Interview – Nathaniel Davis and Liling Mo of Split Works

In the lead up to what has now become one of the country’s most anticipated festivals of the year, we caught up with Nathaniel Davis and Liling Mo from Split Works, the organisers behind JUE | Music + Art to talk about humble beginnings, the local music scene and what they’re most looking forward to this year.

The JUE Festival is now in its’ fourth year! How has the festival evolved since the very beginning? How did the festival come about and what did the organisers envision the festival to be?
Nathaniel Davis (Split Works co-founder): The festival was the vision of Split Works Managing Director, Archie Hamilton, who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland with the annual Edinburgh Art Festival. JUE | Music + Art was inspired and influenced by that festival with the idea to create an annual open-access urban festival across the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that would provide another platform for cultural expression – consisting of music, visual arts, theatre, dance, comedy, spoken word, talks + workshops and so on. The idea was to create something that would attempt to unearth more and more of China’s deep artistic talent and to cross-pollinate it with incoming international talent, as well as to hopefully engender cross-interest between artistic genres – that because of the open nature of the festival punk kids, for example, would go to see a theatre show and an opera lover might go and see an underground performance art event, all with the end goal of art filling everyone’s lives a bit more broadly and deeply.

Split Works has been responsible for bringing some big international headliners to China, in addition to supporting up and coming local artists. Can you tell us more about Split Works, the kind of work you do and also the other festivals you organise throughout the year, for example The Black Rabbit Music Festival?
ND: Split Works was founded 5 years ago by Archie Hamilton and me. It was begun as a music promotion company, with the aim of introducing new and exciting international music to China and to support the local music scene in the process. Split Works has grown since then to a group of music and entertainment service companies under the name Split United, including a creative agency Splatter, an artist talent + booking agency for Asia (Scorched), an online music community Wooozy and so on.

We organize three key events throughout the year – JUE | Music + Art in March, a creative industries conference and roundtable forum called transmitCHINA, which is designed to connect international thought leaders from a variety of creative sectors with their counterparts in China; and a 10,000+ audience outdoor music festival called Black Rabbit Music Festival, which features a top international line-up with a variety of established headliners and up-and-coming buzz bands from both greater Asia and the West. Beyond this, we handle ongoing creative agency work through Splatter for our clients like Apple; bespoke consulting and event creation and execution for a number of other brands and lots of talent bookings both in China and outside of China for various tours, festivals, TV appearances and other events.

How do you view the local music scene? Have you seen a change over the last few years both in Shanghai and China at large? Do you see Shanghai as a supportive environment for upcoming artists and bands?
Liling Mo (Marketing & Media Manager): I’ve been working in the scene for five years, and have seen a rapid growth and have high hopes for it. Below are some personal points of views I provided as answers to the questions above:

1. Since the past two years, local all-Chinese bands have been diminishing and the rise of foreign led “indie” bands have become apparent.

2. Based on this point, musicians performances, promotion, and the whole process of the music industry has made a lot of progress compared to the past. The scene has become a increasingly more tolerant, and its quite a nice surprise that the atmosphere at venues when there are interactions at venues are very warm and positive.

3. There is still a large gap between the electronic scene and the indie/rock scene, but because this is based on the two groups’ personality/style, I won’t comment any more on that. The foreign scene here still dominates, no matter what genre, and sometimes the foreign reception of Chinese bands are more tolerant and positive than even the local Chinese reception.

4. Shanghai already has a small but pretty solid scene, including musicians and fan base, that is growing and gaining momentum, but it still has a long way to go. There are still a lot of bands that remain stuck on the “DIY” style, but it’s definitely progressing compared to before (foreigners are definitely the leaders in this area). However, the terrible thing about the Shanghai scene is that there are no brilliant indie labels, either it’s a management problem or they don’t come out with good stuff.

Shanghai desperately needs a label company like Beijing’s Maybe Mars label, which has a distinct musical style and also strong operational style. The best thing about creating a label is helping bands break free of the status quo, pulling together, getting more opportunities to perform, and having a bigger platform for shows, and creating a new fan base.

5. Based on the number and quality of promotion teams, I personally feel Shanghai’s scene is more diverse and more interesting. Some bands have already become well-known and have all sorts of endorsements, which is a good thing.

Any local bands or artists that you are really excited about?
LM: I am especially excited about JUE | Music + Art bringing in Summer Lei, Qu Wanting and AM444.

Summer Lei isn’t an artist that I normally pay attention to, but this time JUE | Music + Art Festival was able to invite her for a low-key tour, just sufficient enough to allow her fans to be expecting it. This time, she is on the road with BIT Sound group and I am really excited to go to her show and experience the atmosphere. Qu Wanting is a Canadian Over-seas Chinese girl and has a really splendid voice. She has been called “the best Chinese girl singer”. Am444 is a project made up of two musicians: Cha Cha and Jay.Soul. Their music sounds just like their name: The dawn at 4:44 a.m., when the dark is handed over to the light, uncertain, sexy, and full of hope. If you’ve seen one of their shows, I promise that you will be wonderfully attracted by their mix of Dubstep, Electronica, Trip-Hop, and Hip-Hop.

Favourite music venues in Shanghai?
LM: I personally like to frequent three venues: Yu Yintang, the Shelter, and MAO Livehouse. In addition to those, I also like to go meet up with friends at Dada, lOgO, and Lune. But, I’d really like to see more new venues appearing throughout Shanghai—it doesn’t matter if they are considered “Livehouses” or “bars” or whatever, as long as they can provide a good sound system and enough floor space to dance, (and of course having cheap drinks is the best way to get the crowds!) then I’d be one very happy girl!

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