Rock Coming of age: The government used to see us as dangerous, Now they see us as a market

Thanks to my fabulous peep at Quirky Beijing for pointing this article out on sunday: The New York Times revisits the festival issue and actually does a decent job addressing it with a good write up and a nice video that deserves lots of street cred since Matthew Niederhauser , who knows a thing or two about music in China, is involved.

The whole write up is nothing new really.. especially if you’re a festival goer/music lover based in China. What really grabbed my attention and got me thinking over the past 24 hours was this quote by Yang Haisong of P.K.14 :

“The government used to see us as dangerous,” he said. “Now they see us as a market.”

Yang has been around the block a few times and around the world touring a few more… and he’s no fool apparently. Government involvement, corporate sponsorships and many vested interests all around China are slowly diluting the essence of rock n roll here, or at least taking away some of its rebellion! One could even argue that the lion is being tamed for the circus:

Cui Jian is performing regularly in Beijing without problems. Foreign artists are allowed back in and bands are fine as long as they sing certain songs in English… these performers once feared and revered are now the arrowheads of corporate China! But is that necessarily a bad thing?

As more and more generations of musicians are coming up, they’re squeezing each other out of the limelight and the stages. They’re also competing against each other for record deals and paying fan base… something’s gotta give at some point. There are not enough fans going around able to pay and not all of them will get paid. It’s just the reality of things!
The lucky ones can turn to festivals, corporate sponsorship and what not… whatever pays the bills! Will Bigger Bang fans mind watching their favorite band play for free just because they have to look at a puma or a converse star in the background? not really… at some point, they might! but for now, it’s a win win!

There was a massive outcry from artists in Beijing following Strawberry Festival in May 2010 about how badly they were treated vowing to never deal with Modern Sky again… guess what, quite a bit of those bands were back on a Modern Sky Festival.. it’s called needing a payday folks! and like it or not, shows at 2 Kolegas, Mao Live etc… don’t pay the bills. Corporate gigs however, do pay more for those who can get them especially for novelty and nostalgia acts.

This is not a China-only phenomenon folks… artists everywhere are doing corporate gigs to pay the bill! most of the time, we’re just not aware of it: Check out this little piece about Dylan, the Stone et co. doing it It’s basically a natural evolution of a music scene where at the end of the day, it’s just a business and people wanna make money off of it…
The mighty Ozzy Osbourne himself resorted to touring with heavy sponsorship a few years back in order to have a free ozzfest… does it really make a difference if Guitar Hero/Jager sponsor a free festival as opposed to BMW?

The big difference seems to me that in China, it’s happening a bit faster than it has anywhere else in the world and it might be more damaging:

In the 1980’s all these bands appeared and by early 90’s, record labels from all over the world were drooling over them.. much much money was spent on Tang Dynasty, Cui Jian, He Yong and company but they were not ready to handle it.. far from it! at some point, it just imploded!
Now, we’re seeing that interest all over again but people are more careful ,they’re hedging their bets: Maybe Mars is cherry picking artist from their pool of talent. Pilot Records is gripping the underground rock metal scene, MIDI has their own slice of the pie to deal with ( just to name a few) and Tag Team records is in a bit of a limbo. Foreign $ are also sniffing around with Damon Dash looking to find fresh new blood and events like Global Battle of the Bands….

Again, it’s a cycle that happens everywhere… some bands have been around long enough and can sniff the difference like The Subs who decided to release their last album “Queen of F###ing Everything” independently after experiencing the pain of dealing with record labels… these bands will be the last bastion of real middle-finger salutes. They ve been around long enough and they were tight enough to survive themselves and survive a corrupt, chaotic industry without any proper guidance. I think they of all people have learned their lesson.
Others, if they’re lucky and they’re still around, will be on a CCTV sponsored stage doing an 8mn set with their contemporaries as nostalgia acts in a few years.

Money, fame, corporate sponsorship and crappola of bullshit… all fun and games… the big question is, where is the goddamn guidance? There is very little talk between generations of musicians in Beijing as I’ve noticed over the past year. Tons of them are not even aware of the local scene nor do they seem to care! I noticed a young aspiring rock star chatting up an established superstar a few months back at 2 Kolegas… they young-ling didn’t even care that someone who toured the world and was selling tons of records, much less playing arenas, was asking him his name….. shame.. they could learn so much from those before them.

If you’re interested in more on the topic, read this little gem by none other than Helen Feng over at China Music Radar

I’m not sure how i got here with my ramblings but i’ll be curious to hear your thoughts.

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4 Responses

  1. Andy Best says:

    In the Shanghai shows you had to have bought Puma goods (shoes for one entry, + a top to get a friend in) to enter for ‘free’ and then put up with the advertising. The Band (talking about Bigger Bang) then played a next day show at Yuyintang anyway.Fans did mind.

    Also, the band have gone the same way as Queen Sea Big Shark. They came out with energy and real punch live. Created a buzz. Then after hanging round sponsors and ad people they have dropped off unforgivably and lost their mojo.

    The unspoken thing about sponsorships here is the fact that, as a percentage of what that campaigns do for the clients, the pay deals are sh*t.

    The biggest story of local band meets sponsor has barely registered on the blogosphere. Shanghai rock-pop band Candy Shop did an 8 song deal with Shanda Games, one of China’s giants. Millions of gamers will play those ads and those games and the company’s revenue is massive. Candy Shop are obviously rolling in it now and have become a full time band ..err ..wait a minute, they haven’t. Oh.

  2. Beijing Daze says:

    Thanks for the feedback Andy, much appreciated.

    Things seem to be a bit different in Beijing from what I’ve seen:

    Xie Tian Xiao just did a gig a few weeks back sponsored by snickers that was completely free. Representatives were on hand to give people tickets at the entrance until they ran out.

    The ongoing Zippo series at Yugong Yishan seems to be a decent payer according to the bands that have taken part but this one is part of their huge PR deal with webber-shandwick contract. Much like with the bigger bang deal in Shanghai, you can get two tickets with the purchase of each Zippo lighter. That said, it’s quite easy to get in those for free.

    The payoffs in Beijing from normal gigs are not that high to begin with and in certain venues like Mao Live, where bands might end up paying out of their own pocket if there isn’t enough of a turnout, sponsored gigs are a decent payoff for those that take part.

    As you said though, the whole Band-meets-sponsor deal is very much a grey area, one that is not addressed enough sometimes… but then again, does it really need to be addressed? We’ve seen the script over and over in many countries and unless the bands themselves are talented/have rabbid following, these things don’t do much for them…. that’s where the guidance aspect comes in.

    I look at a band like Rustic that’s won a global battle of the band and still can’t make ends meats without day jobs. Has the win benefited them? on the short term yes but in a year’s time, they might not even be around… again, lack of proper guidance.

  3. Andy Best says:

    The reason bands can’t get by is cos there’s no industry and diy activity has a glass ceiling cos of the govs attitude.

    Another issue is that, for example, having your show sponsored by Snickers is an embarrassment and accepting random advertising means you are a dishonest artist whose own ‘voice’ cannot be trusted to be authentic. This is fully understood in other, developed scenes.

    Given the choice of being a Zippo band or only being able to do it part time (in the absence of a proper industry) … being part time is the right choice.

    If we want to support bands, we should buy the CDs and T-shirts and pay to see their shows as punters.

  1. November 26, 2010

    […] of the alternative music scene in China from industry watchers such as China Music Radar and Beijing Daze. Obviously it was too short to cover all the historical and social nuances bound up with […]