Review: Chengdu’s Big Love Music Festival Turns to Big Scorn

While I was traveling across the United States this spring, I was contacted by an event promoter with a gig offer: Chengdu’s Big Love Music festival in June of this year. Featuring a cast of celebrity performers and sure to attract a throng of Chengdu music fans, it promised to be an enormous event for Chengdu. It turned out to be an enormous event, but not in the way that organizers had intended.

At the time of contact the only thing I knew about Big Love was that it was scheduled last year in the vicinity of Chengdu but was cancelled after the lineup was released and promotion had already been in full swing for weeks. With last year’s cancellation casting doubt in the eyes of many on the 2012 iteration, Big Love happened last weekend and I performed there on the electronic stage.

As soon as I entered the festival grounds on Friday afternoon I could tell that something was very, very wrong. Here’s what the Big Love experience was like and I’ve learned about what went down over the weekend.

Approaching Big Love

Approaching the gate of the festival (hosted at China’s Intangible Heritage Park), it was already apparent how much bigger of a production Big Love was than Zebra Music Festival which has become a mainstay of summertime Chengdu over the last three years. The gate was enormous and hundreds of security officers were walking around the area in formation.

On my way to the entrance area, I was approached by no less than five people offering reduced price tickets to me. The official entrance fee per day was 300 yuan (almost US $50) and the offers I was receiving were about half of that. Later I learned that security officers were charging people 70 yuan to escort them inside the grounds, pocketing the money themselves. Transactions like this happened thousands of times a day, lining the pockets of security guards while official ticket sales reflected as little as 15% of the crowd inside the venue.

Chengdu Big Love gate
The sign above the entrance to Big Love was enormous

Entering the Festival Grounds

Upon entering the festival grounds and walking 15 minutes to the main stage, the place was looking mostly empty and dead. The grounds were enormous and the stages elaborate, but the massive crowds of people that go along with a music festival were simply not there. Here’s what the Big Rock stage looked like:

Big Rock stage
The poorly attended Big Rock stage on Friday afternoon at Chengdu’s Big Love festival

I felt bad for people who had paid to attend, seeing as 300 yuan is no paltry sum in the city of Chengdu and many of my friends declined to attend on the basis of price alone.  Hopefully the crowd will pick up, I thought, as I walked for miles around the festival grounds.

However, upon visiting all of the stages, it became clear that the festival had failed to draw the crowds it had promised. The Electronic Stage, Chengdu Stage, and the Morning Bar stage were all completely devoid of people. Most of the bands at Big Love performed to an audience of security personnel, who were ever-present on the festival grounds and dressed in all black. Photos below will give you an idea of what the atmosphere was like during the daytime.

Security Guards at Big Love
Security Guards at Big Love roamed the festival grounds by the hundreds. Later I learned that they too didn’t receive the pay that they were promised by festival organizers
DJ Joe
DJ Joe playing drum & bass on the electronic stage on Friday afternoon
Big Love main stage
The Big Love main stage, featuring the biggest acts, was the most well attended

The Power Goes Out

Big Love patrons
Attendees wearing 8-bit sunglasses

Although Friday wasn’t very well attended, Saturday was better, hosting big acts like MC Hot Dog and headlining band Suede. There was just a small hangup: there was no electricity anywhere on the festival grounds for hours in the afternoon. Because all vendors used charge cards (which you buy and put money on) to handle transactions for things like food and drinks, the festival was reduced to a few thousand people standing around, for several hours.

After speaking to sound engineers on site who were sitting under a nearby tent, I learned that the power hadn’t worked since they arrived at 10am. As I surveyed the nearby landscape I noticed that there were more security guards than actual patrons. I reluctantly went to the DJ booth to setup my equipment before my scheduled performance time and waited for about an hour before the power returned and I could begin playing music. A few dozen people turned up and we had a great time together, it turned out.

That evening I caught Suede, British alternative rock band and one of the festival headliners, which was by all means a well attended set. Tens of thousands watched them perform and cheered loudly until they returned again for an encore at 1am, well past the festivals scheduled ending time.

It wasn’t until the final day of the festival that everyone started talking about the serious problems behind Big Love.

Big Love Turns to Big Scorn

While browsing Weibo on Sunday afternoon, I noticed a tweet sent by local celebrity Li Bo Qing (who was interviewed on Chengdu Living last year). Although it’s been deleted now, here’s the message he sent to his 100k followers in Chinese and in English, which got retweeted thousands of times by the time I read it:

Liboqing
Chengdu celebrity Li Boqing

“????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????”

“Today I saw media reports about the problems with Big Love. The lead organizer of the festival, Mr Xie, has fled the scene as his assistant has been apprehended and the police are now involved. What’s funny is that due to low ticket sales, Mr Xie contacted my staff and requested that I help promote the event using my Weibo account in exchange for payment. What’s even more funny is that after I refused, they requested that I perform at the festival and asked what my performance fee would be. I’m not a singer, and I refuse to earn money in this way. Big Love has ruined Chengdu’s reputation.”

This tweet was just the tip of the iceberg however, as I began getting in touch with others who had performed at the festival. It turns out that they and dozens of other performers hadn’t gotten paid their performance fee, lodging, or transportation. Hundreds of event organizers, who had flown to Chengdu from Beijing, were stuck in Chengdu with no return flights booked for them and management absent. This is where everyone took to the internet to absolutely blast Big Love and it’s management. Big Love responded with a predictable “Sorry guys, we’ll handle it” but by this point, all faith in Big Love and it’s conspirators has been totally shot to pieces.

Zebra Music Festival, after a poor turnout this year, is in jeopardy and likely will not occur from reports that I’ve heard. After this fiasco, Big Love has virtually no chance of a reappearance in Chengdu or elsewhere in China.

Final Thoughts and Photos

Big Love golf cart
Hitching a ride in an extended golf cart at Big Love

Despite all the hardships of Big Love, you could see people making the best of the situation throughout the grounds. Some people came in elaborate costume, some brought skateboards and bicycles inside the venue, and others were content to just smile and enjoy the sunshine. I came with friends, laughed and enjoyed music, and got sunburned.

Although the festival organizers are said to have squandered a small fortune in the ballpark of $7 million, many in Chengdu weren’t upset about it. Kafe Hu, the Sichuanese rapper who performed at the festival, told me: “The organizers screwed up badly. In terms of organization, it was a nightmare and everyone knew it. But I enjoyed spending the weekend outside with friends and I don’t personally feel bitter about the festival”.

This more or less sums up how I feel about Big Love. I sent a frustrated tweet on Saturday afternoon declaring that the festival should be called Big Fail (which rhymes with festival name in Chinese: ??????) when I realized that the power had been out for hours. But despite that and other disappointments, I had a good time. I knew to bring all the requisite festival supplies along with me, including great friends who are capable of making the best of a less than ideal situation.

Below are some more photos that I took at Big Love festival, to give you an idea of what kind of sights were there.

Big Love lineup
The Big Love lineup was posted throughout the festival grounds
CD vendor
A vendor selling “Dakou” (??) rock music CD’s, which are foreign albums imported from overseas
Giant crab
A giant crab which was inflated and stationed in between stages
DJ Icey Big Love
American DJ Icey, playing his signature Florida breakbeat music at Big Love
DJ Icey Big Love
A crowd assembled for DJ Icey during his Friday night performance

DJ Icey Big Love

DJ Icey Big Love
The elaborate laser rig at the electronic stage could be seen from miles away
Big Love crowd
A crowd at the Big Rock stage, which was the second largest at Big Love
Suede at Big Love
English rock band Suede performing on the gigantic main stage
Chinese DJ
A DJ plays music at the Morning Stage (???) with laptop and Vestax VCI-400
Kafe Hu
Sichuanese rapper Kafe Hu playing Russian roulette with a squirt gun on Saturday afternoon
Big Love DJ Booth
Setting up equipment in the DJ booth at the electronic stage
Morning car at Big Love
A hand-painted car at the Morning stage

32 thoughts on “Review: Chengdu’s Big Love Music Festival Turns to Big Scorn”

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  2. Shady promoters? That’s rock and roll! Has happened in every country (remember Woodstock 99? Any Aussies remember Gn’R at Calder Park?) Hopefully they learn from this and improve….the whole thing sounds like a disaster though.

  3. Great article, Charlie. Highlights the major fails but leaves room for hope…wonder what next year’s music festival will be like.

    • Yeah, I was one of the artist who didn’t get paid, but I had fun at the festival and didn’t want to dwell on the negatives. After all, the weather was fantastic, I still can’t believe I got sunburned in Chengdu. There were certainly some great moments at Big Love.

  4. There was little need for four different stages at Big Love. They could have had scaled down to maybe two stages for live music and a small electronic stage and would have had a solid crowd everywhere. Instead they decided to have a blow out which resulted in most stages being empty. Despite the lack of people, I had a great time the two days I attended. I hope someone will pick up the slack and give another festival a shot next year.

    • I hope for that also but I feel like 2012 might have been the bubble bursting in the Chengdu music festival industry, with Zebra underperforming and Big Love succumbing to this.

  5. A perfect description of our weekend at Big Love. While I had a blast at the fest drinking beers and enjoying the sunshine, I felt like there as a severe lack of music at this music festival.

    Even though the ticket prices were way, way too high, I think it is unfortunate how many people who were supposed to be working there abused the system by scalping tickets and sneaking people in for extra dough. I just wonder how they’re supposed to control the people who are in control? They definitely didn’t need so many people working there. During Charlie and Justin’s set, I went to get beers and asked the people working at the beer tent, looking bored, if they wanted to come watch. They were all so excited and I brought back a crew of 15 people with me. And there were still enough people to continue working at the beer stand!

    • The first day when we walked in, it seemed like every stage was sound checking or in between bands. Not much music indeed. Then when Justin and I finished playing, they stop playing music on the electronic stage all together, the crowd leaves, then “Jam-Master A” (a bleached blonde Hong Kong trance DJ totally unrelated to Run DMC) does his sound check for 90 minutes. Only in China!

  6. I hate bad payment, fuck that shit!

    Next time you can ask for a preauthorisation from the organizer’s credit card before your performance.

    • I only do DJ shows through agents that I’ve worked with and trust, and this gig was no different. I’m in it for fun anyway, DJ’ing is not my “job” nor do I want it to be.

  7. Going the first and last days I really saw things come full circle. The Rock stage was probably best attended on Thursday which featured China’s top rock/post-punk talent for much of the afternoon and Evening, later bringing out Tang Dynasty and Extreme. As for the E stage, someone shipped in some serious Guido wanna-be DJs which took up most of the “just after dark” DJ slots thundering the surroundings with Ibiza hits. I had a great time on Thursday although the tab of 240RMB for an advance ticket + 200RMB on beer/food was a bit much.

    Sunday was similar weather to Thurs with the added bonus of rain showers. By then the outside ticket scalpers had unionized or something because they started at 280RMB and wouldn’t budge under 250RMB. You’d think tickets would be cheaper on the last day… I heard that all the acts were delayed until well after 430pm even though they were initially supposed to start at 1:30pm What a slap to the face to everyone! I was also surprised to see all outside the beer and soda vendors squatting by the Big Love Stage. This reminded me of the real “Festie” environment of beer and grilled cheese for $1 but not the best way to ensure money for your sponsors. Had a secret snack and Morning Bar and enjoyed seeing local acts Mr. Turtle and Soundtoy playing on the Big Dream stage rather than sandwiched in Little Bar. Much anticipated Dj Ellen Allien played minimal techno to some hipster chic with umbrellas and rugby but I was keen on seeing Xie Tian Xiao and Cui Jian which both kicked ass.

    Ultimately Big Love was the best live music experience I’ve seen in my nearly four year stint in China, but the cronyism and lack of trust in the promoters and security is telling of China’s inability to be held accountable for large-scale collaboration/cooperation without being tainted with corruption.

    Mo’ money mo’ problems folks

  8. Charlie, sorry to hear you didn’t get paid. The organizers must’ve spent all the money on that huge DJ Just Charlie billboard. 🙂

  9. WE WENT , CROCK OF SHIT , WELL OVER PRICED , what are they thinking , Michael jackson was there? , its clear from chinas festivals they have no clue , its over clear CHINA sucks for music , give up and stop doing it

    • I hear you, man. When the power was out at the festival on Saturday afternoon for hours I was thinking about how many people must be angry about paying entrance to a festival which was so poorly managed.

      As far as festivals go, China does suck at it, certainly relative to Western countries. I went from Coachella, which is pretty much at the top in terms of notoriety and influence, to Big Love, which receives overwhelming criticism even in China where the standards of professionalism are so much lower.

  10. Great report Charlie , yes , I didn’t even bother with the Big Love Festival in the end, I went away and did real work instead…the kind you get paid for!!! hahaha It looks totally empty. Zebra was better then that. I hope they keep the zebra Festival going.
    Sorry you got screwed over. I wonder if Blue got paid, I must ask them! They were certainly lavished with 5 star luxury at the press conference.

    • I’m pretty sure Blue got paid, they probably got paid in full long before performing.

      I didn’t go to Zebra this year, I heard there weren’t many people there, but this was way, way fewer people than the three previous Zebra festivals which I went to.

  11. Awesome article Charlie, had to sit here and read the whole thing. Honestly, it just made me miss China, even though the festival might not have been awesome, what an experience! Which is really all we want. I have to come visit.

    • It really was an experience. You must come visit. You will have a blast, Chengdu has changed so much. Hard to believe that we first met on the day that I arrived Chengdu, which I remember was January 7th, 2005!

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