He will rock you

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 October, 2008, 12:00am

Michael Pettis is no ordinary music mogul. By day, the American is a finance professor at Peking University who appears frequently on CCTV as a talking head and writes a financial blog that gets 5,000 hits a day.

At night, though, Pettis lives a different existence. He can mostly be found at D-22, the club he opened in 2006, listening to some of Beijing's edgiest rock groups, many of whom are signed to the record label he launched last year, Maybe Mars.

A former investment banker in New York and a specialist in emerging financial markets who has written weighty tomes on the subject, Pettis moved to Beijing in 2002. Since then, the self-confessed 'music fanatic' has been a champion of Chinese rock and has been instrumental in the development of some of the mainland's best known bands, such as Carsick Cars, the current darlings of the Beijing scene.

'I don't think it's strange,' says Pettis of his dual life, chatting in a coffee shop near D-22 in the student district of Wudaokou. 'I did the same thing in New York. I was an investment banker and lecturer at Columbia University and ran a club as well. The only problem is that I have to watch how I dress. If I wear a suit, the musicians won't take me seriously and if I wear a black T-shirt and jeans, the bankers won't.'

Having played in bands as a teenager, the 50-year-old now puts his time, energy and money into promoting groups made up of former students and Beijing street kids. It's no easy task given the average mainland teenager's preference for cheesy Mando-pop and Canto-pop but Pettis is out to prove that mainland guitar bands can find a wider audience, both at home and overseas.

His high profile has led to him being dubbed the Godfather of Beijing rock. While it's a mantle other people can lay claim to, there's no doubt D-22 has played a pivotal role in reviving the capital's once-moribund music scene.

'If you look at the new talent coming out of Beijing, bands like Hedgehog and Snapline, they're all bands Michael has championed,' says Matthew Kagler, a fellow American and founder of Beijing and Los Angeles-based Tag Team Records. 'D-22 gave them a place to really grow as musicians and he's fostered a scene there.'

When Pettis arrived in Beijing, the live music scene was limited to a couple of tiny venues and a handful of worthwhile bands. In the late 1980s, Cui Jian's iconic anthems such as Nothing to My Name provided the soundtrack of the Tiananmen protests and inspired a brief flowering of rock groups.

However, by the mid-90s, with Cui banned from playing in Beijing, rock had retreated so far underground as to be almost invisible.

It stayed that way until 2004 when new venues such as Yugong Yishan and 2Kolegas dedicated to putting on alternative bands began to appear. But it was the opening of D-22 in May 2006 that kick-started a revival. A dark, basic, unpretentious place, the venue is modelled on the club Pettis had run in New York in the early 90s.

'Most of the clubs weren't interested in putting on experimental bands, so I thought we should open a club where we could put on bands that didn't sound like anyone else and that were original,' he recalls.

'We figured if we could do that then within five years Beijing could have a really good scene. But in less than a year, the whole thing exploded. There were so many talented musicians just waiting for something like that.'

Chief among the bands he put on were Joyside, who will perform in Hong Kong next week, PK14 and Carsick Cars, all of whom are now signed to Maybe Mars. Pettis met Zhang Shouwang, lead singer of Carsick Cars, in 2003 when he was 17, and had suggested he form a band. The trio have gone to support art rock giants Sonic Youth on a European tour and are one of the few mainland bands, along with Brain Failure and Lonely China Day, to have any sort of international profile.

'When Michael met Shouwang, it was an important moment,' says Yan Jun, a Beijing-based experimental composer and long-time supporter of local bands. 'The old generation of groups were over; they weren't creating a new sound. The city needed new blood, new energy. When Michael opened D-22, it gave the new generation of bands a space of their own and helped them grow up.'

Originally from Lanzhou, Yan, along with Yugong Yishan founder Lu Zhiqiang and Zhang Fan - who has organised the annual Midi Festival in Beijing for the past 10 years - is among the people who can challenge Pettis for the title of 'Godfather' of the Beijing scene. But none have Pettis' talent for promoting his club and record label or, some say, himself.

'They're not as media savvy as Michael,' says Tom Pattinson, the editor-in-chief of Time Out Beijing. 'He's become the focal point of the scene. It helps that he's a westerner, in terms of dealing with the western press and helping the scene get international recognition.'

The spread of the internet on the mainland has played a big part in generating interest in Beijing bands, too, by enabling them to reach overseas music fans through websites such as MySpace.

There is, though, little obvious resentment over a foreigner being the figurehead of the Beijing music scene, a sign perhaps of the way the capital is changing.

'I haven't heard anyone say he's a waiguoren [foreigner], and we don't like that. Most of the younger rockers sing in English and regard themselves as international musicians. They don't care whether he's western or not,' says Yan.

That Pettis has put his money where his mouth is by forming Maybe Mars has helped, although he claims he never intended to start a record label.

'We did it because we felt we didn't have a choice. We wanted to document the scene and so we raised a bunch of money and set out to record the bands. The label was supposed to be small, but there was so much interest that we raised more money,' says Pettis.

The first releases - by Carsick Cars, Snapline and Joyside - came out in September last year.

Now, Pettis has plans for another label, to be called Maybe Noise, for more avant-garde music. His investors are friends from his days as a banker, as well as some of his former students from Peking University. 'They're wonderful kids. They're going to end up as government officials or investment bankers, but they still love the scene,' says Pettis.

Maybe Mars is one of a number of independent record labels on the mainland. The oldest is Modern Sky, which celebrated 10 years in the business earlier this year. Then there's Tag Team, which started in 2005, and Miniless in Shanghai. But with rampant internet piracy and a limited live circuit for bands to promote their material, few are making money.

Censorship, while not as stringent as it is for movies and books, is a limiting factor, even if few of the bands release anything as politically charged as Cui Jian's early songs. Maybe Mars still has to have its releases approved by the Ministry of Culture. 'We've had a few small issues, but the vast majority of our stuff has been OK,' says Pettis.

Moreover, many observers feel electronic music has a better chance than guitar bands of earning a mainstream following on the mainland.

'A lot of Chinese kids prefer playing on their laptops, rather than going out and joining bands,' says Pattinson. 'The clubs in Beijing are packed every weekend, but the live music venues aren't.'

Pettis, though, is convinced he's on to a winner. 'In a few years a lot of people - college students, urban intellectuals - will be listening to very challenging music,' he says.

'Of course, China can have a big scene.'

Joyside, Oct 10, 10.30pm, Fringe Gallery, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. HK$100 (with one standard drink), Fringe members free