The Underground China music scene.

China isn’t the first country that springs to mind when talking about rock music. But since the early ‘00s the live music scene has been bubbling away in underground clubs all around the country. Finally the word is getting out, with more and more Australian bands heading over to Asia to play to hoards of passionate fans. ALEX WILSON uncovers some of the most fascinating things about China’s indie music scene.

Chinese musician Xie Yugang recalls a story about a show in Baotou, a remote city in the country’s middle-north: People there rarely see live music, but surprisingly a nu-metal band from a bigger metropolis came to town one weekend. The young audience were excited by the sound coming from the band, but had no idea how to pogo or mosh. So instead they repeatedly did push-ups on the ground to connect with the energy of the music.

It’s a story that perfectly sums up what is happening in China right now. Just like that small Baotou audience, indie music has hit China unawares over the last two decades. Emerging out of relaxed cultural policies in the late ‘80s, the underground is now seen by outside eyes as one of the most vibrant and untapped music markets around. The reality on the ground is somewhat different. While more opportunities to play exist than ever, making a career in Chinese indie rock is a tough proposition. Chinese musicians also face unique challenges that their counterparts in Australia would not have to deal with.

But everyone knows you can’t keep good music down, and China is not without hordes of eager young musicians excited by the sounds that have crept into their imaginations from outside sources.

It All Started With Guitars

Xie is a typical example of the Chinese musicians bringing challenging new sounds into the country. His instrumental post-rock band Wang Wen formed in 1999 while he was a student in the northern harbour city Dalian, and around the same time that foreign eyes began to take notice of Chinese music. Wang Wen have an enviable underground career, having supported large international bands like Mogwai, played on European festival stages and won 2014’s “Best Rock Band” at the Douban Music awards (Douban is a massively popular social networking forum). Wang Wen is still not Xie’s full-time job. He currently works with his wife running a bookstore and library.

Wang Wen are just one band in a diverse array of new Chinese rock which enthusiastically covers a wide range of styles. A major focus of China’s music scene has been aggressive rock of a grungy or post-punk variety, exemplified by Carsick Cars, New Pants, Re-TROS and P.K. 14. Many of these bands were at the forefront of the explosion of interest in Chinese music in the early 2000s. The scene is now rapidly expanding, with the dark, ghostly disco of Nova Heart, the lo-fi DIY art-pop of Dear Eloise and the traditional Chinese Folk of Second Hand Rose placed as mainstays. Hip-hop and EDM are on the rise, but don’t yet have the quite same traction as guitar-based music.

Digital Downloads and Censorship

All these bands struggle for a piece of the Chinese music industry pie. Sales on music are typically low, and piracy is an even larger part of the music economy than in the West. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) reported that Chinese digital music sales in 2013 were only around $105 million. It’s not really a huge number when the same organisation estimated the overall value of the country’s digital music economy at around $6 billion.

Chinese artists also routinely have to contend with shade from the Chinese Government. Lyric sheets must be reviewed before bands publicly release music and the state (typically wary of art that does not reinforce what they see as proper Chinese values) tends to keep the underground sounds well away from mainstream radio and television. Although the government typically leaves the club circuit alone, they also maintain strict regulations on the nature and content of live performance that they could choose to enforce if they wished.

What Is The Indie Scene Really Like?

With slim pickings for music sales, live music is the mainstay of the Chinese indie scene. For Xie, “live performance is absolutely the most convincing way to make your music close to people. As the whole record industry went down quickly, touring means much more than before.”

Western attention on the Chinese scene has often focused on Beijing’s famous live spots Yugong Yishan and D-22, the latter run (and since closed) by Michael Pettis, an ex-pat finance academic and blogger. Other cities like Wuhan and Shanghai have developed alongside Beijing, and each area is noted for having its own particular sound, approach and community of bands. Gigs have previously been attended by wenyi qingnian, young arty types decked out in hipster fashion and visible tattoos. Although increasingly the pop-favouring everyday youth, called putong qingnian, are heading to check out the underground.

“With slim pickings for music sales, live music is the mainstay of the Chinese indie scene”

Most venues, or “livehouses” are typically set up the same as they would be around the world. Dark rooms, a loud playlist blaring while bands set up, mostly using venue-provided backline (amps and drums). This is one of the many things that Xie favours when touring in China, as opposed to overseas. “When touring overseas, we have to rent a van as well as the whole backline,” he says. “This is a very big cost for the band. While in China, as more and more livehouses open, the venue supply the backline for free. Also, thanks to the highspeed rail in China, we can save a lot of travel time for the band.” Catching the train to your next gig would certainly seem strange to Australian musicians, but totally makes sense with the amount of kilometres clocked up getting between the major spots like Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing and Gunagzhou.

Jef Vreys, a European ex-patriate who does tour management and promotion in China under the name New Noise, thinks it’s also important to play in the smaller areas, where conditions are cheap but cheerful. “All cities where bands play in have more than eight million people, so these cities have more people than the country that I was born in,” he says. “Beijing and Shanghai have slightly better venues and ticket prices are therefore a bit more expensive. Previously, the conditions in the smaller cities were not as good, but things are getting better. This is very often made up for with very warm feedback from the locals, so for me it’s really important to try to add these smaller cities in my tour planning.”

Chinese Bands Don’t Use Facebook

Like in the West gigs are usually promoted online, but the process works a little differently in China. The state has blocked mainland access to sites like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Facebook especially is a vital link between muso and punter in English-speaking countries, with many aspects of the site now designed specifically for music promotion and viral marketing.

But Jef says that these blocked sites do not pose so much of an issue for bands working within China. “For every blocked Western social media there is a Chinese counterpart, like Youku, Weibo, Douban and Xiami. We make videos available on Chinese websites, create a Xiami account for people to be able to hear their music and make a mini-site on Douban.” It’s also possible and common for bands and promoters to hack the system, breaking through the “Great Wall” and uploading content onto Facebook and YouTube. Although the social networking brands are different, Jef points out the everyday slog of promotion is not vastly different to anywhere else in the world, including Australia. What gets you far is persistence, networking and good music. “Right now we’ve built up a very good network with all of these media and they will give pretty good main page coverage for all of our bands. The numbers that we can reach on these pages are very big, at our peak around 200,000 hits on one day.”

Festivals and The Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Sponsorship

Running parallel to the underground club and online scene is an emerging world of major indie music festivals. Attracting crowds in the thousands, emerging bands compete for a stage slot. The opportunity to perform is as valuable as a record contract or a viral video for a band with a good sound and the right connections.

Things started in 2000 with MIDI Festival, originally conceived as a recital for music students and now a massive outdoor festival covering rock, metal, punk and hip-hop from China and overseas. Attracting thousands, it is held in competition with Strawberry Festival started in 2009 by the major indie imprint Modern Sky, who also run another eponymous festival. Strawberry is warmer, folksier and poppier, and shows through more corporate influence than MIDI. This only scratches the surface of the Chinese festival run. Shanghai alone boasts six major festivals during the week-long October national holiday period.

Large multinationals, like Budweiser, Converse and Adidas have already been buying into the festival scene heavily, looking to catch some cool vibes from the emerging scene. How much one gets involved with his money is a controversial topic. Helen Feng from the up-and-coming band Nova Heart made her views quite clear in an interview with The Guardian year: “The concept of selling out has always been a bit of a mystery to me … I did an ad with Lenovo and it made me enough money to support all the stuff that I want to do and, frankly, start my own label.”

Promoters like Jef, however, believe that a truly healthy Chinese music scene would work without any involvement from big business. “We rely 100 percent on ticket sales to cover all of our expenses,” he says. “The main reason why we’ve never worked with sponsorship is that we feel these shows aren’t very healthy and give people a bad feeling. There is branding everywhere and for me that’s not a nice way to watch a band play. We take financial risks, because venues and backline are pretty expensive and you have to pay for flights and trains. Most of our shows do really well here and we’ve got a very loyal fanbase, so it proves that putting up shows without sponsorship can still be sustainable.”

It’s difficult to say exactly how the turf war between the corporate-sponsored festival circuit and underground club scene will play out. Nor is it exactly clear how musicians working in China’s underground will be able to build sustainable careers at home, as low music sales take a toll. What is certain is that, artistically, China’s independent music scene is on solid ground. Buoyed both by international attention and the discovery of their own unique voices, China’s rock and pop music looks set to take a rightful place on the global stage.

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