In the early 2000s, China’s live music scene was still nearly non-existent. Even in Beijing, where arguably the music scene was the most developed in China at the time, there weren’t many music festivals that could compare with the likes of some of the more well-established festivals in the West, like Coachella and Bonnaroo in the U.S., or Glastonbury and Reading in the U.K. With the state of live music being so dire then in China and in need of some help, Split Works entered the scene. This ambitious music events company has been working tirelessly to improve the live music scene in China for over the past decade, which they have done with many successful festivals, such as Echo Park, JUE, Black Rabbit, and more. Split Works has also brought in numerous legendary acts to China, including bands like Sonic Youth and hip-hop icons like Talib Kweli and Grandmaster Flash.
Founded in 2006 by Archie Hamilton and Nathaniel Davis, Split Works’ goal was “to create a more sustainable ecosystem for music in China.” In 2005, Archie had moved to China and met Nathaniel just two days after arriving. The serendipitous meeting would turn into a decade-long partnership that would be integral to the development of China’s music scene. What had brought Archie to China in the first place was its lack of an established music industry. “I wanted to be in a place that wasn’t necessarily controlled by an industry,” Archie tells us. “I’m not very good at working inside of an industry – and I felt that Europe and other mature markets around the world were very much owned by corporations.” And so, without an overbearing industry controlling the scene in the country, he decided that being in China would allow more flexibility to do what he wanted to do, to fulfill his vision as he sees fit. “The flipside of this is that we didn’t really have an audience.” At the time, many people in China didn’t see buying tickets for live shows as a good way to spend money. Instead, Archie sought other ways to turn his vision into a reality. He began approaching brands armed with nothing but a proposal and a simple pitch: do you want to be responsible for the birth of a live music industry in China?
由Archie Hamilton和Nathaniel Davis于2006年创立，Split Work致力于“在中国构建更具可持续发展的音乐生态”。
In the beginning, Bacardi and Converse were the only two real brands that were adventurous and far-sighted enough to invest in Archie’s vision. Bacardi sponsored a series of live shows that led up to the first ever YUE Festival in 2007, an outdoor festival held in downtown Shanghai that at that time boasted the strongest roster of international acts the city had ever seen. Later in 2008, Converse worked with Split Works for Converse’s “Love Noise”, an indie rock music showcase, which at the time was something simply unheard of. Brands in China back then were far more interested in putting money behind big-name pop stars and huge advertising campaigns. “Converse actually put their money where their mouth was and said ‘Ok, we’re going to invest in something cool, something interesting, something new,’” says Archie. This slow shift in mentality was an exciting pivotal point for China’s live music scene.
“One of the main problems with doing business in China is that a lot of people, particularly investors, don’t have a lot of patience. They don’t want to invest in things for the long term,” Archie says. “Lots of businesses in China do well after a month, or six months, or a year. They show promising signs of doing well early on. When you look at a music festival, where you need three to five years just to get close to breaking even, a lot of people will think ‘This is too risky. This is fucking insane.’” After Black Rabbit Festival in 2011, it took Split Works a few more years to find a patient investor who was willing to buckle in for the long term, which brings us to more recent times with Concrete & Grass, the new rebranded version of Echo Park, their successful 2015 outdoor festival. “People are reluctant to be the first. It’s particularly extreme here. They want to see it. They want to hear it. They want their friends to go to it and say it’s alright before they go.”
Douban, a website that allows users to share information about films, books, and music, entered the scene at around the same time as Split Works. When Douban started gaining traction and popularity, China went through a creative renaissance of sorts. The widely used platform is considered by many to be one of the most influential websites in China. Its impact on the country’s previously stagnant music scene is undeniable. “Suddenly the whole environment just changed completely. These kids could find out about stuff and share what they knew with other people. It went from having zero access to content, to having almost an unlimited access to content,” Archie says. “The years since then, there has been a learning period where people in China are faced with a deluge of content and opportunity, but no one really knew what anything was. It’s like walking into a record shop when you are nine. There are CDs, tapes, records, and whatever else everywhere – but you didn’t know anything. It can be intimidating, and you might end up picking up some pretty crap albums; but over time, you find out what you like and what you think is interesting.”
This digital flood of creative content naturally appealed to the Chinese youth, and Archie feels like the diversity and quantity of all the music being introduced into the country has in turn led to many new Chinese musicians becoming more bold and experimental. “Some of the bands that have emerged out of China over the last ten years have been some of the most exciting bands to emerge anywhere in the world,” says Archie. “Nobody felt like, ‘We like Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, so we now need to like Soundgarden.’ There wasn’t that sort of delineation of ‘I’m this, so therefore I have to be that’. But in China, it’s just like ‘I like music, so what’s out there?’ They don’t have a kind of derivative channel that they grew up with here. Musicians in China might mix hardcore with ambient, or hardcore with trap, or whatever else. They don’t know any better. No one’s telling them they can’t do that.” Archie feels like Concrete & Grass is a direct reflection of this genre-defying attitude that many of these Chinese musicians have been creating with. “We got Korean traditional post-metal, Chinese black metal, classic American hip-hop, Indian Bollywood EDM, and so on. It really is so far across the board. It’s a music festival for music fans. For anyone who comes – even if you don’t know anything about the music – you can go to every single stage and get something out of it.” Concrete & Grass is happening later this month in Shanghai on September 16th and 17th. You can find out more about the event on their official website.