Nightlife in the region is slowly restarting after the coronavirus crisis. Clubs are currently open in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and parts of Japan. Hygiene measures such as temperature checks are in effect. So far, venues in these countries say turnout has been solid. Due to complex travel rules that ban most foreign nationals, promoters and bookers have no choice but to focus on local lineups until restrictions loosen. In the absence of international acts, it's hoped that crowds will get better acquainted with on-the-ground offerings. That could increase demand for domestic talents once global bookings resume and equalise the playing field.
Asia's underground DJ crews command a loyal troupe of followers that's steadily increased in recent years but most don't expect a packed room on normal nights. "We never know how well local events will do," explains the Thai artist DOTT, cofounder of Bangkok-based More Rice Records that champions Asian producers. "If it's something special, like a collaboration between different promoters, turnout is good, but otherwise it's a gamble each time."
In Hong Kong, there is a clear "lack of interest by the local crowd," say the team at 宀, a two year-old club that's pronounced "Mihn." "Believe it or not, in a city of seven million it is still hard to fill up our 100-capacity club twice a week."
Reaching new audiences that go beyond the usual batch of music lovers and party animals is a challenge shared by underground players across the globe. Whether it's London or Singapore, many dancers prefer big experiences with famous artists over lesser-known names in intimate spaces. In many Asian countries, cultural factors exacerbate the situation.
"Dance, as it's known in the West, is not part of the culture here," the 宀 crew in Hong Kong note. "Chinese people do not even dance at weddings, karaoke is much more popular." Meanwhile in a country like Malaysia, only a tiny minority of people actually party, explains Jonathan Charles, AKA DJ JonnyVicious and music programmer at Pisco Bar in Kuala Lumpur.
For the majority of the Asian public who head out at night, bars, live bands and karaoke tend to be their activities of choice. Those who do opt for electronic music typically prefer bottle-service EDM venues rather than ones with leftfield programming. The small number of Malaysians who frequent clubs usually "prioritise what they see on the global front, which is your heavy-hitter big rooms and Tomorrowland DJs," says Charles.
To maximise numbers in this competitive market, industry folk often concentrate on booking international heavyweights who boast enough star power to draw a crowd beyond the usual batch of music lovers.
While a constant stream of festival favourites adds repute to a city's scene, some believe it undermines domestic performers. "Excessive foreign bookings lead to local musicians not being valued and often overlooked, even if they are on the same stage as the big name," explain Gunknown and RVE, cofounders of JAR, a ten month-old club in the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an.
Pre-pandemic, the disparity between local and international acts was more common in larger markets such as Japan, where consumers tended to save energy and money for well-known DJs. In contrast, smaller areas such as Vietnam were more balanced due to the relative novelty of contemporary club culture. The emergence of an electronic scene is still a new phenomenon in Hanoi, explains Samy Stouky, music director at Savage, a club that's responsible for putting Vietnam's capital city on the music circuit. "Crowds are quite curious so I'm not surprised when local nights are busier than ones with an international guest," Stouky says, adding that half of Savage's clientele are young Vietnamese who are eager to support the community. After moving to a new location, Savage had a soft launch earlier this month and will soon open a new record shop, cafe and online radio station.
Regardless of size, every local scene stands to benefit from all-local lineups. Gunknown and RVE, who also run the Xi'an collective known as Boring Room that's hosted the likes of Howie Lee and NKC, say they observed more public attention on Chinese artists during the lockdown period. That's paid off now that parties are back on. "Crowds are realizing that domestic artists also have the ability to make the scene work," they say.
The influx of livestreams and greater online presence of party crews during the epidemic seem to have reached new punters, according to Mei Yuxin AKA Temple Rat, a Shanghai-based producer who incorporates the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle) into her live techno sets. "I'm now seeing more dancers than ever in underground venues," she says. "A new generation who in the past would have gone to commercial EDM venues are now turning to techno, tech house, minimal and experimental electronic music."
The 宀 squad echo that sentiment: "People can no longer wait for the next big act to show up, they are forced to discover local talents, for whom they did not always show great interest in the past." Like its counterparts, 宀 categorises artists in three tiers: local, regional and international. Its aim "is to make the argument that local and regional talents can do the job."
The next few months present a major opportunity for younger DJs to hone their skills and play prime slots in main rooms that are usually reserved for headliners. Duy Anh Le, who DJs as Zwi and co-created Hanoi's popular Metro parties, recently made his debut at The Observatory in Saigon, the colloquial name for Ho Chi Minh, with a peak-time set—an invitation that "may have otherwise taken a longer time," he says.
Similar developments could happen in Japan, Asia's most mature dance market. "Japan has a deep culture of hierarchy so older DJs traditionally have more opportunities than younger faces," says Chloé Juliette, the Tokyo-based DJ known as Sobriety and organizer of the Manifold parties. "Younger names always open the night and until now, it's been very hard for someone less established to play peak hours. Hopefully, that should change going forward since there are no foreign acts."