Building China's Biggest Festival: Talking to Scarlett Li, Zebra Media Co-founder
Scarlett Li is busy. She kicked off May 2010 by organizing and attending what is, by some counts, China's largest music festival in Chengdu. Next up was Beijing, where she spoke at the Girls in Tech China. Finally, it was down south to Hong Kong for the Music Matters conference.
Scarlett Li in front of the main stage
But you wouldn't guess she keeps such a hectic schedule just by looking at her: She radiates a casualness that belies her status as a key behind-the-scenes player in China's budding entertainment industry. In fact, with her long hair hanging over her shoulders and her T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers get-up, she blended right in with the young attendees of her festival, and it took us a moment to pick her out of the crowd in order to snap a photo ("I want to catch Shuzi," she had told us. "Just find me over by the second stage").
It was as an undergrad in Australia that Li experienced her first music festival—on holiday in the U.S., she went to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. "I was like, 'Wow, this is so cool!'" she said. In a Wayne's World 2 moment of epiphany, Li decided then and there that one day, she would make her own. And its name wouldn't end in –stock. That was more than 15 years ago.
"I'm like, 'This is cool, we need this.' Not like, 'I wanna do something'—like, 'We need this in China.' We need to educate the market even more to be crazier, to have fun, to just loosen up a little bit."
Li went on to grab another degree from the prestigious Tsinghua University before entering the music business as a young professional, starting as general manager of Channel V in 1997 where she launched the Chinese Music Awards and the "Made in China" campaign, both landmarks for domestic entertainment that nurtured local musicians, encouraging Chinese youth to look at themselves rather than only "foreigners" as potential world-class entertainers. From there, Li co-founded the online and mobile music-distribution and licensing outfit R2G, and then Zebra Media in 2007. Along the way she started helping organize some of contemporary China's early music festivals: in 2001, Cui Jian's Snow Mountain in Lijiang and, over the next three years, Summer Shake in Shanghai. Zebra produces daily music programming for satellite and cable TV, distributes music via mobile networks and the Internet, and organizes music-related events such as the Zebra Music Festival.
The way Li tells it, city government officials were looking to rebuild post-quake Chengdu's image "as a fun city." Seeing Chengdu as one of three cities in China—along with Xi'an and, of course Beijing—with a "very, very big music crowd," Li proposed a music festival. The officials gave her the go-ahead with their full support. The promise of governmental backing sealed the deal. "If you ignore those things, it's not going to be a successful festival," Li explained. She signed on to produce festivals in Chengdu for the next five years.
The theme of the first festival, in 2009, was "I Care," a concept that seemed to be all but forgotten by the time the 2010 festival rolled around. A small smattering of NGO tents on an out-of-the-way hillside were the only reminders that anyone might care. Most of the prime tent real estate was occupied by Carlsberg tents. "As I always say, a music festival is not a charity organization. If you want it to become a big brand, survive for 50 years, it has to be self-driven, and you have to save yourself first," Li explained when she sat down to talk to us on Day 2 of this year's festival.
How do you choose bands?
We have very controversial comments on the selection of bands of the music festival. [Note: One of the most active threads on the Zebra Music Festival Douban.com event page was titled "When Soda Green comes on stage, flip them the bird!"] As I said, we want to create the most popular music festival in China. We want to attract all kinds of people to come to our festival. That's why, when we started to do the music festival, I emphasized not only we're going to have great music but also non-music elements. You have outdoor movies, you have extreme sports. First of all it has to be a festival, then it comes with music. The selection of bands have been decided according to the audience taste of Sichuan and Chengdu because 70 percent of our audience comes from Chengdu. We do surveys on Kaixin and other websites. Music festivals have always had an equation equivalent to rock 'n' roll, which I disagree. Music festivals are for every young people in the country—even older people. Music festival equals to happiness, not rock 'n' roll.
You claimed a turnout of 150,000 people at last year's Zebra. A lot of people have questioned this number.
Last year, for three days on average we had 50,000 per day, basically. We have people counting at the door. They're counting because if—I think in this park, if we have over 300,000—we're going to stop letting people enter. So maybe it's not one by one, but we have government people counting because the security wants to make sure nothing happens.
How many did you count this year?
This year, first day, 80,000, already. Yesterday [Day 2], we reported 50,000 to 60,000—equivalent to last year.
So pop doesn't necessarily drive the crowd?
Not necessarily. Well, pop drives a certain crowd. But we want to drive different crowds. We don't want just one kind of music just driving one kind of crowd.
We heard the Panda Stage didn't get any money from ZMF.
Well, last year, we didn't give them any money either. To enter the Zebra venue, everybody has to pay. Carlsberg comes in, they have to pay. And China Mobile comes in, they have to pay. For certain programs, if we like them very much, then we waive the payment. Like Panda. We have to make sure that our cash flow is positive. If we lose money, how can we continue?
How do you balance profit with quality?
I think it's an art. I think it's a very good question. First of all you cannot live on subsidy. You have to survive yourself first. Then this thing will grow. So you need to find a balance, but at the end, when you start to make a profit, do not maximize the profit. You have to draw a line and say this is it, OK, 30 percent, 50 percent, and then we will start to spend more money to build up the festival and make it much better. Sometimes when you are only driven by profit and lower the costs, that's not the way to do a project. So you need to find a balance, that the product is good, good profit, and that's it. So do not let the greed lead you over.
What's the percent of your ticket sales and sponsorship in your budget?
Ticket sales is the bread and butter of a festival. It has to be. If the tickets do not sell and you only live on sponsors, it's not a good festival. This kind of venue can take up to 500,000 people. If you can really sell 500,000 tickets, it's very lucrative. If each ticket is 100 kuai, we're talking about 50 million in ticket sales. You can never get 50 million in sponsorships here. Also, how can you rely on the sponsors? This year, their sales are good; next year, they're not good, they're no longer sponsoring you.
You've said you have ambitions to make Zebra on the same level as other festivals, such as Glastonbury.
I think it's not impossible, to be honest. If I work on it for 10 years, continuously, I think we'll have a Glastonbury in China. We have the right setting; if we keep promoting it for 10 years, 20 years, we'll get there. And also, how do you define that? By the amount of people come in? By the popularity you are getting? So we have to be ambitious. If we don't have a dream, then nothing happens.
What are your plans for Zebra 2011?
Next year, I would like to bring a very big Western artist. I always want to bring really good music from Western music festivals. The thing is the audience here doesn't know them. So then you spend all that money, you invite them over, and you don't get the ticket sales you were expecting. So you have to compromise a little bit.
Can you name any names?
Not yet ... .
Madonna? Lady Gaga?
Well my dream is ... .
Yeah, what's your dream?
Lady Gaga. But then she has that huge entourage, and she has a particular taste on stage; you have to set up the stage for her.
Would such a big-name artist be willing to play in Chengdu?
Yeah, it's a difficult persuasion as well. So the best way of getting these artists is we do a concert tour for them around China, around the same time, and they come for the festival as well. It's difficult for Chengdu, though. You know, we have done a lot for Chengdu. That's why the government is really nice to us. I told them I could do the same thing in Beijing and the costs would be half. Because I have to fly everyone here. All the bands live in Beijing; I [wouldn't] need to spend all that money to fly them over. And ticket sales are much smaller than in Beijing because the consumption power is not here. So it's a dilemma. But I like this place.
But really, can you tell us something more concrete for next year? Lower ticket prices?
Lower ticket prices!? Higher ticket prices! [Laughs.] Probably next year we will try more stages. We want to bring more variety of music into the venue. I don't know, maybe we should do a little jazz [stage] here.
Are you expecting the cost of all services and tickets to raise significantly next year?
No. I don't think so. And also I think we want to do early-bird ticket discounts. We didn't do it this year; I think it's a mistake.
What's your personal motivation to put on a festival?
I'm a big fan of music festivals. I think China audiences need to enjoy music festivals—the interactivity. Because it's a big party. You come to meet people, you have fun, you enjoy the weather. Chinese people always want to go somewhere and look at something without participating. You come here, you enjoy yourself. Not watch people enjoy themselves. And only in these few years—after Zebra Music Festival last year, people are copying [it] everywhere, which I think is good. If you have hundreds of music festivals everywhere, we are actually taking care of all the underground bands. Because they now make a living; they can go to a festival every month. So 10 years later you're going to have really great bands, because they're going to have performed 200, 300 times. But if you don't have festivals, they will always perform in some bar, not on a huge stage, not with a huge sound system like this. So it's a very good way of promoting artists, to let the artists have a way of growing. [And you can] attract investors because [they] see you have a very good model. You bring the whole industry up.
So you don't get tired of it or stressed out?
No. Do I look stressed out? You get used to it after so many years.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 33 ("What's Going on in Chengdu").
Photos by Dan Sandoval