Shenzhen is a starting point for bands trying to make it on the mainland
A handful of indie music pubs in Shenzhen are becoming jumping-off points for foreign bands trying to make it on the mainland, writes Fiona Tam
It's a Friday night and there's a good turnout at the Brown Sugar Jar in Shenzhen. But while customers in other pubs are partying up a storm or noisily playing drinking games, the crowd here is far quieter. Ensconced in comfortable sofas, they're all listening to a Canadian soul-jazz outfit called Ask Your Sister.
"We have a pretty good audience tonight and many of them are very open-minded," says the group's singer Kamila Nasr. "We focus on so-called feel-good music. The audiences may not understand the lyrics, but they can feel the energy from our performance."
Brown Sugar Jar or Hong Tang Guan is one of several pubs and live music venues in Shenzhen that regularly showcase foreign indie bands to attract a young, affluent clientele that is willing to pay for more diverse sounds. While the gigs may not be very lucrative for the bands, they welcome the chance to cultivate a following on the mainland.
Most Hong Kong bar owners see little value in bringing in relatively unknown acts from countries as far afield as the Czech Republic, Iceland, Mexico, Ukraine and other places they might not have heard of. But their Shenzhen counterparts think differently.
Setting ticket prices at between 50 yuan (HK$63) and 120 yuan, the performances can attract up to 500 people, depending on the genre and the performers' popularity.
"We're optimistic about the local market for indie live music," says Chen Mingmin, who started work co-ordinating shows for Brown Sugar Jar a year ago. "There are many underground music fans in the Pearl River Delta region, and we have now opened two more music pubs, one in Shenzhen and the other in Dongguan."
Wang Yahui, who was a show co-ordinator for three years, says there are about 15,000 people in Shenzhen who regularly attend music performances.
Indie music pubs can easily be distinguished by the expensive sound equipment and lighting gear set up around the stage. With its emphasis on music, Brown Sugar Jar offers a very limited selection of drinks and snacks compared to the typical pub in central Shenzhen.
More daring operators like B10 Live dispense with food and drink altogether. B10 Live sustains itself on a combination of box office takings and commercial sponsorship.
The venue has a packed programme this month, hosting 16 shows with musicians from nine countries, including Japanese post-rock band Ovum and Dutch hardcore outfit All For Nothing. It is the first time either band has visited the mainland.
Foreign musicians looking to break the mainland market try to introduce themselves by playing live gigs, and the rockers from Ovum have been delighted with the reception.
"The Chinese audiences truly appreciated our music. And many Chinese people began to buy our music from bandcamp.com so I think our music will be more accepted from now," says lead guitarist Norikazu Chiba.
Shenzhen is the first leg of an Ovum tour that will take in Chengdu, Chongqing, Nantong, Shanghai, Xi'an and Zhengzhou. Chiba expects the experience to offer useful insights. "Before the tour, we have little way of knowing the Chinese audience and music scene," he says.
"It's a unique experience and the band brings a different style at the show compared to their album," Zhong says. "And the price is reasonable, as a movie ticket costs that much."
All For Nothing vocalist Cindy van der Heijden says the band was excited to see mainland audiences stage diving, body surfing and moshing in the pit. They were as fired up as audiences at some hardcore concerts in Europe.
"The audiences listened to our music for a long time and knew how to sing our new songs," she says. Founded in 2002, All For Nothing has released five albums.
Curious youngsters with cash to spare and broad musical horizons, thanks to surfing the web, can coalesce into a significant following for even the most obscure outfits.
"A lot of the young generation in southern China may not be in the habit of going to live shows like those living in Beijing or Shanghai, but the internet has helped to cultivate bigger audiences for foreign musicians," says Andy Flinn of Ask Your Sister.
Besides, the quality of live music has improved a lot as computer-assisted sound system technology has become more affordable.
The co-ordinator for Beijing-based events organiser Hotpot Music, Xi Linhu, says they have set up tours for between 40 and 50 indie bands from overseas each year since 2005.
The demand means foreign bands rarely make losses. Performers typically receive 70 per cent of the box office on the mainland, with the rest going to the venue.
The organisers at B10 Live are fortunate to have free use of their premises thanks to a collaboration with OCT-Loft, a former industrial site that has been converted into a park for creative ventures.
"The venue is provided by by OCT-Loft for free through a partnership with a musical events planner, and our sound equipment is sponsored and maintained by two instrument companies," says Tu Fei, one of B10's two curators.
But because they are operating the live music venue without any income from sales of food or alcohol, they face financial pressures.
"We decided to do that because there's no way for audiences to appreciate true music with the noise of people playing dice or drinking games behind them," says Tu, who grew up in Hunan and fronted popular Shenzhen indie rock band Rubber Man in 2000. But B10 Live, which opened in late 2012, hopes to break even by the end of the year.
The scene in Shenzhen's pubs and live venues has helped to boost music festival attendances. The three-day Midi Festival in Beijing in January attracted more than 100,000 fans from the Pearl River Delta region.
Last year's Strawberry Music Festival, one of the mainland's biggest, drew more than 240,000 to Beijing and Shanghai, according to organisers Modern Sky.
The company is so upbeat about the turnout for this year's line-up, featuring 26 indie imports in Beijing and 22 in Shanghai, that it has raised the price of a three-day pass, from 480 yuan last year to 680 yuan.
Even B10 Live is getting into the act with its Tomorrow Music Festival, which is scheduled to start on May 8 and features Berlin-based electronic rockers Bonaparte.
But Takuro Mizuta, a musician and visiting assistant professor at City University, says a boom in live music venues and music festivals on the mainland does not necessarily mean a flourishing indie music scene.
"There is a feeling of freshness and excitement when playing in China," he says. "Audiences are generally more open-minded and enthusiastic about new experiences. There is a sense of opportunity to do something new here, which I found hard to feel any more in Europe after living there for seven years."
But Mizuta adds: "These festivals that often focus on international acts are not a good gauge of how a [regional] music scene is doing."
He argues the health and impact of the scene should be measured by the diversity of regular events, the number of musicians who can sustain their work and performance at a local and international level and the number of people who attend events.
"I don't think any city in China the same size as London, New York, Berlin, or Tokyo has matched their musical diversity," he says.
Where to rock out across the border:
Presents a wide range of genres from folk to punk rock, and features frequent visits by foreign bands and musicians.
Building B10, OCT-Loft, Nanshan District (Metro: Luobao Line, Qiaocheng East station, Exit A); tel: +86-755-8633 7602 (3pm - 6pm); show schedule at http://site.douban.com/b10live/
Brown Sugar Jar
Diversified indie music live shows; bands and musicians from abroad are relatively new compared to those in B10 Live line-ups.
Building No. 2, Crown Science Park, 9 Tairan Road, Futian District (Metro: Luobao Line, Chegongmiao station, Exit C); tel: +86-755-8320 7913; show schedule at http://site.douban.com/hongtangguan/
One of the first indie music pubs here, shows are less frequent now.
Building F3, OCT-Loft, Nanshan District (Metro: Luobao Line, Qiaocheng East station, Exit A); tel: +86-755-8610 6046; show schedule at http://site.douban.com/idutang/room/541552/
Old Heaven Books
Presents a mix of folk and jazz performances.
- Building A5, OCT-Loft, Nanshan District (Metro: Luobao Line, Qiaocheng East station, Exit A); tel: +86-755-8614 8090; schedule at http://site.douban.com/117859/