Update: fixing broken links
Last Friday I got the metro back from buying some winter stuff and sat down in front of the entrance to Zhongshan Park to have a quick drink. The air was crisp and chilly. My girlfriend turned to me and said, "Hey, where's Haibao?" Yes, the near omnipresent statue of Haibao had gone, and by Sunday night the Expo would be over.
Here's what I wrote before it all started in full:
So, welcome to the piece where I give my take on the scene and how it has been affected by the Expo. Now, both the Expo and the scene mean different things to different people. So welcome to the defining of the terms.
The music scene can sometimes be thought of as the sum of all events related to music available in the city at any given point and can include industry built around it. Not here though. I write about the underground indie scene in Shanghai. It is characterized by a lack of functioning industry and a suspicious and authoritarian approach from government. I write about local youths who work to create their own culture outside of the mainstream using genres like punk, rock and indie music. I write about subculture
. I write about identity and expression. You will find reviews of Chaos Mind playing Yuyintang
. You will not find a DJ playing DKD, a promoter whose primary goal is 'a party' or a Jazz band playing a function.
Talking of Yuyintang, the scene I speak of most commonly manifests itself in shows at Yuyintang and Mao, which I always use as case studies.
I'm British and all dissent should start at home, so it's fitting that the perfect symbol of the Expo for me was the U.K. Pavilion. The U.K. pavilion was a chilling vision of a dystopian future that is just around the corner. A sterile seed museum sat on a vast slab of concrete next to a river so polluted that drinking from it would kill you. You had to pay to see it, despite it being publically subsidized, and to top it off it was unironically reported by a sycophantic
media as a victory for progressive attitudes towards culture and the environment. If you looked upon this spectacle without horror then you have fully internalized the principles of doublespeak propaganda
and corporate culture. Wikipedia confuses that last one. I mean large powerful organisations such as governments and corporations pushing their own interests as 'culture' - not organizational theory.
And now ...
(clears throat) ... The Shanghai scene is significantly worse off at the end of the Expo. This has been as a result of the Expo, both its primary and secondary effects. However, the Expo is not the only one to blame. The scene's own reaction to this has been a major factor including short-sighted and unscrupulous actions from promoters and venues, fledgling commercial exploitation of a tiny, fragile scene and complacency across the board.
And on we go.
The facts of the matter. 2007-2009 was characterised by steady growth on the scene with Yuyintang forming the centre and 0093 giving new bands a platform to develop. The community focused attitudes and solidarity around the scene led to a situation where the better local bands could fill a venue with mainly local fans and a name band from Beijing would blow the roof off. At the height of this period, the 90's generation crowd behind SOMA records felt ready to invest in a Shanghai Mao Livehouse - a state of the art venue good for 800+ people. 0093 studios were even in negotiation to open an indie music outlet in the Channel One Mall.
At that time, a good night at Yuyintang would see 3-400 people arrive and a real event would simply fill it to capacity and beyond. Examples: the Mushroom's shows
last summer that packed the place out with a crowd of mainly younger dedicated locals who wore the shirts and sung along to the songs. A real fan base. The Retros show
that had as many people listening from the park out back as there were inside the venue.
And now. From my own direct experience, and from talking it through with the Yuyintang owners and staff: a night described as a 'good night' this year would have seen around 200 people in the venue and been over 60-70% party types, internationals and other transients. Homegrown bands headlining shows were outnumbered by international acts also and the local audiences from previous years stayed away, as opposed to being excited by or influenced by those shows.
There you have it.
0093 had already closed down and relocated unsuccessfully by the start of the Expo. The landlord evicted them quoting skyrocketing property costs and unwanted extra attention, both down to the Expo. The 0093 site was close to the Expo site on the north side. Other well documented and raged about secondary effects of the Expo, on the popular Chinese forums such as KDS, MOP and Tianya, were cost of living and housing destroying the chances of young graduates and white collar workers to make a life, forced relocations, traffic and pollution chaos in the two year run up, a roll back of rights and freedoms, increased censorship of the media and the internet and massive wasting of tax money. I wish I could reference all these but the man employed armies of net censors to constantly erase all trace of them from the net forums. You could try searching the 'tent guy' who protested on a Shanghai subway platform, it slipped into the print media.
Case in point, reading the opening links will remind you that punk band Top Floor Circus were called in by the police and banned for a year for their song Shanghai doesn't welcome you that referenced all the above issues. The song and video in question was then removed from the net. As a result of that, and TFC's planned gig at Mao, Mao Livehouse had already been visited, warned and cowed well in advance of the Expo start date. An aside to the last paragraph, a quick read around will tell you that no Expo or Olympics has ever ... ever turned a profit or provided a significant trickle down and that the issues accompany every one. Beijing 2008 was a shining example of that with hotels and local business laying off staff in the run up.
Yuyintang were subjected to constant harassment from start to finish. Everything happened. Raids, cancellations and short notice re-scheduling. Sound boards being confiscated. The web site being ordered closed. Shows monitored by undercover cops. Two months of shows being pushed back to ten P.M. start times - crucial considering that the main band has to be on by ten
to not cut out younger locals who rely on public transport. At one point all venues had to take down their entire catalogue of Douban.com event pages, proving that Douban is monitored in detail. And let's be clear about the usual excuses: The process of licenses and permits are unreasonable, convoluted, ambiguous and near impossible to get on purpose, so venues can never be in a defensible legal position. This allows the man
to carry out the usual policy of politically motivated clampdowns while banning mention of the true motives.
During this period, promoters and venues seemed to cling to the idea of getting what they could from the party crowd that was turning up. Ticket prices for gigs went up. The cut off point for the local audience of previous years seemed to be about 40 RMB but average ticket prices were over 60 and went as high as 150. That killed off what of the previous support was left. Rare shows that momentarily recaptured the local feel of older shows were all priced at 40 or below, I should mention. Also, the seeming lack of concern about this degeneration let the gap go on too long and as the Expo wound down, the younger local audiences were not coming back. By coincidence, around the same time branding and ad people moved in more than ever, diverting the energies of bands into promotional activities that have brought little lasting effect for the bands involved. There was a distinct lack of effort from homegrown bands to make up for the shortfall in the scene in other ways, or was it simply apathy in the face of the Expo situation? Take Pinkberry. Sure they disappeared into Dickies land but at the start of the summer they recorded an EP with their new label and organized a much anticipated launch party at Yuyintang, where it all began for them - only for it to be closed down by the police. Who can blame them for just leaving it until the Expo was done. A sudden burst of paying gigs out of town through festivals provided many bands the opportunity to avoid the issue too.
Here's a thought. If Brands want to really support the scene, who's going to step up and sponsor an 0093 type affordable, multi-room, equipped rehearsal space for young bands? How about the Converse Bunker?
I was happy to see the appropriate reaction to the Expo from some parts of the indie scene. Some bands just doubled their DIY efforts. The breakout act of the summer was Shanghai's Pairs who worked harder than anyone. Me and Jake, ahem, put on a successful avant-garde event featuring photographer Ren Hang and experimental acts Duck Fight Goose and Booji as well as resting the blogs and getting involved with some music production. I'm fucking proud to plug that. The Trash-a-Go Go collective went into overdrive and honorary local bands Fever Machine, X is Y and Rainbow Danger Club perfected their music and dragged people to their shows by any means necessary.
But none of this changes the basic fact of audience numbers, audience make-up and the amount of local bands breaking through. It wasn't as harsh as the total shut down of the Olympics and those who thought that the Expo was simply too long to pull off a blanket ban seemed to be right. But the effects have been more damaging. The relatively short holiday of the Olympics saw everyone come back refreshed and ready for another great year, while this time it seems we have gone back three years. It remains to be seen if the changes will last beyond the end of the Expo.
Finally, a quick endnote on the fallacy of the Expo's cultural value. I write this because so many people who have commented here or mailed me in its defense have used this weird non-logic. In order for local people to be able to come to Shanghai and see a variety of world class cultural events, great art and rock shows the government only needs to not repress it. There have been people putting on shows and making art for years here and there have even been promoters like Split Works and China West working round the clock to bring in quality international acts from Oasis to Handsome Furs. If the scene was allowed to bloom, there would be great events all year round every year, at no extra cost to the tax payer. The Expo itself was culturally shallow and showy and came at the cost of further crackdowns on the actual arts scene. You don't need to bring anything, it's already here, just stop restricting it in a draconian way. The Expo was about controlling culture.