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Rock in Motion
China’s on a roll with a new generation of bands
The crowd chants “Zai lai yi ge” (“One more”) as Hua Dong and his band exit the stage after an energy-packed gig at Mao Livehouse, near Beijing’s ancient Bell Tower. Hua is the vocalist of three-piece rock band Re-TROS, one of many exciting new acts on Beijing’s burgeoning music scene.
Rock has not always had an easy ride in China. As record companies push commercial pop, the rock movement has been largely an underground phenomenon – until now, as Chinese music fans seek out alternative forms of entertainment.
Mainland China’s rock scene was pioneered in the late 1980s, largely through the efforts of Cui Jian, often referred to as China’s version of Bob Dylan or David Bowie. In the beginning the movement was characterised by anthemic ballads, but a harder edge started creeping in during the 1990s with bands such as Tang Dynasty and Black Panther.
The new millennium heralded a more sophisticated rock-music scene. Today, Beijing is the nation’s “rock capital”. As new venues and bands spring up in the city, outfits such as Re-TROS, Carsick Cars, ZIYO, LonelyChina Day, Snapline, SUBS, The Gar, PK14, Hedgehog and Arrows Made of Desire are starting to make a name for themselves. There are more bands, venues, live shows, festivals – and hype.
Matt Kagler, former publicist and A&R man at Sub Pop Records in Seattle, says it’s an exciting time for China’s rock industry. He arrived in Beijing seven years ago with his wife Heike and started Tag Team Records in 2005 with the idea of releasing Chinese rock into the United States market. “This all changed very quickly and we started releasing records into China as well,” Kagler says. Tag Team has a number of quality bands on its books, such as Lonely China Day, Re-TROS and RandomK(e) and has also developed a stable of groups in the US.
The West has started paying attention to China’s music scene, helping to create interest in Mainland China, especially in Beijing. “The word yaogun [rock] is no longer a dirty word,” says Canadian Jon Campbell. Based in Beijing since 2000, Campbell runs promotions company YGTwo Productions and has taken Chinese bands on tours abroad. While things are improving, no one is making big money. “Until rock can prove itself to be of economic value, nothing will change,” says Campbell. Kagler says the bills are getting paid, but that’s about it.
Piracy and lack of disposable income among rock’s traditional market are inhibiting further growth. While young people from developed nations will readily spend money on CDs and digital downloads, Chinese youth are reluctant to do so, says Ed Peto, who runs Beijing-based promotion and music consultancy Red T Music. “University students, who make up the majority of the rock music fan base, are often under a lot of pressure to achieve from their family who, in some cases, have worked multiple jobs and pooled money together to enable their child to attend higher education,” he says.
The music industry’s focus is switching to income generated from live performances. While Chinese rock is attracting a new wave of fans, interest in foreign groups is rising as more acts include China on their touring schedules – the Rolling Stones played Beijing as part of their 2006 tour.
In the short time Scotsman Archie Hamilton has been operating his Split Works promotions company in China he’s lured bands including Sonic Youth, Faithless, Maximo Park, The Go! Team and more. “All of them are totally excited about coming here,” he says.
Hamilton says the artists are curious about playing to audiences in China but also recognise an opportunity to develop a market there. But there are financial constraints. The lack of disposable income among Chinese youth means ticket prices are out of the reach of many, although linking corporate sponsorship with some of Split Works’ tours has reduced prices for local fans.
Larger outdoor festivals, which mix local and big-name foreign bands, may be one way forward. Not only do they provide economies of scale, with a stack of bands performing on the one stage over one or two days, but festivals also create a lot of hype.
“There’s a huge amount of energy and optimism,” Hamilton says. “People want to see this work.”