INTRODUCTIONAs China continues to develop at a breakneck pace, youth culture in China is becoming more diverse andmore energetic by the day. What effect is this having on the China’s indie music scene? As a younger,post-90’s generation of kids comes of age, what is the role of indie music in their lives? How and wheredo they find new music? What’s happening outside of Beijing and Shanghai? How do they feel aboutthe involvement of brands? And what does the indie music scene need next? These are just a few of thequestions explored in The Young On the Run. Thanks for reading.
OUT FROMTHEUNDERGROUNDLook back only 20 years or so and indie music culture was at its very infancy in China. For those whodidn’t understand or hadn’t heard these new sounds, it was considered at best ‘underground’ or‘non-mainstream’ and at worst ‘negative’ and ‘destructive’. At that time, the people who played thiskind of music were considered ‘rebellious’, ‘anti-society’, ‘without future’, or even ‘strange’. It was onlysome 10 to 15 years later, around 2000, that thanks to the concerted effort of select media, severalmusic labels, and in particular, brands, that the indie music scene really began to come into thepublic eye.
Today, with this greater exposure, people no longer feel strange about those young things wearingcolorful clothes, tight jeans, waving guitars and singing in crazy voices. Nowadays, indie music is nolonger considered as a ‘dark’ or ‘underground’ among young kids. Indie in China, has come of age.“I think it’s a good change. Indie music is now considered as a brighter thing rather than associatingit with just drugs or sex” said LeZi, owner of ZhuLuHeFeng, an indie music label in Shanghai “People’sattitude is more open to it, and it’s more positive. As a result more young people are getting interestedin indie music. Some young people are exploring making their own music, meanwhile, there are otherswho can support their choice.”“I have tattoo, I smoke and drink. Some people may consider me a bad girl and aplayer, but actually I’m not!” Yo, the vocalist of PinkBerry“I call myself ‘earnest girl’ online because actually I am. People may think kids who playing rock musicdon’t study well, but actually my score is good and I’ve got a good job now. What’s more, our music andlyrics is really positive. It doesn’t mean anything angry.”Indie music has become a lifestyle for young people. It has become a little more mainstream, but it alsomeans that more young people have started to understand and enjoy this kind of lifestyle, which givesmore opportunity to the development of this culture.
A sk any young Chinese way for obtaining new sounds. person how big a role the Emule(VeryCD), Rayfile, 115NetDisck internet plays in their music are some P2P and cloud storage life, and the majority will websites for people to share big filesanswer above 70%. The reverse is online. In recent days however Chinaalso true – a recent study by CNNIC has started to take some actions onhas shown that listening to music copyright protection, so things areis now the second largest online getting more challenging.activity in China. When it comes toindie music specifically, Douban is However, when their are losers therethe first port of call for most young are also winners, and Xiami is one ofpeople to obtain the latest indie them. With millions of songs for usersmusic news. Almost every kid we to stream, Xiami has successfullyspoke to said they started to get in attracted hoards of indie musictouch with indie culture via Douban. lovers to use it as a daily online musicThe biggest advantage of Douban player. It’s even easier for users tois that it provides young people switch among songs without thewith a simple platform to choose need to buy or download. Users canwhat they like by selecting different also share the music on SNS’s likenetworks and information sources Douban or Weibo.to follow. Furthermore, it is easierfor indie fans to find people who Finally, with the rapid rise of Sinahave the same interests as them on Weibo (a Chinese microbloggingDouban than offline: the functions platform) in the last 2 years, it alsoof ‘group’ and ‘artist mini site’ provide has become an important tool notthem with a free space to discuss just for music lovers, but also bands.and communicate with their favorite More and more bands are usingartists. Weibo to update their fans on news, gigs and other gossip direct to theirAnother important function on phone or computer. As a resultDouban is its ‘TongCheng’ section, Weibo is an increasingly importantwhich publishes all the events that way for bands to build and maintainhave happened in recent weeks. connections with their fans andAlmost all the young indie music fans other bands. So without a doubtin China use Doban ‘TongCheng’ to the internet is playing a big rolekeep themselves informed of when in helping to expand China’s indieand where gigs will take place. Live music scene. However, many believehouses also have their own mini- there are still challenges to overcome.sites through which they can keep The Great Firewall of China still limitsin touch with followers. As a result, the majority of kids exposure to new‘TongCheng’ has become a very sources of inspiration. They are at theefficient and useful online tool for party, but it is local one, not a globalfans to manage their offline time. one.At the time of writing, iTunes is notavailable for buying music in China(and may well never be), and as mostknow, few Chinese kids are willing topay for digital music. Even thoughdownloading music is technicallyillegal as in other countries, for youngpeople in China, downloading musicfrom the internet is a very important
F or post-90s kids in China, the readily available access to information and content (compared to their elders) has given rise to a much broader range of music tastes and inspiration. For many, their likely route into indie music would be from online discovery and downloading, while in stark contrast, the post-70s and post-80s generations grewup on a mixture of smuggled cassettes, CDs and the occasional radio program. Without adoubt, the rise of the internet has given this younger generation access to many new artists,but at the same time we can see it is shaping their perception of bands and artists. Because of their limited access, post-70s and post-80s people’s interest in indie musicstarted with some typical or classic bands like Nirvana, Eagles, Bob Dylan. Memories madea big influences on them and in time made these kind of bands and singers become iconicrock idols in early Chinese indie fans’ hearts. However, nowadays kids no longer have theunique feeling of ‘iconic figures’. To them, the music of Nirvana or Bob Dylan is no longerconsidered as classic, it’s just another kind of music, the same as any other music that theylisten to.
“Maybe we don’t have the same feeling as post-70s and post-80s if we wereat Bob Dylan’s concert because we don’t have the same memories – it doesn’tresonate the same way with us” Xu Yan’erFor this same reason, younger kids may seem to lack a little of the ‘rock & roll spirit’ of theirpredecessors, they’re listening is less serious and more playful in outlook.But their is a positive side to this: not having biases or preconceptions makes post-90s kidsmore accepting of upcoming bands, more willing to embrace new sounds for what they areand not who they’re played by. It is very possible for them to be a fan of a new band when theyhear it for the first time and it happened to match their music taste. It’s therefore easier for theupcoming bands made up of younger members the same age as the audience to relate bothon and off the stage, newer bands like Gala and PinkBerry being two such successful examples.
THE SEARCH FOR YOUNGER AUDIENCEAccording to gig organizers and ticket sales at live houses, young peoplebelow the age of 35 are the main stay of live gigs in China. Among them, youngstudents account for about 2/3rd, most of them being university students. Forstudents, high school and university have always been a prime time to absorbnew things and cultivate their own interests and values. Live houses know thiswell and target students when doing gig promotions. They send out flyersand stick posters in schools, some of the even have specific contacts in eachuniversity to help with promoting.Such promotions are important ways of bringing new & younger audiencesto gigs, and some brands are getting involved as a way to connect withthese younger audiences. Dickies recently did a national music road showin shopping malls around 6 cities, and a music tour within universities inShanghai. ZhuLuHeFeng (a label) played a big role in the tour. ZhuLuHeFengmanages several indie bands in Shanghai including Pinkberry and The Sonnet,and helped organize the tour while Dickies provided free T-shirts as the luckydraw prizes during the tour. ZhuLuHeFeng is planning to continue this kind ofuniversity tour as an annual music project, and is hoping to bring it to othercities as well.In Wuhan, the people at VOX live house are also doing a similar music projectwith universities. It’s the same as what ZhuLuHeFeng did in Shanghai, but notsponsored. “It’s a bit hard,” said manager Li Ke, “There are a lot of limitationsto hold these kind of activities in universities in Wuhan. They consider thatyou are doing a commercial activity and charge you with high fees.” But theyare planning to do this every year. “I think it’s great” said Li Ke, “It’s easier forstudents to accept new culture. So they will get interested in indie music, andmore willing to come to the gigs.” As for these kind of organizations promotingindie music culture in universities, students embrace them.“As students have fewer opportunities to go outside for gigs, they are even morepassionate than the people in live houses.” said Le Zi. Some of them have nevereven experienced indie music live before they started going into universities.So for bands like PinkBerry, the tour has been an opportunity to build a biggerfan-base: “Through the tour, more people get to hear our music style, and ifthey like it, they come to see more of our gigs” said Yang Fu, PinkBerry’s guitarist.
While there are more and more young kids going to live houses to see indie music gigs, seldom do theygo alone. Meeting friends and having fun together at a gig is a big part of the reason for going. Mostkids either intend to make friends there or bring friends along with them. Music festivals are gaining inpopularity precisely because there are more things to do and see there - meeting friends, dressing up,taking pictures, going to flea markets and eating snacks among other things.“I love going to gigs. All the people there love the same music and same bands as I do. Ifeel that it’s a place I can belong in” Xu Yan’er“Lots of my best friends, we just met each other at gigs. We hung out to eat after the gigs, and we took ataxi together to share the cost” said Chen Yue.“I think the role of music is becoming an essential element in young people’s social life now.” said He Zhiyao,the boss of Freedom House in Changsha. Since there are more gigs and music festivals all over the nation,music has become one of the core ways to spend time with friends - same as going to night club, cafe orkaraoke.After all, gigs are still different from just listening to music online. Live shows have a unique, unrepeatableattraction.“I went to my first gig in Changsha when I was in high school. I didn’t know what it wasabout at first. But as soon as I listened to the music bursting out, I felt in love with it. Liveshows are different. It’s more powerful and touching.” Chen Yue
The flourishing cultural environment has also benefited indie bands. Post punk, synth pop, no wave,disco rock, electronic, experimental noise... various music elements are added into songs, which hasformed different genres of indie music in China.This kind of diversity is certainly a good thing for indie music. It provides fans with more possibilities toexplore, and bands with new opportunities to experiment. Bands like Carsick Cars have already startedto do this, as well as other upcoming bands. For example, Mini Train Heart is a new indie band in Wuhanwith a very alternative style - “they are too indie to reach a big audience, but they are promising. I lovethem” said Li Ke.This kind of diversity is creating more possibilities for the whole Chinese indie music scene. Wuhan wasconsidered as a city of punk rock several years ago, when there were a lot of well-known punk bandsthere. But now, there are more bands playing in different genres. It’s a sign of an improving indie musicscene even in small cities.
EACH CITYHAS ITSOWNIDENTITYWhile Beijing and Shanghai continue to be the two biggest (and most publicized) centers of indie musicin China – the vanguards of indie music all over the nation – pockets of bands and fans are emergingacross the country.For kids in Beijing, there are almost too many interesting things and events for them to play with. As aresult, kids are not so passionate about all of the activities associated with indie culture happing aroundthem unless something very rare and unique raises their curiosity. As Chen Yue said, “I just saw too manygigs. I felt a bit bored. Compared to gigs of international bands, I went to fewer gigs of local bands.” Onthe other hand, the many bands in Beijing give live houses a wide range of choices when holding gigs.But most of the people just tend to choose bands they are familiar with to watch, and it’s sometime moredifficult for new bands to attract enough audiences to their gigs. In order to ensure the income fromtickets, live houses may tend to choose those bands which have already become a little famous.“Going to Beijing is like a so-called ‘glory’ for bands” said Li Ke, “But get famous in your city first, and it’seasier for a band to go further in big cities like Beijing.”In Shanghai, the situation is slightly different. As a financial center, people have greater buying powerin Shanghai. A very obvious phenomena is a greater foreign contingency in Shanghai, especially at gigsof international bands. But in Shanghai, there are fewer local bands, fewer live houses, and fewer labels,than in Beijing. The market is more hungry in Shanghai, but also more commercial. ZhuLuHeFeng’s tourwith Dickies is a good example of how a music label is collaborating in a commercial way.Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, the indie music scene in more inland cities like Chongqing andChangsha is less developed, and people are less exposed to live indie music. Organizers face manychallenges from the government when holding events. In these cities, young people who are intoindie culture are often considered as un-obedient, rebellious, or bad kids. They don’t have as muchopportunity to fully express their individuality. “Music is an essential element in my life and I can’t live
without it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find somebody having the same hobby as I do” said DengJingqiu, an indie music lover in Chongqing. But the situation is improving. In Chongqing, althoughthe indie music scene is just starting to emerge, it has attracted a lot of young students in universitieswho love to experience in new things. “Students are the main audience in gigs.” said Deng Jingqiu, “Theindie music scene has been developing in Chongqing for several years now, and it’s easier to approachyounger people.” Chongqing just held a music festival inviting many bands from both home and abroad.The music festival was held by the government for improving the culture development in Chongqing. “Ithink it’s a good thing. We will have more similar activities in the future.”“We need a real live house because there isn’t one” said Xiao Ao, the manager of 46Bar in Changsha. Itshows how important having a real live house is to the development of indie music in China. 1 year ago,46Bar was closed down due to rent problems. Before that, 46Bar was the main live house for holdingmusic gigs in Changsha. During the year it was closed, gigs moved to a new pub called the FreedomHouse, but with 46Bar re-opening in the coming months at a new venue in Changsha, Xiao Ao isoptimistic about the future, “As we are returning, the atmosphere in Changsha will get better.”In Wuhan, the indie music scene is as flourishing as that of Beijing. This is mainly thanks to the best livehouse in Wuhan, VOX. Aside from holding indie music gigs, they also collaborate with other communities- for example skate and hip–hop - to hold parties. VOX has become an indie landmark in Wuhan, just likeD22 in Beijing. But unlike Beijing, Wuhan’s music scene is based more on collaboration between bandsand live houses. Since the number of bands is not as high as in Beijing, it is easier for the live house tomaintain a close relationship with bands.
RTUNITY In recent years, music festivals have mushroomed across China. In 2010, about 40 music festivals happened and in 2011 even more are slated. Is it all too much, too fast? Indie music promoter Splitworks have a suspicious perspective. “It’s like a fever. Most of the music festivals are initiated by the local government, real estate dealers or the tourism bureaus as a commercial – not creative - venture.”G “It’s all a bit superficial and I don’t know how long the trend will last, not all of these music festival can be held as annual things”. And for the bands that play them, seldom do they get paid well. Instead, the local government and real estate dealers are the biggest beneficiaries of these events. Do fans really need so many music festivals? They want authentic and high quality festival: “I will check the line up before I decide whether to go to a music festival.” said Chen Yue, “There are too many music festivals in China. Basically I always go to the old ones like Midi and Strawberry.” Many bands share the sentiment. “As indie music culture gets closer to the mainstream it becomes more commercial. There are more bands in China now, but I haven’t found better ones than before” wasGER AUDIENCE. a thought echoed by many we spoke to. So for the moment, while it is great to see a flourishing scene, many hope it is more than just that.
The biggest challenge facing indieBRANDS culture is that it is not “inside” Chinese culture – it is an import, not something naturally rooted inside Chinese culture. Although not all brand activities are improving the longterm future of X indie music culture in China (which is an issue), they are offering help in the short-term. “The big brands have resources BANDS and money, so I feel that they have the ability to do something to help indie music in China.” said LeZi, who collaborated with Dickies for the university tour. But what looks like help can also harm the scene. Too much endorsement, too much involvement destroys the very independence which it is founded on. “Brands in Wuhan just invited us to perform for them, it’s so terrible because it’s just a totally commercial road show. It’s nothing to do with indie music or bands.” In China, although a lot of brands are involving indie bands in brand activities, they don’t yet know how to use them to reach a win-win relationship. A lot of brands tend to use indie bands to improve their own brand images, but they don’t care about what bands get. For bands, perhaps the only benefit for being involved in is greater exposure and a chance to make quick buck. “We not only welcome brands with strong abilities to support indie music in China, but also need brands which really understand indie music culture to do something really authentic and cool.” Li Ke
“In cities like Wuhan, there is a diversesub-culture, but we lack of a force thatcan organize all of the tribes and do somegood to really help and improve theculture. Vox is doing something, but wedon’t have enough power and resources.”Apart from doing something useful, ‘doingsomething continuously’ is also importantbecause it’s far from enough to have oneevent or one brand activity happening ata time. “I saw some advertisements featuring indie bands” said Xu Yan’er, “But I don’tthink it’s unique because brands now all want to use something different in their adsto attract young people. For me, I may just pay more attention to those brands whenI’m shopping, but it doesn’t mean that I will love the brands just because they areusing indie bands in their ads.”What is needed are more brands that understand culture to do something thatreally helps the development of indie music in China continuously, rather thansimply using indie music as a tool to improve their own brand image.
GENERATIONMEThe purpose of putting together this paper was to gain a greater understanding of the so-called “post-90’s generation” perspective on music. But what does that term mean, and whodid we speak with?
China “post-90’s” generation were born into whirlwind of economic and social development, exposed froma young age to influences outside mainland China. Compared to the “post-80’s” generation that precededthem, raised in the more staunchly communist China, post-90’s kids are comparatively far away from‘tradition‘ and ‘convention’. Western culture has deeply influenced their thoughts, values and attitudes.They are a lucky generation growing up in a lucky time. They are more open to challenges and have morecourage to try something new. Online, they have easy access to all sorts of information, and a bigger stageto cultivate and develop their independence. They have greater material and monetary support to fullyexpress themselves. They started listening to indie music in high school or even middle school, and startedgoing to live gigs before or after their high school graduation.Their parents are younger and more willingto give them a looser environment to grow up in. A post-90’s kid would have started to date in junior highschool, while a post-80s would have started at high school or university. They can choose to have tattoos,dye their hair, wear strange clothes, or do anything that older people didn’t do before. They are moreconfident in themselves.In short, so the saying goes, “post-80s care more about us, post-90s care more about me.”
XuYan’erShanghai, 18, born 1992Currently a freshman in Fudan university, Xu startedlistening to indie music in high school and loveswatching folk and rock concerts. She hasn’t yet beento music festivals but is keen to go soon. Deng Jingqiu Chongqing,19, born 1991 Started listening to indie music in junior high school. Loves all kinds of music except metal and hard rock, and western indie music more than local. Loves beautiful clothes and vintage fashion.
Peter Shanghai, 20, born 1990 A diehard fan of rock music, he is able to comment on bands from a technical perspective. He is a student leader at university and always helps organize events. He has been to gigs across China, and also gigs in the US.XiudiBeijing, 17, born 1993Xiudi is a high school student preparing for hisart university entrance exam. He loves indierock and experimental music. He also doessome experimental music projects himself, andhas performed several times at D22 in Beijing.
Chen Yue Beijing, 20, born 1990Chen, an indie music fan & artist from Changsha and now studying in Beijing, began by learning classicalmusic and is an accomplished pianist. More recently she has done some personal music projects with thevocalist of Joyside. She is now a regular visitor of music festivals.WuWeichunShanghai, 21, born 1989Wu is an indie folk singer and songwriter onthe ZhuLuHeFeng Label. He has held smallconcerts several times in Shanghai, andperformed on the Dickies University Tour aswell as the recent ModernSky ZhouZhuangFolk & Poetry Festival.
Leeko Shanghai, 19, born 1991 The bass player of indie rock band New Vector, Leeko started listening to indie music in high school and formed a band with her friends when she was a freshman in university. Her signature look are leather jackets and sunglasses.YoShanghai, 20, born 1990Yo is the vocalist of Pink Berry. Recently, she joined the Dickies University Tour, and performed at the MidiFestival. She started listening to indie music at 12 years old because of the influence from her father. Yodresses stylishly with colorful pieces of vintage clothes. She loves West-coast punk rock.
Le ZiShanghai, 26, born 1985Le Zi is a former manager of Shanghai Mao Live House, a member of Pink Berry and The Sonnet, andfounder of the ZhuLuHeFeng indie music label in Shanghai. He manages several local Shanghai bandsand a French band, and helps bands organize university tours and produce albums.
Yang Fu Shanghai, 28, born 1981 Guitarist of indie rock band Pink Berry and Top Floor Circus, Yang Fu has a broad knowledge of the indie music scene inChina. His nickname is “Brother Dimple”, so called because of the dimples on his face.
LiKeWuhan, 23, born 1987Li Ke is an indie music and street culture lover, as well as Manager of Wuhan VOX Live House, where heis responsible for organizing events for VOX. He has an extensive knowledge of the indie music scene inWuhan.HeZhiyaoChangsha, 25, born 1986He Zhiyao (a.k.a Boss He) is manager of theFreedom House in Changsha, a music pub hometo most of the indie music gigs in Changshaduring 2010/11.
Xiao Ao Changsha, 33, born 1978 Manager of 46Bar in Changsha, one of the olderlive houses in Changsha. Due to rent issues 46Bar was closed for 1 year, but plan to reopen in 2011. As manager, he continues to be responsible fororganizing most of the gigs. Xiao has also been inthe band Short Circuit since the 1990s, one of the earliest rock bands active in Changsha. Fan Mu Shanghai, 25, born 1986 Fan is the manager of SplitWorks Shanghai and a big fan of western indie music. Recently, SplitWorks have brought over many overseas bands, including Whitest Boy Alive and World’s End Girlfriend, as well running the JUE Music & Art Festival in Shanghai and Beijing.
POSTSCRIPTAt the time of writing, news reaches us of Strawberry Festival in Suzhou being cancelled, allegedly becausethe site is unfit to host it, but many suspect differently. The Chinese government is faced with a conflictwhen it comes to these kinds of events. Indie music is still a sub-culture and rooted in the spirit of rebellion.The spirit of not following. But this independent spirit continues to pose a threat for China’s CommunistParty: in politics, and in daily life. Things are changing, but this latest incident shows it will be slow. Nomatter how hard we try, we live in China. We have no powers to object when the government decrees thatsomething is forbidden. We don’t know what will happen, the only thing we can do is hope for a betterfuture.