California slamming and Shanghai jamming

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I just read two articles about small underground scenes. One is about California punk in the 70's and the other is about Shanghai.

The Pairs EP by Ivan Belcic

I like frank pieces and I like discussing stuff with the gloves off - not stuff based on opinion and taste like who sucks and who rules. I mean, issues and ideas. So, I just want to share some thoughts, not as a counter to Ivan or to treat negativity as life or death, but because Ivan's writing is about something tangible and it has caused me to think. Comments are open, let's continue Ivan's call.
Now. Ivan writes:

too many people are afraid to step on each others' toes. It's entirely unreasonable for any artist to expect everyone to love their material, and of course, any artistic endeavor is going to be intensely personal. And odds are, there's an ego involved, especially with performers. You need to think you're the shit in order to get up on stage and make a complete ass of yourself. So with a scene so small, the smallest perceived slight can be a death sentence. Cross the wrong big fish in this small pond, and your music is doomed, never to be written about or seen on stage. How can a band grow, develop, and improve, if no one is ever there to tell them why they suck?
I have heard this a lot down the years. But it suggests that Shanghai as a scene is lacking something that could be solved by detailed critiquing of band's music. I don't agree. Well not exactly - I make an exception for the Brad Ferguson Golden Rule, which I will say after my points.

Firstly there's no industry here and no real fame or fortune to be had, so community and fun are the main points and excellence and success are much less important. There simply no need to go there. Also, taking into account the gov and the scene context what kind of shape is the Shanghai scene in? 

Think of any scene in the world which is smaller or underground or undiscovered or whatever. Shit, just think of any scene. There will be X amount of bands, including high school bands, bar bands, ambitious bands, signed and unsigned ... I mean everyone. Now, I say to you all that in every scene the majority of those bands will fall into the first two of three categories.

1) shit/undeveloped/not serious/amateur/just dicking around/whatever
2) competent/interesting/technically skilled/got some good tunes/good live show/whatever

Then a small minority will break into category three:

3) Great/exciting/fresh/turning heads/got something special/signed/respected/attracting genuine fans/whatever

You can make adjustments depending on if we're talking about a developed scene with an attached industry or an underground scene I trust my reader's intelligence on this. I'd be very surprised if anyone here disagreed with this basic assessment of scenes.

I think that relative to Shanghai's scene context, we have the same split and the same averages, perhaps a little bit more in the higher ends than some in fact. Let's go category three - relative to the scene's restrictions. Across the genres we have accomplished acts like Cold Fairyland and Yuguo (mainstream/accessible with traditional flavors inside), The Mushroom's (commercial rock), Chaos Mind (modern metal), Top Floor Circus (Punk), Duck Fight Goose (math/modern rock) and Torturing Nurse (noise/avant garde). That's off the top of my head and I believe many more bands have the potential to go there. I've limited myself to long term acts of mainly local born members - and these days that's a big limitation.

Considering the odds and the obstacles I think that's not bad at all and all done without this critical scrutiny I keep hearing about.

By the way: Brad's Golden Rule (I call it that, not him, he's all humble and shit) is that a band cannot be thought of as good unless they can headline a weekend - and that requires being able to play an hour of original material without dropping the ball. 

I think 45 mins in small venues but I let Brad's thoughts speak for themselves.

Finally. I linked both Ivan and Tim's writing in this recent post. I did so because I thought some readers might be more interested in detailed writing that describes and critiques music. You'll notice that I don't go there at all. Let me defend my position. In my view, as long as you are writing online and the reader can click the band's name and listen to the music themselves, then that kind of writing becomes mainly redundant. My blog is mainly to introduce and report what I've seen. I think of writers like Tim and Ivan working for big print magazines like NME or what have you.

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hey this is ivan

i'd like to respond to your, well, response in a number of ways.

it's necessary first to establish that you and i are going to disagree on a fundamental level when it comes to what about music and the music scene here we find to be most deserving of attention. i agree that "community and fun" are both integral, and emphasize that in the paragraph directly preceding the one you quoted. I did not mean to imply that Shanghai's problems can be fixed by examining the music from a mechanical, critical point of view. what i'm trying to get at is a more open interaction with each other. what is missing, to me, is a willingness to undergo that level of scrutiny, and in some cases face criticism. i believe critique is a healthy part of the artistic process, and when done in a clear, levelheaded way, can be quite informative. This can engender a more open, warm community than one full of people yessing each other.

our opinions diverge when you assert that "excellence and success" have no relevance. excellence doesn't have to be technically advanced or convoluted. a band like torturing nurse can be considered excellent if they successfully accomplish their object. i hold technical proficiency in high regard. i revel in the subtle layering of elements that together flesh out a section of a song. when done well, excellence can be the result. when done poorly, cacophony.

and success. i don't believe anyone here thinks they're going to make it platinum playing weekends at yuyintang. but a small level of success is part of the fun. you need to be good in order to play shows with other popular bands, who have lots of fans in the audience and feed you all sorts of amazing energy while you perform. if you're really good, you can open for a touring band from america or the u.k. or wherever, someone global, and maybe that show will even be at mao. they've got a ton of nice equipment - though full advantage of them is rarely taken - and the stage is huge. i'd love to have the chance to run around up there and scream at a roomful of people. but in order to do so, people need to pay money to come watch me play. and that requires me to be good.

lastly, allow me to defend my position. i write what i write because that is what captivates me - to examine the way a piece of music works, to consider the mind of the composer. i like thinking about the music itself. the average music listener might not be a musician, but they know how a piece of music makes them feel. telling people what's going on in a song is helpful not only in enhancing the listener's comprehension of the material but also their appreciation of the composer's achievement and skill in crafting it. good music is nothing without the scene, and the people who record it are nothing short of intrinsic, especially when their passion for it is as great as yours. but to know what's happening in the music itself, to know what it is about it that makes you feel the way you feel when you hear it, to marvel at the nuances and choices a player makes....well that's a level i like being on.

and i had to google nme to see what it was. i'd hope you give me more credit than to write for a magazine with my chemical romance on the cover. seriously, that hurts.

Hey Ivan

I think your article speaks for itself and you write a good comment too. Thanks for taking the time. It's cool if we differ on the topic - which is kind of the point of your article, right?

Oh, sorry about the NME thing, first name that cropped up in my brain. How about something like Maximum Rock and Roll? I meant that your writing style reminds me of quality print journalists in established magazines. I'm just d*cking about on my blog.


I don't think the issue is really even about detailed criticism. Rather, I think there's little dialogue between a lot of bands about our music beyond "Good show", "I'll try to come to your next show" or "That one song about Batman is awesome." (It is, too.)

It would be refreshing to have some honest dialogue, to hear someone say "That was a poorly chosen cover" or "The tightness of your pants is very distracting."

I think most of the musicians here really appreciate what each other does for and contributes to the scene, and a bit more frankness would make us better musicians and performers. Sharing and caring is important in both community and collaboration, something a less developed scene needs much more than and established one does.

Hi JC.

My point is why bother? What I say in the post is that the scene already produces at a comparable level to other scenes.

Do you disagree with the points in the post? Ivan, do you? Isn't there a normal spread of bands?

What about the idea that good bands with strong individuality thrive in spite of adversity, in defiance of it? I believe bands essentially struggle with themselves, not us. Isn't critical writing for the punters anyway?

The spread of bands in this scene is evidence that bears out my view. The scene has done fine without a (critical) culture of critics and writers as we have in other scenes. We don't have that here - and yet we have a comparable percentage of bands that have become good.

Lets have some some concrete examples and evidence with these counterpoints.

i think you're missing the point of what we're saying. i'm not disagreeing with the fact that we have bands here doing lots of different things, but i take umbrage with the way you completely disregard a technical analysis of music. i'm no punter.

here's where you missed us:

1. i never said that shanghai NEEDS technical criticism. i happen to provide that, and so far it seems like it's being pretty well-received. YOU'RE putting those words in my mouth.

2. what we are saying is that the scene needs not be so touchy. and it can only be helpful for bands, as musicians, to appreciate and critique each other from a musical point of view. both bad and good. like jc said, more than the "hey nice show". maybe a "check your monitor mixes more carefully next time, you were out of key at times" or "you guys really blew it when you tried that thing, maybe think of it this way".

it's important to think about what a band is doing that makes a song feel a certain way. or to analyze why a song impacts you in the way it does. if no one wanted that, i wouldn't get any reads. shit, i just had a band that YOU LOVE approach me to critique their music. how's that for concrete examples and evidence

getting people to discuss each other's creative output openly and without fear of reprisal in a CREATIVE DIALOGUE between musicians can only bring bands, who might previously think they share little, closer together. you never know who's hearing what when they listen to you. this is what i'm calling for. we can all help each other grow.

I, too, fear we may be having separate arguments, Andy. Ivan's first comment above goes on to defend formal criticism, but the section of his review you selected is, I believe, a more broad statement. I don't disagree with much of your post in any real significant way, except for your interpretation the quotation. In fact, I agree with you that a critical establishment is essentially superfluous to the actual scene.

Instead, I think the quotation was really about the actual participants in the scene and our willingness- in this case, unwillingness, really- to interact with each other in a way that might have a meaningful impact on our music and community. I'm talking about developing the scene in a way that encourages artists to challenge each other, that whole "John laughing in Paul's face over his draft of the 'I Saw Here Standing There' lyrics" kind of thing that pushes you to be better.

Ivan, JC

Nice comments again.

That's a concrete point for sure, you reviewed Pairs in that article and they came to you for the review. I get that, fair enough.

I still say the scene has matched reasonable expectations without a lot of the stuff you guys talk about. But - Ivan, you pointed out that you didn't say the scene "needs" it just that it would be helpful in a general sense... did I get that right?

When it comes to small technical details like the monitor mix, people do talk to each other about it already. I think that's different to critiquing the music and giving it a value.

I was kinda avoiding talking about Pairs and the review cos, I think when it comes to reviews of bands - everything is valid because the person who writes it feels that way and believes it. But it's interesting to me because all the things listed in the review that you feel are not so good, are all things that I feel make up the personality of the band - and there's no denying the band have 'got something' and are getting deserved attention.

That didn't make me think like "oh, one of us is right and the other wrong" ... it made me think like ... "well, I guess some people are gonna like it and others aren't, and both sides may or may not make detailed arguments to back up their statements, but finally who should the band believe?"

I think the bands should just go on doing what they feel is true to themselves.

And I think the readers/fans are better off for having two or more differing points of view to read about also. Hence me linking your thoughtful writing.

we can finally agree. you say "I think the bands should just go on doing what they feel is true to themselves." and i totally agree. you gotta do your own thing the way you wanna do it. i just want to be able to say, here's what i think. the pairs thing is a great point. i said what i have to say, and i'm entitled to feel that way. xiao zhong and f do things the way they do them because they have their reasons for doing so, and if it works, let it work. xz and i have talked at length about what i said, and he cleared some things up, and i listened to the ep a bunch, and he said i was correct about some of the things i said, and i like their songs more now...this is what i want. we may not agree, and we may not change a thing, but we can at least appreciate each others' brains.

i don't mean that everyone has to LISTEN to everyone else. i just get this feeling that too many bands are way possessive over their tunes, and would take suggestions poorly. xz took the classy, brave road and invited someone who he knew wasn't feeling his music to write about it anyway. that's how a musician should be.

and they're shutting down my office and i gotta go. we should do this in person over alcohol at some point.

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Best published on November 15, 2010 7:35 PM.

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