Special Sinica Podcast: The Music Edition

I’m a huge fan of the Sinica Podcast series hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn. The topics are pretty well picked and more often than not relevant in regards to the China we live in. Last week, the guys tackled the music industry, or a small subsection of it, with the help of Michael Pettis ( D-22/Maybe Mars) and Archie Hamilton ( Split Works/ China Music Radar)
http://popupchinese.com/lessons/sinica/the-china-rock-podcast

The discussion covered a range of issues with some valuable opinions and comments made by all parties. It makes an interesting addition to last month’s issue of The Beijinger that yours truly was part off.
I’ll come back later with some detailed thoughts on this one.

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23 Responses

  1. Kaiser says:

    Only so much that we could cover in the limited time that we had, unfortunately. Will be interested in hearing what you would have to add to the discussion. Maybe we should have you on and maybe Jaime too, and continue the discussion!

  2. I found the podcast cool and interesting, a different perspective for certain. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a Big hit in China, WOW! Billions lovin your creativity.
    Keep coming with your AWESOME! content, I know I’m lovin It!

  3. Andy Best says:

    I enjoyed the pod a lot. What interests me though, is how different the issues are those on the ground, so to speak. The Shanghai scene, in terms of both artists and audience, is ready to explode but is terminally held back by local gov and plce.

    Take Yuyintang as a practical example. They basically sell out all weekend shows and are a community hub but are continually harassed and barred from mainstream presence – despite having a full licence.

    Let me throw in one practical example. Every band who plays there must submit all lyrics and videos of all songs before getting approved (this as well as the venue having the full permit). The show is then subject to closure up until one hour before door. And, if any band has a foreign member they are counted as an international act and denied permit.Despite their best efforts, YYT simply cannot keep up with demands and many shows are disrupted or have to pull marketing and start at later times to avoid inspection.

    They do their level best to go by the book, but by the book is impossible.

    This is one example from many issues.

    Also, I find it odd to hear talk of the ‘industry’ here when there are no consistent laws or structures that constitute a true industry. I guess the working definition is more like ‘the sum of all music activity at a given point in time.’

    Also. Kaiser, I feel your views on technical ability and music at the end there were a bit extreme … but I secretly sympathise as I spent the 80’s as a guitar mad teen who was into metal and players like Vai and Satch. But, I think obviously some bands like , easy example, The Sex Pistols were hugely influential and meaningful to fans and to music in general despite being so incompetent that they used to unplug Sid’s amp to improve the shows.

    Follow up pod, please.

    • Jaime says:

      Too bad about YYT and Shanghai… I can’t see ever risking going all the way down there to do a show, especially being a foreigner. It’s just not worth it and is why Shanghai will always be “not so good” for local music. Pity unless you are a freakin DJ.

  4. Beijing Daze says:

    I’ve just finished listening to the podcast for the second time just to make sure I didn’t miss out on any comments.

    I find myself agreeing on quite a few points with Michael Pettis about the quality of the offer in Beijing as well as the quantity even though I might disagree with his picks in bands.
    I’m glad Archie brought up that there was movement outside of Beijing especially in cities like Wuhan and Xi’an where many bands seem to come out of.

    That said, much like Jaime Welton commented last month in the Beijinger, we’re all still underground… heck, in some cases, we’re the underground of the underground and thus lacking consistency in rules within one city, much less in a whole country.

    Jeremy had a point when talking about government sponsored artists: those are the current base for the industry. Bigger names that play arenas and sell tons of ringtones. Whether we like it or not, those are the industry drivers. The rest of it is peanuts.

    Are things improving? I believe so! The interest is there and the bands are getting more recognition nationwide thanks to certain brands that have recognized an opportunity: Zippo with their hot nights, Tiger Beer and their battle of the bands, Converse sponsoring tons of festivals, fairwhale jeans picking up Bigger Bang, a Carsick Cars song showing up on commercials…. it’s coming hard and fast but only a few will reap the benefits.
    The big brands are seeing this as an opportunity for cheap and fairly effective market penetration with the upcoming generation they can’t be blamed for it.

    Still, there are inconsistencies in the product: It’s insane that we pay the same ticket price to see Hanggai as we do for some pimpled teenagers that have barely come out of diapers.. That’s where artists like Xie Tian Xiao are smarter: pick your festivals, protect your brand and play often enough for people to remember your and miss you. If you can get 90K headlining, why bother dealing with the occasional 3 or 4k that you get playing some crap establishment.

  5. Cool Ghool says:

    Okay, let the bomb drop:

    My thoughts are off the cuff and a bit scattered….

    Kaiser gives up his ghost by talking about 400-500 seat venues. How glorious. The backbone of Chinese rock’n’roll – those bands – are mostly looking at venues that can pack in 100-200 people on an exceptionally good day (outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan). Later on in the podcast Pettis kept it real talking about shows outside of the Beijing-Shanghai-Wuhan hotbed that pull in 20 people not being uncommon for the Maybe Mars crew. I know, I’ve witnessed some of those shows with my own eyes’n’ears (I’m usually person #20: the heavily tattooed laowai giant)

    Archie obfuscates rock with electronica and hip hop, which I find myself agreeing with Kaiser (a rare event on this podcast!!!!): it’s pop. The artists may not be raking in the dough, but the mainstream – from commercials to movies on the mainland – embrace electronica, if in marginalized way, when compared to rock. It’s ear candy and easily rendered neutral and safe without removing its guts, unlike a lot of rock’n’roll. One shouldn’t even compare the two, imo, but it’s a philosophical disagreement…. Rock in China is far from mainstream and it has a long way to go in breaking down doors.

    I agree with Michael Pettis on Beijing having one of the best music scenes in the world.
    He’s been one of the voices that made this known in the international, mainstream press (since he’s the go-to guy for lazy hacks: and mainstream journalism is a sea of shark-hacks big on laziness, imo) to the point of marginalizing other cities.

    They talk up Queen Sea Big Shark a bit. This got me thinking…
    I think Shanghai’s music scene, while interesting, is like Shanghai as a whole: transient in having any unity and grit, glamor obsessed in presentation, and really shallow when you strip away the location, the venues, the promotion and examine the music head-on. A lot of Shanghai’s rock strikes me as very pop-driven. Take for example: Queen Sea Big Shark. They’re a pop band walking in the indy spotlight. There’s very little rock’n’roll about them, imo. They strike me as something akin to Wang Fei with a real band, imo. Pure pop. In terms of diversity and authenticity (as in the music no being a vessel to some kind of pop cult of personality – a point that Andrew started to make but Kaiser cuts him short, early on): I think Shanghai definitely has the vibe of look and presentation over substance, innovation and sound. Too glamorous for me. It’s the kind of scene that really sucked my love out of writing about music in the states to a permanent curb in 1993.

    As an aside, many of the non-Shanghai-based bands I know love playing in Shanghai because they manage to earn a few extra RMB in pocket change they don’t always get on other legs of their tours, and they tend to get housed in better hotels there, but that’s Shanghai: developed and a place people enjoy hitting because it’s rich and posh. It’s a financial mecca, but vacuous with artistic culture when compared to Beijing (unlike the early days of the Republic, when they claimed it was “the Paris of the Orient.”). Beijing beats it, hands down. I digress.

    Also when Queen Sea Big Shark are making 6 figures to play a festival then I think they’re mainstream and no longer underground. I think it’s totally because they’re a pop band and not a rock band. When a band like Hedgehog or Carsick Cars can break that (and Carsick Cars are already in 5 figures as someone mentioned on the show) then I think you can say rock has broken (assuming Carsick Cars don’t pull a Tookoo, Super Vc, or New Pants* and go full on pop.)

    *New Pants seem to alternate from pop to indy band with the flick of a switch. Still, it’s a far cry from their days playing pure, 3 chord rock…

    Despite being so Beijing-centric I do believe that Michael Pettis truly loves Chinese rock and D22 has hosted many bands from outside Beijing, and thus, contributed to the bigger picture of developing rock’n’roll elsewhere in on the mainland. I’m not even taking the Maybe Mars bands touring China into consideration when I make this statement. I’m talking about the out-of-town bands getting a chance @ D22, which is still a badge of pride for many (though hearing friends’ bands talk up playing Mao and Yugong Yishan; they appear to be bigger points of pride).

    So, I have mixed feelings. I think if Pettis were to branch out beyond Beijing he could really help a lot of bands out, but that’s a selfish request. He didn’t have to do jack shit as a foreign guest, but he did. He won’t get rich from D22 and Maybe Mars, but he has contributed a lot for a guy who clearly does a lot of it out of pocket.

    So, on one hand: too Beijing centric, yet when you strip away that sticking point he has done a lot and it has mostly been for the greater good. If that greater good went beyond Beijing it sure would help a lot of people, but he’s not the lone figure and some other people have to step up to the plate and contribute outside of the Eastern block of rock culture (take, for example: Xi’an’s Luzhou).

    Archie and Michael had interesting observations on economic affluence equaling musical preference complacency, i. e.: rock being in and rock being out dependent upon economic prosperity on a national level.

    Archie mentioned that a lot of the live houses are being closed down by the government. I wish they would have gone into that more. That’s very pertinent to the conversation. I think it’s almost criminal that it was basically ignored.

    Kudos to Archie for sticking up for the taxpayers who have to foot the bill for provincial government-sponsored music festivals.

    I appreciated Kaiser presenting the Da Kou phenomena in context with the artistic development in mainland music. His second decent point in a podcast that otherwise reveals exactly how out of touch he is with non-metal music played in venues that don’t hold 400 to 500 people..

    Pettis plugging his house bands yet again! I like almost all of the Maybe Mars bands, but it gets to be
    a bit much when Pettis endlessly promotes his stable, when there are more bands (equally awesome) beyond his stable of talent. I can’t help but laugh. It’s his right, but it harkens back to the old school carny side of business. He does take the high road in plugging Hedgehog at the end, but they’re a band who will hardly benefit in a tremendous way from the kudos. Mentioning a smaller band would have greater meaning and provided a greater rub. Hedgehog tours internationally. They have an English language web presence. I can see why they’re an easy, convenient choice. They’re also very much in line with his love of The Velvet Underground. They fit the mold well.

    I really wish they’d have spent more time on this topic. Three or four podcasts. It’s better than the journo/hack circle jerks that are the usual Sinica fare. Easily one of the few podcasts from Sinica that I’d recommend. I am surprised. I really prepared for the typical Sinica podcast. I’m glad it wasn’t.

    Now to drop the kid gloves: Kaiser’s ignorance about hardcore is rapidly apparent. It’s as though he never knew about metal-influenced punk like Black Flag, etc., which Demerit shares more than a
    kindred spirit with. I’m surprised by this ignorance (and I bet he knows of Black Flag, but his observations on this podcast doesn’t make it seem that way). Fuck, Jello Biafra sites Black Sabbath (and the Stooges and the Ramones) as one of his big influences. Rollins, Greg Ginn and many other important figures in international punk rock do too. Johnny Rotten is an unabashed Alice Cooper fan. Kaiser simply hates punk, doesn’t get it, and for all of his talk of “virtuosity,” he displays precious little knowledge or respect for simple rock history. He has a pair of arrogant balls to pull out the literacy argument, when he reveals his own ignorance of punk and hardcore music.

    Does Kaiser live in a privileged, ignorant musical world where everyone must be virtuosos and play 400-500 seat venues? You know, “SMALL” venues…

    Props to Archie for sticking up for scenes outside of Beijing.

    Kaiser’s showing his age with the ragging on “chops” of bands. It’s clear he doesn’t understand the fundamentals of punk and underground music. He’s all about the mechanics and it shows in his work. It’s polished but utterly soulless. It’s mechanical. Far from horrible, but it feels about as sincere as a 6 yea note, or a Shanzhai I”Appel I-Phone” (sic). He may understand it on paper, but not in his guts, and I think that comes across in his guitar work. That’s sad. Then again, should I be surprised? He played with the mainland equivalent of cock rock hair metal by way of Tang Dynasty….

    It was awesome to hear equally cush, monied Michael Pettis stick up for bands that don’t grow their hair out and brag about virtuosity. Kaiser really proved himself a snob with the literature analogy. I bet he hasn’t touched a book by Charles Bukowksi or Iceberg Slim. Insinuating that punk is kind of “illiterate” because they can’t go Yngwie Malmsteen really shoots Kaiser’s credibility to shit.
    It lays bare where his prejudices stand and proves that just because you were an important figure in the development of Chinese rock’n’roll doesn’t mean you’re infallible.

    Overall: I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this edition. Remove the journo hacks and the pundits and it has some value. Too bad that this is an exception and not the rule. Kaiser was the weakest link on this conversation, despite being an active and successful musician in China. Archie and Pettis have their heads in the right place. I wish Pettis would branch out, but that’s a selfish request. Good on him for giving props to Hedgehog.

  6. Cool Ghool says:

    I want to point out I am aware of my mistaking QUEEN SEA BIG SHARK as a Shanghai-based band when they are are Beijing band.

  7. Archie says:

    Wow. Some heavy commentary. I’m glad that the podcast has created some conversation.

    Music is always going to divide people. That’s what makes it so wonderful. In defense of the other people on the podcast, in my experience, Kaiser continually downplays his knowledge of the scene today (he has 2 kids and definitely isn’t as involved as he used to be). That doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned the write to comment, as he has probably contributed as much to China’s music scene as anyone.

    As for Michael, well, I think the guy’s devotion to his label is commendable. They have signed a LOT of bands, OK, predominantly from Beijing, but also from other cities. I think actually he might get very rich from Maybe Mars one day, but that’s just my opinion.

    It was fun to do and it might be good to bring together more like minded people in a similar environment in the near future. There are some vocal opinions just waiting to get into a scuffle :-)

    Finally, to Andy’s point, despite all of this positivity, the authorities are definitely making this shit next to impossible to do, and it’s getting harder everyday. It will never die though and I hope those trying to stop it get theirs

    Love and peace to all

  8. It was a great podcast guys. Fantastic job dealing with such a big topic in such a short time. Jeremy Goldkorn should be congratulated for keeping everything in-line and on-track. A couple of quick points: I disagree with Kaiser regarding the overiding importance of “chops” and musical virtuousity. I know I’m not quoting exactly here, but close enough. I was screaming “what about the Velvet Underground?” at my iPhone when he said that and much to my satisfaction, Michael Pettis quickly chimed in with the same thought/question. While I disagreed with Kaiser on that point, I basically was in agreement with mostly everything else he said–although his perspective of the China music scene is (understandably) not the same as most punters given his background and experience in the “industry.” I especially agree with Kaiser’s comments on techno or electronica and I was left wondering (not in a bad way) why Archie Hamilton was chosen to appear on this podcast, as he took the place of other commentators or pundits who may have a more appropriate perch from which to judge the China music scene. While I have never met Archie, I generally respect everything I have read by him (on various SNS, blogs etc.) and have heard very good (and undoubtedly deserved) things about him from mutual friends. That said, I believe the festival scene is a very poor indicator of the health of the music scene in China (because of many of the same reasons Kaiser, Michael, Archie and Jeremy talked about–e.g. government funding, tourism etc.). Michael Pettis was his usual loquacious self and while he has been criticized here and elsewhere for shameless self-promotion, there is nothing wrong with that. That in fact, is what the music business is all about. If Kaiser is reading this, I have some thoughts on what as you said “went wrong” in 1993(?) in the China music scene and will post these comments later.

  9. Andy Best says:

    Hi Cool Ghoul

    That perception about the Shanghai scene being somehow more commercial is just a stereo type and comes apart with just a little thought or experience. We have commercial-ish bands but no more or less than any larger scene.

    The most successful venue for rock and indie is Yuyintang. It’s a small venue (2-300 legally) but it fills out all its weekend shows because it tirelessly supports and is involved in the community, it’s not just a bar. Its biggest nights (For Shanghai bands) tend to be metal shows these days.

    As for doing business, Beijing is the bigger scene.

    As for bands making a success out of retro-pop, electronic sounding or more commercial friendly music … Beijing’s QSBS and Pet Conspiracy are untouchable. Beijing’s.

    Shanghai has a wide range of styles, all fighting on the underground. The ‘Miniless’ crew are very popular, and successful, having done CDs in Beijing. Like Duck Fight Goose, Boojii, and Muscle Snog. Pairs are good now. Those are all experimental and/or noise rock. Metal is big here. There are a bunch of Shanghai bands with foreign members who use the experience and social/financial mobility very unselfishly. Boys Climbing Ropes, for example, are great, they are in no way commercial sounding.

    The kings of the underground are Top Floor Circus, a punk band whose early shows were based on NYC style provocation and recently were banned by the man for the whole length of the Expo.

    We have the very active Trash-a-go-go collective doing monthly shows featuring, garage rock and hardcore.

    It goes on …

    Here’s what we hear from when Beijing bands visit us. They tell us they like playing here because fans fill the shows and dance, pogo, mosh etc right off the bat. That is a complement I’ll take.

  10. Archie says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for getting involved. Honestly, I’m not sure why I wouldn’t be in a position to comment – my company has put on over 300 independent club shows in China over the last 6 years, in 30 cities, with both international and Chinese bands. We have had a Chinese band play ever single show we have ever done, either as support or headline. My blog (Chinamusicradar) has covered the Chinese music industry for longer than any over (coming up to 4 years) and we have delved into everything from branding to live to pop to TV to festivals.

    Happy to listen to an alternative position of course :-)

  11. Cool Ghoul says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Andy.

    I want to make it clear I LIKE Michael Pettis and what he had to say. My nitpick about the carny promotion was less of a complaint than just a remark. There’s no animosity towards Pettis there [BD-edit]
    Maybe someday there can be a podcast where there is discussion about the rock scene in the interior of China and provide listeners with on-the-ground reports about that while Archie and Michael moderate the discussion and toss in their experience and observations.

    Anyway, kudos to Michael and Archie. [BD-Edit]

  12. Jaime says:

    Here’s what I think….eh, nah never mind…. Let’s stop talkin and start Rockin!

    Fun Podcast…

    • Beijing Daze says:

      I like where you going with this Jaime… I’ll bring the ukulele, you get the washboard

  13. Jaime says:

    Should I practice so I get my chops up on the washboard or should I just say screw it and bring my delay pedal and laptop?

    I just erased a rant I almost started…. whew, close one

  14. David Wolf says:

    Thanks for an extremely educational discussion, all. Between the podcast and the comments [BD-EDIT] I feel like I’ve started a masterclass in Chinese rock music.

    Kaiser should make music a regular part of his topical rotation, and should probably do his next one when Jonathan Campbell gets Red Rock published. I’d get Ed Peto into the studio as well, as his views on the scene would be an interesting counter to Kaiser’s.

    Not all of us are aficionados, and at the risk of inciting a debate, any recommendations on which bands to start with if diving into Mando rock, and where to find downloadable tracks or CDs?

  15. Cool Ghoul says:

    Also, how does someone receive a “masterclass in Chinese rock music,” when there weren’t a fuck of a lot of bands being discussed?” See: that’s “China Blogosphere” fanny-patting through hyperbole, and precious little of it is genuine.

  16. Beijing Daze says:

    Ok folks, I go house hunting for a few days and this thing degenerates into name calling!!! That is absolutely unacceptable for a topic this serious in my opinion!

    Up to this point in the comments, there isn’t really much bickering or mudsligging, it’s more opinions that we’re all free to agree or disagree with. I’d like it to remain that way and have deleted a few comments that crossed the line in by book!

    I really believe out enthusiasm for the music scene is what has kept this thread from degenerating and I wish for it to remain this way!

    Cool Ghool was harsh in his comments but he hasn’t gone down a road of name calling. I might not agree with his statements or his assessment of Kaiser’s playing style but he gives reasonable explanation in my book. His comments, that I reposted with his permission, are constructive and pertinent to the field. We are all free to disagree but let’s not get personal… please!

    Criticize, condemn, demonize and judge as much as you want, but do it fairly!

  17. Beijing Daze says:

    now back to the discussion at hand, I’m really surprised at the differences between the Shanghai and Beijing scenes. I had no idea that the situation was so bad down there in terms of control and regulations.

    In Beijing, there’s a new venue popping up almost every other week, all can handle upwards of 50/100 people putting on shows all the time with very little restrictions except for those sensitive times where the boys in blue get antsy.

    Are the restrictions mostly limited to bigger venues like Mao and YYT but there are other small ones that get away with it? I’m certainly curious!

  18. Andy Best says:

    @BD

    I know what you mean. But as for heavily editing posts and deleting others … you’ve gone way over the top with that. Personally, it’s killed the whole thing for me. What was wrong with my second post? There was no name calling in it at all.

  19. Beijing Daze says:

    @Andy

    None of you posts were edited or deleted.

  20. Archie says:

    Badr has his own 50 cent army….

  21. Andy Best says:

    @BD One is completely missing. The ones where I reply to CG’s implication and wonder if my blog isn’t a ‘circle jerk’ :) then I answered David with some website advice.