Mammoth Dylan-in-China Motherlode, #1

Early this week, before I was distracted on other business (check your upcoming June issue of the Atlantic; check your bookstores next year) I was looking into the surprisingly complicated question of why Bob Dylan is no longer going on a concert tour of China -- if he was ever going to do such a tour in the first place. Most recent item here, with links back to preceding items in the Dylan series.

A ton of interesting testimony and analysis has come in since then. Here is a sample installment to get going. Probably two more installments to come. The emerging theme is that whatever "really" went on with this now-scrubbed concert tour, it probably wasn't the version trumpeted around the world a week ago, and that I initially believed: namely, that the Chinese authorities had turned down the tour for fear of a Bjork-like embarrassing comment by Dylan. As I mentioned, this is a spillover cost of any kind of censorship policy: when people know you've shut down some kinds of expression, they're willing to believe you've shut down others even when you haven't.

But let's get to the evidence. First, from someone close to the music scene in China right now:

Dylan's people probably had little/ no idea about the real reasons they were being denied access to China.  The only thing they are guilty of is accepting a ridiculous offer from BBH [the Taiwan-based tour promoters who were handling the tour]  and allowing them to try and sell on/ guarantee the shows in mainland China.  This is actually quite common practice (US/ UK agents are happy to take the money and run), but if the wrong partners are chosen, it opens the door for "flipping", which the balance of evidence suggests happened here.

It's painful to see, but unfortunately probably the future.  The withdrawal of Ticketmaster, Livenation and AEG means there are no recognized/ regulated promoters left here.  There will (more than likely) be a lot more of this in the future.

Meta-point here: for all of the excitement, joys, and rewards of operating in China these days, "transparency" concerns, from the concert-booking business on up, are a major reality of life for Chinese and foreign firms alike.

Next, with more on-scene info, reader Luke Mitchell:

I live in Shanghai and heard / read about this saga a few weeks ago.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I met the people who run one of Shanghai's music promoters. As a Dylan fan, I asked them about what was happening.  They weren't involved directly but obviously knew people and had heard things, and their direct account squared with what I'd seen elsewhere.  To wit: a Taiwanese promoter landed the rights for Dylan's Asian shows, at a reputed cost of about RMB 250,000 per show.  They then prematurely announced a slew of tour dates, including on the mainland, presumably to drum up publicity.  They then shopped the rights for the mainland shows around - but hiked the price to RMB 400,000 per show (just appearance fee).  Not only is that just an outrageous margin for the Taiwanese promoter, it kills the economics of the show - you'd have to sell 2,000 tickets at RMB 300 and up just to break even.  So every mainland promoter turned it down.
This is a pretty big loss of face for the Taiwanese promoter, both to Dylan and his people, who had probably been assured of mainland shows, and to all the journalists, ticket agencies etc who had also been assured there would be a show.  The easiest way to cover this?  Blame the government.  They probably told Dylan the same thing as the press, and hence he hasn't contradicted it (how would he know any different?).  And it's an easy cover - I, like I think very many others, assumed when we heard about the shows that they'd never happen, because of censorship.  It also mitigates the "Dylan doesn't cancel shows" and "his tickets are usually reasonable" points from your other readers - it's a badly behaved local promoter and Dylan's people are probably flying blind on the whole thing.

In sum, I think this is not only a case of, as you said, the government getting blamed because of its reputation, but also the way in which business practices here can be incredibly short-sighted if one party believes there's an easy opportunity to exploit, the way that can torpedo otherwise promising deals, and the importance afterwards of avoiding blame.

Now, from a reader I believe to be Chinese, responding to my point that it is a sign of weakness/ defensiveness rather than strength for the Chinese government to restrict expression -- as it certainly does in many cases, whether or not it did with Dylan:

I agree with you that Bod Dylan should be allowed to perform in China. But I disagree in the interpretation of the zero-tolerance policy. Things like banning Bjork or Dylan does not necessarily mean the Chinese government is extremely weak, as pundits like to allege in the popular media these days. Shouting "Tibet" after a song of "Declare Independence" would no doubt incur a harsher punishment in Mao's era than in the current era---does that mean Mao would be more afraid of Bjork than the current government? Of course not. Sometimes banning something just means one does not want to deal with the associated trouble/hassle, not that one is afraid.

Of course this is just a technical discussion and is not intended to refute your main point that China should be more open. But I do think technical discussions are important, especially since they weigh heavy in pundits' discussions in the popular media too.

Finally for now, another kind of first-hand testimony, from George Conk of New York. (Policy reminder, I will assume that I can quote or use anything someone sends in, unless stated otherwise; but I don't use anyone's name without specific OK to do so.)

I live in Washington heights and walk my dog each night about 11.  So do my neighbors who also have a Labrador Retriever.

[My neighbor] is Bob Dylan's road manager.  I bumped into him Tuesday night.  He just came back from touring in Japan and Korea with Dylan.

He says there never was a China trip planned.  the whole thing is a story concocted by a promoter and that Dylan had nothing to do with planning any China tour.

Stay tuned for more.