Communism, population, mass-production, pollution, and the Great Firewall are what the mainstream Western media seems to focus on when writing about China. Underneath the smog and through a VPN however, there are multiple industries that are experiencing rapid growth and expansion in the Middle Kingdom. One of them is music. From mainstream to underground, the music scene in China, specifically Shanghai is continuously discovering and developing itself independently and with international help.
Probably the most culturally open city in China, Shanghai is a melting pot of local and international culture from food to fashion and music, creative pursuits and industries are developing in the cosmopolitan city. Recently Concrete and Grass Festival took place at the Shanghai Rugby Club. Promoter group Split Works who have been active since 2006 brought together a line up of 66 acts. The festival is a testament to the potential for artists to engage with China.
Almost every genre was catered for, Carsick Cars a classic Chinese band that came together with their original line up just for the occasion, Radwimps the Japanese rock band stealing hearts across Asia. For most of Acclaim’s audience however, it’s the line ups of the smaller Woozy stage and Yurt tent that hosted familiar names. Princess Nokia, Kero Kero Bonito, Jai Wolf, Ho99o9, Howie Lee, Tkay Maidza and an NTS Radio curated line up including Éclair Fifi, Shanti Celeste, and Steven Julien (Funkineven) to name a few.
Krish, the Content and Media Coordinator at Split Works said, “It’s surprising to us that we still seem to exist as a separate island, moored off the rest of the Shanghai ‘festival’ scene. Our poster design this year wasn’t totally random: we feel like we’re still one of the few refuges for Shanghai’s many niche underground communities. Our philosophy is one of inclusivity (something for everyone) and discovery (we take pride that no one has heard of half our lineup). The other festivals in town are either EDM-centric (Storm, Ultra), or annual mills that churn out the same lineup year on year (Simple Life, Strawberry). JZ (Jazz, family-friendly) and Shalanaya (psy-trance) are festivals we like that share some of our DNA, and they’re good friends!”
Although acquiring an official entertainment visa for China is still difficult, many smaller artists are finding ways around this in order to perform in Chinese cities. The way music is distributed in China is not fully integrated with what most of us are familiar with. Spotify, YouTube, and until recently, Apple Music is not available on the Mainland. Instead Baidu Music, Alibaba’s Xiami, and Tencent’s QQ Music make deals with major record labels for distribution. Physical product has become niche with digital streaming and downloading taking over. Directly monetising music is still difficult with streaming numbers remaining unverified and most music services allowing users to pirate instead of paying for what they listen to. Live performances and shows are therefore the best way to broaden an artist’s audience while still getting paid. This has seen a consistent stream of artists and events coming to China over the past few years.
Club audiences in Shanghai are varied. At any event it can be a mix of local and international patrons in varying ratios and unexperienced promoters and poorly organised events can mean smaller turnouts. Generally, crowds are open-minded and ready for anything. If an artist has popular tracks on local apps they can have a line outside a venue before doors even open. French multi-instrumentalist French Kiwi Juice aka FKJ is a perfect example of this. At his recent show in Shanghai, the scramble for tickets was so real that those who had purchased pre-sale tickets were still waiting to enter underground live music venue Arkham at 12am. Once the headliner was on, most of the crowd had their smartphones in the air singing along while the artist switched between synth, drum machine, guitar, and piano.
Shanghai based club promoter groups and venues such as Yeti, China Social Club, Shft., STD, Love Bang and Club All, Arkham, Le Baron, Elevator, and Dada all work hard to ensure that artists have successful gigs and engagement in Shanghai and greater China. Collectively in 2017 alone, these promoters and venues have hosted a long list of artists including but not limited to Goldlink, Sporting Life, Venus X, Cakes da Killa, LSDXOXO, Bok Bok, Big Dope P, Sinjin Hawke, Tim Sweeney, San Proper, Bambounou, Jane Fitz, MNDSGN, Zadig, Jack J, Zora Jones, Cosmos Midnight, Cozy Boys, the Whooligan, Jay Prince, Cyber69, Tokimonsta, and Two Fresh.
The year isn’t over yet and there are shows and festivals bringing A$AP Rocky, Rich Chigga, Brodinski, Nosaj Thing, Knxledge, Fetty Wap, and Travis Scott. While the market for music is still in its infancy post-Cultural Revolution and during censorship, here’s hoping room to develop continues without too much intervention. Further dialogue between the expatriate and local community will ensure a sustainable ecosystem for international artists to perform and have their music heard in China and for collaboration with Chinese born artists. Might be time to download a VPN and head to the Middle Kingdom.
- Written and photographed by: Amber Akilla