“I do what I think will be the next big thing. I’m always looking out for the trend, and trying to be ahead of that trend.”
Eric Zho has been breaking ground in Chinese media since he first showed up on the mainland with a bang twelve years ago. He was with Universal Music Group back then, in China to develop a new singing competition TV show – a proven format overseas that was, at the time, a first for the country. That project snowballed into a national phenomenon, marking the first in a series of music industry successes that would lead to his current status as the CEO behind China’s largest EDM festival.
“When we created the show, it was to have a platform to look for new artists for Universal,” Zho said. “Essentially that was the reason. Little did we know that this program we created would become the number one television show in China, and for that TV station, the highest-rated show in its history.”
Looking back at grainy footage of Wo Xing Wo Show, you can see enthusiastic young people hitting choreographed dance moves, shouting out clumsy rap lyrics and switching into old-school ballads. But in China in the early 2000s, it was mesmerizing. The show offered a mainstream platform for the country to reckon with its burgeoning modern pop identity. It went on for seven seasons, drawing audiences of 150 million people each week.
Later, Zho left Universal and started his own branded entertainment company, A2LiVE. They did TV work as well, but the shift occurred in 2009 when they started doing live music. Putting together concerts for international artists like Elton John and Pitbull, Eric started to zero in on the connection between global music and his local audience. Pitbull, he says, was the test.
“A lot of people – including the Mercedes-Benz Arena general manager – told me I was going to lose my ass on Pitbull,” he said. “I told him I don’t believe it. There’s a vibrant nightclub culture in Shanghai, there’s a growing middle class across the country – and with more disposable income, people are looking for new ways to spend their money.
“The show sold out, and no one believed it. But we had to do a lot of work – nobody actually knew Pitbull himself. Didn’t know who he was, didn’t know what he looked like, but everyone had heard his music. So we did a lot of work tying the music to the artist, to the name. To let people know that this music they heard in the nightclub belongs to this bald guy.”
Zho’s team put out a three-part video campaign in 10,000 taxis across Shanghai. Six weeks later, in a packed stadium, the Pitbull concert was a smash success. Zho knew he’d hit on something, and threw himself into the industry of dance music.
“We decided to look for a niche, and that’s how we got into dance music. From dance music, we went into dance festivals, artist management, artist booking, now we’re going to launch our own DJ/producer academy, we have our own venues, we have a digital platform that focuses on dance music, we have our own record label that we just formed… this whole ecosystem we’re building around the dance music community.”
He might not have realized at the time just how powerful an untapped market he was getting involved in. Now, Zho is probably best known as the mastermind behind STORM – the largest and most successful music festival in China. The first festival was held in Shanghai in 2013 with an audience of 24,000. Last year, STORM reached an audience of over 180,000 in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, and this year’s festival is expanding to Taiwan and Australia. They’ve hosted artists from Skrillex, Axwell and Zedd, to Ke$ha, Hardwell and Tiësto. That kind of explosive growth has Zho convinced they’ve got their hands on something unique.
But in China, the path to glory for EDM culture has been paved with obstacles. City and cultural ordinances restrict which artists and events can be brought to local communities. A cutoff from Western media makes it difficult for fans to stay in touch with the fast-paced and rapidly evolving world of electronic dance music. But Eric’s experience in bridging the gap between China and the West shines through, onstage and on the air waves. In 2014, he orchestrated the first of what would become an annual set of historic collaborations between top international DJ’s and major Chinese artists.
“The first track we did was between Avicii and Wang Leehom, called Lose Myself,” Zho said. “The big ‘why’ is, why is a festival promoter doing music? The biggest reason is because the penetration of dance music in China was so low at that point. I needed something to get the attention of the hundreds of millions of millennials out there, just to get them to know what dance music is. So what better way to get through to them than by going through one of the biggest pop stars in China?”
“Lose Yourself” became a chart-topping hit, the first of its kind
Pulling Budweiser onboard as a major sponsor gave Zho the resources to do things no one had tried before. Soon, he was producing the artists’ original collaboration, overseeing the marketing for it, and defining the festival experience all at once. Budweiser pooled its own capabilities behind the track, promoting it everywhere from billboards to airports to the internet. As a result, Lose Myself reached the number one spot on the charts. Now, Zho isn’t catalyzing one track per festival, but five or ten.
“I wanted to create a festival that could eventually become a transmedia property,” he said. “My background is television, content, branded entertainment – so I’m thinking about, how can STORM, the brand, go across to other entertainment properties? Feature film, graphic novels, television show, augmented reality games, virtual reality experience, a festival, a car, whatever. That’s the overarching vision I had when I created STORM. I wanted something that had a DNA.”
That insight has already started to pay off in dividends. Today, aside from the festival itself, Zho’s brand has original music, a digital EDM content hub, its own artists, and its feet in a hundred other tide pools of his EDM “ecosystem.” The results are already tangible – you can feel the groundswell of electronic music bubbling to the forefront of the public consciousness here.
What’s next for STORM? According to Eric, world domination. They’ve launched their first probes into international waters, with the Taiwan and Sydney festivals imminently approaching. Over the next few years, he wants to set up operation in South America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and anywhere else he can expand his vision. The feature film is already in the works, and will be coming after that. And Zho is confident.
“When we started in dance music, we were basically the only one. Now if you look at today, four years later, we’ve transformed the music industry here, little by little. We believe we’ll add more value to the music community in the years to come. I don’t really like to follow other people’s footsteps, I’d rather create my own path.”