Archie talks to Creative Hunt about his experiences running Split Works

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Interview: Archie Hamilton of Split Works

CreativeHunt sat down with Archie Hamilton, Grand Poo-bah of south east Asian concert promoters Split Works. Entering the Chinese market almost three years ago, the Shanghai-based agency (now with a Beijing office) has put on several concerts featuring international bands like Sonic Youth, Maximo Park, The Go! Team, Dandi Wind, Jens Lekman, and more. Their services range from tour booking, tour managing, promotions, consulting, and basically everything else involved with getting a band continually from point A to point B.

Here’s Archie on three years of concert promoting in China, what the agency is up to these days, mistakes made, lessons learned, and plans in the works.

Check them out on the web here. Archie also writes an industry-blog dealing with the music biz in China called China Music Radar. That’s right here.

So maybe you could start with the company history?
We’re coming up to our third anniversary in December. I got here four years ago, with a pretty straight-forward idea, which was, ‘big market, theoretically lots of advertisers, unsophisticated music scene,’ and I come from an extreme sports background. I used to run big extreme sports festivals, and the extreme sports market kind of led the music market in the mid ’90s.

This is in the UK?
This is in France and Spain. So we just started off lugging speakers and DJ equipment up the hills and having little parties next to the half-pipe we built. And as the years went on…

So like extreme sports events — is that like skateboarding and stuff?
More snowboarding. And as time went on, the big brands started coming in and offering us ridiculous amounts of money to do essentially the same thing — build a kicker, bring some DJ gear up the hill, throw a party.

Like who? Powerade?
Like Nokia, XBox, even Davidoff for their Cool Water aftershave, Nike for their winter sports brands, and QuickSilver were always pretty active. But it was when the big brands came in, you know, when the Nokias and the XBox’s came in that it started getting like a million dollars for a three-day event. And event organizers and riders were sitting there, smoking weed, going “wow this is fucking amazing”.

And then at the end of it the brands would be like, “okay now what did we get out of that?” And we’d be like “well, we put on a good party. Lots of people came.” [Laughs.]

But it became clear pretty quick that this wouldn’t be enough to keep the partnerships working and that we would lose the money in pretty short order. At the same time, the athletes were demanding higher prize money and performance fees, while the public were raising their expectations as well. We developed with the market and developed the overall offering, in particular the creative aspects of applying the branding, as well as the post event evaluations. By the end of it we were giving the brands what they wanted and stuff that they could take back to their managers to prove that it was working…

Which is what? If Nokia approaches you with like a suitcase of money, what are they looking for? The name on everything?
Well, yeah to begin with that was it, you know. But the marketing has developed since then. Back then it was big to just have banners and name tags on the rider’s vests, and a “Welcome to the ChamJam presented by BrandX” banner — ChamJam was the biggest event that we used to do — logos on websites, flyers, all that kind of shit.

So, after nearly 10 years of doing this, we’d gotten pretty good at creating great experiences for brands and for the lovers of the sports and music. I came to China with and the idea of doing something similar with the music industry here. We were kind of lucky with our first client, Bacardi.

[Ed’s note: Split Works’ first project in Shanghai was the Bacardi Sino Session — a concert series in Beijing and Shanghai featuring acts like Maximo Park, The Go! Team, and more.]

While we had the agency offering pretty much down, I was pretty green when it came to China — straight off the boat, but I was lucky in that my partner, who was the second person that I met here, had been in China since the mid 90’s and really understood the place. [Beijing-based Nathaniel Davis, who had been working for production company 3BM, doing big concert production in China for the likes of Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and Tiesto.]

We wrote a big, massive pitch about how live music was really under-developed here, and would a brand like to be associated with the birth of live music in China? Bacardi already had their “B Live” platform and decided to go there. So that was great. We had twelve months of Bacardi basically letting us loose on the market here.

How many shows was that? Maximo Park, Infadels… six or so?
Originally it was for six shows in Shanghai — twelve in total in Shanghai and Beijing, and then we kind of shaved off the last two and put it into the festival, which was the Yue Festival.

And it worked really well from a brand building perspective, but what they realized after twelve months was that it wasn’t translating directly into sales. They were coming in with this huge marketing budget — lets get the Bacardi brand everywhere — but the sales… you know, the Chinese don’t really drink rum. The Chinese don’t really drink white spirits besides baijiu. So for that first year the marketing had done a good job, people knew what Bacardi was, but people weren’t drinking it in the clubs and bars.

And this is what’s been happening all over the world over the last 12 to 18 months. The recession has kicked in and management are looking at their global profits and losses sheets and thinking, “well, we’re spending 15 million dollars on marketing in China and making half a million dollars back. How long can we keep doing that?” So a lot of them have pulled back from these big, spectacular brand-building exercises (when will be the next time we will see Fendi on the Great Wall) and they’re spending their money on retail and smaller events — more tactical stuff — activity that reflects immediately into sales.

In the beginning, we were sure that we could persuade brands to take big risks, and do really cool shit — after all, this part of China is still a relatively blank canvas. But brand managers are not, by inference, massive risk takers. They prefer to do things incrementally, especially in a global climate like this. And that’s what we are seeing at the moment. Lots of things that look pretty fucking similar to everything else. Which is a shame.

So we’ve separated the business — on the one hand, we are promoters, pure and simple, and on the other, we are a brand agency focused on communicating through music. If the brands want to get involved in the promotional side of things, then we are happy to talk about that, but this gives us greater flexibility to promote whatever we want, and also service brands in the way that they want.

So have you departed with your original model then, or are you still looking for big funding through big sponsors?
We’re always looking for sponsors. The fundamentals of music promotion in this country are that we’ve got a company that’s set up to do large events, but we never even make a dent into our costs when we are doing promotion. Like, we might break even on the show, in terms of pass-through-the-door costs, but it might take us months to put a tour together with seven, eight, nine peoples’ time, and we have to fund all of that ourselves. So actually, the brand stuff is really important to us — and it’s tough you know because the last twelve months have been… well I’ve only been here four years, but my partner’s been twelve years in Beijing and a lot of the people we talk to who have been here a long time say that there is a cycle in China is fairly standardized.

Big companies, international companies, the ones that are going to work with us, all have a massive problem when they come to China. On the one hand, they have a big, developed, and importantly GLOBAL business models. Orders from the center usually focus on doing it the “company way”. But then you have the argument that China is a unique case, because of how localized it is. So, they start off with lots of expats, then they realize that that is often expensive and the expats largely struggle to understand the market, so they sack all the expats after three years, employ lots of local guys to run the company, and then after another three years they have lost control of the company — it has become a Chinese company in all but name. So, then they ramp up the expat population within management again.

That seems to have been a fairly on-going cycle with these big companies over the last ten years or so. And so right now we’re at the re-localization end of that cycle. Most of the brand managers we’re speaking to now, what we’re offering might be a fair ways away from their own experience and their comfort zone. So yeah it’s been hard.

So how does it specifically work when Split Works puts on a show? Are you approaching the bands? Are they approaching you?
To begin with, the first 18 months was me banging on the door of every agent and manager of every artist that we thought would work in China, and it was tough because everyone is kind of interested in China, but no one really wants to undertake the financial sacrifice it takes to come here. And there’s three different areas: there’s foreign bands that want to come to China, there’s Chinese bands within China, and there’s Chinese bands who want to get out of China.

Are you looking to work with specific artists or within certain genres, or are you more thinking about bringing over a band that would be successful, and expected ticket sales?
It changes all the time. It started out that I just wanted to promote the bands that I love. So the first list that we presented to Bacardi back in 2006 was Wolfmother, The Presets, Muse — they were small enough at that stage — the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that sort of thing, you know. Those are bands that I wanted to bring and I thought they would work here. And that’s been the dominant theme. You pick a band you think are good and put on a good fucking show. You have to bring bands that will bring something new to the market. If you are going to bother bringing in a band from the west they have to create something that isn’t already here. I don’t care if it’s dubstep, reggae, dancehall, pre rock, post rock, rock rock…

I think Wolfmother is “rock rock”.
Yeah, cock rock. [Laughs.] So now we’re a little bit cuter I suppose. Now we look at what would work here and bands that already have some kind of presence here. We can’t really build them up from nothing or rely on an expat audience. Although the expats know most of these bands, the expat population is really transient and we’re trying to move across to include bands that Chinese people want to see. We’re trying to inspire Chinese kids to pick up an instrument.

Before we were going on what was hot in the west, but now we have a system which has allowed us to evaluate bands we’re interested in, and now we’ve got staff that understand the business and they bring their take. So yeah this band Owl City is like the number two artist on Douban now. And we only put it up like three weeks ago.

So there is a model there you know… you’re in China… listen to what the fucking Chinese want. [Laughs.]

You know there’s that whole culturally imperialist state of mind like, “you must like this because it’s good” but a few of the bands from the first year, if we brought them back I don’t know how many more tickets we’d be selling.

What about governmental restrictions, visa, performance permits, the red tape… has it been getting easier over the years? Ups and downs? Worse?
Well, it’s still a massive externality that does our heads in — does everybody’s heads in. You just can’t predict what’s going to be happening from month to month, and what the attitude of the authorities is going to be. Either they’re going to be super down with it — you know, “creativity”, that’s the new watch-word, we’re going to encourage it — or, we’re not going to give you any opportunity to criticize us at all so we’re going to shut down all public gatherings or anything that isn’t endorsed. Most of what we do is legitimate, but we have to go through processes, and those processes can be taken away at any time.

It seems like you’re always angling towards festivals — are festivals the holy grail of music promoting? Even though you’re putting together south east Asian tours… ideally do you see Split Works putting together festivals when you are in a position to be able to do so?
Well we are. Next year. I think. We finally got our ducks in a row. One of the big things about doing the Yue Festival in ZhongShan park in 2007 was, “man what a risky business…”

You’re not even expecting to break even until your fourth year, you’ve got to have deep, deep pockets, and you need a rabid audience. You have to be pretty die-hard.

I’ve just written an article on my blog about the JZ Festival — irony of ironies — and I think the line-up is a bit disappointing, from the perspective that they had something really solid last year that they could have built on but they seem to have gone down the road of doing what everyone else is doing. A lot of the big artists that they’re pulling in, they’re artists that play in Shanghai regularly, or play at every festival. They obviously feel that they need the Chinese “star” power to reach a broader audience. It’s fair enough, I suppose, but not always the best for the development of the market, and it is sad to always see it coming back to this, both from a brand and a promotional perspective.

And that’s a problem with the talent pool. Especially for the volume of events that are popping up around the country — the big festival shows, arena shows, Ticketmaster, LiveNation, big Chinese promoters — everyone wants a successful show, and to do that you need big-name Chinese bands, but there are only 20-25-30 of those, and they’re playing in all the other festivals, sponsored events, whatever, regular shows. Its almost like the market has got ahead of the artists, so you’re in a position where you have to bring in international acts, but the problem there is that locals don’t know who they are, or at least they don’t know enough about them to warrant bringing them in.

So yeah you look at the finances for the shows — yeah, a Linkin Park concert might work, but only because they’ve been built in this market since 2002 by Warner. But you look across the rest of the board and the artists here that the Chinese seem to like, they’re just too fucking expensive and not known enough.

Like Mogwai?
Well Mogwai, we did the math on that, and they wanted what I recon was three or four times what we could have paid to make the money back, and they were getting those offers from Malaysia — lost a ton of money in Malaysia, I know the guy who did it — and Korean and Japan. And these artists have an opportunity cost when it comes to touring. They only have 100-150 dates in them around the world and bands only make their money in touring, so they have to make the money where the money is available and that’s not China.

You occasionally come across the odd one, like we have an artist coming up in November called Owl City, and we got them just before they exploded in the States so it looks like we might be able to make a little money off it.

Yeah, we’re looking at ways to do a festival and we think we might have found a way to put something on next year — a dual festival in Shanghai and Beijing — and we’re also working on our Jue Festival concept which is lower risk and more varied and sponsor-friendly.

[Ed’s note: Split Works’ Jue Festival was a larger series of concerts occurring over a couple weeks in multiple venues, tied in with gallery events, a theatrical play, and visual art shows.]

When you look back at the Yue Festival do you think of it as a success or failure?
Financially? Big thumbs down. Conceptually, great. Everyone that came had a fucking brilliant time. I would have had a brilliant time if I wasn’t…

Plunging porta-potties or whatever?
No, backstage trying to talk the government down from shutting it down at 12:30 in the afternoon. Again, culturally imperialistically I overpaid for bands that didn’t really have a presence here because I wanted the show to be right in my mind and produced properly.

So overall are you going from project to project or do you have a larger over-all plan, like a yearly plan?
Well, we spent the last twelve months kind of ripping apart what we were doing and rebuilding it. We were really lucky to be quite honest. In the first two years, we got three or four really big projects — we did the Smirnoff Experience in the Sculpture Space, which was a huge international budget, they spend millions of dollars on that — we did the Converse Love Noise thing, which was a big budget, they wanted to make a big splash in the market, and it turned out great for them.

But the big money that we’re were kind of banking on in those first years is definitely gone. For the moment. It’s gone because marketing has been reduced and the companies with the big money — car companies, who are still making money — they don’t give a fuck about what we do. They want 35 city road-shows and that kind of stuff. So we are looking at ways to make our offerings better and we have some pretty big projects for next year in the pipe line. But again, getting signatures on paper and getting the amount of money is an industry-wide problem here. You know, getting the amount of money to provide a service that the brand wants is so difficult.

But at Split Works we’ve been working really hard on making it a more viable option. We’re now working with promoters and people in seven different countries in this region. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore… and the idea is that bands fly across a lot — Europe to Australia and back again — and we’re trying to create something of value here where the bands can stop off, take two weeks and we can create something for that period. We’re at one to two international artists a month, and we’re trying to keep it at that level over the next twelve months or so to see if we can grow the audience.

And it’s still DIY but the bigger we cast our net the more that comes back.


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