The collaborative power of the Chinese alternative rock scene'
China isn’t the first country that springs to mind when you think of a burgeoning rock, punk and indie scene, but since the nation’s initially reluctant yet now symbiotic relationship with the internet began, it has become one of the world’s most rapidly rising places to wear black, get some dodgy tattoo’s and headbang until your icing your neck for the next week. But although that the internet has brought a lot of good things to the alternative scene in China, including really the rise of the scene itself, relying solely on the world wide web has created its own challenges that musicians have had to overcome, and instilled in more of a sense of community, collaboration and willingness to engage with foreign music that perhaps is lacking in western countries’ music scenes.
As is the case with most things in China the alternative rock scene is rapidly developing, yet there are really still only two main labels that house nearly all of the most popular current bands: Modern Sky and Maybe Mars. Between the two, they can boast of bands as eclectic as the more aggressive post punk of Carsick Cars, News Pants and the seminal PK.14, as well as the more electronic based sounds of Nova Heart and Dear Eloise. This is because the modern scene as it’s known today only really sprung up in the internet age, so whilst western music labels saw illegal downloading and music streaming as issues to get round, smaller Chinese labels are finding them to be issues to stop them even getting started. This has lead to the scene relying a lot more on live music than perhaps many others as a way of being financially viable, and in that regards, a shared focus between artists when playing live shows, touring or curating music festivals is more important than ever.
This has led to labels like Modern Sky making the majority of their money from festivals they put on themselves, like Strawberry in their native Beijing, and taking their sound to western audiences in the form of the Modern Sky Festival in New York, where Chinese and US guitar based talent mix together on the same line ups. This kind of association between Chinese and western music has been synonymous with the alternative scene’s sound, as many artists often cite classic UK and US rock and punk among their influences, yet are now looking to grow beyond that into something new and original.
Since laws on censorship in China were relaxed and as a nation it has allowed more foreign influences to reach its shores, which weirdly is pretty much precisely traceable to 1985 when the extremely bouffanted Wham! played the first ever gig by a western pop group in the country, China has slowly but surely began to embrace louder guitar based music. In its own way, the alternative rock scene in China has to essentially work together with its these censorship laws in everything they do. Because of regulations on the content of artistic expression, bands often have to get their lyric sheets checked before releasing publically, and although the aforementioned big money festivals are now flourishing across the country, their live performances still can’t be too explicit, although the club circuit is generally left to its own devices in that regard.
In light of the success of a scene that is fresh and exciting yet essentially can never be too explicit or controversial, multinational corporations have started to take an interest in sponsoring bands or using them in adverts. For example Nova Heart advertised the computer brand Lenovo, and PK.14 did something similar with Converse shoes. This co-operation with brands and corporations in China is now not really seen as ‘selling out’, but as something that simply must naturally occur to get financial support when album sales have been swallowed whole by music downloads and streaming services that pay little to nothing to the artist.
In a way, the alternative rock scene in China is symptomatic of the entire modern music landscape globally today. There is a stronger need for community between artists in the scene to survive, a bigger emphasis on live music as a way of engaging with punters and also a more relaxed approach to financial support, or selling out, in a world so used to receiving creativity for free. More than anything though, the scene is in rude health, and continues to be one of the most musically creative in the world.