Episode 3: Music Cities in the Middle Kingdom
That's 和复文丙 (héfùwénbǐng), a Beijing-based psychedelic rock trio whose lyrics, regularly, ruminate on the human condition and our relationship with the natural world. In this spunky tune entitled 城市一片希望与绝望 (chéngshì shì yīpiàn xīwàng yǔ juéwàng), or in English, A City is a Piece of Hope and Despair, they meditate on, in very, very simple terms, how we, within physical urban spaces, create our own realities.
That's what we're going to explore today in this episode. Namely, how China's cities across the country are recognizing and utilizing their musical identities and communities.
Hello, and welcome to LSGS, a three-part podcast about music cities. I'm your host, Rochelle Beiersdorfer, an MA Journalism student at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. In the previous two episodes, we first got the download on the music city paradigm and how it's implemented in the real world. And then, in the last episode, we explored the importance of place when it comes to a city's music identity. As a case study, we traveled to Liverpool and explored its musical heritage. And with that, we went headfirst into Liverpool's music identity and how it is the bedrock for its status as a music city, its inclusion in UNESCO's Cities of Music Network, and the development of its local music tourism.
In this episode, as just mentioned, we're journeying to the east to see how music city initiatives are applied in cities across China, and how Chinese cities are acknowledging their music identities and supporting their musical communities.
But, before we explore China's music cities and local music communities in this final episode, there's one thing that needs to be clarified. Being that this podcast is the artifact of my graduation project, the framework for this trilogy is similar to a dissertation. so, while we've been listening to this three-part chronicle, I hope you've been thinking about it as an audible dissertation. I think that's all the housekeeping that needs to be done. So without further ado, let's explore how Chinese municipalities are embracing the music city paradigm.
As I said in the beginning of the first episode, my initial encounter with the music city paradigm was in 2019, and this is because of my involvement in Beijing, China's music communities. Since 2012, I have been an active supporter in Beijing's independent and underground music communities, doing everything from creating album covers to doing Chinese-English translation for independent bands and underground record labels.
I've done a lot of odd jobs in the scene, and I'm always advocating for these communities to get international recognition. So, in December of 2019, when the local Beijing government announced that the megacity intended to become an international music capital, I was beyond excited. Mostly to see how this government-sponsored scheme would boost Beijing's local music economy and help my brothers from other mothers, in my eyes, rightly hit the global stage.
According to the announcement made by the Beijing municipal government, this ambition aimed to make Beijing the Chinese-language music center of the world by 2025. If fully realized, this initiative was projected to see monetary gains for the industry and related markets that would be over 17 billion US dollars.
This plan targeted all aspects of Beijing's music industry, including better legal protection for artists, aid in the advancement of music related technologies, such as the use of AI in music creation, and support both the digital music industry and live performance touring circuits. The statement emphasized that there would be strong support for the growth of small venues within the city.
Now, do you notice how I'm talking about this plan in the past tense? Well, that's because as of now, this plan hasn't come to fruition, and the reason for that is COVID. This announcement was made just a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic put the world on pause. As the founder of MusicDish*China, Eric de Fontenay, told me during an interview in 2021, it seemed ridiculous to talk about Beijing becoming a global music city when, as he put it, "half the world was shut down."
Being how difficult it is to keep your finger on the pulse with what's brewing in China's music industry when you're not physically in the country, I recently gave Eric a ring on WeChat to see if there's been any new developments with music city initiatives in China and how the post Covid music scene is looking in China. Our conversation was very, very thought-provoking, which caused me to take loads and loads of notes, which... You'll be able to hear. Sorry.
Eric de Fontenay: Hi
Rochelle: Can you hear me? Cool.
Eric: I can hear you
Rochelle: Awesome. So let's get started. So, first question is, just please introduce yourself.
Eric: My name is Eric de Fontenay. i MusicDish*China独立小炒 which is based in Beijing. We're focused on promoting independent music. Primarily independent Chinese music. In China. Through our editorial content, promotion, events, and different wanky projects that we do. When I think music city, I think live . Right? That, I think that's, uh, goes without saying.
So it's a city that has a thriving live music scene that covers a wide variety of genres of music.
Before we start to really explore China's music scenes, I think we need to take a moment and paint a picture of what China's music industry and communities look like. Eric?
Eric: Well, the music industry is one that has gone through tremendous transformation in the last 15, or I could even go last 10 years.
From being well, what would be a mess riddled with piracy, that was one of the big issues, to now being the fifth largest music market, at least when we say that we're talking about recorded music, in the world. They recently surpassed France, uh, which was number five before.
What Eric is talking about is China's music markets ranking on IFPI's global market report for 2022. Every year, IFPI compiles and releases a report on how the recorded music industry did at the global and national levels. A part of these reports is ranking the top 10 global markets. In this most recent report, China's place as the fifth largest market in the world is, as the report states, credited mostly to the rise in popularity of paid subscription streaming services, such as NetEase Cloud Music, which Eric will talk about in a moment.
In 2019, when the Beijing government announced that ambitious plan, China was the seventh largest market in the world. With a recorded economic growth of 16%, according to that year's global market report. And if you're wondering, yes, this is the same IFPI, or the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, that co-authored the 2015 handbook The Mastering of a Music City: Key Elements, Effective Strategies and Why it’s Worth Pursuing.
Now back to Eric…
Eric: So obviously, it's gone through tremendous transformation, legal, technology, business, you know, different business models, etc. Players that have emerged in the last ten years. Some of those players are known globally, like netEase Cloud Music, or Tencent Music Entertainment, Modern Sky, etc.
Uh, as well, but not just on the national level, also on the local level. So, to me, when I, when I talk about the Chinese music industry, I just want people to get an idea of how fundamentally, and the music industry here because of the peculiarities of China develop kind of very differently. So, for example, Spotify is not in China, right?
Apple Music is, but I don't think that they're very, they're not a significant player. Uh, Spotify or the myriad of other, uh, DSDs, digital service providers, aren't available in China. What you have is Chinese digital service providers, right? And, uh, you know, if I take NetEase as an example, I like to call NetEase a social media platform around music, and that is something very characteristic of the Chinese digital streaming market, which is very different than outside of China.
So, To talk about the music industry, there's so many layers to talk about. I think that the thing to retain is that it is an industry that has gone through significant transformations kicked off by the government when it initiated this very big crackdown on piracy. And that unleashed a whole series of events that led to where we are today.
And it is still a, one that's gonna be, China is gonna be, or is, one of the significant music markets in the world, again, especially on the recording front.
So what about on the music community side?
Eric: One of The things that is interesting about China when I compare it to other East Asian countries is the role that what we call in China, independent music market play since the opening of China in the 80s to the development of the Chinese music industry.
Quick history lesson for anyone who isn't privy to China's more modern economic and music histories. Starting in the late 70s and going into the 80s, China adopted a number of economic reforms. This all happened under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who came into power after Mao, and is colloquially referred to as the architect of modern China, because of all the economic focused initiatives that were enacted under his leadership.
But, anyways, associated with this new economic strategy was, what is known in English as, the Open Door Policy. This Open Door Policy was essentially, as the name implies, opening the metaphorical doors of China's economy to foreign businesses and banks that wanted to invest and set roots in China. As a chain reaction, this opening up to the world allowed western pop culture to flow into China.
Now, along with this importing of Western pop culture, Dakou, which I'll explain in a moment, and foreign scholars who, similar to the American G. I. s in Liverpool, introduced China's youth to new musical styles. Now, Dakou was the importing of physical media, like cassette tapes and CDs, from Western countries into China.
Starting in the 90s before dial up, these tapes and CDs would be punctured with a hole and were shipped into China with the intention of being trashed. Dakou, when translated into English, is usually translated as cut out. Now, dakou is usually credited as one of the sources for how Western musical styles found their way into China, and planted the seeds for China's very diverse and rich music communities.
And this is because these pretty much good-as-new products weren't tossed. Instead, they found homes with China's youth. Now back to Eric…
Eric: And so you have a very, very rich, it is not so much, I think it would be fair to say that for example, South Korea has a top down music industry, very dominated by K pop, mainstream music, TV, film, genres.
Whereas in China, if you go to the biggest music festivals, you will see indie musicians that are headlining the festival. Um, And so there are a lot of different, you know, there's a thriving punk community, metal community, hip hop community. There are these thriving communities in China, often kind of anchored with certain geographic cities, since we're talking about cities and music.
Oh, one more quick lesson. This time on China's music scenes based on geographical location. In China, cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuhan are known as the birthplaces or hubs for particular genres. For instance, Wuhan is known as the birthplace for China's punk rock scene, while Shanghai is all about EDM, electronic dance music.
The political and cultural epicentre of China, Beijing, is viewed as the heart of China's metal and indie rock scenes. And Beijing, as a city with very rich history that goes back thousands and thousands of years, holds a lot more clout than some of these other cities. But we'll get into that later.
Eric: The ebb and flow, of course, of popularity, and are heavily influenced actually by what are called here music variety shows, uh, like Rap of China, which led to an explosion of awareness on rap and hip hop.
Or, Summer of Bands, or otherwise known as Big Bands, which brought a big spotlight on the indie music scene, and that has happened for EDM, it's happened for Chinese folk music, etc.
From my own personal conversations with Chinese indie rock musicians in the last few years, it's become pretty apparent that a benchmark nowadays for a band to so-called "make it " in China's music industry is by being on one of these music variety shows.
Big Band or 乐队的夏天 (yuèduì de xiàtiān), Summer of Bands, is currently in its third season and is essentially a battle of the bands but with all the bells and whistles. It's available for streaming on iQIYI, as an iQIYI original. iQIYI can be thought of as a Chinese equivalent to Netflix.
As with everywhere around the globe in the digital age, the platformization of media content, be it with TV variety shows or music, is commonplace. With music specifically though, this has led to musicians not needing to relocate to specific cities in order to be discovered. If you recall from episode 1, we talked about how the scholar Richard Florida in a 2015 article conveyed the star-making power that New York, Los Angeles, and London possess. This is because they hold the most cultural clout as creative hubs. To reinforce that idea, I mentioned how NME releases annually a list of 100 artists to watch, and how musicians from and based out of this trio of superstar music cities overwhelmingly dominate those lists every year. Remember? Well, the superstar city concept holds true in China too, and the city in China that is considered by many to be the place to be in China if you have dreams of music stardom, at least until recently, is Beijing
Eric: So, Beijing music scene. Beijing has been uh for most of the development of the indie music community industry scene the capital. Actually, it was almost the sole capital. It was the place to be. So, you know, if you talk about the 2000s, Right? It was all happening in Beijing and uh, you know the one of the most influential independent labels, Maybe Mars, actually was an outgrowth of one of the most influential live houses and venues, which was D-22.
Uh, so Beijing has always punched, I mean, it is a city of 22 million people and the capital of China. But even taking those into consideration, it has always punched way above its weight. Um, I think, if People in the 80s would have guessed what would be the driving city, the driving force, in propelling, uh, independent music, its growth, its development, they probably would have said Shanghai, because it's a more international city, and etc. But no, it is by far Beijing. One of the things that's happened in the last, well, I think at least six, seven years, is for, I would say, primarily economic reasons. Uh, Beijing is no longer the sole jewel in the crown. Uh, you have a myriad of cities that, uh, you know, to put it bluntly, bands and musicians don't necessarily feel the need to move to Beijing to make it.
Uh, you know, Beijing is a stop on the tour, definitely, but they don't need to move there. They can develop in their own city, province. Uh, and so that's a big shift from what was historically true, uh, ten years ago, where every band, if you wanted to make it come to beijing
Eric and I went on to talk about venues and the explosion of venues like EDM clubs and live houses that has happened in the last two years in Beijing. However, presumably because of the covid induced economic strains, a lot of the established clubs and small venues where the local music scenes grew organically have, for the most part, had to call it quits. Rest in peace Temple Bar.
Now, if you recall in Beijing's 2019 global music aspiration, one of the major components was strong support for the growth of small venues within the city.
So, is this boom of venues a sign that Beijing's ambitions to become the global capital of Chinese-language music still in the works?
Eric: I have to admit, I haven't really followed, like, uh, what's been happening with the government. It seems like everything we're hearing about the government is about trying to jumpstart the economy, generally.
Okay. Uh, and so I don't know if the explosion of venues, live houses, et cetera, is tied to government policy. I couldn't say one way or another. I'm observing, what do you call it, anecdotally, uh, I can't really answer that question. Okay, that's fine. Um, It's not as obvious as something like what's happening in Shijiazhuang that's publicized and etc.
Um, so I'm not sure at all . More than what's been talked about is, uh, how the regulatory environment has become tighter in Beijing and etc. Of course, that comes from the government. Um, but I can't say that there's been, I can't say one way or another, when a government has kind of pressed, uh, the plan that they had announced in, I believe it was December 2019 or January 2020, bad timing, to make Beijing into a global music city.
Beijing wasn't the only Chinese city before COVID that was striving for international music city status.
Chengdu, a first-tier city located in the southwestern province of Sichuan, known for its spicy food, pandas, and as the capital of rap and hip hop in China. has been working towards becoming an internationally recognized music mecca since 2017 through government investment and initiatives. Some of these investments were publicly announced in the fall of 2019 when Chengdu's local government held a conference to publicize a three-year, six-part strategy to transform Chengdu into an internationally acclaimed cultural capital.
Starting in 2018, this strategy focused on how to promote the city's culinary market, attract more tourists, and how the city was working towards becoming a music haven. This 2018 action plan anticipated a steady growth in Chengdu's music industry of 20 percent and a monetary output of more than 8 billion U. S. dollars by 2020. Similar to Beijing's proposal, this action plan valued a growth in live and performing art venues. Through conversations that I've had with music industry professionals that are located in Chengdu, I've learned that before 2020, Chengdu was building new music specific infrastructure, such as concert halls, venues, and music conservatories.
And besides infrastructure investments, Chengdu also was establishing ties with Music City USA, aka Nashville, Tennessee.
At this point, I'd like to point out, just as a reminder, the four key ways that the academic and culture journalist Andrea Baker discussed in her 2016 paper Music Scenes and Self Branding (Nashville and Austin), and that we outlined in Episode 1. After government policies, self branding through marketing and PR campaigns, and acknowledgement through an official accreditation process, came a fourth way. Namely, forging a sisterhood between cities where one city is an already established music city and the other one has dreams of following in that established music city's footsteps.
In July of 2020, Chengdu became Nashville's ninth sister city, according to the website Sister Cities of Nashville.
So, where is Chengdu in its journey towards becoming a global music city today? Besides coverage of festivals in Chengdu from both state owned media groups and international outlets, I couldn't find any updates on the World Wide Web.
Eric told me he wasn't sure, but that another nearby municipality, that's probably about a four hour drive from Chengdu, is seeing the local government supporting its local music communities.
Eric: And uh, nor can I say a lot about Chengdu. There are I would say more generally like I had a conversation this week about Chongqing and chongqing the box in Chongqing kind of split away from the umbrella the box umbrella to be really kind of administered and managed locally in Chongqing and I have heard from people that work there that it has gotten a lot of support by the local government.
Quick geographical note: Chongqing is a motor city and economic hub in southwestern, China. Its current population, according to the website World Population Review, is over 17.3 million people.
Eric: I think there's maybe a lot of places, you know, uh, where there is, you know, everybody's looking at Zibo, and trying to, you know, the night time economy and etc. I can't say much on the, the two poster childs.
I can say that, you know, kind of even a place like Chongqing, which is not known for music at all. Uh, the government is trying to support whatever it's developing there.
So far, we've looked at how two megacities in China, before the pandemic, were working towards global music city status, and how, since the pandemic, there hasn't been, at least publicly or through the media, any acknowledgement of these plans being revived. I guess time will tell if Beijing and Chengdu have put their music city dreams on either short term or perpetual hiatus.
But, this doesn't mean that music city ambitions have dwindled completely in China. Other cities in China have announced their own music city branding ambitions. The most notable one is Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province in northern China. During the summer, the industrial capital's local government announced and widely promoted through media campaigns that the city was tapping into its local rock and roll legacy and transforming itself into the capital of Chinese rock and roll.
For context, besides being the hometown for a handful of musicians, Shijiazhuang's relevance to China's rock and roll heritage is that it's the place where two scene-defining music magazines were published. These two influential magazines were, in English, So Rock! and Popular Music. So, how are these two magazines so influential?
Well, these two publications were vital to the cultivation of China's rock communities by making the general populace of China aware of both the local domestic scene, as well as what was happening abroad. Now, when it comes to musicians and bands, I'd say the most notable act that's come out of Shijiazhuang would be the artsy rock troupe, Omnipotent Youth Society.
Eric: They're still based in, uh, Shijiazhuang and actually are, you know, doing their part. They have a studio. They have a bar, kind of small venue. You know, they're doing their part. I was actually in Shijiazhuang two weeks before the city made the announcement of Rock Hometown, and you know, I went to visit the guys from City Moat. And, this is kind of like a music creative collection. Uh, more towards the DJ side. And so I was talking with them, hanging out with them. And, you know, the whole discussion is, look, Shijiazhuang just doesn't have the culture, doesn't have the critical mass, doesn't have the infrastructure to be like Beijing.
Uh, when I went to one of their events, you know, there was maybe 20 odd people, and I'm like, hey, this event is cool, music being played, but why aren't there more people here? Because Beijing, you'd have a lot more people, and they're like, ah, people in Shijiazhuang aren’t really into that. And so an important part is, you know, the consumer organically, like, being part of the music city scene.
The local government in Shijiazhuang organized a series of festivities called Rock Hometown that ran from July 16th until sometime in October. They also encouraged musicians to spontaneously start jamming in public spaces and on public transportations to the, according to Eric and media coverage, dismay of the locals.
Besides being a play on the meaning of the first two characters in the city's name, (石 Shí means rock but as in a inorganic matter not really rock music which is 摇滚 yáogǔn
, and 家 jiā which means home), this music city's branding was fully government led and driven with two things in mind: One, to revamp the city's image, and mostly, two, to stimulate the local economy through music tourism.
Eric: So ,I think there's, you know, there's issues of, does what the Shijiazhuang government want to do fit the local culture, is the first thing. And secondly, I think if they really wanted to do it, they would, you know, do a five, ten year plan and really try to attract, you know, people from Beijing and other cities to come and invest in Shijiazhuang and facilitate that to build, uh, uh, an infrastructure from the ground up.
As Eric has previously mentioned, China currently is really focused on stabilizing its national economy. So after Zibo, a city in the eastern province of Shandong, saw a major increase in their tourism and G D P this past spring, due to foodies flocking to the city for 串儿 (chuàner) or barbecue, other local governments also seem to want to tap into cultural products and leverage them to boost their economies.
So, with Shijiazhuang nearing the end of its three month long rock festivals in Rocktober, have they realized their rock and roll dreams? A quick search online just finds articles about how much this wasn't an overall success for the city, and the tension between musicians' and music lovers' rock and roll spirit and, let's say, social etiquette.
Besides having to deal with the conflict of rebellious behavior and social norms, Shijiazhuang, this summer, also had to duel it out with another Chinese city, who is also eyeing the title of China's rock capital. That city is Xinxiang, a prefecture city located in the province of Henan. On July 6th, 10 days before Shijiazhuang's rock hometown lineup of concerts and events were to kick off, the Xinxiang municipal government posted a timeline on their official WeChat.
This timeline outlined evidence for their claim as China's rock capital and mostly detailed their hosting of a music festival in the late 90s called Chinese New Music Concert or in Chinese 中国新音乐演唱会 (Zhōngguó xīn yīnyuè yǎnchàng huì). This festival started in 1998, according to the WeChat timeline, and saw acts perform such as the hard rock powerhouse Black Panther, the fathers of Chinese heavy metal, Tang Dynasty, and Cui Jian, who is widely considered the father of rock and roll in China.
From my research and talking to friends in China's music industry, Xinxiang's claim, Similar to Shijiazhuang's, is widely viewed as being just an attempt to boost their local economy through artistic means. Sound familiar?
Well, that’s the episode and the podcast. I hope you found it not just educational but also engaging, giving you new food for thought and has inspired you to go find out more about China’s music industry and music communities. To be honest, there was so much content and not enough time to talk about it all. It's going to be interesting to see what happens in China’s music industry in the next few years and to follow how music city initiatives are implemented in other cities across China.
What are your thoughts on music cities in China? What Chinese bands or artists do you listen to? Let me know your thoughts on social media. Links to socials are provided in the show notes below.
Now, before we sign off for the final time, I’d like to thank a few people for their contributions to this project, podcast and to this episode. Firstly, thank you to Eric de Fontenay of MusicDish*China for the countless times he’s been my go to guy when it comes to finding out what’s going on in China’s music industry generally and Beijing’s indie music scenes specifically while I’ve been abroad. Next, thank you to all the academics and writers whose works were sourced in this episode. By sharing their knowledge and research, myself and anyone listening to this podcast are able to get a better idea on music city initiatives and music-related paradigms.
I’m very thankful to all the professors and instructors who helped me hone my journalism and news sense while a part of the MA journalism program at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. With this project, I’m very grateful to my supervisor Leander Reeves for her guidance, constructive criticism and for lending a sympathetic ear more than once through the entire process of creating my graduation project.
Next, I really hope you enjoyed the music that was included in this episode. Besides the theme music, all of the music that was used are the brainchildren of a few bands and artists from Beijing's indie and underground music communities. And all the music was used with their permission. As such, I am very grateful to my friends sourtower, 和复文丙 (héfùwénbǐng) and Ambulance of Love for allowing me to incorporate their beautiful and sick beats in this final episode. Links to their discographies and social media accounts are provided in the show notes below.
And last but not least, thank you, the listener, for taking the time to listen to this episode and podcast.
Until the next podcast, keep rocking!