Claire O’Shannessy: I knew that China was the place to be for opportunity

Claire O’Shannessy arrived in China with a backpack, her partner Archie, and an attitude conducive to success. Describing her first foray with Shanghai as more of a “reconnaissance mission to see what the opportunities were like” they quickly discovered that opportunities were rife and was the place they needed to be.

Fast forward 12 years and Claire and Archie run Split United, a China-based concert promotion agency with offices in Shanghai and Beijing. Founded in 2006, Split works to aid the growth of the live music industry in China and the wider Asia region, working with both Chinese and Western music artists across a range of genres. Split Works aims to create a more sustainable ecosystem for music in China, offering several large-scale independent music festivals annually.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

How did you find yourself in China?

I was working in the recruitment industry in Australia but was feeling a little disillusioned by it all. I had completed Asian studies as my undergraduate at university, and I knew that China was the place to be for opportunity.

My partner Archie who was in London was also happy to have a new experience, so we agreed that we'd both come here and give it a go. When I got there, my objective was to set up a recruitment business, and Archie’s was to set up a music business. Neither of us really did a hell of a lot of research!

We came to China with a backpack and didn't really care if we failed, but we found that Shanghai was so fabulous. It still is – but back then it was really unexplored territory.

As luck would have it, both of us had hit success within months. Archie had been given a grant to build a session for five different music events, and I had somehow managed to get IBM and Reuters as clients, which was huge.

Our first child arrived shortly after, meaning a few of the contracts needed to be put on hold. At the same time, I saw my husband's business facing a few issues. He's very good with everything music and getting people to give him money, but not so much at running a business. So I started helping, and we divided and conquered in a way.

What did the music industry look like in China, at that time?

There was really very little of it, which was part of the reason we felt so inspired. There were many local indie bands who were trying to build their reputation; we were seeing kids who were very rebellious and passionate about their music.

There was such a dearth of music that there really was a huge opportunity to help drive and to be part of the growth that was obviously already started before we got here. And we had a very good partner; he'd been here for another eight years on top of us and he had been doing concerts since he arrived. He and Archie and I were working in partnership by 2009.

What was Shanghai's role in the development of music culture in China?

It’s somewhat contentious because Beijing has a lot of cultural capital and that's where a lot of the bands we work with hail from, and they’re very much committed to artistic integrity.

How many festivals have you done over the years? Is your target audience a local one?

We did our first festival in 2007 in Zhongshan Park, and we've done a few festivals over the years including art festivals and fringe-type as well as the large 2-day festivals. 

We learned a lot in the first few years. Specifically Archie, because initially he chose a bunch of artists based on his British understanding, and of a lot of those bands had no residence in China.

We also learnt a lot about the type of people who came to the festivals. Some of these were hard lessons, but beneficial in the way that we never really made the same mistakes.

It wouldn't necessarily be a line-up that an Australian would celebrate. It was very different than doing an Australian festival. When we're booking bands, in addition to international artists, we have a strong contingent of Japanese bands, Korean bands and of course Chinese bands.

The lineups are very much tailored to the audience here. What we're realising is we're building a festival for Chinese nationals, but we also work hard to make it an international class festival with broad appeal. This is really how the Concrete & Grass Music Festival differs from the other festivals in China.

What are the challenges of setting up a business in China?

As a preamble: we were very lucky. Our timing was very good, but by accident. We arrived when there wasn't a huge amount going on in any kind of capacity with regards to what we do. So, we were able to fill a gap.

Things come across our table occasionally and we've got to remind ourselves to stay focused on our core business.  But the things you hear about China being challenging are true. If you want to do anything here, plan on being here for over a decade, it takes at least that long to learn the lay of the land.

What are the things you see as challenges to grow your business?

The problem that we're going through at the moment is probably a very common problem from China; getting scale. So, that’s moving from an owner operated style of company to small-to-medium sized business.

It affects every facet of what you do from finance to legal to HR. Investors are also really very important; getting that kind of scale can be quite a painful process. For me, it's a rewarding process, for Archie, it's bureaucratic and unnecessary and irritating. Whereas he's a serial entrepreneur, I'm more of a business manager.

I would say that things are changing here, visas are becoming more and more difficult. But again, I think that goes back to people getting away with things that could then but can't now. I don't think the rules have changed so much so far as the enforcement of them.

Compared to when I arrived, there are a lot more people who can help you navigate the set up of a new company.  So many more people have been doing it and so now there's a lot of knowledge around the place that you can find and find answers to your questions. I think that one of the challenges is the changes with regards to the attitude to developing cultural events and properties like festivals. There continues to be a concern from the government, what artists might say that is political, how people might behave, things going wrong with large crowds. This continues to be our major challenge.

Fear of foreign ideas or influence?

Yes – cultural influences that are associated with music. For example, hip hop is banned, tattoos are banned. But I think you just play with these things respectfully as much as you can. You certainly can't fight them. So, for our industry there's always that question hanging over you at the end of the day is: for how long are we going to be allowed to do this?

So what's next for Split United?

Right now, we are focused on our September festival, Concrete and Grass. We’re also doing another kind of pop-up festival late in Chengdu with views to expanding to 2nd tier cities over the next few years. The idea is that we grow the reputation within China through little mini events, and then the big event is going to be in Shanghai in September. We're also doing a lot of consulting for brands, particularly kind of beer and alcohol brands who use live music as a way of reaching their audiences and engaging with them.