RIP: 4Live (November 2006-January 2008)
We don’t envy publishers of Shanghai guide books — shit never stays the same here for very long. Yesterday we told you about the closure of 4Live, arguably the best venue for live music in downtown Shanghai. Now we have some insight on the news from two guys who worked at 4Live during its 14-month existence: Michael Ohlsson, marketing manager at 4Live from December 2006 to May 2007, and Brad Ferguson, former Live Bar owner who was brought in to manage 4Live briefly in 2007.
The two Americans seem to agree on the reasons behind 4Live’s downfall. But their views on the future prospects for live music in Shanghai differ considerably.
Here are their comments verbatim, based on email and instant message conversations from Sunday night.
I was there [Saturday] night. Only saw [4Live owner] Zooma as I was running out, so I didn’t get anything more than a confirmation it’s closing. He mentioned something about maybe doing a smaller place, and a record label.
First of all, it’s really challenging to run a music “venue” in a developing market like Shanghai. Most people don’t understand the concept versus being a club. For example, every night at the door we’d explain to people what kind of music we were having that night, with big posters and everything. But sure enough, every night, we’d have a few people come back out asking for money back because, “Last week it was hip hop or techno or punk — why is there a jazz band playing? I don’t want that!”
Second key point: Bars and clubs, primary income is from selling drinks. Most of the time, when we’d have Chinese rock bands, their young fans would come, watch the band, and leave right after, and not buy a single drink the whole time. That’s the fan base here. Those kids don’t buy drinks, and they don’t stick around afterwards to get into the DJ music, no matter what style. Which is a problem, when you need to stay open after the bands because the DJ fan crowd goes to the club after midnight.
Zooma’s vision was to make the venue bring in both of these crowds together, always keeping the music good and you know, not mainstream. But that’s difficult to pull off.
The first problem was the name of the venue — 4Live. Kind of a bad Chinglish pun, and confusing, because it wasn’t always “live” music.
I’ve heard people say that Zooma was “selling out” by putting on DJ parties in the roster, but that’s wrong. He’d always planned to have DJ parties and live music … and often on the same night.
And when you do the math, for example: A band like The Subs, 500 tickets sold vs. Bananas Party, 500 tickets sold. The bar at Bananas does five times or more what the Subs night does. And rent’s not cheap in a place like that.
To elaborate on the issue with the two crowds: The night we had Kava Kava, about 100 Chinese kids came at 9 pm. But that’s way too early for the laowai crowd. We tried to compromise by putting the band on at 10:30 pm. But by then all the Chinese kids were mad, asking for money back. Sure enough, when the band finished at 11:30 pm, we had a bunch of laowai turning up to see the headliner, who had already finished.
Fact is, you need the laowai crowd because the Chinese live rock fans don’t drink.
Even with the challenges I mentioned above, I want to believe that it would be possible for a place like 4Live to work. But there were sooo many stupid problems. Poor bar management, staff thieves, poor accounting, broken promises from suppliers and promoters.
Honestly, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. On the other hand, I think it’s possible for a place like this to do well here, even thrive, given the right approach.
The rent is high, but why not? Three really big nights a month would cover rent. There’s 20 million people in shanghai. What really needs to happen — and I’m talking for all the music and nightlife scene here — is to reach out to more people and get them into it. You can’t survive on just getting that same 500 people to come every night. And it’s boring if you do anyway … and insignificant on a socio-cultural level.
And you also have to pay attention to details — sound, lighting, drink selection, right staffing. But to put a simple answer: No, I don’t think all live music venues are doomed. All the ones I’ve seen have been poorly managed.
There’s really nothing to say. The cost of running the place was too high. Shanghai (locals and foreigners alike) isn’t really supportive of live music. And there was probably some mismanagement as well 😉
[We asked Brad to expand on “mismanagement.”]
I don’t mean “mismanagement” as in embezzlement or anything like that. Just the basic problems with organization, marketing, etc that anyone moving from a small venue like the original Tanghui to a large venue like 4Live might encounter.
But I do believe that any bar/club that tries to focus exclusively on live music other than jazz is doomed.