They play punk in Beijing, metal in Central China, and electro-hardcore down south. Wuhan is hot for noise and punk, and apparently Chengdu is home to an awesome music scene. Even Rolling Stone magazine opened a China office last year. Granted, its Chinese name is “Audio Visual World” but three years ago, Ah Mei and a pirated DVD of her greatest hits would have been the most you could expect. What gives?
“The music scene in China has completely evolved,” says Wu Yue, general manager at Beijing Tangsuan Entertainment Company. “New bands are playing indie rock, dance-rock, emo, funk and improv hip-hop, and they’re playing it well.” Beijing has always been the center of the Chinese rock scene, with small gigs almost every night and a steady stream of festivals with local and overseas headliners. Now Shanghai and even Xian, Wuhan and Chengdu are catching on.
“The change in the last two years has been incredible,” says Archie Hamilton, general manager of Beijing- and Shanghai-based event organizers Split Works. Split is throwing next month’s Yue Festival, with Talib Kweli and Ozomatli headlining (see box on p.15 for more). “Two years ago, Shanghai had no live music scene at all. There were maybe two clubs where bands could play, both on the outskirts of town and both with appalling PA systems.” Now artists like The Go! Team come over and play to a full house, and you’re a tool if you haven’t heard of Shanghai’s hottest confusingly named band Crazy Mushroom. Even the government is surprisingly lenient about allowing these darn kids to play their rock music. “The market here is just beginning to flex its muscles,” Hamilton says. “It’s a very exciting time.”
Beijing disco-punk-revival band New Pants are part of the new generation of mainland artists who are dealing serious damage to the old-school notion of Chinese rock. “We were too poor for heavy metal – the equipment’s very expensive – so we turned to punk,” shrugs lead singer Peng Lei. Their music is an enticingly discordant mash of rebellious camp and upbeat electro; their image is equally random. “Our bassist Pang has a different look at every gig,” Peng continues. “Last time he dressed up like a Xinjiang native and grilled lamb kebabs on stage.”
Head to any show in Shanghai and Beijing and such enthusiasm is infectious. “There’s a new phenomenon of a massive transient population who’ve come to the city to work for a year or two,” Hamilton says. “That translates to a huge amount of people who come out to party, which creates a great vibe, which in turns draws the local Chinese crowds.”
“It helps there are now more Chinese lifestyle magazines covering live music,” says Abram Deyo, music editor at Shanghaiist.com and promoter. Wu notes that audiences are getting bigger and the festival scene is flourishing more than ever. “The Beijing Midi and Pop festivals have been held for eight and three years respectively, and crowds reach well over 20,000,” she says. Shanghai also boasts five free English-language lifestyle magazines, while Beijing has six; all are eager supporters of burgeoning local music. And the media is just one part of the growing infrastructure.
The promoter network that has sprung up alongside that of bookers and managers is the keystone of the new music scene. Previously, putting together a solid tour was difficult because communications between different cities weren’t very strong. “Now we have middlemen helping to promote the shows,” Deyo says. “And that means more foreign bands can tour and hit several mainland cities.” Crucially, we’re not talking super-veterans like the Rolling Stones, or DIY bands who pay their own way over, but rather, bands who are less mainstream and playing cool music that wasn’t vogue a few decades ago. Deyo, for example, is bringing over jazzy alt-hip-hop rapper Busdriver in October.
For local bands, being able to tour China is also a huge boon. There aren’t lots of record shops and labels to hype up bands, and touring is the most lucrative. Even so, he adds, about 90 percent of bands have full-time jobs in addition to their music. However, unlike what happens with all too many Hong Kong promoters, Wu, Deyo and Hamilton say that the local bands they book are always paid.
“There is beginning to be a real market for the better-known groups,” Hamilton says. “I was even quoted 25,000RMB once by a band who hadn’t even produced an album yet. Which is a little crazy, but hey, it’s great that this standard has developed. Bigger bands can get between three to five thousand RMB a night.” Sponsors are also a major part of the live music industry – though usually for more mainstream acts like Avril Lavigne or Maximo Park – and they help keep ticket prices low. For example, Split set presale tickets for The Go! Team at RMB80.
So the vibe’s fantastic, bands are up for it and even the media’s been dragged along for the ride. The live music scene is strong, but there’s still an entire industry that needs to be built around it. The foundations are there among China’s slew of excitingly genre-confused bands like New Pants and Crazy Mushroom. “One of the most exciting parts is the acceptance and interest that’s coming from audiences and industry people.” Hamilton says. “The live music scene is a whisker away from blowing up and we’re nearly at critical mass.”
BANDS TO KNOW
The original Chinese punk band, these guys have been around since ’97 and the days of early Beijing punk. They’re a seminal group who’ve influenced whole generations of surly mainland youths, and all by singing about “politics, partying and anarchy in the PRC.” Check out their newest album “Beijing to Boston.”
This Shanghai rap-rock band with possibly the most adorable name yet has a showy live set combining hip-hop, funk and indie rock with sexy beats from DJ Hikaru. Their vocals are incredible and the band is one of the fastest rising stars in Shanghai’s slowly-but-surely growing scene.
Super-hot noise-pop band, Hedgehog began life as a punk-rock group and their crew finally coalesced in September 2005 when they were introduced to drummer Atom. For some reason, this precipitated a shift to songs that were more catchy, charismatic and poppy, though always with their trademark distortion. They’re currently working on songs for their next album. And go buy their last album, “Happy Idle Kid.”
Disco-punk trio from Beijing on the vaunted Modern Sky label. These kitschy lads camp it up with indie electro, silly lyrics and over-the-top Ramones style. They’ve been together since ’98 but play with the carefree abandon of a band just formed. Their first album comes out this September.
Originally published in HK Magazine, Sep 14, 2007.