What’s driving Beijing’s indie boom?

The Guardian Winner of the Pulitzer prize

China’s alternative music scene is on a massive growth spurt, with loads of new bands and sell-out gigs. But with few labels to support it, festivals and corporate sponsors are payrolling the revolution

Beijing band Carsick Cars.

Beijing band Carsick Cars. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Lee Williamson
Tuesday 21 October 2014

Last month, Beijing-based label Modern Sky took its festival to New York for the first time. The Modern Sky festival was a two-day showcase of Chinese talent, including arty synth-pop outfit Queen Sea Big Shark, traditional folk-rock crossovers Secondhand Rose and John Lydon’s favourite post-punk band Re-Tros.

The success of the festival is another landmark in the inexorable rise of Chinese alternative music, but it also indicates clearly who holds the power in the nascent, Beijing-focused scene.

“Everything is centred around music festivals here,” says Helen Feng, the charismatic frontwoman of electro-pop foursome Nova Heart, one of the leading lights of Beijing music. “In the west, labels were always the centre of the music industry, but in China it’s festivals.”

Indeed, despite the huge growth of a counterculture and a thirst for alternative music, there’s a surprising lack of framework in place.

“There’s not as much infrastructure as you would think considering how many bands there are and how much potential there is,” says Liz Tung, a China-based music writer who covers the beat for Time Out Beijing. “There are more labels now than there used to be, but Modern Sky is the biggest game in town, and just behind them is Maybe Mars. Almost all of the more popular indie bands that pack out Beijing livehouses on a weekend – HedgehogSnaplineCarsick Cars, P.K. 14 and AV Okubo – are all on one of the two labels.”

The source of the problem – music streaming and illegal downloading – isn’t unique to China, but the effect is considerably more acute. The country’s alternative scene has only really taken off in the age of the internet, so the same problem that’s hamstrung the majors worldwide has stopped small Chinese labels even getting off the ground. China’s lax rules and policing surrounding IPR offences only compound this.

“That’s why you see Modern Sky turning to alternative ways of making money,” says Tung. Modern Sky’s annual Strawberry festival – which attracts hundreds of thousands of people in Beijing and Shanghai over one weekend in May – is a huge moneyspinner. Since the success of Modern Sky, dozens of similar festivals have cropped up, and the year-round festival circuit is now a cultural staple.

This isn’t always the most conducive environment to nurturing young talent, Feng says: “Because everything is dependent on the festival stage, there’s not a long incubation period. Bands can’t spend four or five years in the club scene working their way up to the festivals. I find with a lot of young artists, it’s about getting them to the point where they understand the importance of a good album. They’re more concerned with their festival slot before they get a good album or even define their sound.”

Still, a system that emphasises the live music experience has its upsides – most notably, it enables this growing subculture to be exposed to as many people as possible. “I’ve played in front of 30-40,000 people and that was inconceivable 10 years ago,” says Feng. “[People] are starting to understand that there is a scene out there. They may be kind of raw, and they don’t know the history of rock’n’roll, but they see it for the first time. Either they get it or they don’t, but they’re there. And that’s something new. There are a lot more kids and there’s a lot more debate.”

Large corporations, looking to borrow some cool from this exciting new scene, are becoming key patrons. “The idea of selling out is completely non-applicable to China. There’s no stigma attached to trying to make money,” says Tung. “Even experimental artists have done advertisements for the likes of Adidas, Converse and so on. I’m pretty sure even [punk band] Demerit have done a computer ad.”

Feng has a similar interpretation. “The concept of selling out has always been a bit of a mystery to me … I did an ad with [tech firm] Lenovo and it made me enough money to support all the stuff that I want to do and, frankly, [even enough to] start my own label.” Indeed, Nova Heart are self-releasing their debut album this month, through Helen’s Fake Love Music label.

“In China there are always these two things that are said in the music scene, one is called gan huo which means ‘going to work’ and the other one is, you know, doing music. They’re considered two different things. Gan huo means I make the money I need to make in order to support the stuff I want to do. I don’t think I’ve compromised my artistic integrity one tiny little bit in order to get something. If someone wants to pay for me to be able to do more things like make music videos about transvestite hookers … I consider it a form of freedom not having to listen to a label!”


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