IN MYEARS #27: Innovation and Provocation
by Josh Feola
Selected album: P.K.14 - Music for an Exhibition
入耳 In My Ears is a weekly music column by Josh Feola 赵识, Beijing-based writer and musician and founder of pangbianr.com
“China can’t innovate — only imitate.”
This is a cliche used often in Western media when talking about China’s tech scene. Commentators like to describe Sina Weibo as a “Twitter clone,” or call Tudou “China’s YouTube.” Such comparisons oversimplify the situation, obviously — the Chinese internet is not easily understood by a Western observer, and it’s useful to give a familiar frame of reference.
But these comparisons easily fall short. A few weeks ago, several artists performing at the Wetware music festival asked me what exactly Douban is. My default answer was something like, “a mix between Facebook for events, Bandcamp or Soundcloud for uploading music, and message boards to gather fans of underground music, films, and books.”
Is Douban “imitating” any one of these examples, or is it innovating a way to connect artists with fans in the context of the Chinese internet? Can there be a balance between imitation and innovation?
Over the last few years, the “imitation vs innovation” debate in the tech industry has started to fall apart, as internet technologies like mobile payments (WeChat wallet, Alipay) and dockless bike sharing (Mobike, Ofo) are putting China at the edge of new digital trends the West has yet to pick up on. This same, tired cliche continues to be applied to the creative industries, however.
Douban's Wetware Music Festival
As a musician and music writer focusing on the Chinese scene, one of the most difficult stereotypes I come up against when trying to generate interest among Western publications is the idea that Chinese bands are just imitating Western originals. The argument is that since China didn’t invent “punk” or “techno”, Chinese punk and Chinese techno can’t be original, only copies.
Variations on this argument came up during several discussions I moderated at Wetware. One was between Mark Reeder — a legendary musician, promoter, and producer who helped introduce Manchester post-punk legends like Joy Division and New Order to his adopted home of Berlin — and Yang Haisong, somewhat of a figurehead of the Chinese indie rock scene. According to Reeder, China is just now, after several decades of developing its own underground music scene, moving beyond an initial phase of “imitators” — punk, metal, hip hop, techno, etc — and starting to produce its own sound. I was surprised when he pointed to Chengdu as “the Manchester of China,” and to bands like ST.OL.EN as representing the first wave of truly “original” music from China. (Reeder has taken a personal interest in ST.OL.EN, and prior to Wetware spent a few weeks producing new tunes for them in Chengdu.)
Yang Haisong, Mark Reeder and Josh Feola at forum of Wetware Festival
I’ve always had an issue with the “imitation” argument — I think this metaphor is dated and flawed. It might have been true in the ‘90s, when the Beijing underground music scene was dominated by punk and metal tribes that indeed held deep stylistic similarities to US and UK originals. But from the era of dakou to the age of the internet, one thing that I believe has always characterized the Chinese music scene is a unique hybridity: a simultaneous influx of influences that were largely consumed out of context, and smashed together to create new and interesting forms.
Mark Reeder’s perspective is still valuable. Many of the artists making what I consider the most interesting music coming out of China today were still years away from being born when he moved to Berlin in 1978. Personally, I believe that Beijing post-punk — as exemplified by bands like P.K.14, Re-TROS, and Snapline — has its own special character, its own original flavor, but it might be hard for me to make this case to someone like Reeder, who formed a band in Manchester in the late ‘70s and saw Joy Division at their beginning.
But it’s also true that bands like P.K.14 have created a new tributary of music in China. Like Reeder, Yang Haisong has been involved in pretty much every angle of the music industry: artist, producer, label-runner, mentor. P.K.14 may be a “post-punk band,” but they’re also something more: a spark, a starting point for several generations of bands that have formed in their wake. Does it really make sense to claim that a band like Hiperson from Chengdu — a group of post-’90s kids formed in large part due to the direct influence of Yang and P.K.14’s music — are “imitating” something as old and distant as Manchester post-punk? Or could it be said that this is China’s innovation on the form, an emerging genre made from specific, local, fresh ingredients?
This can be argued both ways. In another talk I held at Wetware, with Hyperdub label founder Kode9, another word came up, and I like it much better in this context: “provocation.”
Kode9 was talking about his 2005 mix “Sinogrime”, which he described as an imagination of what the future of electronic music might sound like if it were being made in China. He said he intended the mix to provoke a response — it wasn’t an assumption of what the future of Chinese music would sound like, but more of a challenge, a catalyst to hasten it into being. Since releasing that mix, Kode9 has indeed witnessed the rise of a distinctly Chinese idiom of grime and bass music, something that sounds very different from the sonic future imagined on his “Sinogrime” mix.
And that’s the point. In the 21st century, innovation is always imitation. We can’t do much besides copy. The important thing is how provocative the copies are: can these olds make something new?
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.