Media business

Is there such a thing as Chinese indie music?

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China's rock legends will gather in Shenyang on the 16th of this month for a three-day concert commemorating the 20th anniversary of rock music's arrival on the national stage. To properly observe such a landmark, the country's media outlets have been featuring retrospectives on the history of domestic rock, dusting off stories they ran two years ago during the "Where are they now?" commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the debut of the Magic Stone Trio - Dou Wei, He Yong, and Zhang Chu - or interviewing more recent quasi-mainstream artists. Other commentators are marking the occasion by running pieces asking "Is Chinese rock dead?" or "Who will save Chinese rock?", more than a few of them using Dou Wei's recent torching of a reporter's car as a central metaphor. Typical mainstream rock journalism, in other words.

One argument that doesn't get much play over on these shores is the corporate vs. indie debate. Sure, Wang Feng can be branded a "traitor" to his music academy roots, but contempt for selling out tends fall mostly on pop stars, who make such easy targets that it's not really much fun, anyway.

What is China's indie music? Translated below is a look at the independent label phenomenon in China by indie musician and writer Wan Yi, from his blog "Tubie or not tubie," which he writes under the pseudonym Joint Improvement. Wan Yi sees independent music afflicted by the same problems plaguing other media sectors - too much central control over distribution leaving little room for free expression, combined with a blind scramble for profits:

Indie is just a pose

By Joint Improvement

Initially, so-called independent music labels meant this: small record companies apart from the big five (now the big four). Their limitations were institutional; there was no relation to their music style. However, since the majority of independent music labels tended to be alternative stylistically (the mainstream was occupied by the big five), it gave people a mistaken impression that independent music was posturing music. When this concept came to China, it was further intensified, and badasses and wannabes had to set up independent labels - otherwise they couldn't call themselves "artists." Tian Zhen, Wang Feng, and Shuimu Nianhua followed the tide and agitated for independence. This is the same song played by Master Zhao in True Story of Ah Q when he agitated for revolution, only set to different music.

What I mean by so-called independent labels is basically the following: (1) Their music style is non-mainstream - in general, rock, alternative, underground, experimental; (2) They place emphasis on the meaning of the music; it does not welcome general audiences, and may even cut itself off from the people; (3) Their scale is typically rather small - two or three people, four or five acts, and each record has an investment of less than 50,000 yuan; (4) The style and aesthetic of the records from a particular label are relatively concentrated. The earliest indie label on the mainland was probably Magic Stone (魔岩文化); afterward the most influential were Modern Sky (摩登天空) and Scream (嚎叫唱片). Underground, labels multiplied. I once started an indie label, but I was forced into independence, since after doing this and doing that, the boss refused to give me any more money. But I couldn't stand giving up midway, so I had to take my band and go indie, making money as a short-term replacement laborer to fund the record production shortfall. Putting up for over a year of torturous production, the three records I had in hand were finally released, and then I closed up and got out. That label was called л side Records (拍岸唱片).

In Europe and America, indie labels flourished. Their contributions were no smaller than those of the mainstream labels, and countless big stars and bands started their own indie labels. Much of the time, indie labels could create the new mainstream - Nirvana igniting grunge rock is a classic example.

In comparison, China's indie labels are much worse off. Magic Stone and Red Star died long ago, and Scream and Newbees really aren't going anywhere. Modern Sky's business is lackluster, and countless underground labels are run for their own amusement. Reasons? Here are a few basic ones:

First, there is no independent control over publication and distribution. Control of publication is in the hands of national publishers, which need to muzzle free expression, and independent music presents a major target - my own records have been killed by a dozen or so publishers. What controls circulation is capital. The distributors' only thought is to make money, fast, so they have no interest in nurturing a market, building for the long-term. They'd rather spend millions to snatch up Dao Lang's latest record rather than spending ten thousand to buy a record of rock music. This has produced an underground network - illegal publishing - that sits in concert venues or at second-hand record stores;

Second, there's no avenue for promotion. Early on, rock music in the mainstream media was poison and heavily suppressed. Later, whenever trends started going in the wrong direction, they'd incorporate some weaker-willed bands with relatively small poisonous side-effects - like Zang ____ and Again - and have them appear on state TV to disgust the national audience. As soon as the audience saw them, Damn! So rock really sounds this bad - I won't be buying it;

Third, the people running the label lack strategic plans - they are only there to look badass, to strike a pose. They haven't analyzed what the market really demands, and they do not guide the substantial low-end users as they should. Artists may ignore the opinions of others, but businessmen must not - doing business and doing art are two separate things. To tell the truth, China is not lacking badass artists; it lacks people who really know how to play the market and commercialize artists.

When I was running л side Records, my line of thinking was to rely on a larger company, and to let it provide financing as well as channels for publication and distribution - to be independent in music creation but mainstream in promotion. The first product line would be relatively commercialized - a record of mainstream rock and a record of British rock, both listenable. After they had made a gotten a reputation in the market, gradually up the artistic bent of the records. This was a good model - a pity that in the end it still broke between publication and distribution.

Recently, Netshow set up a new indie label - Thirteenth Month (13月). This label differs from most domestic labels that advertise their independence in that its music is neither rock nor alternative; rather, it emphasizes folk music with a regional flavor. This can be seen from the artists it has signed as well as its management. Wan Xiaoli an exponent of the new folk music, the band Suyang plays folk rock with a northwest flavor, and Hong Qi, one of the label's managers, was a guitarist for 43 Baojia Street, and later became a master of Chinese fusion guitar as well as a mainstream music producer. Together, these three instigators basically make up the operating principle behind Thirteenth Month: Build upon folk music, produce polished works using major capital and mainstream production techniques, and have promotion and distribution fully online.

Notice how their thinking is quite similar to that of my л side Records. Naturally, Thirteenth Month is superior to us in a number of areas, such as having the full support of a company boss who is willing to spend and lose money, a willingness to take full advantage of a flourishing online platform, weakening reliance on traditional publishers and media, a music selection that is easier for general audiences to accept....I'll stop before this becomes an advertorial and I have to collect an ad fee from Netshow.

I have another label, White Public Music, that is just for my own amusement. This is a different way to run an indie label. It's extremely independent - just me, and it releases only my own works. No goal, no plan, no investment, no pressure to profit - I do whatever I want. Really, they way you do it is unimportant. "Independent' is just a pose that we strike: Yeah, I'm all that - what's it to you?

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There are currently 12 Comments for Is there such a thing as Chinese indie music?.

Comments on Is there such a thing as Chinese indie music?

You know what, with the advent of downloadable digital music files like MP3, issues like music distribution, what's 'indie', 'what's mainstream' have become history. And thank God for that. Major labels seem to have missed the train of the real digital revolution in music a long time ago, and their slow but unstoppable demise is well deserved, greedy bastards.
People can produce music at home and publish it on-line with a few hundred bucks, and this is just great. How do you want to call this phenomenon? indie? underground? mainstream? is all up to you. But people in 2007 should care less about this. Withe regards to China, the scene is pretty much the same as in the rest of the world. AOR people here are incompetent as much as their counterparts in the USA, Europe and wherever. What China REALLY lacks at this point is a more sophisticated live music scene, with more decent live music venues, with decent equipment and competent people behind the mixing desks to let bands play properly and let the public listen properly to the music.

I was gonna comment, but Gunslinger hit every point I intended to make. So... ditto.

I understand the headline for this article must be hyperbolic to attract viewers, but as a member of one of Shanghai's oldest underground rock group (Godot) I think the problem is not with China's underground music scene, but with limited exposures by Western observers. Part of the problem lies with the lack of 'real' exposure to alternative community, but some of the blame goes to the lack of publicity/organization of Chinese musicians as well.

In terms of 'alternative' art, for example, Chinese artists have gotten A LOT of attention from Westerners, with plenty of money flowing in to establish luxury art galleries, etc. Much of the work is hack improvisation and derivative art, as acknowledged in a recent NY Times article on 'mass-produced' modern art. However, Chinese musicians have no funding from Westerners, so they have no access to the right publicity machines, live venues and recording studios.

Living in Shanghai, I am familiar with mostly the local scene, as well as that in Chengdu. Shanghai definately pales compared to Beijing, but things are actually improving. The trend is not as the author of this article implies... probably he only thinks of Cui Jian and Dou Wei, dinosaurs with little real relavence anymore in the underground except as nostalgic historic figures.

I retract my dismissal of the author's knowledge... it's pretty good. However, I wouldn't go as far as he for comparing the underground as 'striking a pose'. Chengdu has pretty good support by Big Sister, a Chinese-German businesswomen. Other relevant musicians include a great post-rock band from Dalian called Wangwen, and Shanghai group called 33 Island and Rooftop Circus (Godot is taking a break now so its members can concentrate on its label, 13D).

Thanks for the comments, Joshua. The main post title was my own selection - possibly hyperbolic, true, and easily answered in the affirmative - but chosen because apart from specialized outlets, the mainstream Chinese media tends to view Chinese rock through the lens of the big names. I felt the piece translated here (title by the original author, whose occasionally rather tongue-in-cheek style I may not have managed to convey here) provided a nicely-written contrast, and a concise outline of the business issues involved in running a label.

On another note, any thoughts on this new Encyclopedia of Chinese Rock & Roll: http://www.alpha-books.com/product.asp?id=535

Interesting book. Perhaps it's the Trouser Press of China? Haven't read it, nor do I know the author. By the way, have you checked out www.yaogun.com?

As Gunslinger said, there shouldn't be a conflict between "indie" and "mainstream", but not for the reasons he gave. In healthy, developed creative industries, the distinction is between small "indie" labels and the big, international, commercial labels. In the west, plenty of indie music makes the charts. In the Chinese film industry, which itself is pretty bad but doing waaay better than music, plenty of “indie”, ie not made in by a major studio, are getting mainstream distribution, and only geeks like me even notice that they’re independent or semi-independent.

In China, the divide remains interesting yuanchang original music and the schlocky packaged pop. Yes, those also mostly fall respectively between the indie and the big labels, and between underground and mainstream, but they don’t have to. Magic Stone’s early ‘90s acts all went mainstream, not because their music was all that good, but because Magic Stone was a professional, competent indie label. Since, only Flowers and Xu Wei have achieved mainstream success; the former by leaving the indie label that was destroying their career, the latter by signing with an indie but pop-oriented label.

The problem is that most of the indie labels in China are founded and run by artists with little business and marketing acumen. I’ve interviewed many them, and am consistently shocked by how oblivious they are even to the operations of their own companies. They tend to ego-trip as moguls of their little media empire, expect the fawning of staff and artists, and never register how badly they’re doing. If they even have a press/pr person, she’s usually completely clueless and inexperienced. The indie labels wear their artsy labels proudly, and nice for them, but it’s not an excuse to be flaky. I’ve interviewed countryside widget producers who are more organized.

Of course, they blame: the media, Chinese tastes, censorship, piracy, the internet, the distributors. Indeed. But those problems plague almost every industry in China, but other industries find ways to work through or around their woes. Indie music labels just sit around and whine.

The bands, who certainly are more victims of the system then indie labels, are also to blame. Yes, the indie labels, the media, and the lack of real managers in China sucks, but the bands, who have the most to gain and suffer the most, are even less proactive than the indie labels.

Joshua, I disagree, foreign attention doesn’t help, and often harms, the music scene. It reinforces a unhealthy opinion that rock music is art, not entertainment, and that it’s cooler to play to a hundred people in a bar than to produce an album that will be heard by 100,000 people. That’s not art, that’s failure.

While all of the points have been hit regarding what the problem is, there's interesting stuff happening in Shanghai as 2 American guys launched a live music podcast:

www.gigshanghai.com - posted once a week, clips played from the weekend's upcoming shows, interviews, etc.

More things like this will help.

I agree with you Lisa, except I wouldn't call playing to only 100 people "failure" -- there's something quite magical about being in an intimate space (either figuratively or literally) for observing music.

People often criticize 'indie' music and fans as being purely posers, but there is something exciting about being "in the know" and witnessing something new and unknown, that's not ego-driven.

I also completely agree with you about so many of these indie labels and musicians being so frustratingly clueless about promotions and business. Like, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to remember to list essentials like the address and date of a gig on your flyers ... but I've seen it happen so many times in China.

I'm with Lisa on this one, all the way.......

(2 cents) Playing to 100 people in a bar is the first couple of gigs, if you can't pull 500+ after writing and rehearsing an hour set, fire the manager (probably doesn't know what a guitar tuner is anyway). Bands need to create income to promote, move ahead, and tighten things up.

Never sign open contracts that leave overseas territories open for sales, thats where the money is. DUH!!!

Finally, being in a band is a business and while sharing anecdotes about eating the cat because the fridge was empty are rad, it isn't funny if it goes on for months or years. Independent doesn't mean broke!

With bands like Carsick Cars, Ne Zha, Scoff, Houhai Sharks and other more open-form stuff like White and iLoop, I would say the indie scene in Beijing is pretty vibrant. That's without even mentioning some serious new entrants into the scene who seem determined to find and develop local talent, like Tagteam Records, the Wudaokou club D-22, and Blixa Bargeld's new record label. I don't think the indie scene in Beijing is in trouble any more than the indie scene in any other country, which is always in a state of crisis. Of course it is managed unprofessionally and business takes a distant back seat to art and getting laid, but so what? I ran an indie label in NY in the 1980s and as far as I can remember supporting music I really liked and getting laid were pretty much the main priorities back then too. If you stay away from the bands and clubs favored by the foreign and the once-hip Chinese crowd, Beijing seems to be in pretty good shape to me. I especially like to go to places like What or D-22 to get a sense of what is happening, since they have real buzz as places where musicians hang out and everybody is checking out everybody else's work -- although unfortunately both bars seem far more serious about making their musicians happy than about making customers happy.

Next to gigshanghai, I would also take a look at http://www.thelab.cn. Underground Hip-Hop for all in China.

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