IN MY EARS #28: Big Indie Labels and the Splinter Effect
by Josh Feola
Selected track：The White Tulips - TARDY
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
Ai Jing, founder of Haze Sounds
It’s hard to tell what “indie” means in the context of the Chinese music industry. Certainly in the ‘90s and early 2000s, when there were no labels except majors looking for mainstream pop acts — an era when Faye Wong could be considered “underground” — a startup such as Modern Sky qualified as “indie” by any measure. But what is it now? Modern Sky today is so diversified — licensing music, operating a national chain of venues and an international brand of music festivals, publishing magazines and digital content, etc — that I can’t understand what its core business is. I don’t think it’s recording and distributing albums.
It seems likely to me that Modern Sky’s business model today is more about attracting investors than it is about releasing music. In this they’re rather like a tech startup: get a round of investment, throw the money into large-scale projects to increase the brand’s name and market saturation, then use that brand value and market saturation to attract more investment.
The fact that big indie labels today look more and more like internet startups is no accident. You can’t generate a lot of revenue by selling CDs or MP3s. To stay alive, companies like Modern Sky — or Taihe, which has numerous subgroups within the company tackling separate tasks like artist management, online ticketing, digital promotion, etc — need to constantly diversify. Labels of this scale must become large enough to absorb losses in non-moneymaking areas, but remain nimble enough to respond to how people are consuming music and culture (which is mostly online, obviously, and therefore changes at an incredibly fast speed, along with technology itself).
This makes it hard to consider these labels “indie”. Perhaps “DIY” now means is what “indie” used to: lean, cheap, and fast-moving operations that are mostly run by passion, and rarely out of motivation for profit.
The good thing about having big labels like Modern Sky and Taihe — or even mid-sized, well-funded labels like Maybe Mars — is that they provide a tree under which smaller DIY labels can splinter off and grow. Some of my favorite record labels in China grew out of bigger motherships — Zoomin’ Night and Genjing Records, for example, both owe part of their pedigree to Maybe Mars.
The latest such splinter label is Haze Sounds, a new platform just launched by 35-year-old Beijinger Ai Jing. After spending a decade in Scandinavia, Ai moved back to China in August 2014, and has been back in his hometown since last summer. He’s currently working as a senior project manager as Showstart, a booking/ticketing subdivision of Taihe, where he focuses on managing shows for foreign bands. He launched Haze Sounds as a booking platform last year, looking to inject his own sweat and aesthetic tastes into the scene here with a DIY effort on the side of his main work.
I asked Ai a few questions about Haze Sounds ahead of the “Express” showcase, a collaboration with Shanghai label Shengjian Records that will put Xiamen shoegazers The White Tulips and Nanjing’s School Girl Bye Bye on the road for shows this weekend in Shanghai and Beijing. (Find full show info below, after the interview).
The White Tulips
Shoolgirl Bye Bye
What is your background in music? How did you become a fan of underground Chinese music?
My passion for rock’n’roll started back in the mid ’90s, when I was in secondary school, which is seen now as the “golden age” of Chinese Rock’n’roll. I can’t really tell how come I became a fan, though. Guess I’ve always been a bit rebellious? So when the majority of my friends went for Pop, I went a bit more Rockish, though for me back then Bon Jovi was so “rock n roll”…
What is your favorite type of music? Favorite bands?
I’ve always been an indie guy, anything like indie rock/pop, brit-pop, shoegaze, post-rock, new-wave/alternative, psychedelic, dream-pop, noise-pop. Apart from that, I’m also very into Folk and World Music, a bit of Jazz too. Basically everything in the middle, neither too pop nor too heavy.
When did you decide to form Haze Sounds? Why?
It was the beginning of 2016. I felt it was necessary to create a brand instead of going around as just a person. It’s also more formal, more serious, and when it comes to paperwork it also helps. Haze Sounds is not really a label, but a music promotion/booking agency. We don’t — or we rarely — do records. We focus more on live gigs, and it’s mainly on foreign acts. We want to synchronize Chinese music fans with the world, by bringing more interesting, more up-to-date, more good-quality foreign bands to China.
The indie scene in China today is dominated by a few big record labels, like Taihe, Modern Sky, Tree Music, and Maybe Mars. Do you think it's important for more small or DIY record labels to start?
It’s always good to have competition, in spite of the dominance from the big labels. There’s also much more freedom if it’s a small independent label, and art needs freedom.
What is Shengjian Records? How did you decide to collaborate with them for the “Express” showcase?
Shengjian Records is a Shanghai-based label founded by Nick, the guitarist of the shoegaze rising stars, SOFT. It’s a very new and currently rather small label, that has Soft, Default, Keelung Bay, and Cos Of Youngs.
Can you introduce the “Express” shows? How did you choose these bands?
“Express” is a showcase series that features some of the most acclaimed indie-rock bands from China. This time the Express is arriving in Beijing for the first time. HazeSounds together with Shengjian Records picked four bands from different cities: Default (Beijing), The Cheers Cheers (Shanghai), Schoolgirl Byebye (Nanjing), The White Tulips (Xiamen). Apart from Default, all the others are very active and popular in South China, but very rarely play in Beijing. That’s why I think Beijing Express is one of the must-see gigs in Beijing this year, especially for the indie/shoegaze fans.
The Cheer Cheers
You chose several bands from outside Beijing -- what do you think are the cities in China with the most interesting music scene, outside of Beijing and Shanghai?
Chengdu is definitely one of them, and Wuhan is catching up as well. Guangzhou also has quite a few cool bands, but compared to the city’s position in China, there should be more.
What are your plans for Haze Sounds in the future? Will it remain independent from Taihe?
Haze Sounds would like to develop steadily, meaning we do not really care about the quantity of the acts we do, but the quality. There are many awesome bands from abroad, and we’d like to bring more and more of them to China. We are trying to work on some of the “big names,” like The Royal Concept, TOY, and perhaps Chvrches and Wolf Alice next year, while continuing to work with small, independent bands. In the Folk & World music genres, we are bringing Imarhan, Tarabband, Sousou and Maher Cissoko to China this year, and we will carry on as well, seeking for more opportunities to organize events catering to this kind of music. When it comes to the Express series, we are planning on doing Chengdu and Chongqing, and then perhaps Changsha and Wuhan.
And yes, it will remain independent from Taihe. That’s very clear and important, and I don’t see it changing.
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.