Ask Scream Records' founder Lu Bo what he thinks of his company's releases and he'll tell you they're nothing special. But that's not the point, he says. You're missing the bigger picture. 'Our records are a documentary of the times,' he says. 'And,' echoing Bob Dylan's words, 'our times are constantly changing.' Mr Lu is behind one of the three biggest indie record labels on the mainland, each slowly chipping away at a market saturated with syrupy pop from domestic stars apeing imports from Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. Scream was launched in 1997 with backing from Jingwen Records, one of the largest state-owned distributors. Like other so-called indie labels on the mainland, it is not truly independent. The company may promote alternative music but it is subject to the same censorship and must use the same state-controlled distribution system as its mainstream competitors. Scream's HQ is a tiny office, buried deep within Jingwen Records. The walls are decorated with posters of the mostly heavy-metal bands signed to the label, but the tracks being played are early-1990s Chinese and foreign rock. It is a telling scene: one of the most influential men in contemporary mainland rock listening to music that's 10 years old, in a cramped office hidden within the walls of a state-controlled giant. The atmosphere at Modern Sky, the country's first and most progressive small label, couldn't be more different. It produces upbeat, often Britpop-tinged music. Modern Sky bands include the sassy New Pants and Hopscotch, while Scream produces Miserable Faith and Twisted Machine. 'We came first, and companies like Scream and New Bees copied us,' says the bespectacled Shen Lihui, who started the label in 1997 as a vehicle for his own band, Sober. Modern Sky is a small company with big ambitions. Mr Shen aims to establish his own distribution company, which would bring Modern Sky one step closer to real independence. He expects his dream to be a reality by May. But others in the industry don't think it will be quite that easy. 'If it happens it will be huge,' Scream's Mr Lu says. 'But it's not likely.' Teng Jimeng , a leading scholar of contemporary Chinese music and film, says the mainland's only truly independent music is being produced and distributed on a far smaller scale elsewhere. 'Indie music isn't being put out by Modern Sky or Scream,' he says. 'It's the kids who are putting out their own records, who are circumventing the established industry framework, who are really breaking new ground. Scream and Modern Sky are already above ground.' But Professor Teng says the debate over whether labels like Scream and Modern Sky can be considered independent or not is purely academic and misses a much more important point. 'The importance of these companies lies in the fact that they are starting a dialogue between censors and the bands,' he says. 'The censors can't do their job without understanding the bands, so these companies are mediators between two formerly confrontational forces. This will pave the way for the next wave of musicians.' Liu Jia runs Yuehai Fusheng, a record store in central Beijing. Along with Scream, Modern Sky and death metal label Mort Records, Mr Liu also carries a handful of unsigned bands, produced by local artists who deliver directly to the store. They don't sell fast and they aren't well known, but it's a start. 'The indie music situation isn't great,' says Mr Liu. 'But it's all right. It's getting better and better.' The commercial success of the mainland's third indie label, New Bees, has done much to prove there is a market out there for alternative music, if only the government would give it room to develop. The label, launched by Jerry Fu in 1998 to promote pop-punk act Flowers, sells more records per release than its direct competitors. Flowers' debut album sold more than 500,000 copies and they have now been signed by EMI. 'Music is like food and right now people want fast food,' says Mr Fu. 'Our music is a real meal - you need the proper environment to enjoy it but people don't have the time or the desire to really sit down and dine.'