Once named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine, Trent Reznor is back in favour and form. Following an album release earlier this year by his band Nine Inch Nails (NIN) a summer on the European festivals circuit is being bookended with a headline slot at the Beijing Pop Festival
on September 8 and 9.
Reznor, whose brand of industrial pop-rock minted millions in big-label revenue since 1989's bleak debut Pretty Hate Machine, is a personal hero for Jason Magnus, president of Rock For China Ltd, which organises the Beijing Pop Festival. A real estate developer who realized a dream by running the first edition of the pop festival in 2005, Magnus admires the band’s anti-establishment views and the anti-Bush sentiments of the band’s latest album, Year Zero.
“NIN always stayed relevant,” saysMagnus, who gushes with admiration for the public relations campaign behind the band’s new recording. “They are still filling stadiums and still challenging their listeners. Their live show and production values have always been fresh and different.”
It was always clear that the band had fans in China: NIN albums like Downward Spiral, a staple of most mid – 1990s college dorms is reliably present in small-town CD shops from Shanghai to Urumqi. Few logos are as ubiquitoius as the blocky NIN on the cheap black t-shirts of rock fans on a weekend night in any of Beijing’s rock bars.
The band always wanted to play China, says Magnus. “They’ve been very keen, it was always a logistics question.” The US band is tacking China onto an Asia leg that also takes in Korea, Hong Kong before the band flies to Australia. A large crew (30, compared to an entourage of 17 which comprised the entire entourage of last year’s headline act, Placebo) and freight load will break records in China, says Magnus. “They’re bringing 15 tonnes of equipment, Placebo brought four.”
Aside from landing NIN Rock For China has been clever with the line up: whatever happens there will be a big turn out for what’s being claimed as the first outdoor show in almost 20 years by socially inspired local bard Cui Jian. The “godfather of Chinese rock” as he’s labeled would surely show up himself to see the other big American name at the festival, Public Enemy, tapes of whom he’s credited with inspiring segues into social-conscience rapping later on in his career.
Chinese rock fans have a historical bent, says Magnus. Other Americans on the main stage include anti-establishment icons the New York Dolls and Marky Ramone from defunct punk legends the Ramones. “I really wanted legends from different genres. I’m not bringing acts out for expatriates but for the Chinese fans and contemporary artists don’t have followings here,” says Magnus, who points to the rousing reception given to hard rock journeyman Sebastian Bach at last year’s festival as proof that local fans like old gold rather than current hot tickets like the Killers and the Strokes. “…I’ve noticed a lot of kids wearing New York Dolls and Romones t-shirts, so we bought them.”
Paying for big names like NIN is difficult in China, where rock remains a niche taste in a music market already sapped by CD piracy. NIN are charging “more than 100 percent” more than last year’s headline act, Placebo, charged. The pop festival pays its acts largely from sponsorship.
Unlikely corporate sponsors include credit card company Mastercard and US-based office technology provider R & R Donnelly. Both companies sponsored the festival last year too. New sponsors this year as Hennessy VSOP and perfume brand Dior. “We prefer to stick with the tried and tested brands who were involved last year. We are aware of the limited potential of the market here. Festivals don’t have a long history in China.”
Troubled TV maker TCL sponsored the 2005 festival but this year the only Chinese sponsor is the local edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. “Companies have different internal reasons for sponsoring,” says Magnus. He won’t comment on whether sponsorship fees have risen on last year’s figures.
Ticket prices have risen from RMB150 per day in 2006 to RMB200 this year but remain “ridiculously good value” for the 15,000 people a day - “near enough capacity” - expected by Magnus. China remains price sensitive. “In general people in China buy one day tickets.” Ticket sales, handled by state owned Piaowu Tong ticket company split 50/50 between one day and weekend.
Copious paperwork and permits needed to get the groups in necessitated the abbreviation of the group’s name to PE. Bureaucracy is a way of life for festival organizers in China, who regularly dispenses batches of free tickets to smooth over permit processes. Over 2,000 people brought tents last year. “I really liked that, it adds to the vibe.” Campers are not allowed to stay overnight in the park however, and must be out with the rest of the crowd within an hour of the last song of the night.
Magnus has been wrangling with security about shortening the barrier between crowd and performers. Uniformed security guards, required by local law, last year stood to attention facing the crowd. “We want them to change their uniforms,” says Magnus. “It would be really important to the vibe of the festival.”
From London, the main stage’s sole Brit attraction, Brett Anderson will be on a second visit to China. A February 2003 showing with his then group, Suede, was poorly attended. “It was holiday time so a lot of people missed it,” says Magnus, who predicts a big turn-out this time round for the former Suede front man, currently in the midst of a coolly received solo career. “We’ve been getting phone calls all year from fans asking if we could bring Suede. As pioneers of Brit pop they’ve got a big following...”
Lesser known foreign bands include Britain’s the Crimea, who play with locals Joyside and Muma on the Hit Fm stage, sponsored by a local radio station.