Staying in tune with China’s music scene

Nathaniel Davis (Operations Director, Split United) shares with China Daily his experiences founding a business and operating in one of the most challenging industries in China. It’s a story familiar to many expats - a foray into an exotic land becomes a life-long obsession.

You can read the full feature here.

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Playlist: Subaltern Sounds

Every country has its own unique music scene with its own lineage of artists and influences. And within each of these scenes exists the silent voices of those who ride the margins of taste and audience expectations. This playlist aims to present some of China’s subaltern sounds. Look at the construction of this word: the prefix sub i.e. that which lays beneath, and altern, that which is alternate, which flies against the norm. The underground. That which operates outside the perceived centre of Chinese music, and the hegemony of Beijing rock. Can the subaltern speak? What might the elite do to watch out for the continuing construction of the subaltern?


This playlist was inspired by a book published in 2010 called China With a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music by Jeroen De Kloet. The musical examples in some cases are a little old, but this is intentional. Consider the issues raised and think about where we are now, four years later. Is Beijing still the centre of the music industry? Are women acknowledged for their talent rather than gender? Can artists from other cities make an impact? Are Chinese artists internationally recognized for their talent alone rather than for simply performing some essential sense of ‘Chineseness’?

The Spectacular Performance of Male Power 

The first subaltern sound we’ll look at is that which was created by women who wanted to participate in the rock and punk movements that emerged during the 90s and early 2000s. Genre and gender are entangled, and this has created difficulties for acts that disrupt mass audience expectations. Rock n’ roll is Elvis’ hips, it’s Lemmy guzzling beer, it’s Cui Jian in a black t-shirt and red bandana. It’s Hell’s Angels. In other words, it’s the spectacular performance of male power. Or at least it was. From 1989 – 2010 a wave of empowered women impinged on the stereotype of a masculine rocker, delivering their own take on whoop-ass. Cobra, Queen Sea Big Shark, Hang on the Box, Hopscotch, Luo Qi and others worked harder then most to position themselves within rock culture.

(Cobra) – Illusion

This is one of their more popular tracks, and features elements of improv and effect-laden guitars. It’s quite a serious piece, removed from any association to girliness.

Cobra focused on showing fans their musicianship and craft, downplaying the fact they were a band of women. It’s a shame their record label didn’t get this. They wanted to use gender as a ‘selling point’ – look at their Douban! ‘.com/Cobrafemaleband’. They were not ‘nice and funny’ girls with guitars, they were serious musicians who deserved recognition from their peers.

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Rebuilding HMV: Preserving the Legacy in Asia

Marketing-Interactive recently posted a video interview with Ivy Wong, CEO of HMV ideal and Kelvin Wu, owner of the HMV brand in Asia, to talk about the overhaul of the retail group. The storied history of HMV is something many of us outside of China have been a part of – if not within a business context, then almost certainly as customers. Whilst the desire to revitalise the brand in Hong Kong is laudable, we can’t help but wonder if the brand’s future is still as uncertain as ever.

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Let’s start at the beginning. HMV opened shop in London back in 1921, when records (beginning with shellac and later, vinyl) had successfully disrupted the publishing industry, overthrowing the dominance of print music (sound familiar?). Fast-forward to the late 90s and HMV is thriving on CD sales. However we also know that from the late 90s to early 2000s Amazon, and various others began establishing online direct retail businesses (some including utilised a Low Value Consignment Relief tax loophole which allowed goods under £15 that were sold from outside the EU to be VAT exempt, a saving that was passed on in a friendly way to consumers in the form of free delivery and such). What did HMV do? Nothing. Well, they got a website up eventually.

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We’ll bullet point the rest of the story:

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Follow Up: Inside ‘The Sparrow And The Raven’ Multimedia Project

Following our last post, collaborator thruoutin kindly gave us a deeper insight into the atmospheric visual/music project that he has been working on alongside Chai Mi (柴觅).


An image from ‘Birds Dream’, a project that draws heavily on stop-motion animation.

Talking about how the project came about, thruoutin describes the process of navigating between two mediums, and the challenges that came with having access to limited resources:

We began working on the project in 2013 and did a few practices at my studio with my studio monitors and a busted office projector.  It was a new concept for both of us because we were both communicating what kind of ideas we wanted on two mediums that each of us respectively hadn’t collaborated with in the past.

I arranged a session of about four to five different musical movements that would be improvised along with her animation.  The timing of each varied slightly each time so the audience got a different experience at each showing.  Nothing was linked through tempo or MIDI so it made for some rather interesting results. “

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From the Twitter: Chai Mi and thruoutin 2013 in Zhejiang Art Museum

Just got forwarded this brilliant live video of a collaboration between pipa-wielding thruoutin and Chai Mi (柴觅) who together have created a digital media performance work entitled ‘The Sparrow And The Raven’. They describe it as follows:

‘The Sparrow and The Raven’ is a story of music and images coming together in a live performance setting. It ranges from improvised video performance (VJing) and more traditional animated short film techniques. The audience will hear sound and video interacting and morphing in real-time. The performance will consist of a large number of electronic noises and music as well as hand-drawn animation. This combination creates a journey into a fantasy world full of psychedelic, audio-visual space. These ingredients have proven to make each performance unique within themselves.


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Tech ‘Trounces’ Music Careers Apparently

Every now and again the big bad business press take a dip into topics that don’t really suit them or their typical audience. Could be boredom, or perhaps vague attempts at riding the buzzwagon of a trending topic. Imagine our surprise when we spotted this article on Forbes, entitled “4 Reasons Why Music Careers Are Getting Trounced By Tech”, authored by a contributor who claims to have worked in music for many years as a producer, engineer and musician. You would have thought the author of 18 music-related books would have something interesting to say, but this entry is something else.

We don’t like the spin of the article, its points are crude, cold, capitalistic, and address tech as if it exists within its own exclusive arena of activity, when the reality is tech has always been tightly intertwined with music and media in general.

Riding the buzzwagon - when lack of imagination strikes, lambast the music business.

Riding the buzzwagon – when lack of imagination strikes, lambast the music business.

Ignoring the somewhat condescending title we argue that music careers have become technologized. There is no cut between music / tech, it’s more a question of the subject matter. One person utilizes mechanisms for the distribution of information to sell experiences, and the other develops the platforms themselves. Give an example of one function within the music business that doesn’t depend on the ability to utilise some form of tech.

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A New Frontier For Modern Sky: American Festival Debut Coming in October

One of the hopes we raised in our recent review of aspirations for the future of the Chinese music industry was that Chinese artists would increasingly be able to tour the world as “artists”, not “Chinese artists”. Well, The New York Times has just published news that Modern Sky will be debuting their very own Modern Sky Festival in October.

Rumsey Playfield in Central Park will host two days of concerts featuring Liars, Blood Brothers, Re-TROS, Cat Power, Second Hand Rose and Queen Sea Big Shark amongst others.


This is surely a big move for Modern Sky, and represents a major stride forward for China’s music industry, which is steadily finding its place within the international cultural industries. Domestic Chinese artists who typically have to leverage foreign platforms such as SXSW to gain exposure could finally have a reliable foothold from which to launch into the U.S. and other international markets – of course provided they’re able and willing to team up with Modern Sky.

Words From: Xiao Zhan on Beijing’s Mushrooming Indie Scene

The Radar has admittedly been a bit Shanghai-centric of late. Here we have a refreshing contribution from a friend up in the Beije. Our contributor gets another update from Xiao Zhan following SmartBeijing’s coverage last year, with a focus on Mushroom Fest, which is seemingly set to adopt a similar model to Midi and Strawberry. Feel free to share your thoughts and feedback on the fest.

Independent music lies at every band’s beginning and at the centre of every local music scene. The DIY nature of independent music means that it’s an always changing scene of old hands and new up-and-comers. Behind the curtain of Beijing’s indie scene stands Xiao Zhan, owner and proprietor of 69 Cafe and Rockland Records. We sat down with Xiao Zhan to discuss the recent Mushroom Festival, and the evolution of independent music in Beijing.

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Insights from Xiami on the Recorded Music Industry in China

Xiami (a major Chinese music streaming service) recently published a series of key stats that help us get a better picture of how the recorded music industry in China has developed over the last 5 or so years. It’s interesting to see how China’s market share has grown, shifting the axis of creative output away from the traditional centres of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

We will repurpose the graphics here, appending them with English translations. Original insights can be found on the Xiami website.

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The number of music releases (all formats) in China from 2009 – the first half of 2014 (unit = 000s).

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