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Frenzied, fickle club scene faces facts

SHANGHAI'S thronged club scene is famous and fickle and now it's feeling the hard times. Some hot spots close and some hang on, while some non-mainstream venues say business is hot, reports Yao Minji.

Jessica Xu was surprised to see Bling's lights off at 2am on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. Once her favorite hip-hop venue, the celebrity-infested club now has only a handful of guests on a weekday night and even closes early on some weekends.

The impact of the global financial crisis is felt far beyond Wall Street on partygoers around the world. It has whacked the nightlife scene in Shanghai hard and the consequences have become evident after the Chinese Lunar New Year. At that time, many people had illusions that the party would go on and on.

It's still there, of course, but there's not as much of that stuff Shanghai is famous for ?? the variety of music, excited crowds, celebrity DJs and musicians from all over the world, luxurious interior decor and expensive cocktails.

"I had to close my second club in October because of the recession," says Paul Lu, who has 15 years as a DJ, pub manager and club owner. He still operates Live Club near Zhongshan Park, but had to shut a club of the same name in Yangpu District.

"It was bad timing and bad luck. For the first few months, you have to put in money. But I opened it right before the crisis, so suddenly I found myself out of cash to keep it running," says Lu.

Only the good ones last and make money, says Lu.

"The city's nightlife scene gets reshuffled every few months, with old clubs closing and new ones opening. If a place doesn't get much attention in the first three months, it's basically a dead end."

That's when times were good.

Even the big-name clubs are sending SMS and e-mails out crazily every day to get more customers. Forget about opening for new clubs. Nobody dares.

Now, the big picture looks like this ?? the most popular clubs are doing okay but only on weekends; the newer and smaller ones are holding on for dear life, but the really small and non-mainstream places are finding it easier to attract both performers and guests.


The big popular names mostly have survived, although some have it harder than others. The exceptions are the now-darkened nightlife landmarks Ark in Xintiandi and Attica on the Bund.

An industry insider named Zhang (who requested his full name not be used), who has worked in both places' marketing departments, says the hard times result from decreasing business and rocketing rents.

Ark was arguably the best live house in Shanghai, and most rock lovers and J-pop fans spent a lot of time in the large venue with its excellent sound systems.

The name was also associated over its three years with many small but successful live performances by less-mainstream names such as Japanese band L'arc-en-ciel.

All that reputation and all those legends were still not enough to save the place, as it went through the downturn. The Japanese investor quit first, and all others pulled out soon after. It closed last June.

"The increase in the rent was just a minor excuse for closing, as it really was running out of new selling points," says Zhang.

"And the financial crisis just proved the boss' correct decision to close," he says. It's reopening, for now as a restaurant only, the Ark, near People's Park.

It was about the same story for Attica, a packed club popular for its music and large balcony only a year ago. After two years, it wasn't so special anymore, there were fewer night animals about and it closed for renovation last September. It never reopened.

All the other well-known cool names like Muse, Babyface, Richy and Cotton's are still drawing happy crowds on weekends and special occasions.

"The weekend seems to be fine but it is still much worse compared with before and they are still losing a large part of the crowd, especially on weekdays," says Ricky Chen, the nightlife editor for Night Guide magazine, in Chinese. "More important, they are losing the paying guests, those who book VIP rooms or tables. Those are the major revenue sources."

Chen says most of the big clubs are trying creative ways to lure more guests though they don't like to talk about slowing business.

"That's why they're doing open bars, free flows, and hot dancers more and more now. Those are cheaper events, often sponsored, than getting a real good DJ or updating some equipment," observes Chen.


The smaller and less-popular venues spend much less on marketing and operations costs, but also find it more difficult to attract new customers. They also lose old customers because of the economy.

Lu, the operator of Live Club, has been around the nightlife scene for almost 15 years, starting out as one of the first DJs in the city. He invested in a small pub near Zhongshan Park two years ago, when it seemed like easy money.

The tiny venue could only accommodate about 50 people and Lu only did basic renovation and kept it simple and within budget. The sound system was nothing fancy and the stage was just big enough for a five performers.

It was packed almost nightly since it opened. On a regular weekday, Lu could people everywhere. They were and are mostly students, attracted by the cheap drinks, cool movie and album posters and live performances by local bands.

Encouraged by the success, Lu made what turned out to be the wrong move, opening a second club that closed three months later.

Countless small club owners closed their places just like Lu. They never made their mark and disappeared without a ripple.

Lucky ones

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the less-mainstream venues like live house Yuyintang and underground club Shelter are seeing a few more guests. In times like these, if you're determined to party, it's time to switch to cheaper places.

Sun Lu, the event planner for Yuyintang, says it has been easier to get performers in the recession because more musicians are in need of work and willing to play at lower costs.

Many bands have more empty spots on their schedules and are a lot more flexible about prices.

Sun has been able to organize at least two events a week since last summer and the number has been increasing lately. Before the hard times hit, it was impossible to guarantee even a weekly performance.


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