Inside the Beijing Music Scene
With a population of 22 million people, Beijing has an extraordinarily diverse music scene. Controversial music genres such as rock, metal, and punk thrive in underground venues and live music houses in Gulou, while venues supporting pop musicians and cover artists can be found in Houhai.
Unlike Western and Chinese pop music, rock, metal, and punk are not very well-received among certain groups of Chinese society. These genres, by nature, are not originally Chinese. In China, rock, metal, and punk are disruptive and they are seen as the embodiment of counter-culture. Bold metal musicians sometimes use their musical talents to write lyrics that criticize the Chinese government, which in turn has caused the government to censor many metal lyrics and force these genres into more private venues, such as live houses and basements in Gulou. Approximately a million people living in Beijing take up residence in the basements of apartment buildings. Looking through the ground-level windows, with a few rays of light peaking in, you can make out bunk beds and crowded rooms piled with members of Beijing’s lower-class. Rock, metal, punk, ska, and similar controversial genres exist only here. During the day these underground basement areas serve as practice rooms, but at night the scene is complete with mosh pits, rock enthusiasts with lengthy beards, and Chinese rock bands performing deafening music. Gulou is considered to be the heart of Beijing’s music scene and is home to these secretive underground sites, as well as popular live houses such as Temple, 69 Cafe, and Mao.
If you don’t favor live music houses, Gulou’s Punk Rock Noodle provides the atmosphere you’re looking for. Founded by Lei Jun, former frontman of the Chinese band Misandao, Punk Rock Noodle has already been featured on the Beijinger and a variety of local Chinese sites. The walls are covered in posters and framed pictures of foreign punk rock bands from the 60’s, and a Scottish kilt and jean jacket covered in spikes add to the decorations. Leather booths are crowded with patrons all enjoying handmade noodles. The employees are all members of the same band, and can be found talking to patrons and lounging together.
The next stop is Houhai. Known for its scenic lake views, night life, and surplus of bars, Houhai is home to hundreds of musical performances. Houhai is at its center and is cluttered people enjoying the surrounding views from small boats. Those not on the water are walking under hanging trees along the windy paths that encircle the lake. They stop to enter bars and grab drinks with friends, while listening to cover bands. Although the location has the potential to become a hub for up-and-coming artists, the majority of the performances consist of the same tired loop of American and Chinese pop song covers night in and night out. It is possible for musicians in Houhai to be full-time performers and survive successfully off of their earnings, but it is rare for these artists to have the freedom to perform their own music and still make a living.
The music scene in China differs greatly from the scene in America in the way that the expectations about crowd size are extremely different. A Chinese musician that is relatively new to the music scene can gather a crowd of 10,000 people with ease, however only top American performers with a significant amount of publicity have the ability to gather a crowd of 10,000 people. Carlo Fuentes, a California native who has been living and performing in China for the past 6 years expanded on this misconception, “12,000 people in China is nothing,” he told me. “12,000 is just the XiZhiMen subway stop at rush hour. Foreigners get this illusion that if they play at a music festival with 12,000 people they’ve achieved something in China, but it’s actually not true.” Foreigners may have a misconception about the correlation of crowd size and fame in China. Massive crowds will come to the shows, but in context of a city of 22 million, it is not enough to leave an impact.
In a city so large, there is space for all kinds of music. Beijing, despite its problems, remains China’s prime location for music. The music industry is competitive, with people from around the nation all flocking to Beijing to pursue their dream of musical success.
鼓楼有好多地方让摇滚乐人做摇滚乐。白天的时候楼梯的下面是练习演奏音乐的地方。晚上的时候这些地方都有摇滚乐的表演。鼓楼是北京的音乐中心。有很有名的Live House，比方说 Mao Live House，Temple Bar 和69Cafe。如果你不喜欢 Live House，鼓楼还有一个有名的饭馆叫 Punk Rock Noodle。Punk Rock Noodle以前的老板是Misando乐队的主唱。Punk Rock Noodle的墙上有好多1960年外国朋克风格的照片。墙上还有朋克的牛仔夹克等服饰。客人都吃Punk Rock Noodle的自制面条。Punk Rock Noodle 的食物和环境都特别好。
Dreams and Success
If you talk to different artists in Beijing, each will have a different opinion on paths to success. It’s true that certain music genres like pop, classical, and jazz have a better chance of finding an audience than genres like rock and roll, punk, and heavy metal. Some people look to a signed contract with a record label or to doing covers of popular songs, while some bet their hopes on talent shows like The Voice China. What ultimately decides whether or not a musician will be successful though is the drive to become successful, which can be a problem if music doesn’t seem like a passion to you, but more like a job.
Yu Jing is musician in her mid 20’s from Chengdu, Sichuan. After graduation college and working in Chengdu, she found that her life in Chengdu was too slow. When we first met her in Houhai, one of the music centers of Beijing, she seemed very happy and excited to talk to us. As we talked with Yu Jing, we found that in her opinion, the rise to stardom follows a pretty defined path of performing over and over again in competitions. But it’s not as simple as it may sound. For starters, the type of music that you perform definitely matters. Since the most popular music types right now in China include pop, jazz, and classical, Yu Jing often does covers of songs in the pop genre. She says that since those artists are popular, they must know what makes a song popular. But before that step, you need the drive to become a star. Yu Jing mentioned that in Beijing, you may run into three different types of musicians. There are musicians who perform for money and comfort, musicians who come to Beijing to experience something challenging, and musicians who only want to travel around the country, using music as an excuse to do so. In other words, they will be in one city performing on one day, the next they might be in a different city performing there. Musicians from the first type often enter signing contracts with large record labels like Maybe Mars and Modern Sky. A problem that artists often encounter in signing deals is the bounds on their freedom. People can’t really play with other people like they did before, only with other bands signed by the same company. They may have less concerts and find themselves sitting around waiting for much longer periods of time.
During our trips to Houhai, we ran into a couple in a small, dark restaurant/bar. A man and a woman, both from Shanxi and in their late 20s. His imposing demeanor and annoyed expression contrasted greatly with his parter’s, who was about our height and much more relaxed. The woman called herself Shen Xiao, while the man didn’t say his name. They would be what you could probably describe as the music for comfort type of musician. This couple had been working at a bar more interested in profit than presenting the talent of its singers. As a result, Shen Xiao and other musicians there sang mostly pop music and cover songs to appeal to a wider audience. Some of it seemed to have rubbed off on Shen Xiao as they stated that music was more of a job to them, and they had no real goal they were reaching for. They also mentioned signing contracts, or 签约 (qian yue), a popular word often thrown around by musicians. This includes making a deal with a record label and losing the freedom to go around in Houhai or Nanlouguxiang and play where you want.
While Yu Jing expressed interest in signing in order to become a star, she was still hesitant about it: “The system right now is a little chaotic, like, lots of companies, but if a good opportunity came along, I would definitely take it.” She mentioned the freedom of playing in the livehouses of Houhai and Nanlouguxiang, which apparently isn’t present in a signing contract. “A good signing opportunity is when the truly see your value, and they don’t just try to turn you into another bland female musician.” Despite that optimal signing deal, she reiterated that the freedom to perform where and when she wanted was still important. Yu Jing seemed well aware that signing could mean giving up her freedom to play wherever and with whoever. Nick Parsons is another musician in Nanlouguxiang who plays more alternative, experimental style music. When we asked him about signing, he seemed adamant to it. “They want to f**k the musicians”, he said. He told us that there were a few good record labels, but many just promise success and fame, and never deliver. This idea of signing constrictions adds to the drive for the “do it yourself” music culture in Beijing.
Yu Jing herself enjoys this “DIY” lifestyle, and while she still hasn’t made it big in Beijing yet, she still has very high hopes for herself. When we listened to her play for us in Olympic Park, she certainly did have a nice voice, and played guitar very well. Although the potential and drive are there, who knows where she’ll end up in the next few years. You might see her still in Houhai singing to unengaged listeners, or you might see her on posters as the new face of Chinese pop.
If you walk out of the main streets in Gulou, crowded by young locals and elderly tourists, follow side alley after side alley to find a live house where a musician can perform to a very personal audience. Hidden away behind the ancient brick facades and walled courtyards is the Cafe 69, one of the few dedicated venues to rock and alternative genres in Beijing. Music posters are stapled over slightly older posters on the door to this venue. Looking at the splattering of colors there, you cannot tell what would have existed without music.
A blast of sound immediately greets you inside. We walked into a building the size of a large classroom, and alone at the front sat a long haired, skinny, jean-clad Chinese man named Nick Parsons, tinkering with a keyboard. Electronic distortions on short riffs emerge from amps on the sides of the small room. The papers and posters covering the walls vibrate with his music. These fliers all showcase the new, rising bands from Beijing. It is rare to see any bands older than a few years here. There nothing from before 2010. It’s as if this local history — that is, the legacy of older bands- has been erased.
Even concealed in the low light of this venue the walls seems to burst out with evidence of an active scene. He looks up through long hair and beckons is forward and welcomes us in.
Li Eryang, stage name Nick Parsons, has escaped this phenomenon. Disinclined to become a “star”, unlike many of his peers, his motivations for making music are on one hand to simply make music. Never affected by the drive for popularity, Nick has found his own little space in an area full of artists with few venues. It has been enough to play his own unique, uncompromised style. On the other hand, his dreams are perhaps even greater than those musicians who strive to be discovered. He wants his genre of music — a blend of rock and roll and alternative with Chinese influences — to reach an audience larger than the couple dozen who enter through the doors of Gulou’s livehouses. He hopes that over time, the government, audience, and city will accept his music.
In a combination of English and Chinese, he shares with us his favorite artists: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bob Marley. They were the few who brought their respective genres more fame than they would ever hold. Dylan’s vision of rock and roll evolved into a global vision. Paul Simon’s incorporation of traditional African styles into his songs gave them near universal recognition. Bob Marley’s music brought forth adoration of Jamaican culture from all over the world. These artists, around for years and in some cases, decades, saw through a goal for much more than an individual.
China is only 40 years away from the end of the Cultural Revolution, a period of traditional and foreign influences. At that time, the only thing to believe in was the party. Since then it has reformed and opened its economy to miraculous growth rates. Nearly every product has made its way through a Chinese factory on the way to a consumer market. Why has Chinese music and culture, then, never seen the success of the nation’s other exports?
Musicians like Nick believe time more than anything is the answer to this question. He spoke of the future: “What prevents us from breaking out is era, but I see it changing now. Progress will come slowly.” No one so far has broken out, but that may just be because the scene is so young. History more than anything has affected how this culture within China has emerged.
The scene has been saturated in recent years, because although more and more musicians have found inspiration to come to Beijing, the audience hasn’t grown. Many hope that a musician will work to do more than become a star. The scene needs someone to last the test of time and strive to impact Beijing with modern Chinese music.
当你走过一条又一条鼓楼的胡同，你会到达咖啡69，一个藏在古老的石墙和院落后面的中国摇滚和另类音乐的圣地。走进咖啡69，迎接你的有大声的音乐，满墙的海报，还有一个长发消瘦的中国音乐人，Nick Parsons. 墙上的海报展示了很多北京新生的乐队，但是在这里很难见到活跃了多年的乐队。这里没有任何2010年之前的内容，就好像那一段历史被时间抹去了一样。
Nick Parsons的本名叫李尔杨。和很多同行不一样的是，他不想当一个所谓的明星，他做音乐只是为了做音乐。因为他不被名誉所影响，所以他在北京找到了一片自己的立足之地 — 几个音乐人，几个场地，还有他自己独特的音乐风格。虽然这样，但是他的梦想可以说超越了那些为了出名而做音乐的音乐人。他的音乐囊括了许多风格：中国传统音乐，摇滚乐，另类音乐。他希望欣赏他的音乐的不仅仅是走进咖啡69的顾客，他希望随着时间的推移，他的音乐能被更多听众，政府，甚至整个城市所接受。