Last September, 30,000 people gathered in Beijing's Chaoyang Park to hear sets by Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy and the New York Dolls, at the third annual Beijing Pop Festival. The show — as well as other recent performances by acts like the Rolling Stones and Linkin Park — seemed to be a sign of China's increasing comfort with Western pop culture. That all changed when Björk was booked in Shanghai in March — and finished her set with the defiant song "Declare Independence" before trying to lead the crowd in a chant of "Tibet! Tibet!"
The Chinese authorities' reaction was swift: The Ministry of Culture accused the singer of "going against professional standards" and later announced that no foreign rock acts would be allowed to play until after the Beijing Olympics. In July, they banned any "individuals who have ever engaged in activities which threaten our national sovereignty." Gigs by Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte have been postponed, and this summer's Beijing Pop Festival was canceled. According to concert-industry sources, the Björk incident convinced the government that rock stars could easily damage the country's carefully managed image during the run-up to this summer's Olympics. "Suddenly they got restrictive again," says CA A booking agent Marlene Tsuchii, who has helped organize Chinese tours by everyone from Il Divo to Sonic Youth. "With the Olympics and the Tibet thing, it's bad timing. Everybody backed off."
The crackdown comes at a time when China's appetite for Western pop culture is growing rapidly. Since Wham! played in Beijing in 1985, the trickle of artists allowed into the countr y ha s become a flood, with recent shows by the Stones, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Beyoncé and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "China is the quintessential emerging market," says NIN manager Jim Guerinot.
And even more telling, top American concert promoters Live Nation and AEG opened offices there in 2005. Last year, Ticketmaster acquired a majority share in Emma Entertainment, the Beijing company that brought over the Stones and Clapton. "We want to become part of the local industry," says Colleen Ironside, head of Live Nation's Asia office.
But even if the musical embargo is lifted after the Olympics, as industry sources expect, booking shows in China presents a set of unique challenges. The monthslong process begins with a local promoter who, after approaching an artist, gathers background information on the act for the government: song lyrics, biographical information and a probable set list for the concerts. The promoter then sends the packet to the Ministry of Culture, the agency that issues licenses to events. "China wants to be part of the modern world, and they don't want to be seen as prohibiting international talent," says one promoter, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals. "On the other hand, they want to maintain control over what sort of talent is promoted."
Some acts, like Linkin Park and NIN, were cleared with no problems. But an attempted Jay-Z concert in 2006 was nixed over concerns about vulgar lyrics. That same year, the Stones had to cut four songs from their set, including "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Honky Tonk Women." Even if an act is approved, the government is never far behind. Before NIN's performance last fall, an official asked Trent Reznor not to mention Tibet. Lavigne was asked — "politely, but very firmly," says her manager Terry McBride — not to swear onstage when she played Shanghai last year. If a performer breaks the law, as Björk technically did, sources say promoters will have to give the government half of the box-office receipts. "You have to be very respectful of how they do things," says McBride. "You have to approach the Chinese market differently."
Another hurdle is the country's entertainment infrastructure, which remains below international standards. Many bands opt to fly in their own gear, and soundchecks can stretch on for hours. "You have to do production for every show in advance, and you have to build stages everywhere," says Archie Hamilton, a promoter who has brought Sonic Youth and Talib Kweli to China. "It's an expensive thing."
Superstar acts playing arenas can charge as much as the $250 Beyoncé did for VIP tickets to her 2007 show. But with over 128 million people living on less than a dollar a day and even financial industry professionals making as little as $14,000 a year, many artists sell tickets for far less than they would at home. "You can't charge high prices because they're not accustomed to paying them," says CAA's Tsuchii.
Linkin Park tickets started at $12; last year's Modern Sky festival, which featured the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, charged $15; the Beijing Pop Festival cost $25. Low prices, however, don't mean that bands won't reap rewards in China. NIN made about $200,000 for their set; asked about reports that Linkin Park earned $750,000, singer Chester Bennington says, "It cost us a lot of money to play there, and we're not going to play for free."
Still, Bennington feels their trip was worth the occasional compromise. "We knew the rules," he says. "Be polite. Don't try to incite a riot. Don't be political. I'm not saying I don't believe the people of Tibet don't deserve to be free. But everywhere in the world, there's shit that needs to be better. Doesn't mean we shouldn't play rock shows there."