A tale of two scenes: Music in Beijing and Kunming

Jonas Kelsch — Hong Kong

March 16, 2017

In China’s complex soundscape, Beijing underground rock seems to be in flux, while in Kunming niche electronic music is gaining traction.

Yang Haisong (杨海崧), leader of P.K. 14, an important Beijing-based rock band, said the underground rock scene in the capital “has been getting worse in the last ten years”. Yang attributed the shift to a change in generation. “I guess younger people…I think they’re into Western music”, he said, “maybe like Beyoncé or something like that”.

Chinese folk music and television music, both of which have pop characteristics, are also influencing music tastes, said Yang. On top of this, easy access to music, particularly Western music, through online services like Kuwo, Duomi and Baidu Music, has resulted in a flood of mainstream choices.

Kaiser Kuo (郭怡广), former guitarist of Chinese metal band Tang Dynasty (唐朝), said there is in fact a plurality of underground music cultures in China.

“There’s no single ‘underground music scene’”, he said in an email, “so you ask different people and you’re going to get very different answers. There’s a punk scene, an ‘indie’ or alternative scene, a Metal scene, and often almost no overlap at all. Some are flourishing, others are in a death spiral. That’s very normal”.

Regarding this reporter’s over-generalizing question, he added that “‘shrinking’ or ‘growing’ is far too simplistic a binary to use to talk about what’s happening in music in China”.

Perhaps a safer observation is to simply say that music preferences among China’s young people are changing.

“I do not really care actually”, Yang said. “It’s their choice”. But he was saddened by what he saw as a decline in the number of rock musicians.

“There’s too much entertainment online, so [the young people] don’t really play music, I guess. They just want to listen to and enjoy the music”.

Yang said “life pressure” has also deterred many people from making music. “Many musicians have just stopped”, he said, adding that some former musicians in the Beijing scene now have businesses to take care of.

He appreciates the time when he first started playing music in Beijing 18 years ago (when Tang Dynasty was also performing). “It [was] not for the money or for the fame”, he said, “just for creativity, and to do something new and something special…experimental”.

Yang said he prefers songs “about the people themselves, about their lives, and what they think and what they experience, and what is their reality. This is exciting for me”, he said, “it is an interesting message”.

Songs with existential lyrics are unique in China’s contemporary music world. The majority of songs featured on popular television programs such as The Voice of China are about romantic love.

Peng Hongwu (彭洪武), who directed the China rock documentary Smells Like Teen Spirit, said via WeChat text message that bands like P.K.14 were “representative” of China’s anti-commercial rock. In his view, however, Beijing “underground rock” is on the rise.

“Before, Chinese young people were not really into underground rock”, he said, “because they were busy making ends meet economically. They didn’t have too much energy to consider issues at the spiritual level. But now that Chinese are becoming wealthier, and young people’s income is growing, cultural consumption is also increasing. Now they are more like the youth in Western countries. They’ve begun to hope, to pursue individuality and to seek a better life. They’ve started to learn and think independently. And rock and roll provides a space for this growing segment of society”.

This would mean increasing business opportunities for Chinese rock musicians, it seems. Peng cautioned that as China’s rockers become “more mature in mind about business”, they should be wary of its potential negative effects. He likened business to a “double-edged sword”, which he said “can ruin things if not handled properly”.

“For instance, in business, capital always goes where it can generate the biggest profit”, he said. “Its goal is not to support Chinese rock music but to exploit the commercial value in the music. And rock musicians who pursue business may lose sight of their identity and their principles”.

Rock in China may have a promising future yet, but in other parts of the country — notably the southwest — alternative electronic music is leaving its mark.

“Definitely more people are into electronic music now. I definitely feel that”, said Peter Donaldson, one of the founders of Spirit Tribe, a psytrance music collective in Kunming.

As the capital of Southwest China’s picturesque Yunnan province, Kunming attracts artists and musicians from around China and the world. Although it does not have as large of an electronic music scene as Chengdu, capital of neighboring Sichuan province, it has several clubs serving up a variety of alternative electronic performances, often until the wee hours (or all hours) of the morning.

Spirit Tribe holds events in the city as well as annual psytrance festivals in a scenic rural area outside of Kunming. It is soon to hold its fourth major event.

Donaldson said participating in Spirit Tribe is “very far away from being self-conscious and trying to show everybody how cool you are”.

“How are you going to enjoy yourself if you’re worrying about how you look and what you’re going to wear and stuff?”, he asked, contrasting Spirit Tribe events with the “glamor” one might see in a typical Kunming bar or nightclub, where patrons may be more interested in picking up a date or displaying their VIP status. “[Spirit Tribe has] a much more grassroots feel”, which he said may appeal to a certain element in youth culture that seems to be growing.

Alex Foo owns the only alternative electronic music venue within Kunming’s thumping nightclub district, the Kundu Night Market. His bar, The Mask, supports a number of homegrown DJs. On an average weekend night the bar is heaving with customers. “Variety the spice of life, I guess, and that’s why people come down to ours”, Foo said.

DJ DSK (UK/China), a friend of Foo’s, plays regularly at the Mask and has recently returned to the UK from a China tour, where he was promoting 7-inch vinyls of his classic hip hop scratches.

“Kunming has completely changed”, he said in an email. “I moved to Kunming around 2002/2003 and there was nothing going on DJ-wise then. There were DJs but I never heard any good music, and Kundu had some of the worst music I have heard in my life”. But he did say that after years of steady improvement “Kunming now has some really good DJs and venues”.

“Kunming is usually behind the other cities like Beijing and Shanghai etc”, DSK said, “but hopefully with new venues opening the new wave of young talent can catch up and overtake them”.

Foo is also optimistic about Kunming DJ-ing. The city “[has] some huge DJs actually, that technically are getting a lot better, and I’m kind of excited for those guys”, he said, citing jockeys Double Happiness (electronica) and hip hop DJ Ghetto Chen as examples. “Hopefully there [will be] some more original music coming out of Kunming”, he said.

Donaldson explained that in many Western music cultures, alternative sub-genres support and exert influence on mainstream music, while in China it works quite differently. Audiences initially get into music by listening to popular styles and then begin exploring niche genres such as psytrance when they get bored with pop.

“Pop culture is basically really bland food that everybody eats”, he said.

Translation by Raymond Yu (Twitter: @RayYuHK)

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the author mistakenly said that Peng Hongwei was director of China rock documentary “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The director’s correct name is Peng Hongwu.

[Last edited: June 13, 2017]