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Going Underground: What Is Happening to Beijing’s Famed Music Scene

The celebrated music venue D-22 was open from 2006-2012. Photo credit: Creative Commons
Underground musicSubcultureurban renewal

Beijing is going through a weird moment right now, or rather, Beijing is going through a normal moment in a history of permanent impermanence. Since the 1980s the city has maintained its sometimes-contradictory status as both China’s capital of underground/alternative culture, and the center of power. Abetted by the presence of art and film academies, cheap rent, and reasonably international yet lacking of the negative colonial connotations of Shanghai, Beijing was the undisputed center of underground music in China, and arguably the site where Chinese contemporary art was nudged out of the fringes and into the international spotlight.

But something has changed, highlighted by events like the sudden bricking up of shops and spaces in hutongs in the summer 2017, and the evictions of migrant workers and small-scale manufacturing sites in November 2017. Though in some senses the changes seem sudden, they are representative of long-term processes, part of plans for Beijing’s urban renewal into a more closely managed bureaucratic capital. It is highly unlikely that this transformation of the city is directly intended to target a small privileged group of people making music and art, and it arguably has altruistic aspects, offering the chance to improve housing standards, albeit according to government’s vision. Yet subcultural activity is being squeezed out of the capital, intentionally or not. If there is a silver lining here, it is that creative activity is being re-directed around the country, though it remains to be seen whether the results will be sustainable or recognizable based on standards shaped by foreign underground culture. If the definition of underground in relation to culture is taken as activity that avoids the profit-driven mainstream, by design or accident receives little media attention, and disseminates through its own networks, then the term is extremely hard to place in contemporary, hyper-networked China, where everything can be accessed online—yet for lack of a better alternative the word itself can still be used to describe somewhat contrarian creative impulses.

Reflecting on Beijing’s reputation one can consider the narrative spun about the city’s music scene in the heyday of D22 (the celebrated music venue open from 2006-2012) which still echoes around today—Beijing is dirty and industrial, and therefore its musicians sound dirty and industrial too, the inheritors of No Wave New York and post punk Berlin. Indeed, it was not hard to imagine parallels with Berlin. The city’s pollution, smokestacks, and bleak winters invite comparison to stereotypical images of Eastern Europe, and there is a real, if small and vanishing, shared architectural legacy (see the Bauhaus factories that form the core of the 798 Art District). In the anticipation of the 2008 Olympics and for a few years afterwards, for young Chinese people and foreigners there was the promise of a new Berlin in Beijing, where one could lead a chaotic, creative life on the cheap, paradoxically finding pockets of freedom in the middle of a politically repressive state. There were police on the streets but also empty buildings, underground rehearsal spaces were bands could make as much noise as possible, smoky bars…

Of course, the legend sounds great. However, it was just a legend—venue closures and demolitions were still a frequent occurrence back then (or indeed in the 1990s). And where does its musical legacy leave us now? Of the acclaimed bands of the time, most actually played a type of tuneful guitar pop, with only a few referencing their abrasive supposed forbearers, and fewer still (with due credit given to White and Soviet Pop) re-appropriating the sounds of their influences to create something strange and new. Today, Beijing is a city with a musical reputation for grit, authenticity, and noise that most of the time does not match the reality.

The Bauhaus factories form the core of the 798 Art District. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, like many other things in China, the music scene has been monetized and accelerated, simply because it could be. A certain professionalism in terms of organization and infrastructure is definitely a welcome change, but through labels like the ever expanding Modern Sky or Ruby Eyes (赤瞳音乐 part of the Taihe Media Group), indie rock is now definitely an industry. Though emerging from a different community, it is worth mentioning the example of “The Rap of China,” the competition shows which capitulated Chinese hip hop from the underground to the center of the media landscape, and then triggered a massive backlash from state censors, all within a year. Things move at a very fast speed, and this leads to strange scenes like guitar bands sitting around bars, wondering if they will get signed and be able to quit their jobs—something that would be a somewhat surprising sight in New York or even London, considering the contraction of the Western music industry. Adding to the conundrum, the system that surrounds music has solidified but the content still exists in a nebulous state—there are music festivals and touring circuit, but still few albums each year that you’d truly be well advised to listen to.

To be fair, there is still non-conformist music in Beijing, but it is harder to argue that it represents the zeitgeist or might gain a broader appeal while retaining its radical potential. A revitalized aspect of the noise scene is going strong, led by figures like saxophonist WANG Ziheng and erstwhile noise guitarist LI Jianhong and laptop improviser Vavabond. This year WANG Ziheng and friends started to organize small outdoor festivals in the wilderness close to the Great Wall, re-contextualizing noise and improvisation away from the city, and strengthening connections with the Japanese noise scene by inviting Astro (a project by Hiroshi Hasegawa from C.C.C.C.).

However, despite some bright spots, what made Beijing a welcoming environment for non-commercial music in China may be vanishing. Half a decade ago, it was easy to say that Beijing was cheap, gritty, exciting, and most importantly, sat at the center of infrastructure and networks for playing music. Now that argument is harder to make.

The Nowhere Festival was held in the wilderness close to the Great Wall. Photo courtesy of the Nowhere Festival

To use analogous example from contemporary art, already in 2015, in an interview with Kaleidoscope Magazine, Inner Mongolia-born, then-Beijing-based artist YU Honglei complained about the living conditions in the capital, explaining, “the only reason I haven’t moved to another city is because of the sculpture factory with whom I continue to work closely.” YU has since moved to Chongqing, and the question remains what others will do after their “sculpture factories” close.

Shanghai is an obvious temptation. The city’s art scene has arguably caught up with Beijing, with younger galleries and more international collaborations. Thanks to ALL Club (run by the team formerly behind the club Shelter), the city is firmly on the international map for cutting edge electronic music, not only as a touring stop for international artists, but also for producers like Tzusing, Hyph11e, Scintii, and Osheyack, and artists associated with the label Genome 6.66 Mbp. Their music has shot to the front of conversation in the foreign press, and into the consciousness of hyped musicians and DJs in Europe. For what it is worth, it has grabbed attention in the global media cycle for alternative music and youth culture in a way that nothing from Beijing has in a while—perhaps ever. It is noteworthy that not all of these artists are Chinese: some are from Taiwan, elsewhere in Asia, or America, demonstrating that Shanghai has a strong international appeal.

This is both exciting and an opening for critique—if creativity in Shanghai is more linked to the communities of internet networks than local context, can it really be said to be from there? The excitement overseas for Shanghai’s electronic scene might suggest it is projecting the Sinofuturistic image that audiences expect from the Accelerated cityscape, rather than a completely homegrown aesthetic. Even Genome 6.66 Mbp co-founder Tavi Lee expressed a note of negativity speaking to Bandcamp Daily earlier this year: “People tend to overhype and fetishize China, perhaps seeing it as a rising, futuristic force that will save the West from its apparent stagnation. It’s getting harder and harder for anything but ‘official culture’ to survive here. There will be no good parties in China’s future, just AI-powered mass surveillance and enforced conformity.”

This doesn’t seem completely unlikely, though hopefully it will not be the case. Given these issues of Orientalist fantasy-projection and the tenuous position of nightlife in Shanghai, what could potentially be more exciting in the long term is what is happening outside of China’s most well-known and developed cities.

In July I visited Wuhan with an artist checking in on the progress of the manufacture of an installation. We met in a neighborhood nicknamed Optics Valley (光谷) but subject to frequent power cuts, and got into a taxi that sped by low-rise apartment blocks and empty fields being transformed into construction sites. All of a sudden we were at a newly built university campus. Walking up a few flights of stairs we ended up in a large attic, where two twenty-somethings were listening to psychedelic rock and using a computer to sync a LED board of lights to the rhythm of the music.

This is the face of future creativity in China. Billboards and government slogans trumpeting “innovation” and “start ups” should be taken with a grain of salt, but enough money is being thrown at the problem that things will eventually change. The question is whether this new creative activity will constitute something that is of high value by present standards. Creating algorithmically self-generating sound in music software or ever-changing visual projections isn’t the same as writing a memorable song, discovering a genuinely interesting sound texture, or using these technological tools to create an installation with a concept and focus beyond the technology itself. Formats evolve, new media allows new types of content to circulate, and expectations should be adjusted, but right now it is mostly the technology itself that is speaking through this kind of media art and electronic music, rather than the creators. Nevertheless, with time this type of multimedia art could become the source of a sustainable, homegrown creative scene.

In the meantime, a few movements that sit between present formats and the hypothetical new wave are coalescing. Hangzhou is a city that has never lacked for talent (Li Jianhong was previously based there), and always had a few positives going for it (it is prosperous, close to Shanghai, and home to the China Academy of Art), but had difficulty sustaining a solid community or audience. Now it is one of the most exciting in cities in China for music, whether experimental rock, new club music, or sound art more in the aforementioned “hacker” mold.

For guitar music there is Dolphy Kick Bebop, who present the most convincing and engrossing psychedelic-overload rock to come out of China in years, densely packed with wah-wahed guitar solos and skronking saxophone. This summer they released their cassette Smoke a Haiku Cigarette on Spacefruity Records, a spin-off of the Beijing venue fRUITYSPACE, which should be given recognition as one of Beijing’s best venues and a key community hub (despite an extremely quiet soundsystem). The tape was recorded at Gebi, a venue in the nearby city of Yiwu, which is more known for its massive wholesale market than culture. The presence of a venue/ad hoc recording space there alone shows how things are changing.

On the club front there is FunctionLab, a young collective of producers such as Juan Plus One, GUAN, XHANKONKON, and Yung Min (actually based in Nanjing). They DJ at parties and release music online, making tracks that take cues from industrial music, breakbeat, classic rave culture, and contemporary club music. Though clearly informed by currently vogueish post-Internet electronic music, it feels harder to assimilate FunctionLab into this community of SoundCloud posts and online radio mixes. FunctionLab’s aesthetic still feels more like the personal references of a close crew of friends rather than a calculated attempt to capture a certain sound.

There is crossover between FunctionLab and play rec, a slightly more academic label based in Shanghai, but with strong links with Hangzhou—co-founder WANG Changcun was previously a lecturer at the China Academy of Art. He runs the label with XU Cheng, who was a founding member of celebrated Shanghai noise group Torturing Nurse, establishing the label’s strong pedigree for challenging computer music. WANG and XU come from a more established generation in Chinese experimental music and sound art, but play rec may still offer a good example of what younger artists currently learning skills in maker-spaces and start ups could eventually create.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss Hangzhou without mentioning Loopy, the venue at the core of the scene. It is a black box club with Funktion-One Speakers, yet unexpectedly it is located inside a shopping mall, and boasts an attached café/bar serving high quality tapas and pasta. Loopy is equally likely to host a DJ touring from Berlin as a local indie rock band, providing the same excellent sound to each.

A few years ago, Hangzhou had interesting musicians and artists, but their important performances might take place in Shanghai and Beijing, or at one-off festivals and art events. Today that situation has been somewhat reversed: Hangzhou has one of China’s best venues, while performers in Beijing are faced with imperfect bars and clubs, or more disorganized ad hoc venues.

Loopy is the venue at the core of the music scene in Hangzhou. Photo courtesy of Loopy

This is not to suggest that Hangzhou’s musicians are the saviors of underground music in China—the situation there could and probably will change very quickly—but rather the city offers a case study of what is possible outside of Beijing (and Shanghai). The next group of artists to gather a similar sense of momentum might come from Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, or Fuzhou. Unlike a decade or so ago, their worth will not be necessarily be determined by travelling to Beijing to perform and “prove themselves.”

The capital city will persist in some way, but it will no longer solely define underground music in China. The shortage of reliable venues in Beijing that are not solely business-driven and maintain a focused aesthetic angle is cause for concern, but the shift to a more geographically dispersed model of underground cultural activity in China is definitely a positive. Even if attention shifts away from Beijing, this could actually allow more interesting things to happen again in the city: free of grand narratives and self-declared importance, a new story can be built.

Underground musicSubcultureurban renewal
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