There’s been an article doing the rounds lately concerning whether China is headed towards a future without foreign bands. It’s easy to come to the conclusion, particularly given the common, wider Western media narrative concerning the country, that this is part of a general regression to more authoritarian, nationalistic, closed off times. As always with China, the truth is more complex than that.
It is rare to see balance in Western reportage on China. Anyone following China in a Western publication might be tempted to see the banning of social media sites such as Facebook for example, as simple, straightforward censorship. But whilst censorship of course plays a role, from China’s point of view why also would they allow Facebook to gain a foothold in their burgeoning domestic tech economy when it has been shown this company provides a backdoor, knowingly or unknowingly, to the NSA and exploits user data whilst also, knowingly or unknowingly, allowing other entities to do the same, to the extent this can severely undermine state sovereignty with potentially catastrophic consequences?
Put more simply, the Chinese are not content just to be another market in the world for foreigners to dominate. And why should they be? So, is this applicable to the burgeoning domestic music industry too? In the sense that China is seemingly investing a lot in its own music industry, and also, occasionally, feels directly threatened by the actions of foreign artists (see Bjork) then the answer is arguably yes, though how much these questions occupy the minds of those working within the actual industry itself is open to debate.
You will not find a case made for restricting foreign acts from touring China on this website. Neither will you find anything but solidarity with those foreign artists living within China that are finding it difficult to ply their trade in a live environment. What we will ask of you however is to consider a long and ingrained Western sense of entitlement regarding the accessing of foreign markets and both the pros and cons of protectionism, all within the context of a brilliant gig, consisting of one established and one up and coming band, both Chinese.
First up this evening? 浪味仙贝. My WeChat translate function states this means ‘stinky’ in English but let’s not trust WeChat. Ever. This band certainly doesn’t stink the place out anyway. First impression is this is a group who have a lot of potential. They’re a tight unit, the arrangements are fun and interesting and there’s some appealing melodies running through their set. They don’t sound a million miles away from bands such as Alvvays and Camera Obscura, if that’s your bag. Check them out here. If you were a Chinese agent or promoter, 浪味仙贝 is the type of new band you’d immediately want to work with. Strong look? Check. Strong songs? Check. Interesting onstage personas? Check. Audience reacting positively? Check.
Now imagine you’re a foreign band working in China at a grass roots level. You’re frustrated because you’re not getting offered support slots at the local live house despite the fact you’re talented, hardworking musicians. Heck, two of you even speak just about serviceable Mandarin. The reality is interesting new bands like 浪味仙贝 will be appearing more and more in China as the growing middle classes find recreational activities that, not all that long ago, used to be luxuries, such as listening to or playing rock/pop music, more affordable to participate in. Some will be adept enough to start trying to build a career in music. And yeah, it will mostly be them getting the support slots, not you.
With more and more proper live houses opening, the younger generations will be inspired, when seeing local acts perform, to start their own bands. It might not turn out to be as widespread a phenomenon throughout Chinese culture as it is in Western cultures (where I once lived in the West it felt like every person I met was in a band), but when you have this many people living in a country it doesn’t have to be – there’s still going to be a LOT of bands. They will often be meticulous in how they present themselves and, without wanting to indulge in Chinese stereotypes, they will be very hardworking. And to show I’m NOT simply indulging in Chinese stereotypes I will also add that they’re not going to be nabbing the best opportunities simply because they are willing to flog their guts out. There will be no shortage of raw talent to go with how well rehearsed these bands will be.
Thus it seems to me, very quickly, the novelty of Western music and acts will wear off, if it hasn’t already, as the Chinese DIY spirit truly takes hold. Couple this with the fact interest in foreign music actually only comprises a small percentage of Chinese music consumption anyway (not a new phenomenon) then where exactly is the interest in a local foreign band nobody has heard of who doesn’t sing in Mandarin? And if you were the promoter or agent, would you find it more straightforward to work with someone who spoke your own language and was from the same culture, or would you find it easier to work with someone who, to put it bluntly, doesn’t and isn’t? Foreigners are just here to teach English for a while, have some fun, then go home to their own countries anyway right? They’re not here for keeps surely? Why prioritize a local foreign band over a Chinese one if they’re not even here for the long haul? If you are here for keeps then it’s going to be up to you to correct this flawed perception.
This isn’t to state there’s festering resentment or a consciously anti-foreigner attitude on the part of agents and promoters that is putting non-Chinese artists in a corner or anything like that – it’s more the fact that growing, successful local music scenes have always generally been, at least partly, about people who are on friendly terms working together. Furthermore, human nature is often to do what comes easiest, and to always put off the more challenging tasks for another day. So, that promoter you’re pissed at who never replied? Well they may well have meant to get back to you but they were overwhelmingly busy and, actually, they feel a bit flustered when having to communicate in English, and maybe even don’t want to lose face by coming across as having a poor command of the language.
My experience of China is there are some foreigners that think they know the language well enough who will often display little self-awareness when it comes to bellowing a completely nonsensical, atonal form of Mandarin (if you can call it that) at every Chinese person they meet and then react with genuine confusion when nobody can understand this utter gibberish. At the same time, Chinese people that are really quite good at English will still be very shy about speaking and writing it. Yes. We’re arrogant shits is what I’m saying. And often we’ll think nothing of just speaking English to people within their own country and expecting them to reply in English. I’m not judging anyone. I sometimes find myself doing it. I am one of these arrogant shits (not the atonal Mandarin – I know I can’t speak Chinese). I have nothing but respect and admiration for Chinese promoters that continue to put on lesser known foreign acts because they believe in them and nothing but understanding for ones that don’t because they can’t break even doing it.
So my advice to any foreigners starting from the bottom and seriously wanting to progress within the Chinese music industry is get very good at the language, get to grips with the culture, and get out there and network LOADS because the odds of the market are already stacked against you. You’re going to have to be extremely persistent as with music industries everywhere. Gone are the days where because you’re foreign and have a guitar everyone’s going to want you to come to the party. But, hey, it was good whilst it lasted right? OK. There are still plenty of party offers but you know what I mean. I’m saying don’t take anything for granted. The Chinese grabbed the rock and roll ball a while ago now and, rather than running with it, they’re positively breaking into a sprint.
Catch them if you can.
Before apt mention of spherical objects bring us to this evening’s headline act, let’s direct our attention to the financial barriers regarding live performance that foreign performers residing in China are reporting. You won’t ever find me condoning pay to play, whatever form it comes in, not anywhere – and it’s not just China where it happens. People should be paid to work, not pay to work. People in all the creative industries are exploited terribly and it’s morally wrong. Whether it’s writing, drawing, painting, making music, whatever, it’s often the case that how long it takes to develop these skills is roundly ignored and people are offered, at best, paltry sums of money for their efforts. But, to sloppily steal the work (I can’t pay him, he died in 1776) of David Hume (sorry if I’ve misrepresented his ideas, it’s a while since I studied philosophy), in this arseache of a world, there is, generally, an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’. What I mean by that is just because something should be a certain way that doesn’t mean it ever will be that way. As long as we labor under this crappy form of capitalism then there will be people who are beaten with the crappy end of the stick. And the stick is getting more and more covered in crap for all of us as time ticks on. Ew. Smelly.
Perhaps it too would be helpful at this juncture to consider the other side of this equation. Sure, there are unscrupulous people out there looking to make a quick wad of cash at the expense of any artist, whatever their background. In fact, I’ve met plenty of them in my time. Mostly in London 🙂 However, there are also really passionate people who host live music but end up losing money doing it because there just isn’t the interest in the acts they’re putting on, however good they might be. If it’s hard putting on a successful gig or difficult snagging a support slot at your local live house, start smaller. Get friendly with a local bar owner. Play small, intimate gigs. Build interest. If you’re lucky, good, and work hard you might get a following and then local promoters/venues will be more eager to book you. It’s not going to damage their business doing so if the turnout is big enough.
But what of the taxes? Well, I’m a fan of taxes actually. Taxes help us pay for things societies need. Clumsy and/or corrupt wielding of taxation though is obviously going to be a problem as is not investing the money where it is needed. For me the burden of taxation should fall on those who can afford it. If a huge foreign rock band is going to make a killing playing in another territory then make it so a fair slice of that money is going back into the country whose market they are penetrating, and to the right places. If, however, the barriers you are putting up make it harder for a struggling band to survive, whilst depriving them of the chance to introduce people to quality live music, then everyone is losing. To go back to Hume though, I don’t think the Chinese waste much time fretting over what ought to be as opposed to what is. To very broadly generalize, they’re a pragmatic bunch and quick to adapt. Regarding the difficulty of putting on gigs featuring foreigners, they won’t be wallowing in the unfairness of the situation, they will be striving to calculate how best they can work with it or around it. And Chinese promoters are still trying to put on foreign bands by the way. At least at the time of writing. To also return to a previous point, when there are more and more quality homegrown bands emerging in China they can instead promote, is it realistic or even fair to expect those on the ground to be preoccupied with how best to accommodate foreign artists? I would argue no. Unless they’re certain the band will sell tickets at the required price, they’re going to be increasingly reluctant to take the gamble if there are better options on the table.
Right on cue then, Chinese Football. Just the name of the band seems to lend itself nicely to this piece. Chinese. Football. Our Western ancestors invented football right? Not only can foreigners not play easily in China any longer, the bands are even stealing our sports as their monikers?! Well, despite the football that is played globally today often being traced back to the UK, people were kicking balls around some 2000 years ago in China. So perhaps football’s coming home? For the sake of accuracy and jettisoning this tenuous joining of dots, and flimsy potted history, this band name was in fact inspired by American Football. Not the sport. No. The US band going by that name. Is this getting confusing? Sorry. Anyway, Chinese Football the band haven’t been around for 2000 years but they have been around a while now. As with the support act, there’s the Wuhan connection, a city that’s garnered something of a reputation as boasting one of China’s more vibrant alternative music scenes.
You might recall us covering Wang Wen not too long ago? Well, Chinese Football prove another example of a Chinese group that more than deserves to be on the global radar. They are that good. There’s elements of emo, punk and math rock running through their output but this comes in an overall package that is meditative, melancholic and tasteful rather than melodramatic and brash, and near always accessible. Like all great bands they pull together to serve up something special which transcends the tags of genre. Playing live they seem to possess a self-assurance rather than arrogance which somehow radiates that this is an outfit already guaranteed a place in the annals of Chinese modern music history. The compositions are sophisticated and refined, and the musicianship is top notch.
The existence of brilliant acts such as Chinese Football should not be used as justification that it is therefore permissible to make it harder for foreign acts to play in China because they are simply not required. That would be a ridiculous argument to make. The aim here is more to convey the reality of what is occurring and to suggest that it is not really the responsibility of Chinese promoters alone to rectify this situation single-handed, particularly if they can fill venues with punters who are as keen as these ones are tonight to listen to Chinese bands. They are working to earn a living like the rest of us after all. Where actually is the incentive to work with foreign bands when there are acts as good as Chinese Football and浪味仙贝that are much more straightforward to put on? As more and more bands as good as these two appear, surely the incentive to seek out foreign bands will only decrease further? It simply won’t be worth the hassle.
So, as much as it is important to note the changes in regulations, for example, that make it hard for foreign bands to play and tour in China, and to question them, it is also worth focusing on how more and more fantastic Chinese bands are emerging, to celebrate that and give them their dues. If foreign bands were deemed vital to the Chinese economy you can be damned sure they’d be making it easier not harder for them to play. This should not be seen as a return to the past then, when there were no rock and roll bands at all, this is something that points more towards how the present, and the future, surprise, surprise, is, and will always likely be, at least in our lifetimes, dictated by cold, hard economics. Why shop further afield for something that isn’t really any better than what you can get locally at a better value price? iPhone sales didn’t just drop because they were too expensive. People started to cotton on that Huawei ones could satisfy their needs just as well.
As it stands, with these apparent barriers to foreign performers, Chinese promoters can simply focus on continuing to build up the domestic music industry, whether this is protectionism by default or design, by offering emerging talent the best support slots, whilst also prioritizing the better known Chinese groups that have been kicking about longer. These bands, such as Chinese Football, they know are going to draw a crowd as headliners and bring in the bulk of the money, with less paperwork, less language barriers, and, perhaps, less need to bribe the local cultural department. Rapid development not only brought giant skyscrapers and worsening air pollution to China. It also brought bands that are gradually becoming more and more well known across the country, followed by a network of sizable live venues that can be filled with gig-goers aplenty, should the local interest be fostered.
Of course, with less cross-cultural exchange in the world nobody really wins overall but the racists and willfully ignorant, and those that pander to these instincts to further their own limited agendas. It is truly a bad time globally when it comes to narrow-minded nationalist politics taking root. But I don’t believe this is what is happening specifically with regards to those working within Chinese music scenes. Far from it. I think largely what is happening is there are simply more and more new Chinese bands to give chances to who are more than worthy of these opportunities. This is genuinely exciting and a beautiful turn of events, and I am pleased for China and its artists that alternative music seems to be going from strength to strength. That stated, efforts should be made more broadly to ensure this potential trend of decreasing amounts of foreign bands playing, if such a trend is not currently being overplayed, is directly combated. Chinese audiences and artists benefit from being exposed to music from other cultures and musicians should have the right to perform when and where they want to, within reason.
But the flipside of this is where is the wider global recognition and embracing of great Chinese acts such as Wang Wen and Chinese Football? How are the US or UK for example making it easier for Chinese bands to live in or tour their countries? The Chinese have hardly been welcomed with open arms historically when it comes to being granted visas. This issue now cuts both ways and in an age where China is becoming increasingly culturally, economically, and politically confident, should not the onus be just as much on the West to come to overarching agreements with China that make it easier for Western and Chinese musicians to work wherever they may happen to choose to reside or tour? There are sound moral, economic and cultural reasons for this to occur. Unfortunately more the reverse seems to be happening, particularly in the UK currently due to Brexit. British musicians will reportedly find it harder to tour in Europe should the UK go through with its stated commitment to leaving the EU, whilst non-British touring musicians are already apparently being put off from playing in Britain. Like so much that is going wrong in the world currently, and for the sake of rounding this off with a light sprinkling of questionable football parlance before blowing the final whistle, the goal should be less pointing of fingers, less divisiveness, more openness, more acceptance of one another, and a more even global playing field.
Pick that one out.