One year off, ten years on

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subs old days
Pictured: Kang Mao and Zhu Lei playing with Subs around 2005

This month marks a year off for this blog. During which time I've done some thinking. It is also late 2014, making it about ten years since the Shanghai music scene, the band scene, got going properly in the downtown area. 

Just to throw in all the info, I've been here continuously from 2001 and hanging around the band scene since about 2003. I just didn't start writing about it until the spring of 2008. 

What prompted me to write about this was a recent quote from Dostav Dixit of Splitworks, who used to run Vox in Wuhan for a time. He mentioned that 2004-2007 is starting to emerge as a kind of golden time for China bands. I started to think about if there was any real difference in amount and quality of local bands with local members. Then I realised there wasn't ... and that this simple fact was very revealing. There should be a difference: there should be a lot more now. 

After that golden age was cemented, by very simple things such as the existence of venues and rehearsal spaces that were affordable/viable for locals without tons of money, we came to the dubious period of 2007-2009. Actually, the scene went on much the same at first, but the roots of 2009 were appearing in 2007. Across this time, the following things started to come into play:

Involvement of brands and ad agencies
Brand/mall/corporate shows and festivals as a model
Bringing over more foreign touring acts
Large and sudden influx of ex-pats, audience or otherwise

All of these came with issues and impacts. In a smaller scene, it was immediately apparent that their activities were not adding to the scene but replacing things in the scene. What's interesting though, in the case of the first three areas I mention, the people involved went out of their way to claim that their activities would help local bands and the scene develop - and they argued that this was a sincere part of their intentions. I could go on and give examples but it's all moot now ...

... because now we are here in 2014 and we can see that none of it worked. And that's being very nice in assuming it was sincerely supposed to 'work' at all. 

If anything, there are less and less local bands starting up on the scene and fewer immediate opportunities to develop. We have just come off a particularly bad slump, with minimum new band activity and the least inspired, most repetitive local band stages at festivals. On top of all those issues, we have seen the grassroots level be affected either way by the real issues: infrastructure, community support and political climate. The behavior of bookers at venues towards local acts as more tours come in, and the closure of the 0093 space, had huge effects this year, for example. 

Whether you are going to work with these people, in these areas, or not ... we should talk honestly about what they are and what they are not, and be clear about it - because it has hurt us. And it is all conclusively not helping the scene. 

This next part is a bit 'part two.' The first point stops right there at not helping the scene

The contrast between these issues and the real grassroots area brings me to a story, one that I have avoided telling in detail on forums such as the blog. Unfortunately, several conversations I had in the past year off the blog made me realise that there were slanderously wrong ideas about this in public. It's not all bad though, and it's a nice anecdote that takes place in the midst of the issues at hand (an anecdote fully backed up with recorded communications.)

Once upon a time in 2010 I had made yet another blog post decrying corporate involvement in the scene. I think it was a quip about the term 'emerging youth culture.' Someone from the corporate world decided to e-mail me and call me on my shit. That someone was John W- of corporate division [redacted]. His tack was a familiar one. His polite but firm mails were along these lines: it's easy to sit on the sidelines and be negative, but what do you think brands should do then? What's the practical situation? 

Good question.

A question full of false assumptions, but never mind ... I had a simple answer.

Why don't they sponsor and prop up some of the infrastructure that has a real impact on the scene, much the way that a Nike may do some street courts for B-Ball. Why not, I said for example, take struggling 0093 studios who had taken a massive hit from forced relocation during the Expo and sponsor them. They could be painted up, called something like "The Bunker" sponsored by Converse and get a monthly stipend to cover rent and bills. I called the call.

What came next was surprising. John said OK. And here's where we must be very clear. If I helped him put together a booklet on 0093 with pics, history and info, he would then take it round clients and try to find a sponsor. To be honest, this model was still very much a compromise for my beliefs and ideas, but to say no now would be to prove John's original point ... that's what happens when you engage a point with shaky false premises about sitting on the sidelines. 

So I agreed. I put him and his assistant in touch with 0093, helped him with pictures for the book - and then my involvement was completely finished. John and 0093 then went on between themselves with John's project.

Over the next weeks though, things went awry. The guys at 0093 contacted me because they were a bit confused with communications from John and his assistant. Also, after some successful meetings, John told me that he had pivoted the idea. He had a 'client' who would simply give a block of money to 0093 and write it off up as a corporate social welfare donation. This seemed odd to me and away from the original idea. and remember, at this point I was completely out of the process. But John told me it would be up to five times more than the original amount in the proposal. 

Soon after, he told me the amount, now in excess of 200 000 rmb, had been wired and that he wanted me to break the news publicly. Why me, I thought, but John asked me personally to keep his name out of it and if I would be the one to do it. I went to 0093 and told them what was happening and then followed John's idea of 'leaking' the news to China Music Radar - where it then appeared under my name, looking like it was in some way my project.

And what happened next ... the money never came, John said there were various 'issues' but the whole thing eventually fell through. No money came. 

I was furious and refused to accept John passing the buck to the 'client.' To his credit, John then went down to 0093 and paid them a large sum, almost equal to the original proposal, out of his own pocket. What's more, John is a good guy who genuinely cares about the scene and he went on to get involved in (start and run) the 696 Sunday shows aimed at students - that genuinely built up local audiences for new local bands. Big impact for little costs - but with the right principles and clear understanding of what works. 

The experience made me swear off any form of collaboration or coddling with the corporate approach again. I wish I was wrong ... but here we are in 2014 and I'm not wrong. Parties, branding events, ad work, collaborations ... all these things have been limited and short term for bands, for a minority of bands even. If the next ten years are going to be different, we have to do it. We have to opt out, avoid these people and events and do our thing until it snowballs, and we have to support local infrastructure. Let's end on one of the positives of this scene in the past couple of years: some local and locally based bands in Shanghai have done more creatively in two years DIY than some of the Beijing sponsored bands have done in the past eight. 

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Best published on September 17, 2014 3:58 PM.

E-mailing update / Happy New Year was the previous entry in this blog.

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