OSH-Interview — David Luce
In the 6th issue of the OSH-Interview project we talk to David Luce – Canadian cofounder of SHFT company which specializes in artist management, digital promotion and organizing of events across China. David shares his entrepreneurial experience, speaks on which business models he exploits and gives some tips on what you ought to do in order to achieve success.
- Luce, tell us a little about yourself, how did you start and how it happened that you came to Shanghai?
— Well, I’m from Orangeville, Ontario, close to Toronto. I studied business marketing management in a city called Guelph. That was a five-year co-program, so I was working and studying at the same time. 2011, in my final year of college, when I was supposed to graduate, my school offered a program to go to Shanghai. Basically it was an intense Chinese learning program. At that time I thought that it was a great opportunity for me, I believed that Chinese will help me much in my business studies. So I planned to go to Shanghai, learn some Chinese and back to Canada having more opportunities of getting better-paid jobs. But instead, I did my program here at East China Normal University and eventually started my own business. I never left back to get my degree.
- You’re talking about your own business. What kind of business that was at the very beginning?
— It all started from a very small activity. At the time I was learning Chinese and teaching English to make my living. And then I also started throwing little parties under the name 1loveShanghai for the students of my school. Normally we held them in the underground club called Dada. We just brought some DJ’s equipment and had a party. Firstly they didn’t let us have parties on weekends because, you know, we were just like college kids. But we started throwing our parties on Thursdays and they turned out to be the biggest parties that Dada ever had. So finally they started let us throw our parties on weekends because we were bringing them so many people.
- How did you manage to attract so many people to your parties? What was the way you promoted them?
— Like I said, at the beginning we only had international students coming to our parties. You know that when foreign students have just come to China, for the first few months they don’t have a clue where to get information. So we used to go to the dorms delivering flyers to the every door. We also did the most aggressive street promotion in Shanghai. We printed out stocks of flyers just by ourselves and promoted everybody. That’s called guerrilla marketing, and that’s how I and my brand got known in Shanghai. Of course, eventually we started to learn more and more about digital promotion via Weibo, Wechat, different kinds of media and so on. But at the very beginning it was 100% offline marketing. And even now we still use this kind of marketing sometimes.
- So, was that your hobby or it can be considered as your first entrepreneurial experience in Shanghai?
— Initially that was much more of a hobby. Though we still managed to make some money of it. Our model was that we only chose free venue and negotiated with them about 10% or 20% of bar sales. Sometimes we could make 4000 RMB for one night. It was not so bad for students living in Shanghai for the first year.
- When did you realise that you can start something bigger than just a hobby?
— In 2013-2014 we were still organising parties by the brand name Oneloveshanghai and we already took this business much more serious. But we still weren’t official. It was in 2015 when I partnered with a local Shanghai guy who is also one of the owners of Arkham night club and we officially registered our company. That’s how the SHFT was born.
— What are the main directions of your company?
— One of our main activity is managing local artists. Currently we manage two big Chinese rappers Al Rocco, Blow Fever and pretty strong HK/American producer named Fader One. Besides, we make promotion for big international brands, like Adidas, Absolut Vodka, Beats by Dre, Hollister and others. And also we make a digital promotion for foreign artists which are not so popular in China since they just don’t have an access to the local platforms. And we can provide this access for them, we push them up by putting their content on Weibo, Wechat, Tudou, Youku, Xiaomi and all other main platforms in China.
- For artist management, you only manage local artists or do you also manage young foreign artists helping them to become hip-hop stars in China?
— In terms of management we don’t work with foreign artists. It’s absolutely not marketable for us in China. You know, if a young unknown foreign artist is trying to become a rapper in China, his chances to get the actual level of career success is much lower than of his local vis-à-vis. We have some examples of American MC’s living in Shanghai, they want to become real rappers, but still they never leave the only one club they perform in. I mean that if you are for instance an American and you want to be an artist, you need to get the proper manager in America first, build the fan base there and only after this you can come to China. If you are a famous and recognized artist in America, you can have chances here, but you can’t do it in the opposite way.
And I follow this principle also when we throw a show in China and bring international artists here. Being a promoter I’m not going to book an artist who won’t sell any tickets. I’m only booking and touring artists that have fame in the rest of world and locally.
- You said that one of your directions is a brand promotion. What kind of promotion is this?
— Mainly these are concerts and digital PR push. For example, last year we ran 3 cities promo tour for Adidas. We brought big international trap producers, DJ’s and also famous Chinese visual artists and toured them around China. We filmed the whole event, so they can also use it in their offline marketing. And we still work with Adidas every day, just a few weeks ago they asked us to do a digital marketing push for an event which they were going to organise. It was a huge event with a Kanye West’s label partner, super famous rapper named Pusha T, Chinese pop-star Chris Wu and others. It was a free event and was hold in a big warehouse for 3 thousand people in the middle of Shanghai. But they came to us because they felt that nobody knew about the event and we had a big database. So we did a digital PR push for them. And also my artist Fader One was performing there as well.
- So your company mainly has three directions: artist management, brand promotion and digital promotion for foreign artists. What is the specific business model behind each of these activities?
— Well, in case of artist management sometimes we organise big events for them by ourselves and get the revenue from the tickets. But the thing is you never know whether this event will be eventually paid off. So last time we more and more tend to sell our artist and get commission of it. It’s safer. Instead of going to Beijing and doing a show by ourselves, we just sell the artist to the club for one performance and it’s them who have to deal with the investment, financing and marketing of the show, not us. That’s a business model behind artist management.
When we do a brand promotion, our artists are sponsored by brands. For example when our artists Al Rocco and Blow Fever had a huge 13 cities China tour, Beats by Dre and Absolut Vodka funded the whole tour. All the travel cars, hotels and other fees we got the brands to pay for. That was a great opportunity for our artists to get more fans around the country and at the same time it was the first tour of that size that we produced for any artist.
Finally, when we make a digital promotion for foreign artist we get a commission of streaming revenues. Because all the platforms like Youku, Tudou, Xiaomi and others are getting advertising money for a streaming. So we are servicing by distribution music of foreign artists here in China and get them paid.
- We heard that lately you are also trying to start a media platform named Plug.cn. What is it going to be?
— Right now it’s a prototype stage, we have it only on Wechat. Basically it’s an online magazine for local and international music. I suppose you’ve heard about such websites like the Fader or Comlex Magazine. These are huge international media platforms which are blogging every single day about newest music, newest hip-hop news, electronic music news and so on. For now there is no a media platform like this that exists in China and focuses on urban music. So the Plug is trying to fill this gap and we hope that the next year we’ll launch a website and app.
— Are you doing this platform in Chinese or English?
— It’s mostly Chinese. Actually everything what we’re doing is focusing mainly on Chinese market and Chinese customers.
- How many people are in your team right now?
— Now we have a team of 10 people. 7 of them are local guys and 3 are foreigners. Like in every team each of our members has his own circle of responsibilities. One person is in charge of the Chinese media, another person is in charge of digital marketing for the STORM festival, one person is running all the logistics for artists in our tours. We also have a copywriter, designer and so forth.
- It’s interesting that even though all this work can be easily done by each of your workers at home with just a laptop and a mobile phone, you still keep all these people together providing them a working space in your office.
— Yeah, I don’t think that if these people worked separately each at their home it would work that well. You have to keep you members together and get them work as a team. Otherwise they won’t be stay motivated for a long time.
- You founded your company in a partnership with a local Chinese guy. Is it so important to have a local partner to make this kind of business in China?
— Yes, this is extremely important. You have to have somebody you trust and who knows peculiarity of local system. Otherwise it can be impossible or at least very difficult. For example, if you’d like to register an international company it will take you a lot of time. But if you register a Chinese company with a Chinese partner, it will take just one month and cost only 5000 RMB. That’s much easier.
— How many events has your company organized or co-organized this year?
— Roughly, we have 3-4 events per month. I believe that in the end of the year there will be about 50 events including such big scale events as STORM festival and upcoming Halloween Freak out party, Armin van Buuren and David Guetta’s concerts.
- What was the biggest party you’ve organized by SHFT in Shanghai?
— It was 2015 Helloween Freak out party, we had around 3000 people in 1 night. This year’s Helloween party will be much bigger, so everybody is welcome to freak out!
- Luce, you are also known as a DJ performing at some music festivals. Are you viewing yourself as a famous DJ in future?
— The truth is that I’m not a DJ. I do it like a hobby sometimes, but I don’t pursue DJ’ing. I don’t want the outside world perceive me as a DJ. Of course, if, let’s say, STORM festival come and ask me to play at the main stage, I’m not going to say no. If one of the biggest night clubs in Chongqing says that they are going to pay me 10 thousands to go there and do one-hour club set, I won’t reject. But I’m not trying to be a DJ. The way that the industry perceives me right now is one of the most resourceful business entertainment dudes in China. I run one of the most successful touring and digital marketing agencies for events. We run the biggest offline marketing campaigns in the country. We do all the STORM festivals across China. So, I’m not an artist, I’m just trying to be a person supporting behind the scenes and pushing everything up.
- You’ve started like an ordinary international student here in Shanghai 5 years ago and now you are running one of the most authoritative companies of your industry in China. Please, give our readers some clues on how to start and what to do if they want to become successful entrepreneurs in China?
— Well, first of all, if you want to be an entrepreneur in any country and in any kind of business, you have to be ready to put hours and hours in your project, never sleep and keep believing in what you are doing for hundred percent. You must know that no one is going to help you and you got to do all the work by yourself. It’s important to have good management skills, work with good people and surround yourself by good people. Also, as a foreigner, you need to understand that if you are going to do a business for foreigners in China, this market is very small. But if you do a business for local people, that market is huge. There are much more opportunities here. Last but not least, you have to have a good partner, it must be someone who you really trust.
Interview by: Klim Likhitinov, Vadim Koziashev
Edited by: Vadim Koziashev
Photo and video by: Viktor Grabovets
Venue: Red8 Studios Shanghai