You likely haven't seen ads for Modern Sky Festival; you probably won’t see any, either. There have been no flyers pasted to light poles in Silver Lake, no full-page ads in local alt-weeklies, scant presence on Facebook.
Most promotion of the festival, which takes place at Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park on Saturday, Sept. 23, has taken place via apps, streaming sites and social networks you can only read, for the most part, if you speak Chinese.
The single-day festival, which makes its L.A. premiere this year, is, like most of the fests that dot the summer landscape, an eclectic, adventurous affair. But it’s different in one major respect: The majority of its acts are huge in China and almost unknown in the United States.
Modern Sky takes its name from its parent company, a Beijing-based record label, promotion company, venue owner and publisher that hosts several Coachella-sized festivals in China every year. It arrives in Los Angeles this year with the primary goal of creating a smaller-scale event focused on reaching students from China living in Southern California.
“A city like Los Angeles has USC, UCLA, and all those UC schools, and they all have huge Chinese exchange student programs,” says Michael LoJudice, Modern Sky’s general manager for North America. “These kids come from mainland China, or Taiwan, or greater China — much different from the American-born Chinese who are from here. And these kids are really underserved. There isn’t a lot of cool stuff coming here from China to the U.S.”
The Modern Sky Festival debuted in China in 2007, and featured Western artists such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs alongside established Chinese acts. But in 2014, the company flipped the script with its first U.S. Modern Sky Festival, held in New York's Central Park. That year's lineup featured acts like Yoko Ono, Cat Power and Liars and a diverse range of Chinese artists.
The company has kept up its New York festival — its fourth installment comes Sept. 30 — but has shifted its focus mainly to Chinese artists, with U.S. artists signed to its label and management arms filling out the undercard. Two of those acts — Stonesy rockers The Molochs and scuzzy pop act Cotillon — will play at Santa Anita. (The Molochs are signed to L.A. label Innovative Leisure but managed by Modern Sky; Cotillon frontman Jordan Corso is Modern Sky's U.S. label manager.)
”Modern Sky has been eyeing Los Angeles for years,” says LoJudice, “but 2017 was the first year that partnerships and strategy fell into place.” The location of the festival, in the heavily Chinese San Gabriel Valley, is designed to maximize attendance; organizers hope to turn out a crowd of at least 5,000, about the capacity of the Greek Theatre.
Modern Sky’s lineup reflects the sonic diversity of contemporary music in China and its neighboring countries. Re-TROS, Beijing-based indie stalwarts, play Joy Division–inspired post-punk. XTX, veterans and elder statesmen of China’s hard-rock scene, play heavy, somber rock, akin to grunge. And HYUKOH, who hail from Seoul, South Korea, are somewhere on the alternative spectrum between Cold War Kids and Muse, and boast a huge, devoted following in their home country.
LoJudice is particularly excited about the Chinese hip-hop group HHH, who, he relates, were discovered on the super-popular, Voice-esque Chinese reality show The Rap of China.
“These guys are massive right now,” LoJudice says. “They’re a big reason the New York festival is almost sold out, and L.A. is looking like it’s going to be sold out, too.” Singer-songwriter Ma Di, folk singer A Si and New York–based, Taiwan-raised singer 9m88 round out the bill.
LoJudice says Modern Sky's M.O. is opening the American market up to Chinese artists, while at the same time finding entry points in China for artists like The Molochs. They want to be, as he puts it, “a bridge between North America and the West and China,” he says.
When Modern Sky was founded in 1997, the indie music industry in China was in a relatively nascent stage, and despite massive turnout at its Chinese festivals, there are still growing pains. (For instance, the company's flagship Beijing festival, Strawberry Festival, was canceled by the Chinese government in 2015.) “It’s nothing like working for a label or being a publicist in the United States, because it’s still the Wild West in a lot of ways,” LoJudice says.
The artists themselves value the opportunity to physically touch their U.S.-based audience for the first time. “It's difficult to compare gigging and touring in the U.S. and China — it's different people with different cultural backgrounds and musical history,” says Hua Dong, lead singer of Re-TROS, via email. “[But] Re-TROS is like a pioneer to open the door of music between China and U.S. [We're trying] our best to eliminate [that] difference.”
Similarly, another Modern Sky musician, AZ of the hip-hop group HHH, says he's thrilled to come to L.A. for the first time — the city that spawned some of his own major influences, including Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar. “As a group of hip-hop artists, L.A. is a place to be for a whole lot of inspiration,” he says. “We're looking forward to the L.A. vibe.”
The Modern Sky Festival comes to Santa Anita Park this Saturday, Sept. 23. Tickets and more info.