Paying the Piper. Or Not.

by Jonathan Campbell

2 August 2005

Urban cool Beijingers are happy to spend their money on alcohol, karaoke, and high-end food. But when it comes to paying a cover to attend a live show, something happens: their sense of self-importance precludes their willingness to pay to be entertained by others.

I am told that the situation overseas is the same: Those working the door of an event — live show, DJ set or regular weekend party — have to deal with a large assortment of people intent on not having to pay. The notion is international, and, to a point understandable: I’d rather not part with my money. There’s another international notion though: shame. And you would think — and hope — that a sense of it would prevent extended blubbering and begging at the door to an event trying to finagle one’s way out of paying for a show that is not only worth paying for, but, like it or not, is something that has to be paid for. I can’t speak for the doors of clubs around the world, but having been the guy at the door for a fair number of shows here, I can safely say that at your average Beijing door, there is no shame. No, there is no shame.

Nor is there a widespread sense that in exchange for the opportunity to witness a quality event — whether featuring local rock bands or Grammy-nominated DJs — one has to part with actual cold, hard, cash. This allergy to exchanging funds for fun occurs regardless of the featured artists’ fame or talent, or the distance the artist had to travel. For many, a cover charge is an inconceivable notion: “What do you mean I have to pay to get in?” they ask, leaving it to the person at the door to describe the economic system upon which the idea of exchanging money for goods or services is based.

While “I’m on The List” is the mantra of hoity-toity party-people the world over, in Beijing, there is no mantra; there is no List in the sense that we might understand. If there was a List, it would need to go on for miles, since a bulk of those coming to an event assume that the cover charge doesn’t apply to them. Part of the benefits of being on The List is skipping the line, but here, there’s rarely a line to skip, since those who assume they are ‘on The List’ outnumber those who might wait their turn to enter the club and pay.

I am not opposed to the idea of The List: As long as there are events, there will be VIPs; these VIPs have to be on The List. Fine, I get it. But the thing that makes them VIPs is that there’s only a small number of them. (A digression: I ran into an artist recently who spoke of a collection of Lists from galleries around a major Western city which included the names of those — movie stars, musicians, big-name culture-types, etc. — that they hoped against hope would appear. The lists were almost farcical in their imagined audience, made even more so by the management’s insistence that the List in question be taken seriously, and kept up to date.)

It seems to me that party-goers here don’t have the right idea about what The List is. Even if you’re on it, you have to check in. But List-wannabes wouldn’t deign to utter even the international mantra to the poor sod taking tickets. So what the cover-paying concert-goer sees is a group of assholes push their way through the door. The cover-paying concert-goer then wonders why he should have to pay if people can just barge through. Here one might mention the lack of a bouncer culture in Beijing: clubs do, indeed, employ big fellas to guard the doors. They just aren’t as eager to crack heads as the ones we North Americans are used to; many even seem intimidated by the appearance of power rather than strength.

I should add that the people about whom I’m speaking are not the great majority of Beijing’s population, nor am I even talking about an average income-earner: this is the urban cool market segment — those with the interest in, and the money to follow up on, their taste for new music. They are happy to spend their money on alcohol, karaoke and high-end food. But when it comes to paying a cover to attend a live show, something happens: their sense of self-importance precludes their willingness to pay to be entertained by others. These are local Chinese, but they are also local resident expats who have learned that in Beijing, for one, you often don’t have to pay cover; for another, there’s never a set-in-stone price for anything — not for socks, cell phones or cover charge. There are a variety of different refuse-to-pay types involved in the construction of a Great Wall through which both local and international artists (more accurately, their promoters) must break. Three major types appear most often, united by their refusal to pay but distinguished by their methods of refusal.

The High and Mighty have developed their attitude out of a sense of self-importance, that one’s station in life precludes a line skip: “I am important, therefore I don’t stop for anyone at any door.” The idea here is also partly a twisted version of Groucho Marx’s view that he wouldn’t join any club who’d have him as a member: ‘I wouldn’t (pay to) attend any event that would have me pay’. Generally speaking, these people are of very new money, money earned through ventures completely unrelated to anything remotely connected with a cultural or entertainment industry. Should the event in question be occurring at a dance club, quite likely, they are men with paunches and purses (clutch, pleather) filled with fancy food and huge wads of cash, respectively. Their purses will be emptied as they spend, in multiple-zero denominations, their wads on overpriced cognacs or whiskey; their paunches will be sustained by the complimentary fruit plates offered to these VIPs — such is a standard private-room service — by many of the clubs. These are the people usually whisked to their reserved rooms or couches without a thought to what is on the bill for the evening’s entertainment, so the idea of paying for anything beyond Chivas and the rental of a couch or a room with a karaoke machine isn’t located in the realm of the possible. This holier-than-though attitude is a deep-seeded part of every Beijinger’s being: Beijingers feel - nay, know — that in addition to being at the centre of the Middle Kingdom, they are at the centre of the universe. This notion of superiority crops up not only when talking about cities other than The Capital, but also during the course of one’s everyday existence.

The Down and Out are a different breed: wishing to seem down on their luck, they plead lack of funds in the hopes of scoring a discount. These people are rarely ever actually lacking funds; more often than not, they’re perfectly willing to put down their hard-earned money for booze and drugs. It’s just the ticket that they can’t quite afford. They want to jiang jia, negotiate a discount (‘talk price’), since, the logic goes, everything in Beijing is negotiable. “Tell you what,” they say, “I’ll give you RMB40 [US$5].” The ticket costs RMB50 (US$6). Or: “We’re three people: How about ten per cent off?” Then there’s the: “I’m a student” line. They might be students — in the sense that the woman I met who had a business card saying that she was a Master in the Art of Living was a post-grad. “The show’s already started,” they whine. “Knock off RMB10.” Both sides must stick to their guns, despite the fact we’re talking about a grand total of a buck and a dime. It’s all principle, this game. (This is not to say that there are not people for whom scraping together a cover charge is next to impossible: Indeed — in an ironic twist — it is the poorer segment of the population that are most willing to pay for an event they decided is worth attending. Bless them, every one.)

The I Know The Guy Guy claims to have a direct relation to the people involved in the event. “The guitarist told me to come”; “I’m the owner’s friend”. Then there is the six-degrees game: “My sister is the sound man’s cousin. Get out of my way”. What is amazing to me is that the closer they are related to the performers or club, the more adamant they are about not paying. This is a different type of VIP: the one that thinks that his closeness to the people involved in the event entitles him to special treatment. In my mind, though, it ought to be the other way round: the better I know a band, the more likely I am to want to support their work, by not only going to see them, but also by paying to see them. In my mind, that’s what a friend of the band does. But here’s the catch: Many local bands want to ensure that their ‘friends’ get on The List. It was a frustrating but ultimately satisfying experience to watch, first, a local punk band insist that one name on a guest list per band member just wasn’t enough; later that night, after we’d given in to their demands, they were shocked, appalled and angry over the payment — a cut of the door split among bands — they received. “We barely made any money”, they cried.

In all cases the major disconnect comes from the lack of concern over how the artist, promoter and organiser might continue to create, promote and organise events in the future. In any given room — from stadium to tiny club — it is assured that at least thirty per cent of the audience has finagled their way in for free. On the stadium level, there are more institutionalised methods of getting in for free. Asked to investigate large-scale venues for an American looking to do a concert series, I discovered some sketchy demands: Let’s take a 15,000 seat indoor basketball/hockey-type venue. With a stage, I was told, you lose a few thousand seats. The venue rep to whom I was talking then told me that he’d need 1000 tickets — and that any other venue who told you different was lying. (Never mind that the bulk of the venue’s ticket share end up on the streets with scalpers) You’ll also, he said, need to put aside another 1-2000 seats for the various branches of local law enforcement. Plus, in many of these concerts, floor seats are not allowed (when Deep Purple played in the upwards-of-10,000-capacity Workers’ Gymnasium, the closest seat to the stage was a good 50 yards away, which left a gaping hole in front of the stage). So you’re already down a few thousand seats out of a total maximum of 12,000. Then you have to draw up your List — sponsors, partners, etc. Even if you manage to sell all the rest of the tickets, can you possibly expect to win the 100-meter dash, as the steroid justification goes, starting 10 meters behind the starting line?

What this all means is that without a major sponsor, there is little hope for a (financially) successful event. It’s not that Beijing audiences don’t like the music: they don’t like the idea of having to pay for it, regardless of their ability to do so, or the enjoyment that their ticket fee might bring.

Sponsorship is all well and good, to a point. But witness the future-gone-awry that was not imagined by a sci-fi mind, but rather, by a few savvy sponsors. The good people at (an invaluable source of information on media, advertising and more in China) must be credited for not only a kickass website, but with bringing this story to light for English speakers.

Jay Chow is an enormously popular singer from the pop star machine that is Taiwan. His voice and face are recognisable by millions of music fans across Asia; his albums sell like mad. His concert strategy for a July show in Beijing represented what might well be a new era for concert promotion in this — and other — countries. It was simple, really: No tickets were put on sale. Well, that’s not exactly true: All of the tickets were sold to a total of three sponsors: M-Zone (a subsidiary of China Mobile, one of the country’s major cell phone providers), and two clothing companies: Deerhui and Metersbonwe.

“Due to the high cost of Chow’s concert, we decided to let sponsors buy the tickets first so we could recoup our production costs in advance”, an organizer explained to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

The deal was, with the purchase of a pair of slacks, a new phone — or, perhaps, a clutch purse — the consumer was rewarded with a free ticket to see Jay Chow. Which really didn’t do much for the actual fan of Jay Chow who might actually go to the stadium to buy a ticket: your seat depended not on how early you bought your gear, but upon the value of the product you purchased. Even if you were willing to fork over hundreds of dollars for a front row — or just plain decent — seat, you couldn’t. So fans were left out in the cold, and consumers were confused with the tickets they magically came by. But Jay won, and he wanted to share the sweet victory with his fans: After pledging his desire to hold more concerts in the future to compensate fans for the mess of this show, he swore that he’d “sing louder, so that those outside (the stadium) can hear”.

In these troubled times, it’s the small victories that count.

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