Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, June 9, 2006 at 6:00 PM
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 poseBy 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?
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.