
This year, Wilkes was tapped to be AEG Live’s representative to oversee the Rolling Stones’ show at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana in Havana that is being cited as ushering in a new era of liberation in Cuba.
How did you come to be in Shanghai in 2001 at the age 21?
I had been living and traveling outside of the U..S for about two years. I had been living in Colombia, South America. At the time, it made a lot of sense to visit China. It was supposed to be a short visit, but I didn’t have a lot going on at the time, so there was no reason that it couldn’t be a long visit either. That wasn’t the intention.
You had left America when you were 19.
I graduated from high school at 16 and started college in Boston at Northeastern (University). I had this desire to see new things. So I jumped at the first opportunity to leave the country. I went to Spain as a student and, rather than go home after the semester, I stayed abroad and traveled in Europe, South America, and eventually ended up in China.
After a few weeks in Shanghai, you ran out of money, but you went on to operate a nightclub.
I did get here, and I did run out of money. I don’t think I necessarily understood what was going on, but I felt that there was an excitement here. There was something happening in Shanghai or in China. What I saw Shanghai drew me in. I ran out of money mostly because I was out drinking a lot. I became friends with a woman who ran a nightclub and...
After only four weeks in China, you convinced her to let you promote hip-hop events on Thursdays, one of the club’s slower nights.
The place was called Pegasus. It was one of the two only nightclubs in town at the time.
You rented the club, had flyers printed, and handed them out around the city. Still, you were convinced early in the evening that nobody was going to show. You went to the washroom, and when you returned there was a crowd outside. A true story?
It is a true story. They were lined up out the door. It was possibly the beginning of the Shanghai hip hop scene. And it (Thursday hip hop nights) worked. I made a few bucks. The next thing that I know I was running this night club for a year and a half or so. It was really fun, but I quickly realized I wasn’t interested in the nightclub business. I didn’t want to spend all of my nights out. I wanted to be involved in promoting live shows. So I got a little bit less active in (the club) and, with some other friends, we started another little business (China West Entertainment), and we started promoting club shows.
How quickly did you pick up Mandarin?
It’s been a slow and painful process. It isn’t something that just clicks, for sure. It is something in which you learn something every day, and every day you are a little bit more humbled. This place (China) definitely humbles. It makes you very patient in how to deal with different business situations. Sometimes you are in a meeting speaking Mandarin and everything is going great, and they think, “Oh, this guy speaks Chinese,” and they turn it up to the next level. They start doing Tang Dynasty poetry references. “What are they talking about?” It’s very difficult at times. I speak at a certain level and read at a lower level. Spending a lot of time living and working in this environment, you try to understand what people think. They will say something, you can translate it, and it means these words in English, but what do they actually mean in the situation? It’s always fascinating, but it’s also very complicated, and it can be really challenging at times.
With more suitable venues and with fans being more familiar with Western artists through the Internet, increasingly more Western acts are now coming to China. What things do you caution major Western bands about in performing in the People's Republic of China for the first time?
First of all, you are assuming that they have gone through the process of censorship (review) and that they (the Ministry of Culture) has approved the artist to come in. The main thing that we tell them is, “Don’t curse onstage because you are talking to an audience that English is not a native language. They might not understand what you are saying. They might think that you are saying something offensive to them. Also in China, like many of the countries in Asia, there are certain topics that they do not support here, this is not a forum to do that. A lot of that stuff is weeded out in the censorship process, where they take all of this (background) information, and the Minister of Culture determines what content they want in or don’t want in.
An act has to deal with the Ministry of Culture to perform in China?
They do have to deal with the Ministry of Culture to get what they call the Ministry of Culture Permits. After they get those permits they deal with the PSB, which stands for Public Security Bureau. So, after the show has been sanctioned by the Minister of Culture, they now have authority to do the show, and they deal with the PSB who basically handle zoning. If you are going to put X amount of people in this venue on this date, they deal with crowd, and traffic control, and so on.
Do you also have to deal with any of 23 provincial governments in setting up shows?
Yes, and no. The national laws signify what can and cannot come into China and also how large will be and how crowd control is handled but these are implemented on a municipal level. So you must have a separate permit for each city, really each province and they are autonomous to approve it.
Is it like India with different taxation and bylaws for each of the provinces?
Yes. In China, you have that. It’s not specific to our industry. They have different areas that have different tax benefits. Just like the U.S.
For several years AEG Live has been operating two venues in China, LeSports Centre in Beijing, and the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.
With LeSports Centre (originally called Beijing Wukesong Culture & Sports Center, and then Visa Master Center, and then MasterCard Centre) we have commercial rights for various sponsors involved. For sports, it’s 16,000 (capacity), and for concerts, it is roughly 10,000 or 11,000. We are co-owners of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, which for sports is just under 19,000 (capacity), and for concerts, depending on production, you can get 12,500 or, maybe,13,000 people.
[After the Beijing Olympics of 2008, AEG invested in the refurbishing of the then Visa Master Center, which opened with Beyoncé in 2009. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, which was part of the World Expo 2010, became the main venue for international stars.]
In June 2016 AEG and Damai, an online entertainment ticketing platform, signed a deal that led to the Dalian Arena--a large entertainment and sports venue in the port city of Dalian in Northeast China's Liaoning province--being renamed the Damai Center.
That is a new arena in a secondary market that opened a few years ago (in 2013). In that one, we have the management of, and commercial rights. We were involved with designing aspects of all these buildings, but LeSports Centre had already been under construction for the Olympics. We got involved at a later stage and did some post-renovations to get it to be a multi-functional arena. The other two we designed from conception onward.
While AEG has been in China since 2011, Live Nation has been operating in China since 2005.
As Clear Channel, they came in 2002. They did a number of joint ventures with state-owned media companies. Their activity as Live Nation really got more active after AEG got quite a bit of momentum in the market. They book quite a few shows into our venues. As far as market share is concerned, they probably aren’t at quite the same capacity as we are working here.
In 2005, Clear Channel did a joint venture with the massive state-owned cultural enterprise Gehua Cultural Development Group to launch Gehua Clear Channel Entertainment & Sports.
They did a joint venture with Gehua, and then they did a joint venture with OPG, The Oriental Pearl Group. They had other (co-ventures) that they were going to roll out. This was around the time that there was a big shake-up in Clear Channel. Brian Becker left, and Michael Rapino came in. They changed a lot of their strategies, and they rebranded the company. They spun it out from Clear Channel (Live Nation was formed in 2005 from a spin-off of the subsidiary, Clear Channel Communications.)
[Michael Rapino became global president of Clear Channel Entertainment’s music division in 2004; and CEO of Live Nation the following year. Rapino became the 5th head of CCE's music division since 2000. Rapino then quickly set about revamping the company.]
One of the by-products of that (activity) was that some of their international plans changed. Certainly, it affected China. They put everything on hold. The person running that initiative was among the people that were let go. But they still had these two joint ventures. They figured that it was better to just keep them rather than wind them down just in case of any future China plans. They had these joint ventures in Shanghai and Beijing, but they remained inactive for an extended period of time.
Ed Cunningham, who had been running Clear Channel’s business development efforts in China, then joined AEG as chief executive officer, managing director and special advisor for Asia until 2009.
Which was one of the reasons why our partner, when we built an arena in Shanghai, was the same partner that Clear Channel had when they had set up the business.
It’s a bit incestuous how some of the players have overlapped with each other here. When I was at Emma Entertainment, and Ticketmaster acquired us in 2007, Ticketmaster had done a deal with Gehua to handle Olympic ticketing, which was a conflict with the Gehua Live Nation joint venture which had the authority to roll out ticketing, but the co-venture had been inactive for so many years that Gehua did a deal with Ticketmaster instead. Then Ticketmaster bought Emma. To jump a few years forward, all of those companies became one company. It’s interesting how all that happened.
[Emma Entertainment was headed by Hong Kong-based American Jonathan Krane and had offices in Shanghai and Beijing. Krane set up Emma Entertainment in 2002, with the Rolling Stones’ concert in Shanghai in 2005 as its first major success. In 2007, Krane poached Adam Wilkes and Robb Spitzer from China West Entertainment. In 2007, Ticketmaster bought Emma for a rumored price tag of $20 million.]
Technology is opening direct access to Chinese music consumers. Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent Holdings recently announced monthly active users of 899 million with 10 million paying subscribers on its QQ Music streaming music service, the company’s central digital platform. That’s a significant shift in the market from the days you worked as a consultant at Sony China.
Sony, among all of the record labels, was sitting there trying to figure out how to capture the dying end of a dying business model. They were doing that in China where there wasn’t a business model to begin with. What is interesting now is that China has gone--just in a matter of years--from a market that was into piracy, that didn’t buy into international IP (International intellectual property law), to being one of the leaders. You now see the numbers that are coming out from the streaming services, and the money that is being generated, specifically from recordings, but across all areas of the entertainment business. It started with them buying formats. They bought “China’s Got Talent.” They bought “The Voice.” It (music) has just taken off from there. Things here are happening very fast. That’s where you have to say, “Yes, there are still challenges, but look at when it really started.” This activity has not been going on for 50 years. It’s been going on for, maybe, a decade on a real level.
With a market cap of $255.8 billion Tencent has now become Asia’s most valuable company.
Yeah, and there’s Alibaba (Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.) which is worth $5 billion less but it’s still worth $250 billion. These companies, 10 years ago nobody had heard of them. They were just starting. Small e-commerce or data businesses in China. Now, they are on a global scale. What they are doing in China is on par with any of their competitors or counterparts around the world. This didn’t exist a few years back.
Due to customs fees and shipping costs, Western acts touring China likely can’t bring in a thousand T-shirts. It’s not cost effective, especially if official merchandise may compete with knockoffs sold there. Obviously, there are challenges unique to that market.
Of course, there are challenges. Absolutely. What you just pointed out is among them. I think that what we have to look at is the data of how it was, and how it is now, and the time period and the speed it changed, and how it continues to change.
Even the music changed. Heavy metal legends Metallica played its first show China in 2013 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. That wouldn’t have been possible in 2007.
That’s true. Metallica is a show that I promoted. It was incredibly successful. At the time it was the show that we did that sold out instantly. That had never happened before. I remember having conversations with (band representatives) Peter Mensch, Tony DiCioccio, and John Jackson. They said, “How are the sales going to go?” I told them that, based on with my experience, that they would sell maybe 20% or 30% (of the overall tickets) in the first week, and then they were going to chug along to the end. They laughed and said, “Well, that’s not how it works with Metallica. It will sell out right away.” I said, “I love the enthusiasm, but that’s not how things work here.” We went on sale and sold out in six minutes. I had this funny phone call with them afterward, “You guys are right. Metallica is a different animal.” Also, I think that the timing of when they came was significant because it represented a change in the market. Where you started having a consumer base that was more active, and interested in attending live shows and were acting like consumers in international markets. It happened very fast. The show was a major milestone for the China market.
With Chinese fans more familiar with Western music through the Internet, there’s now a sophisticated consumer base in the country for live music that wasn’t evident a decade ago.
Absolutely. Not surprising that it’s young people who are interested in younger, more current artists with some exceptions. Metallica was a great exception. That resonated across many different age groups and demographics, but a lot of what you are seeing is this younger fan base in China is a similar consumer pattern of their age elsewhere in the world. You go back 10 years ago when those people were that age. They were not exposed to international pop culture or even in the culture of going to live entertainment or consuming entertainment this way. A big shift has happened.
As late as the ‘90s Chinese consumers preferred cash instead of debit or credit cards which were slow to come in.
Yeah. When we were running China West we had our ticketing department which was literally a call center in our office, and we had bicycle couriers. Not motorcycles. Bicycles in the early mid-2000s. People would bicycle to your house. They would give you the ticket, and you would give them the cash, and they would come back to the office. That is how we ran our shows. That was how everybody did it. That was the majority of ticket sales. Then, through various acquisitions, we had the formation of what has become the dominant ticketing agencies, but they all did this as well.
Hundreds of millions of smartphone users and businesses in China have since embraced payment mobile payment services. Credit card use remains limited.
What’s interesting in the Chinese ticketing space—and it can be applied to a lot of things in China as they develop and modernize here—is that they don’t have to live through all of the legacies we have in the West. So they have gone from pretty much from cash transactions to not a lot of credit cards used--not even today—and they jumped all the way to the equivalent of Apple Pay.
There’s the Alipay and WeChat mobile payment services.
That’s how the majority of consumers here transact everything, but certainly tickets as well. So it went from bicycle couriers and cash to mobile ticketing and mobile cash transactions in a matter of years.
[Since Chinese consumers began adopting mobile payment a few years ago, Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has had a lock on the huge and booming market through its Alipay system, run by an affiliate company. But now Tencent Holdings Ltd. is leveraging the popularity of its WeChat social messaging app to increase its market share. Meanwhile, foreign players, including Apple Inc., and Samsung Electronics, are jumping in with their own systems. In 2015 mobile transactions more than doubled to $235 billion, pushing China ahead of the U.S., according to data provider Euromonitor International.]
Has dynamic ticket pricing come to China yet?
It’s the beginning stage of it. I think that this is the next wave. We have started to introduce some of these U.S.-styled VIP packages for some of the more prominent shows we have brought over, and it’s been very well received. At every show, we try to integrate that as a testing point for the market. It’s early days, but you can see around the corner that it is going to catch up and, maybe, exceed other markets very quickly. It won’t necessarily pass the U.S.
How about secondary ticket or scalping?
It happens like everywhere else. But with that challenge you see the opportunity. It used to be like a guy standing on the corner selling tickets 10 years ago, and it was so frustrating. Now the guy on the street is a dinosaur.
Are there any secondary ticketing agencies like StubHub?
No there’s nothing formal like that. There’s not an infrastructure in place yet to support a real business around that. People are more organized, and they are selling on the e-commerce websites. They are selling on (the online shopping service) Taobao which is like eBay (and Amazon). But you don’t have yet an organized system. I think that’s the next wave. Then, maybe, combined with that wave, you will get things like Platinum Ticketing, where the primary source can take the reality of a ticket price, how it is being traded in the market, and sell it from the primary source. I think that’s very close to happening here.
Most Asian countries have concerns about the lyrics of Western music. Is that true in China?
It is absolutely true. In the Ministry of Culture process, we have to submit a number of documents. Usually, it includes all of the information about traveling. That means a personnel list, passports, and job responsibilities. It is also includes set lists. The set list has to have copies of MP3s or CDs, and lyrics--lyrics translated into Chinese--and a video of the performance. More recently a video of what would be incorporated into the show. A show video.
With lyrics translated into Mandarin?
Translated into Mandarin, and we would be the one doing that. Some of these words you could get creative about how you translated them. Now the internet has taken away that function. The translation they can find themselves.
In 2008, Björk famously shouted, “Tibet Tibet” before her song “Declare Independence” at the Shanghai Changning Arena offending Chinese authorities. Did that take you by surprise?
It was a surprise to everybody, but a lot of people didn’t even know what happened. It was the end of the show. It was loud in the room. There were confetti cannons going off. She was dressed in a rooster outfit. She had a whole horn section dressed like roosters. It was quite a spectacle. This was before people had iPhones, so there wasn’t the same social media reaction as today. The show happened. There was no (immediate) reaction. I had no idea that anything had happened. The next day I went to Hangzhou or Nanjing and started a tour with the Backstreet Boys. I remember getting some frantic calls that it (the incident) had been reported by media, and there was a video that was circulating.
The Chinese authorities had an investigation to figure out what happened.
Nobody knew exactly what it was. I remember sitting in a room with various authorities. They played me the video, “What do you think?” I watched it, and said, “I don’t think she said ‘Tibet.’ It’s the last song, it was late, and she was saying ‘To bed.’” Everybody was really happy with that because nobody wanted this to evolve into an international incident. Then our friend Björk put it on her website to clarify exactly what she did say, and the world changed at that point.
The Björk incident prompted the Ministry of Culture to formulate stricter vetting for foreign performers.
Yes, but also what it did was that it really offended a lot of the people in the audience. I don’t think that this is exclusive to Chinese people, but it is certainly applicable to Chinese people, that people feel a certain sense of patriotism. Everyone’s country has its own issues, but you don’t want an invited foreign guest onstage telling you about your problems. It really upset a lot of people. I’m not an advocate of censoring an artist’s expression, but I don’t think that was the right place to make the statement she wanted to make. It’s not the right forum. Getting onstage and having this kind of spectacle, not only did it irritate the authorities, but it set the entire live music industry here back because it (the Ministry of Culture) became very reactionary after that with how they approved artists coming in and out...
The Björk incident had an adverse effect on the live music market there?
One of the most tangible ones was that we (Emma) were the leading live entertainment company in the market. There were a bunch of things being planned around the Olympics. It ended up pushing the market in a different direction, and it took a number of years for it to recover, unfortunately.
It’s surprising that such a niche artist as Björk would sell out a 5,000 capacity venue in China in 2008.
Björk had this fan base that she spoke to in China. This was not a bunch of expats coming to see Björk. This was a Chinese audience that was a bit out of the mainstream. She was among these somewhat obscure artists that the Chinese people had discovered for no logical reason. I know why they discovered the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. I don’t know how they discovered Björk, but they did. And she sold out a 5,000 capacity room. (Before the incident) we were thinking, “Bjork can return, and we could do Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.” She could have made much more of a statement by engaging that fan base.
When you moved to China there were probably only a handful of foreigners in Shanghai.
There was about 100 of us, and we all knew each other. There was this small town feel in this major city.
in 2001, you started bringing in bands from America to do club shows. How did that develop?
I had worked in Boston for Planetary Group which Adam Lewis runs. Adam was my first boss when I was in school in Boston. I was his assistant. I reached out to Adam and Dave Werlin of Great Northeast Productions whom Adam works with. I said, “Hey, I’m in China. I’m starting to run a club business here. Let’s start to bring over some bands.” They thought I was totally nuts, but they did turn up with quite a few bands. We had several years of doing all of these club and theatre shows in Shanghai and other cities.
Then it started to get momentum. We had a little business going on.
Over the course of two years, we did a couple of dozen acts. A few of them were sponsored through the Budweiser Concert Series or through Heineken. It was just old-fashioned putting bands into clubs, and we would do whatever we could to cover the airfare. We would also hook them up with the hot Chinese rock band at the time. We did some great club and theatre shows for a number of years. Then everything came to a halt. The whole thing stopped.
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit, but they didn’t report it on the news here. It wasn’t like people had the same internet accessibility as now. I kept hearing from my family, “There’s some bad stuff going on there. Are you watching the news?” Of course, I could then go online and read the international websites but, when everybody here was acting normal and things were great, you think that it must be fine. When they finally came out and, in fact, said that SARs was in China, the entire place shut down. It became a ghost town here. There was a good probably six months in which very little happened. A lot of economies slowed down. A lot of small businesses, nightclubs, restaurants and certainly we fell into the category of very small business that went out of business. I hung around for a little bit until everything just went to a halt, and then I left. I went back to Colombia, and sort of decompressed for a bit. I left China. I was 23 years old, and I figured, “Well, that was a hell of a journey.” I had just this completely amazing and wacky journey in China that was unexpected. It was fun...
But you soon returned to China.
I was on email talking to a friend of mine, Andrew Wu at Sony Music Entertainment International (who was VP for Asia). He had set up this joint venture with Sony. We were chatting, and he said, “What are you up to?” I said, “I’m in Colombia.” He asked, “When are you coming back?” I said, “I’m not thinking of coming back. I don’t even have a business anymore. It sort of ran its course. With SARS going on, I’m not sure what I would even do there.” He said, “SARS is over. You should come back.” I said I wouldn’t go back unless there was a good reason to come back. He said, “Why don’t you come and work with me at Sony?”
So I joined that business (from 2002-03), and kind of got an education of the Chinese side of the music business. How it works with Chinese artists. The dynamic of the record labels here. It was a fascinating education and a great experience. I was very grateful of what Andrew offered me, but it also very clear that all of the activity here was on the live side because there really wasn’t a very strong record business at that time because of the piracy.
How did you come to form China West Entertainment in 2003 with Robb Spitzer and Steve Sybesma?
Robb is my old friend since I was a kid. I was born in Woodstock (New York), and then I lived in Kingston. He lived in Rhinebeck the next town across the river. So we were right across the bridge from each other. There’s the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge between the two towns across the Hudson River. Robb and my older brother were buddies growing up. I had been in China for about a year, and the story is that my parents wanted me to come home, so they flew Robb here to come and get me. Fourteen years later Robb is married with kids and lives here too.
That didn’t work out. So...
Robb worked at Comedy Central and a friend of a friend said that Steve Sybesma was in China and that he was a pretty successful guy in the U.S. live music business (as co-owner of Sunshine Promotions in Indianapolis, and then COO for the Midwest division of SFX Entertainment), and that we should meet with him. Robb and I invited him out. We were really young guys, and here was this really experienced music industry guy. We wanted to sell him on all of the cool things that were happening in China. Hopefully, there might be some synergy. We are at the club and we are talking to him and he didn’t seem at all interested. The show ended, and he went home, and we felt that guy didn’t gel with us. Steve called me the next day and said, “Look, I’d really like to see you again. I have to apologize because I can’t hear out of one ear, and I couldn’t hear anything you guys were talking about last night. But it seemed really interesting. I would like to sit down and talk more about it.” So we met him someplace really quiet. He was about to leave China, and he was kind of wrapping things up. We talked about how we could all do things differently with his experience and resources. That became the formation of China West Entertainment.
What funding did you have to launch the company?
A lot of it came from Steve personally, and then we had a hodgepodge of investors on a one-off basis. We never really got the right amount of finances that we needed to set up a full company. It was always on a one-off basis, which made it challenging. We would have a run of shows with somebody, and it would end. It’s kind of the classic case that we were just too early in the market. We were the first people in the market doing things at that capacity.
Back in 2004, there weren’t many acts going into China. There was Elton John, Whitney Houston, and Backstreet Boys. Acts that had already had their best days. Emma Entertainment staged Norah Jones’ first-ever concert in Shanghai on March 9th, 2005 as part of her 2005 Asian tour. A 90-minute show. She was then at the top of her career. Having her in China must have been a big stepping stone for the market.
It absolutely was. That was the first big show for China West. It was significant because it was the first major pop artist enjoying current chart popularity to come to the market. There had been major artists previously, but they had not been artists that arguably were as significant. Norah Jones, I think, reflected a shift in the market, both for significant acts coming, but also speaking to an audience of young Chinese who were just starting to learn about, and enjoy (Western) music in its current promotional cycle. The way that Chinese were then discovering Western music was not necessarily through traditional channels.
Their discovery came primarily through illegal tapes or CDs.
Yes, it was selling CDs on the street. In the ‘80s, when it was first opening up, you had embassy workers coming to Beijing to work in the embassies, and they would make friends with the Chinese people, and Chinese musicians and they would pass around a lot of tapes. That’s how Metallica, Michael Jackson, Guns N’ Roses and these icons of the ‘80s became part of this network of people trading cassette tapes. Norah Jones reflected a shift.
Some of the earliest shows in China with Western acts would be through state-owned companies.
If you go back in time, all live performances were part of media conglomerates that were state-owned businesses. They were doing military marching bands, ballet, Chinese opera, and that kind of stuff. Then, when the market began to shift to being a commercial market, they were the companies legally sanctioned to do live performances.
One of the earliest meetings I remember with myself and Steve Sybesma when we were at China West was with one of these big conglomerates, the Poly Group (China Poly Group Corporation). Poly Group is owned by the Chinese military. They own a vast amount of holdings across all kinds of different areas. This includes real estate and some of the real estate has theatres, and in the theatres they would put shows. So we went to see them. It was a formal meeting with what is a government entity. They would always hand you a brochure which would introduce all the executives in the different places. You flipped through the pages, and there's the different things that they did. They built skyscrapers, and in the skyscraper, there would be these nice new hotels. They had theatres where they put on ballet and Broadway shows and that kind of entertainment. Poly Group also has control of the entire adoption business. If you want to adopt a Chinese baby, it goes through this group. So they have an adoptions’ section. They also make missiles and tanks. You meet with them, have breakfast at the hotel, and you would see this bizarre mix of ballet stars, Arab arms dealers, and Midwest soccer moms with their newly-adopted Chinese babies. It was a colorful place.
In time the law changed in China so privately companies could apply for the performance license.
There was a big shift in the market where some of the executives at these state-owned companies, and also some entrepreneurs were able to get business licenses to be performance companies. But these were independent companies and not state-owned companies. That represented a really big shift in the market away from the state-owned companies dominating that space.
By 2007, China was more open to Western acts. About 20 performed there including Eric Clapton, Ziggy Marley, Roger Waters, Kenny G, Kylie Minogue, Bon Jovi, Christina Aguilera, and Linkin Park.
There were a number of small players in the market, and we were one of them. Everybody was fighting it out. The big shift happened with the first big really focused effort by an international live entertainment company Ticketmaster coming into the market. Yes, Clear Channel and others were poking around earlier, but it never really materialized into anything substantial until that time.
State-owned players like Shanghai Oriental Pearl also remained players in the live music scene in China.
There’s a number of state-owned players. You had some state-owned players, some mom and pop shops, but what happened is that Ticket Master came into the market. They acquired Emma Entertainment, and they brought in myself and Robb Spitzer, and we formed the live entertainment side of the business. All of a sudden, we had an influx of resources and finances. That happened in 2007. All of a sudden, you started seeing a lot more artists in the market.
Many of the bands coming to China previously were more pop-styled. Linkin Park was probably the first Western rock band to play there.
Linkin Park was definitely one of the first Western rock bands to come in. The Linkin Park show (in 2007) was the first stadium show by a Western rock band, Just under 30,000 at the Hongkou Football Stadium, a small soccer stadium in Shanghai. It was also the highest attended show to date at that time.
In 2008 the Black Eyed Peas became the first hip hop band to perform in China.
The first hip hop band, and it was sort of following the trend of having current popular artists. Those were really big shows for us, and really big shows for the market at the time because it was such a new thing. Norah Jones, just her style of music and performance, was more in line with what the Chinese authorities were used to, which is people sit down, and they watch a show. They haven’t had a lot of shows even now where people are dancing and enjoying themselves. That was just something that the Chinese had never experienced. Neither the consumers or also the authorities, the security services that control large-scale events. So enter the Black Eyed Peas.
Overseeing the live side of EMMA Ticketmaster's business you promoted shows by Céline Dion in Shanghai and Macau in 2008 which provided her breakthrough in the market there.
Céline played Shanghai Stadium to about 35,000 people which is still the largest single event by a Western artist in China to date. She also performed at Cotai Arena Macau with a 12,000 capacity.
You didn’t stay at Ticketmaster long.
I didn’t stay there that long. Just under two years, and then I moved on. A lot of people moved on at that time.
You then worked for nearly two years at the Taihe Media Group (TMG) which would merge with Baidu in 2015. TMG has interests worldwide in copyright licensing companies, music talent agencies, and concert production firms.
And films as well. When I left Ticketmaster, I had been in China for 8 years. There were a few checkpoints along the way where I said, “It’s time to go.” I went to Beijing to work on a project with some friends. That ended up being, by accident, the formation of this new company. We were close with the Taihe Media Group, which is quite active in the film business. They had a record label and a domestic Chinese management company. What started on the back of a project became the formation of a group-based company in Beijing that did live shows, and my China stay extended at that point
[Taihe Media Group is the world's largest service agency for Chinese popular music or C-pop.]
Let’s talk about your involvement with the historic Rolling Stones’ gig at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana in Havana this year. You had toured the Stones in 2014 in your region as part of it “14 On Fire” tour.
I did the tour starting with Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), and then Tokyo for three nights, Shanghai, Singapore, and then we were going to Australia, which got rescheduled to another time frame later in the year (in October and November). That was my first time working with them. It was a great experience. We had a really great run. Of course, the performances were amazing but, from a just commercial standpoint, we did great business. And everything ran really smoothly.
How did you get picked to oversee their Cuban show?
I am officially head of Communist countries for AEG. This has also recently included not only Communist countries but places that nobody wants to go to. This fell into my business scope. I had experience working with the band in non-traditional places that are a bit more challenging. Specifically, I had experience working in China where there is more governmental structure. At that time, there had been chatter inside the Stones’ camp about a desire to perform in Cuba. Mick Jagger had been there several months earlier, I believe, on a holiday. He had a great time. He and the band wanted to do this, but there hadn’t been a formal plan put in place.
Any gig for the Stones in Cuba at that time would have to take place at the end of a string of planned dates in the region?
It was going to take place at the South American segment of their tour. Time was creeping up.
You happened to be in Los Angeles meeting with John Meglen, co-president/CEO of Concerts West/AEG Live around the time that this idea started to percolate.
I was talking to Meglen in mid-December. I was going though town because I was going on a Christmas holiday with my wife, and my daughter. That’s when the conversation came up. I had studied a semester at the University of Havana before I went to China, and I had been to Cuba a couple of times. I told John that. He said, “You speak Cuban?” I said, “No John, it’s called Spanish, and after 15 years in China I probably speak a pretty bastardized version of Spanish.” He said, “You speak Cuban. You seem to do well with Communists—you married one—and you definitely thrive in challenging places. Why don’t you go to Cuba?” It was a bit of a joke, but I said, “Sure, I will go to Cuba.” The next day I get a call from Paul Gongaware, his partner and the tour director for the Stones. He said, “Hey dude, cool, you are going to run Cuba.” So we just said, “Let’s go, and check it out.”
Two or three days later, Paul, myself, and Opie (the Rolling Stones’ longtime production manager Dale “Opie” Skjerseth) flew to Havana to have an initial meeting. We met with ICM, the Institute of Cuban Music which is a function of the Minster of Culture for Live Performance. We may have had this meeting set up but, maybe, it wasn’t confirmed. There were other people that we reached out to as well. A lot of people didn’t respond which we found out later is pretty common there.
You were in Havana for only 24 hours. Did the Cuban officials actually know beforehand what you were there for?
I don’t know if anybody knew what we were there for. People kind of knew we were coming. It ended up being a very productive 24 hours on the ground. We had a limited ability to even contact people. There’s not a lot of emails going on, and there’s not a lot of cross-border communication, but we tried our best to get in touch with a few people. We spoke via the British Ambassador to Cuba Tim Cole who was incredibly supportive and helpful. This was just kind of a fact-finding mission. The most substantial meeting was with the people at ICM. We met Orlando Vistel (president of ICM) who reports to the Minister of Culture.
Before the meeting, Paul, Opie and I walked around Havana trying to figure things out. We realized that this was going to be really hard. Even putting aside the government element to it, just the logistical side to it. Anything that we would need to put on a show, we would have to bring it in. Opie says, “This is going to be like the U.S. invading Iraq. We are going to have to bring everything in.” I said, “Opie, no U.S. military analogies when we are sitting with the government.”
The team grew to 100 people, and by the end, 350 people had traveled to Cuba to prepare the concert. You brought in 61 sea containers, and a 747 freighter full of gear.
It was a lot to take in there.
The event cost $7 million and had to be funded.
It cost a lot of money to put on. We had the generous support of a philanthropist, and a charity to fund a large portion of it. We also filmed the show (to bring in additional revenue down the line). The band made zero money. This was a full-on pro bono charity on their part.
[The majority of financing for the event came from Fundashon Bon Intenshon [FBI] on behalf of the Island of Curacao, which “initiates and supports international charitable projects in the fields of education, athletics, cultural literacy, healthcare, and tourism,” according to the Stones’ press release.]
The Rolling Stones had initially planned to perform the same day President Obama landed in Havana. Did you have any inkling he was going to turn up that week?
Of course not. How could we? Somebody must have known, but not us. If you went up to the highest levels of the Cuban government, I think his visit came as a surprise as well. Obama is the first US president to go to Cuba in 88 years. Here we are about to announce the Rolling Stones doing a free outdoor concert for a million people in Cuba, and the only thing bigger than the Rolling Stones going to a concert is President Obama going there. His visit was announced about two days before we were about to announce the show. It completely derailed all of our efforts, unfortunately. It was back to the drawing board. But nobody would have known. They don’t announce it (a president’s schedule).
AEG postponed the show.
We ended up delaying five days, but it wasn’t that simple. There was a reason it was going to be March 20th. It wasn’t an arbitrary date. It was sequentially the end of the tour. They had been through Mexico City March 17th. It would have been three days later. We could have gone, maybe, a day earlier or a day later. But this wasn’t like Day One now. We were so close to this thing happening. There was so much momentum. It wasn’t just pushing it back. There were all these security measures that were put in place in the city, and there were further restrictions where people could travel, and what they could do. There were a lot of restrictions on our set-up schedule and on our arrival schedule.
Havana is a city that has a lack of hotel infrastructure. So there was a lack of hotels for us and for everybody else coming in, even for the Obama side. So there were a tremendous amount of challenges that arose from that (changing of the show date). We were fully on the way to having a show, and the Cubans were our partners. They were, of course, very disappointed. At the same time, the city couldn’t have handled two of these things at the same time. It was that straightforward. The resources that were there couldn’t support these two major global events in a tight amount of time.
Was there a time it looked like the show wasn’t going to happen?
At that point, it wasn’t going to happen. They asked if we could push back a few months. They didn’t understand or, perhaps, fully appreciate the challenges or the dynamics of touring this major show. How you just cannot pop into Havana at any given date. That it has to be part of this bigger effort, and there has to be a machine put in place to support it.
So with the alternative being the Stones would not play in Cuba was it an intense couple of days in back-and-forth negotiations?
It wasn’t an empty threat. It was just the reality. If the Rolling Stones don’t come on the back of this tour, the Rolling Stones aren’t ever going to Cuba. At this point, it had been so hard to get to where we were at. Every day there had been one challenge after another. Just trying to understand all of the logistical challenges. Then suddenly this thing comes along that is just bigger than all of us. Bigger than life. Everybody just felt defeated.
At the point, the whole project was basically shutting down. Fortunately, everybody took another harder look at it—both from the government and the band side. There were a lot of compromises from both sides. We were able to push it (the show) back five days to March 25th. There were huge cost implications because of our daily operating costs. There were huge challenges involved. There was also the reality that March 25th was Good Friday. Also the band, and everyone in the crew were planning to have their personal holidays around then.
You had intended to end the tour well before Good Friday. And now there’s a show on Good Friday which marks the death of Jesus Christ according to the Catholic religion.
We talked to the government. Of course, as with elsewhere in South America being that these are Catholic countries, this is a major holiday. The Cuban officials said that it was only recently that Cuba had re-established relations with the Vatican, and the Pope had been there a few times in the past few years—but it was relatively a new thing.
[The anti-religion stance of strict Marxism had previously kept Cubans away from religion for decades and the crumbling of the Soviet Union only led Cuba to dig in, with hopes of proving the ideology’s endurance.]
Good Friday is a holiday culturally-speaking in Cuba, but it’s not one that is widely celebrated as in other places in Latin America. They said, “That’s fine. Maybe, it’s better. People won’t be going to work. It will be easier for crowd control.” They signed an update to the contract supporting that.
You are then back full stream ahead.
Everything was going really good until several days before the show. I get this frantic call from the Minister of Culture directly on my cell phone at 7 A.M. He said, “I have to see you urgently. I’m coming to your hotel.” I am assuming this can’t be good news because this is definitely out of protocol. He’s there 15 minutes later with two others. We meet in this conference room which we had rented in the hotel room. They said, “The Vatican and the Pope have contacted Raul Castro (President of the Council of State of Cuba, and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba) and they have some concerns about this big global event happening on Good Friday. They asked if we would consider moving it to the day before or the day after. We wanted to talk to you about that.” I don’t know how much time went by, but the room started spinning. I said, “If I run it full speed, I could throw myself out the window.” They said, “We'll come back later.” They leave and meanwhile, I just can’t entertain that this is happening. They come back later in the day, and there’s more of them to re-address the conversation. They start going at it again. I’m trying to be as diplomatic as possible. “We are doing the show. No disrespect, but we are not going back on that.” That doesn’t get anywhere.
How did it get settled?
Late at night, they said, “We have a solution.” I asked what it was. They say, “12:05.” I asked what that meant. They say, “We’ll move the show to just past midnight from 8:30 to 12:05. It’s the next day.” I say, “The Vatican is putting such pressure on your government and you are going to beat them on a technicality?” I also said, “You have to understand these (musicians) are in the 60s and 70s, and by 12:05 they go to bed. They don’t go onstage.” Anyway, the show went on at 8:30 as planned.
What feeling did you experience as the Rolling Stones finally hit the stage in Havana?
It was an absolutely magical, and incredible. Look, it’s a Rolling Stones’ show. It’s all of that. It’s a big spectacle. We brought in the full show, and it was amazing to watch that. That really wasn’t what it was about. On a personal level, seeing and feeling the energy out there--the people there being part of it, and witnessing it, this was decades and decades of waiting and wanting, and hoping. It was like this big emotional moment of hope. It was certainly a special feeling and one that I will never forget. Anyone who experienced it felt that it was an absolutely magical moment. It was one of the examples of music being for good, and for positive change. It was a wonderful feeling. It really was. For me, it was a career highlight and something that I will hold forever.
Will AEG do further concerts in Cuba?
We’d love to do more shows there. It is something that we will continue to look at, and explore. It has to be done with the right opportunities. Yes, we are very interested. The location we worked in made sense because of the capacity, and there were some logistical advantages, but there are some other wonderful places, real iconic places, we could do events there which we would consider for future shows.
You were in Cuba for months, and with your job you continually are traveling How does your wife Elva deal with all of your traveling?
Yeah, I’m away a lot, and I’ve been away a lot in the past year. Our daughter Willow is 17 months. She’s walking and talking and she’s so much fun. My wife is very patient. She’s very supportive.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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