Sunday, July 23, 2006

"It Goes to Eleven"

A story I missed last month but stumbled onto thanks to China Digital Times: "China Rock's Troubled Renaissance." It's an interesting roundup of the state of China's rock scene, including the recent problematic launch of Rolling Stone in the PRC. An excerpt:
In many ways, the rock scene in China has never been healthier. Beijing has loosened up considerably toward big rock concerts. A dozen or so rock stars have become successful even by Western standards. Big rock concerts are now an established part of Chinese life. But most of the young could-be indie rock stars of tomorrow still face an uphill climb. Even though Beijing has backed off, there is still a lingering political prejudice against the messages and sounds of many rock bands. Culture czars still censor lyrics and song lists and keep TV and radio play to a bare minimum. And the industry—the state broadcast media and the largely private producers and record companies that support the music—has shown a marked propensity to promote catchy pop music rather than the often discordant sounds of genuine rock bands. After all, they say, that’s what the majority of listeners wants.

The result is that many young rockers intent on keeping their artistic freedom have to keep to the so-called underground rock scene—a day-to-day existence playing in clubs and low-budget rockfests and posting their songs for free download over the Internet. Although underground rock is where the most vital music is being played, these bands find it hard to connect to many young people, say local critics, in part because they can’t reach a wider audience. (Rolling Stone, ironically, is the kind of thing that may have helped propel smaller rock bands into the mainstream.) “Rock in China has evolved into a sort of space of nonmainstream freedom,” Cui told NEWSWEEK in an interview last fall. “But many bands still feel they have to trade off the criticisms and doubts [in their music] for the sake of bigger opportunity, when that should be the very basis for their commercial success. Authorities realize that there’s more to rock that they can use to their advantage than there is that threatens them.”
As an example of how the China rock scene has matured, they now have sleazy promoters of their very own:
Perhaps the reason governments are so willing to tolerate rock is because pop-minded promoters are now doing the job that the Communist Party apparatus used to do. Stadium shows still tend to be tightly controlled affairs. A case in point: the three-day rock gala just this past weekend in the blue-collar northeastern city of Shenyang, staged to mark the 20th anniversary, was a disaster for attendees and performers alike. Cui helped pick the lineup, which paired representatives among the old guard—Cui, progressive rock pioneers Tang Dynasty, and soft rock pretty boy Wang Feng—with the some of the hottest young prospects of Chinese electro, metal, emocore, grunge and Britpop. Yet the local promoter did not plug the newer bands in the promotions and paid them meager wages. The postpunk foursome Subs, reigning darlings of the Beijing club scene, got $62.50 a member to play, plus a hard-seat train trip up (others, including ska-punk giants Reflector, balked at the same deal). Tickets carried a warning to concertgoers not to stand during the show. Opening the fest, Subs front woman Kang Mao complained: “Today is a holiday for rockers, but the sad thing is, you’re all sitting down. In my mind, rock is music for standing up!” The venue only held 2,000 people, so local promoters jacked up day passes to $48 and up—pricey for teenagers anywhere, particularly in China. The crowd peaked at just barely over half full for the last act (Cui). Due to a dispute over video rights right afterward, they said, the promoter seized Cui’s sound equipment and withheld his plane ticket. “It used to be government controlling us,” says Reflector bassist Tian Jianhua. “Now it’s these [expletives deleted] promoters.”
We can relate, dude.

Last year I wrote about my friend Paul and our small role in bringing decadent Western rock and the dreaded "disco dance" to Beijing in 1979. You can read about that here.

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