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Dance Business Asia: Whose economic future is brighter in Asia, Western DJs or Asian DJs?

Shifting fortunes in a post-Covid world

  • Otto Clubman
  • 14 December 2020

Dance Business Asia – Welcome back to Dance Business Asia, Mixmag Asia’s monthly column focusing on the business of dance music in the region. Dance Business Asia dives deep into the business issues confronted by artists, managers and promoters. We look at the economics of dance music in Asia to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how issues can be addressed. The column also features interviews with movers and shakers on the business end of the industry in the region. Your guide, Otto Clubman, is a music industry executive with over twenty years of experience in the dance business.

The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Gotta Wear Shades was indisputably the defining song of 1986. Those guys in Timbuk 3 really nailed it, capturing the boundless optimism and unbridled capitalism of the mid-to-late 80s. (On the other hand, now that I think about it, maybe the lyrics were actually about hubris and self-delusion, and I entirely missed the point). Anyway, who cares! 1986 was a long time ago. The more important question is: As we ease out of 2020 into a New Year and into a post-Covid (or, hopefully, at least Reduced Covid) world, who would Timbuk 3 think needs more protective glasses in the Asian dance music scene as we enter this new era: (i) The heretofore-almighty international DJs, or (ii) the previously overlooked regional Asian talent?

Let’s discuss.

I don’t think too many people will look back at 2020 fondly, but there may be one silver lining: For Asian DJs, it was a great year! Ok, well, maybe not a great year … but, in the grand scheme of things, pretty damn good. At least comparatively speaking.

DJs in the US and Europe were mostly hunkered down in their basements passing the time away, waiting in vain for the clubs to reopen. In Asia, while the situation varied significantly from country to country, the condition was generally much less bleak than being in your mom’s basement in Manchester or Wisconsin, waiting for the storm to pass.

Let’s take a quick trip around Asia. China has been booming since mid-year. Since the clubs re-opened around June on the Mainland, DJs have been doubling or tripling their pre-Covid monthly stage appearances. Taiwan barely even closed down; local DJs maybe had a long weekend off, at most. Vietnam: On and off; but DJs definitely had their windows to play. In other Asia countries: the situation varied. But still, quite a bit more opportunities were brewing for DJs in Asia than in the West over the past year. So, again, strictly comparatively speaking: It’s been a great year for Asian dance music.

This was the year that Asian dance music fans discovered that they “liked” foreign music, but the didn’t “need” it. Sure, big Western names jump-started the whole dance music craze (and business) in the region. Thanks very much. But, as the travel impediments went up due to Covid this year, music fans turned inward, exploring more than ever the local talent that was right at their doorstep. Part of this shift was based on the inability for foreign DJs to tour the region and stay top of mind for local fans. But I think it was more than that. Somehow Covid drove fans to be more introspective, somehow more curious about — and proud of — their domestic artists. People had more time on their hands to dig deeper past the “DJ Mag” headlines and mine the local artists churning out quality music, right in their own backyard. So, as the #23-ranked DJ Mag guy / girl sat in his / her living room in Amsterdam live streaming a set into Indonesia to stay relevant, local fans’ interest was waning somewhat.

For the first time, Asian DJs were viewed as a compelling, exciting alternative. And best of all, during those weeks that the clubs were open, dance fans could rush out and see them live.

"For the first time, Asian DJs were viewed as a compelling, exciting alternative. And best of all, during those weeks that the clubs were open, dance fans could rush out and see them live.​"

Now, don’t worry, Mr. / Ms. #23 DJ. Asia still loves you, and will welcome you back. But they may love you slightly less than before if I must be honest. Oh, and your price may have come down a bit. The supply chain of “acceptable DJs” at clubs, festivals and bar mitzvahs in Asia has expanded dramatically while you were away. Hundreds of talented artists from Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia have stepped out of the shadows, ready to take your place (or at least to provide a viable alternative to you and your high prices).

Want proof you are a little less loved than before? A few sets of bored, brave Western DJs took the plunge and did the two-week quarantine in Asia in order to get a few gigs in these still-active markets. Yes, the Asian fans were somewhat appreciative and happy to see you. But, I wouldn’t say they were…over the moon. You were like a long last college buddy; yeah, it was good to see you, but they really just wanted to get back to their “new friends — the Asian DJs — as quickly as possible.

In my very first Dance Business Asia column earlier this year, I wrote of Covid, as it was just beginning its worldwide march: as for the artists themselves, this downtime can be put to good use. When a DJ plays 100 shows a year, it’s difficult to find time to be reflective, to write new quality material. So, this forced slowdown may give producers a moment or two to swap the busy road life for the studio and create some great music. I would expect some solid tracks to come out of this period. Look, don't get me wrong, there are no “pros” to this virus, we all wish it would just go away. That said, we can at least grasp at these straws of a silver lining.

There is no doubt that Asian DJs and dance music fans made the most out of a crappy situation. Good songs were produced. DJs got on stage, whenever and wherever they could in their own countries, growing their domestic following. And maybe most importantly, fans increasingly came to value the talent in the Asian region. With the gates to the West closed (at least for live shows), attention turned inward, and fans liked what they saw. So, call me a Glass-Half-Full kind of guy, but I’d say, grading on a sliding scale, it was a good year for dance music in Asia, in the end.

Let’s look forward to an amazing 2021. It will be a great one for music fans, as we all get back on track. See you in January. And get out your shades!

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