How is the Music and Events Industry Coping with the Coronavirus in Beijing?

We were planning to drop an article this week about wearable technologies that will make your next event rad, but that’s sidelined to bring you something much more ‘now.’

As it happens, our blogger is an American who has living in Beijing for nearly a decade (hey, what’s up guys?) and has spent the past 5 years organizing music, art, and brand events in the city.  Beijing is unsurprisingly a challenging environment at the moment, and we thought it’d be interesting to get his take on how the city and events industry there is reacting to the current health crisis.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks (scooch over, please let me join you under that rock) you might have missed out on the Wuhan Coronavirus.  Just to recap, a new easily transmittable virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan less than 2 months ago and is now running wild across China and beyond since the emergence of the virus coincided with China’s major travel season: The Lunar New Year.  This is basically a perfect storm in epidemiological terms.

China has taken extreme but understandable measures to try and contain the virus’s spread in Wuhan and its home province of Hubei, effectively quarantining the entire region by restricting all travel in and out.  However, this is not the only place where China is seeing lockdowns.  Most cities in China have implemented their own restrictions on public interaction.  Schools, dormitories, and most workplaces have been ordered to remain empty until anywhere from February 10th to ‘indefinitely’ at the national level, and some cities and small towns voluntarily taking more extreme measures to protect themselves from the virus’s reach.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of protecting the nation’s public health in the least, but as an event manager here, my concerns and those of my peers in the same industry are turning more and more towards the massive economic consequences these restrictions will have over the coming months.

In China (and increasingly internationally), Beijing is known as a creative hub.  Beijing is home to dozens upon dozens of bands and DJs who are supported by a number of large and small professional venues.  If you’re a brand like Converse or Vans you make exclusive event deals with these venues and associate yourself with bands.  If you’re a national or international brand looking for a product launch and want local young people to think you’re cool you reach out to a local promoter to get a major local DJ for your event.  More or less.

But if performers and audiences either can’t return to the city due to public health restrictions, or are too afraid to attend a public event, or are short on money after being out of work, then down the line the creative culture in Beijing could encounter some real trouble.  If the health crisis continues past February, it’s likely that some venues or performers will be unable to weather the extended lack of revenue and be forced to throw in the towel.

Just to give you a better idea about the situation for the music and events industry in Beijing, I spoke to two major venue owners and a rising local band to see how their livelihoods are being affected by the coronavirus.  I’m intentionally leaving identifying information out so they don’t get flack for speaking out, so here’s three anonymous vignettes:

  1.  “All our gigs in February have either been canceled or postponed. The situation is serious and we don’t want anyone getting sick.  Besides that, audiences and promoters are afraid of attending anything.  We’ll have a considerable loss and it might go on beyond February, but eventually things should be fine.”
  2. “The virus epidemic has had uncontrollable, bad consequences to venues in Beijing and across the whole country.  All our recent events? – nearly all our February events, and even some in March and April have been canceled or postponed.  The epidemic is of course unpredictable, and the situation is uncertain.

    This could eventually lead to extreme operating pressures on most venues.  We’re still expected to pay fixed expenses like rent and wages, but without any money coming in.  No shows means no cash flow.

    I haven’t returned to Beijing yet, so I can’t speak much about the current restriction policies there.  Apart from closing schools, delaying work return dates, and monitoring body temperatures on public transportation – we haven’t received official restrictions for music venues.”
  3. “Compared with the general population, the number of confirmed cases in my hometown (Heilongjiang) is large.  For us, it is currently impossible to enter or leave the city.  The highway and train stations have been closed off.  Cars and street vehicles have also been banned.  Occasionally you’ll see some people shopping on the street.

    Three members of my band are here, while one is in Szechuan.  Right now, we’re worried about whether a tour we have planned in late March can still happen. 

    Live music is greatly affected.  Oddly enough, I’ve seen a lot of bands livestreaming their shows or sharing videos of past shows they’ve performed.  I think this might be an interesting opportunity for change.  Everyone is thinking about new ways for music to survive and reach audiences.”

It’s still too early to tell how the events industry will be affected in China in the long term, but we do see one major change to the events and live entertainment industry already underway: the reliance on livestreaming and social media technologies as a stand-in for physical attendance.  Livestreaming tech here is being treated like a public health necessity, and we suspect even long after the coronavirus’s presence has been mitigated, many parts of the events culture will have partly or fully adopted digital mediums for event engagement and continue to use these formats to keep their audiences feeling at ease.  This could be the impetus for a slew of partially or fully online events venues, or kickstart new ways to participate in “live” events from the safety of a bedroom.  As the situation unfolds, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on how the industry handles these new uncertain realities in China’s capitol.

David Sonntag
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