Death By Audio
Obviously, China was more or less closed off from all of this until at least 1978. An underground rock music scene was slowly born here in the '90s, and has grown into a pretty incredible hybrid today, due to factors like globalization, the internet, social networking, and, most recently, innovations in the use of smartphones and apps.
Today, in some corners of China's underground music scene, there is some DIY activity. My friend Zhu Wenbo, for example, runs a cassette label (Zoomin' Night), books shows in unconventional venues like public underpasses, designs most of his event posters himself, prints the posters and promotes the shows himself, and often participates in the shows as a performer. But there aren't very many people like Zhu Wenbo, and things like cassette labels or DIY print zines are more intentionally retro and anachronistic than something that can sustain and activate a vital local scene in this digital age.
One of Zoomin' Night's public underpass shows in 2015
Indeed, it's hard to be DIY in Beijing. Small venues friendly to DIY bookers and bands — 2 Kolegas, Zajia Lab, XP, Old What, and quite a few more — have closed one by one over the last few years, for reasons including clashes with authority, rising rents, and diminishing revenues. As a result, larger, more commercial music brands like Modern Sky and Tree Music gain more influence as they face less competition, and actively maneuver to establish a monopoly on the independent music scene. Even lifestyle brands that use live music events as a promotional strategy — Vice Media is a big one here, as in Brooklyn — benefit from the lack of DIY activity, since their objective is to push forward a commercialized version of a culture that was originally created by people more interested in the art than financial gain.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? I applaud brands like Vice and Converse for exposing more people to underground music in China, but are they creating fans or consumers? The problem with a company like Vice claiming to be an authority on underground music is that it doesn't contribute much to the people actually making this music. In some ways, brands like Vice actually make it more difficult for an organic, non-commercial underground music scene to flourish. These brands are, in fact, capitalizing on the sound and style of bands that they had no role in shaping, and will forget once the fashion changes, as it does often.
So your homework this week is to think about what form "DIY" can take in Beijing. Maybe the way that younger people in the scene today are using apps like Wechat to figure out new ways to organize themselves and broadcast their thoughts and music is a potential new form of DIY that makes a lot of sense in Beijing. But maybe you have a better idea.
In the mean time, enjoy a preview of Oneida & Rhys Chatham's "What's Your Sign?"
Associated Douban pages
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.