Pepsi fiasco: Shanghai scene story of 2009

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It is fitting that I write this on the eve of Yuyintang's 5th anniversary. YYT is the community model of live music development that was always about the bands. It is the model that worked. Not a business model. Yuyintang simply asked, how can we get bands to play gigs and write music. Why? Because of those pesky humans and their desire to make culture and express themselves. Something that has been going on before the idea of mass marketing, fame or money from art.

As YYT and 0093 successfully triggered a larger scene and a stable downtown presence, the next questions started to be brought up by many people with a different mindset. How can we make money off this or do it full time? There were many aspects to this and many differing approaches and results. But it was all up in the air and there was a sense of mixed feelings and shakey steps. Without a mainstream industry to speak of and with a deeply conservative government that routinely practices censorship, some flirted with the idea of corporate and ad driven sponsorships. 

The bands had vague notions of conflict that had never been tested in reality and the champions of this new approach were, unsurprisingly, people from within the branding and ad industries. And then one day in stepped global giant Pepsico and lit the fuse that would blow up into the scene story of the year.

First came the announcement. The story broke over at China Music Radar and then at Shanghaiist

With a RMB1m prize purse (including cash, equipment, a national concert tour and recording time in LA), and "up to 5,000 concert auditions", Pepsi have made a commitment to the "real" Chinese underground music scene by announcing a new reality TV program to air over 7 months on the Zhejiang satellite network.
This was April 3rd 2009. I commented at Shanghaiist on the post and chose not to blog it directly.Why, I thought, would local rock and underground bands be interested in a talent show put on by a company that markets junk food to kids. CMR's post date of April 1st seemed more relevant to me.

Behind the scenes though, the regular bands of the scene, the better bands and the likes of Yuyintang had decided to give it a go and see. Soon they would all go to the judged 'audition' rounds. 

And then I largely forgot about it. But, this is not about me. is the site the scene uses to communicate. Sean Leow of Neocha called it BBS 2.0 but it's much more than that. It allows you to create separate feeds for friends, groups and band pages so you can easily follow the band uploads and news as it comes out in one stream. At the end of the first week of May, the regular Douban channels were hot with talk of the Pepsi comp. People were angry. Some kind of massive fallout had occurred at the filming and the major scene figures and bands were calling for a complete boycott of the show.

Here's how I broke the story:Pepsi / SMG TV bands show a predictable fiasco 

The lead statements on Douban came from Zhang Haisheng of Yuyintang and Pupu of The Mushrooms: Pupu's statement (Chinese language)

Helen Feng (Pet Conspiracy) added her experience at the Beijing event via China Music Radar: More big brand BS, and I quoted it in my follow up here: More Pepsi BoB BS

The bands and scene people had come face to face with naked, soulless corporate/branding culture. Having been seduced by the usual rhetoric about caring, culture and mutually beneficial arrangements, they were faced with uncaring and ignorant shills who were there to sell junk and expected the bands to simply tell their peers to buy. The musicians were treated with infuriating levels of disrespect and the whole set up was painfully amateur. 

From Helen:

Apart from the in your face branding that made us dizzy, we were also shocked by their serious lack of taste. In the back were a few skinny models in hot pants and a halter-tops also adorned with said logo stretched tight against none existent boobs selling the soda at the bar. Even the people working there had to have said logo painted on their face.

Having never done a battle of the bands before, said soda company had forgotten that unlike other talent contests, bands don't usually come with a back-up tape in hand so had allocated no time for stage changes. In between the bands, the MC (namely me) was suppose to interview the lead singer. This was a bit ridiculous as the lead singer was usually down on the floor plugging in equipment. When I expressed this to the sponsor, the responded by saying "well just tell them to hurry up."

Still with one minute allocated for stage changes, even the speediest of musicians could not get their equipment plugged in on-time. The head of said Soda company came charging backstage screaming at the staff saying things like "tell these kids if they don't get their equipment plugged in less then three minutes they will have points deducted from their total score."

markpepsi douchbagBut was this short lived anger or would it live on and turn into a new level of awareness around brands and branding. Well, it certainly was angry and one kickback was the minor scandal that followed involving the band Pinkberry.

A boycott was agreed by the quality Shanghai bands via Douban and one of the voices on the threads was Pinkberry guitarist Toni Yu. It came as a massive shock just a few weeks later when it turned out that the band had secretly stayed in the comp - and with all serious competition having pulled out, went on to win the whole round. A very mean-spirited Douban thread then went up in which the band were pilloried. 

Here is how Jake Newby reported the incident at Shanghaiist: Pinkberry and the Pepsi pullava 

In a way, the reaction to the Pepsi Fiasco set the tone for the breakout bands of the year in Shanghai. Bands such as the Mushrooms and Candy Shop, both regulars in various band competitions up until that point, went back to traditional indie scene organising. They put on their own shows, worked on the Douban communities and fans, improved their music and expanded their sets. It was this - and not comps or brand friendly management - that has led these bands to be local fan favourites and on the verge of bigger things. 

You might almost say they've done it in spite of 'help' from 'labels', who don't release records, gigs in malls and big sponsors like Pepsi. As we come up to 5 years of Yuyintang it is telling to see that the bands who are doing things are those who did their own groundwork. The story of 2009 is that the various attempts at brand cooperation and sponsorship simply didn't work. But the community based models did. Brands don't want to help bands, they want to help themselves. 

One amusing post script to the affair was the belated reaction of Pepsi themselves. Well maybe not Pepsi so to speak. 

During the Shanghai run of the show, Pepsi employed an intern called Jay Mark Caplan to run an English blog of the show. He only knew about the incident at all via scene regular and Pepsi comp stage manager Abe Deyo and his post comes on July 28th - nearly three months after the thing was done. In his post he dismisses the bands and calls out bloggers (linking my post) as jumping on the bandwagon.

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Thanks so much for this excellent summary.

No worries.

It's got similar themes to the 2008 scene story, Indietop.

That summary read like a Shakespearean tragicomedy-- maybe A Comedy of Errors? What a cock-up.


Great wrap up on what was definitely the biggest story of 2009.

I haven't noticed a lot of opinion from you on Converse's involvement with the indie rock scene in China. What do you think of their work with Lovenoise, It's Your Turn, etc? (Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find much in the archives when I searched for Converse).



P.S. As for the Douban as a BBS 2.0 comment, that was from about 2 years ago and they have certainly progressed to much more than that. In my opinion, they have the best technology around and are the best community website for indie music fans in China.

Hey Sean

I loved your BBS 2.0 comment. The 音乐人 band page feature was actually a newish addition to Douban.

Converse. I did do some commenting on that somewhere, maybe at Archie's blog. Or maybe in the comments at Dan's CW blog ... that rings a bell.

I think it provided some branded wallpaper for Converse stores but did nothing to advance the scene or music. That tour was quite sketchy and short lived in reality. Rolling around in a big advert. But, I don't know exactly how much money they give the bands and it's a Beijing thing mainly.

Judging from the new Queen Sea Big Shark stuff and the Let's Play thing, it has had a negative effect on the music/artistic output. But I don't think W+K peeps are sitting around thinking 'How can we help musicians improve'. Unless they are in serious denial about what they do.

To be brutally honest, when it comes to brand/corporate involvement in the scene, 2009 = epic fail.

Although - to put aside my own views - I still think the basic premise of NeochaEdge is sound, that if anyone wants to connect to people in China, they should use local artists who reflect and understand that community.

We shouldn't pretend it's actually about the community though. The benefits are firmly in the financial trickle down category.

Actually nearly every serious band in Beijing ignored the contest as soon as they heard about it. The idea that Pepsi was going to arrange a multi-million dollar competiton in which bands who took the quality of their music seriously would be treated with any respect or chance of winning never entered anyone's mind here, and rightly so. Where were PK14, Carsick Cars, Joyside, Snapline, ReTROS, 24 Hours, or anyone else worth hearing? Certainly not at the competition. Even non-Beijing bands, like Wuhan's AV Okubo, a truly exceptional band that has a chance of winning any real competiton they enter, never entertained the idea of joining Pepsi. They were too busy, I guess, doing something worthwhile.

Converse is another matter altogether. The Converse people seem actually to like and understand the music they are supporting. In one or two years it will be obvious to even the most bull-headed marketer that Converse came out ahead while Pepsi looks like a flailing zombie that just doesn't get it.

Brains alone works. Brains plus money works big time. Money plus no brains will never pull it off.

I think Neil Young had the right idea....

"Ain't singin' for Pepsi
Ain't singin' for Coke
I don't sing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke
This note's for you."
... from the song 'This Note's for You'

Hopefully more of the bands in the burgeoning music scene will realize this.

@Andy: First of all, a great story and summary of the blogosphere of Shanghai about what happened around the Pepsi contest (surplus some Beijing voices). Gonna have to add that to the RiC pages when I am back from my holiday ;).

From my feeling, and I have to admit that I don't know too much about Coverse, just that their shoes are ultimately associated with the grunge rock & garage rock period of the US, it feels right for me that they sponsor bands and tour them around. Coverse and their chucks are part of what I would call the scene of rock and dirty music. Look at the bands and what they wear because they like it, and how they treat those things. Sure the company wants to make money, as wants every company, and those people want to survive in their jobs and bring home enough money to feed their kids, but then its the same story with all the companies out there. Whether its Modern Sky Records or Painkiller Heavy Music Magazine (or InMusic, or So Rock! or X-Music, aka TongSuGeQu). All those guys love the music, but have to make sure that the figures & sales are at least covering their costs and salaries. Same I would guess applies for Converse, which is in a different position than e.g. PepsiCo.

It is a mixed topic to talk about the influence of brands and commercial positions with underground music, but there will always be a gray zone of cooperation benefitial to both sides (with the worst of the worst happening on the side for sure, but still...).

WOW! A wonderful post buddy! I am really thankful to you for this post. I just loved your blog and specially this post. You must keep this fantastic effort going on

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Best published on December 2, 2009 8:17 PM.

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