How EDM festival Storm is leading China’s live dance music charge

As China’s Storm Festival returns to its birthplace Shanghai this weekend with performers including The Chemical Brothers, Kygo and Marshmello, organisers A2Live talk about big plans for the event’s future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 1:00pm

In November 2013, a humanoid civilisation called the Arcturians made “first contact” with the earth. They had fled from the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light years away following a sweeping ban on parties on their home planet, and having roamed around space in search of fun, eventually made for China.

At least, that is the narrative that accompanied the debut of the Storm Festival in Shanghai. The two-day electronic dance music (EDM) festival featured dancers and stilt walkers in “extraterrestrial” costumes gyrating their way through crowds that the organiser put at 24,000. It included the likes of EDM stars Zedd, Axwell and Don Diablo, who performed from stages designed to look like spaceships. The era of heavily commercialised EDM festivals had arrived in China.

The Prodigy to headline Saturday night at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap festival

Four years on from “first contact” and the Arcturians are showing no signs of tiring. Storm Festival has expanded beyond Shanghai, with parent company A2Live currently on a run that has seen them put on five festivals since mid-August. Having ticked off Chengdu, Guangzhou (where an actual storm meant the cancellation of the festival’s second day), Nanjing, Beijing and Changsha, Storm will hold its flagship event in Shanghai this weekend.

It won’t stop there. Before the end of the year, Storm festivals will be held outside mainland China for the first time, with events planned for Taipei and Sydney.

“We have our sights set on expansion,” says Eric Reithler-Barros, managing director and chief commercial officer for A2Live. “As we grow, we begin to understand other markets and we’re putting more dots on the map. We have the assets, the stages and the staff already, so it’s a natural expansion for us.”

Storm’s growth – the organisers claim to have attracted 180,000 fans to their four China festivals last year – has not gone unnoticed by other EDM festival brands. One of the leading names internationally, Ultra, held their first China festival in Shanghai earlier this month.

“China is on the tip of everyone’s tongues and everyone wants entry into this market,” says Reithler-Barros.

This sentiment is echoed by Dutch DJ and producer Laidback Luke, who will play in Shanghai this week having previously performed at Storm in 2015. “China reminds me of when EDM exploded in America; I really feel that it’s taken off,” the Amsterdam-based artist says. “Everyone seems to get it and everyone seems to be pushing it there.”

China hasn’t always been seen as a natural draw for big-name mainstream DJs, but for Laidback Luke – who recently signed China-based DJ/producer Unity to his Mixmash record label – the country is an increasingly important destination.

“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “The enthusiasm for DJs and this kind of music, the type of new feel, is really something else. In Europe, it’s been going on for so long it almost feels like we’ve seen it all and done it all, whereas in China it’s really something new.”

Reithler-Barros appears unworried by the rapid increase in the number of EDM festivals fighting for a slice of the China market. “It’s something that [A2Live] anticipated and we have a bit of a first-mover advantage. We’re happy to take on challenges and we welcome the competition.”

Those challenges include not only a battle for audiences, but also to sign artists – exclusivity agreements are standard for most acts on festival bills. Yet for Laidback Luke, his existing relationship with Storm is key in this respect.

“I do think that playing at Storm really helped me break into the Chinese market and I think that connection is very important,” he says. “I know how the Chinese operate, where a lot of business is handled in relationships, and therefore I’m really thankful for this relationship with Storm.”

Creamfields electronic dance music festival to make its Hong Kong debut in December

A2Live is banking on a similar level of brand loyalty from festivalgoers. While Ultra announced a host of big-name headliners almost two months before its first China festival took place, Storm has taken a markedly different approach. For its Beijing festival earlier this month, the full line-up was only announced on the Thursday evening two days before the event; for this weekend’s Shanghai event, fans were kept guessing about the main headliners until two days ago.

“In the past few years a lot of entertainment event brands have taken on a life of their own – they’re beasts,” Reithler-Barros says. “If you do things the way you should be doing them, the fandom for the brand can potentially be equal to or even surpass the fandom for individual artists.”

Cynics might suggest that A2Live feels their line-up – led by The Chemical Brothers, Kygo, Marshmello, and Axwell & Ingrosso – doesn’t quite compare to Ultra’s blockbuster bill of Armin van Buuren, The Chainsmokers, Zedd, Martin Garrix, Sasha & John Digweed, Carl Cox, and more. Reithler-Barros, however, is confident that Storm has built enough of a following for its strategy of late artist announcements to be successful.

“We have a little bit of the hometown hero effect – being a Chinese brand created in China, not a foreign brand that’s come in – but also our production values are high,” Reithler-Barros says. “The festival is well produced, visually stimulating and it’s cool. We put a lot of hard work and resources into creating something thrilling.”

Together with Eric Zho, the founder of A2Live, Reithler-Barros – whose past roles include vice-president of global partnerships at SFX Entertainment, the owners of the Tomorrowland EDM festival and Beatport online music store – has ambitions to extend the business far beyond a festival brand. He joined A2Live in April with a remit to grow its DianYinTai streaming app, its record label, and its artist management and booking arms. The aim, he says, is to build “a vehicle for an artist to ascend” and to “form an ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Hong Kong to get second taste of British garage rock band Toy

It seems those Arcturians have world domination on their minds, with A2Live intent on going well beyond China’s borders and building its very own EDM universe.

Budweiser Storm Festival Shanghai, Sep 23-24, Shanghai International Music Village, 188 Lane 399, Shendi Dong Lu, Pudong, Shanghai.

One-day pass from 480 yuan (US$73), two-day pass 880 yuan