Beijing has long been the Cinderella of mainland cities when it comes to foreign bands touring Asia. Despite being home to the most varied and vibrant live music scene on the mainland, Beijing's rock fans have grown used to international acts bypassing the capital in favour of Hong Kong and Shanghai. Those who have made it to Beijing in recent years have been mainstream and bland, such as Norah Jones, or long past their prime, such as Sonic Youth.
But since 2005, the Beijing Pop Festival has been doing its best to put the capital on the world music map. For two days each September, Chaoyang Park has hosted the likes of Ian Brown, Placebo, Supergrass and the best of local bands in an atmosphere that might be tame compared with Britain's Glastonbury Festival but is radical enough for conservative Beijing.
Now in its third year, the festival is the brainchild of London-born, Hong Kong-raised Jason Magnus. Organised under the auspices of his Rock for China company, the festival this year features its strongest line-up yet: the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, Brett Anderson, New York Dolls and Marky Ramone. And Chinese rocker Cui Jian will make his first outdoor concert appearance in Beijing, leading a 30-strong contingent of bands from as far afield as Sweden and Britain.
Magnus was inspired to set up the festival by his dislike of the manufactured singers and boy bands that dominate the mainland music scene. 'I'm railing against karaoke culture,' he says. 'There are a huge number of rock fans in Beijing, but they're relegated to the underground. Doing a festival was the best way to bring as many artists as possible to Beijing in one go.'
His mission to convert the locals to rock and hip hop is having an impact. At the first Beijing Pop Festival, most of the 12,000 people who attended were expats. Last year, the crowd increased to 20,000 during the two days and foreigners were in the minority. This year, with ticket prices kept low, Magnus is counting on more. 'We're hoping for 30,000.'
That the festival is aimed at locals rather than expats explains why the lineup is less than cutting edge. 'It would be meaningless to get the Arctic Monkeys to China because they're too new,' says Magnus. 'It takes time for bands to get known here. I'd love to bring Arcade Fire here, I was offered the Killers, but the locals just don't know or care about them. That's why I wanted Nine Inch Nails, because they have a big fan base in China. They don't want to come to China to play in front of 10,000 foreigners. They want to see their local fans.'
In the past, promoters in Beijing have been defeated by the reluctance of the authorities to issue permits for foreign bands. Magnus, 28, who has an English public school accent, a Harvard degree and a brief past as an internet entrepreneur, set out to get them onside from the moment he arrived in Beijing in early 2005. 'It was important to set up the company in a structured, patriotic way, which is why we called it Rock for China,' says Magnus, who has an English father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother.
With 'rock' still a dirty word at the Ministry of Culture, Magnus appeased the authorities by calling his event a pop festival. Having partnered with the Beijing Musical Festival, a classical music forum, and the state-owned Poly Culture and Arts, Magnus says he's now the only promoter on the mainland trusted by the government. 'I know we're the only company that can get an artist through the red tape uncensored,' he says.
Even with his connections, Magnus is sometimes stymied by the authorities. Last year, rapper Jay-Z had his permit to perform withdrawn at the last minute because of the Ministry of Culture's objections to some of his lyrics. This year, getting Public Enemy a permit has been Magnus' biggest challenge. 'We had to change their name to PE,' he says. 'The authorities ask for lyrics and biographies of the bands and if something comes up that's subversive, they investigate.'
Censorship is just one of the reasons live music remains on the margins of Beijing cultural life. 'Rock in China is still in its infancy,' says Li Chi, who runs MAO Livehouse, which has quickly become a leading music venue in Beijing since opening earlier this year. 'There's a long way to go before it matures.'
Magnus' event also has some way to go before it can compete with the likes of Japan's Fuji Rock Festival, which brought in the Beastie Boys, the Cure, Chemical Brothers, Kaiser Chiefs, Joss Stone and Groove Armada this year. Nor does the heavy security - there were 1,000 police on duty for the first Beijing Pop Festival - help engender a carefree atmosphere.
However, it's starting to establish an international reputation, and Magnus is promoting other events in Beijing, such as NOFX's storming appearance in April, and managing bands such as Hong Kong's King Ly Chee. 'We're making a big statement by having a rock'n'roll festival that essentially promotes rebellion slap bang in the middle of Beijing.'
Beijing Pop Festival, Sept 8-9, Chaoyang Park, 200 yuan (one- day, advance), 380 yuan (two- day, advance), 250 yuan (one-day, door). Inquiries: 400 818 333 or go to www.piaowutong.com