Art vs Commerce – a review of the Beijing festival weekend

A review of Midi and Modern Sky Festivals in Beijing...

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There were 11 festival stages operating in Beijing during the 4 day holiday, 1-4 May. This is how we felt it went down…

Westerners working in marketing in China often spout forth that Chinese kids do not mind branding. In fact, our research actually shows that youth in China actually feel safer about an event if there is some level of branding involved. Strawberry Festival organizers are certainly taking this philosophy to the limit.

Saturday morning broke blue-skied and cloudless in Beijing. Tongzhou is a suburb on the South Eastern edge of the city, and traditionally has been something of an artistic community. Recently though, it has been the recipient of large chunks of developer cash and has a whiff of new construction & new middle class about it. The Strawberry Festival has that same air, of developers that care less for the artistic community and more for their own financial gains.

See a review of the Beijing weekend from Jake Newby HERE, and a review of Strawberry and Zebra festivals from Helen Feng of Pet Conspiracy and Free the Birds fame coming up.

Music festivals in China are relatively young. The record label Modern Sky have done much to elevate music festivals into the public consciousness, and for that they must be praised. They have endured hardships (in 2008, they were denied usage of Haidian Park’s grassy areas and in 2009, all international artists were denied permission to play the October festival just a few days before); they have been supporting independent music in China since well before it was fashionable, and they put on a relatively well organized and pleasant day out in a park this weekend just gone. But for the first time in Tongzhou Canal Park, we saw confirmation of a side to Modern Sky that has been developing for a few years: it has become less about the music and more about the money.

Let us frame this for you – the following brands had very significant exposure at Strawberry: Dell, Sennheiser, Diesel, Dickies, Converse, Volkswagen, Gibson, Metersbonwe, Alienware (OK, another Dell brand), Absolut, Kirin, Douban (OK, they were a “strategic media partnership”). The bands on the second stage (the “Love” stage) were forced to play in between two gleaming, bright orange VW Polos. The booklet that comes free with a ticket reminded us of those big glossy magazines; you know, the ones where apart from the contents page, there is no actual editorial until p. 70.

AK47 on the double branded stage.

Don’t get us wrong – we understand and embrace the need for advertising money in music, particularly in China. We work with a variety of brands, and we hope that we put the money to good use. But at the Strawberry Festival, we felt that balance and equity had left the building, that the organizers were taking with both hands, and giving back, well, not enough.

Artists are the lifeblood of any festival, and when artists are expected to pick up the majority of their tab for airfares, get paid little or nothing, have no backstage hospitality to speak of and THEN have to go and play right in front of 2 VWs WITHOUT advance warning, there is something seriously wrong. Adding insult to injury, production was patchy and the bands sounded, almost without exception, well below the standard that we know they are capable of. The self-same VW/ Sennheiser stage was sold to bands as one of two main stages that would be of equal size and billing. Nobody told us that there would be another massive (and predominantly metal) stage not 100 metres away. Both were programmed simultaneously and the sound clash was incredible (not in a good way). Compare this to the “other main stage” – the “Strawberry Stage” – that was brand-less and nestled in a small valley way out on its own, there was a sense of injustice among the artists that were pushed to this secondary “main stage”.

(You can read what Shouwang of Carsick Cars said about his Strawberry experience on his Douban page HERE.  650 comments and counting. Use Google Translate. Priceless quotes include

“Bands are not VIP, only sponsors are”

“Treat us like human beings”

“I wanted to jump on the cars, but my guitar lead was too short”)

A music festival should be primarily about the music, and music needs to be presented properly: until this happens, then Modern Sky will continue to run music festivals that are devoid of true musical experiences. It is definitely great to hang out in a park with your friends, drink a beer and see some sights (in the past, we appreciate that under-par production was a factor of cheap ticket prices and a lack of money generally) but a music festival needs to be about the bands and the musical connections that they make with the public over the course of the day/night. With all the brands on offer (sorry to keep harping on about this), we should be seeing a pretty serious spike in the quality of the bands, the production and the logistics. Of the three, the quality of band has barely deviated year to year, production has improved marginally and logistics have gone up by perhaps 30% since last year. But if, as it would seem likely, the Tongzhou Government are chipping in a considerable whack, then where is all the money going?

Other major items of note include a nice touch with the Rock School stage giving young university bands from around Beijing the opportunity to play a festival. The poor, forlorn Douban stage was tucked into the back of the festival and was almost undiscoverable – we walked past 3 times and never saw anything happening on it.

Finally, the hopelessly defunct entry system to the festival. Modern Sky continue with just TWO entry channels for the 6,000 or so visitors per day. Taking into account the bag check and scanners, this meant that over 50% of the people we spoke to waited for between 2 and 3 hours to enter the park, all in blazing sunshine. We had at least 50 personal friends who turned around and left without ever entering the grounds, vowing never to return. A hugely wasteful experience that (barring some crazy ruling by the PSB that must only apply to Modern Sky festivals) ruined the day for many people. Modern Sky must must must sort this out for their next festival.

MIDI 2010

You can find a nice little review of day 1, Midi HERE.

Over on the other side of town, Midi return to their holiday weekend in Beijing (May holiday was traditionally Midi festival holiday until Modern Sky launched Strawberry in 2009 over the same 4 day period). After a couple of tricky years – yes, them too ((1) in 2008, Midi was cancelled twice and had to relocate to the Midi School due to the Olympics; then a clash with Modern Sky for Haidian Park for the October holiday and (2) in 2009 Midi moved lock, stock and barrel to Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province) it was always going to be interesting to see what would happen with the return of Midi to its spiritual home. Would people forget?

Things boded well – Zhang Fan took on Shan Wei of Beijing Pop Festival experience to help organize the festival plus the Midi lineup and website were launched with over 3 weeks to go, compared to the traditional online-launch-3-days-before-festival. Big crowds showed up – an estimated 20,000 people attended on both Saturday and Sunday, comparing very favorably to the 6,000 or so at Tongzhou. Although the set up feels somewhat rough around the edges, this is representative of the community feel that Midi has spent 12 years fostering. Rather than the corporate looking i-Mart “Flea Market” at Strawberry, Midi still has a long winding path through the centre of the site where really homegrown and lo-fi enthusiasts sold everything from CDs to Alice in Wonderland mini top hats.

Onstage production was really quite mighty, with Nexo and Barco stepping up to sponsor the audio and video respectively. The experience was great (and quite novel). You could see the bands in hi-resolution and hear them clearly across the expanse of Haidian Park, which added immeasurably to the feeling of being at a real music festival. The crowds responded in kind and the main Tang stage auditorium was turned in a dusty mosh-pit for much of the weekend. Beijing’s Pilot Records owned the second stage and seemed to have upped the ante with iPhone based Pilot adverts playing on all the big screens. Yen held onto the electronic stage, rather inconveniently jammed in next to the main stage, and finally there was the Ming stage, a folk and experimental where we much enjoyed Liu Dongming (刘东明) framing political satire on the edge of the woods.

BOTH FESTIVALS – the artists

A final mention must go to the bands. We saw a pretty wide variety over the two days. The highlight was probably the aforementioned Liu Dongming, but Hanggai on the main stage at Midi as the sun was going down was a great moment. Chengdu’s Mosaic continue to go from strength to strength. Queen Sea Big Shark confirmed their status as China’s most overrated band, Xiao He showed potential, but ruined his own set by setting his levels too high – the sound was clipping throughout. British electro punks Does It Offend You Yeah? were explosive, but the sound tired quickly. Supermarket showed their experience as they turned in a tight, and visceral mid afternoon set. Carsick Cars were a little overshadowed by their flanking Polos, and Second Hand Rose pulled out an incredible performance to an incredibly passionate crowd. But for us, the standout was once again AV Okubo, who, despite an early kick off time and the flanking VWs, slammed out songs that are on the way to becoming the sounds of Chinese independent music, 2010. Max- Leonhard von Schaper may well disagree with us (and this great article pulls out some excellent points on the Western media misconceptions about Beijing/ Chinese music), but for our money, AV are out there on top…

  • Hi,

    great article and a great comparison

    Just a quick remark: my name is spelt “Max-Leonhard von Schaper”, not “Max-Leonard von Schafer” 😉

    Rock on!!!
    Max

  • admin

    I enjoyed yours too and agree with much of it

    And I changed the spelling – it’s a difficult one for us Anglos…

    Sorry!

  • No issue at all, that happens 😉 am currently trying to dig out more of the other scenes in China, Xi’an (which I saw “live” in 2003) and the Chengdu one …

  • I fully agree on the AV Okubo comment, they are easily the best of the lot when it comes to live shows.

    As for the advertising, I haven’t been to a music festival in a long time that doesn’t have a ton of advertising and brand marketing. For the most part it makes sense (Douban, Sennheiser, etc.), but I have to admit my first reaction upon seeing the Love Stage was “why the fuck are those cars on stage?”.

    My bigger concern though was the queues outside. I had a friend who waited for two hours on the Saturday and still didn’t get in (although I’ve heard that it had more to do with the Tongzhou police than Modern Sky).

    Also one of the drinks tent ran out of beer (!).

  • admin

    Luke

    I think you missed the thrust of the Modern Sky criticism. We understand that branding is an essential part of big, mainstream festivals these days, but our point is that usually, increased branding leads to an increase in quality of production/ bands/ logistics. Did you see much evidence that this was the case at Strawberry??

    Thanks for your comment in any case

  • Great stuff!
    It’s nice to see somebody else call it like it is! With the criticism going Strawberrry’s way from Carsick Cars in particular and even Helen Feng, it’s hard to think that bands will play for Modern Sky again!

  • I tend to disagree. Bands have been through worse and the chance to play to several thousand of fans at the same time is still a great opportunity for many younger bands.

  • Sorry, it was such a long article and i wrote that comment just after I woke up 😉

    I’d fully agree that the festival was lacking in many areas. I’d already mentioned issues with the drinks and ticket queues, but my biggest complaint would have to be the sound on all the stages. I don’t think I saw a single act that didn’t have some sort of equipment malfunction or obvious issue with EQing.

    Actually, re-reading the article it’s pretty difficult to miss your meaning. I should avoid going on the internet in the morning!

  • I just dropped a bomb over on Beijing Noise concerning these rants. Hopefully he posts it despite my expletives. I am reposting here in case he declines my comment and since you guys call it a great article.

    Luke & Max,

    So, since Max wanted to be, “a little controversial,” with his article, I thought I might bring an experienced but irreverent tone to this dialogue.

    To begin, did you fucking idiots even look at Sound Kapital? Do not label my work as superficial publicity for D-22 and Maybe Mars. There are over 120 different performers from the electronic, punk, folk, rock, psychobilly and experimental scenes in the book taken from Yugongyishan, MAO Livehouse, D-22, and 2 Kolegas over the past three years. See the end of this post for the full list. Yes, I know I decided to take all the portraits in the D-22 office, but it was for very specific reasons and not due to your spurious suggestions that I was trying to blindly promote one section of the China music scene. First of all, aside from being a live music fiend, I am a professional photographer. That red wall looks awesome. I love taking photos of people against it. Second of all, I wanted everybody in the same place so that people could see a connection between the musicians. Third of all, PRACTICALLY EVERY FUCKING BAND IN CHINA GOES THROUGH D-22. Nevin Domer is one of the best bookers in China, hands down. He brings in bands from Tianjin, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Wuhan and Shanghai to name a few, aside from an already excellent mix of performers in Beijing. D-22 is not a simple grandstand for Maybe Mars bands. Where else can you get experimental music on Tuesdays, up-and-coming university bands of all genres on Wednesdays, a mix of rock/punk/metal/emo-fallout bands from all over China on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and then mellow out to one of the best folk series in the city on Sundays? Programming at other venues definitely tops D-22 here and there, but D-22 consistently pushes the envelope. Do you think I had to drag all 120+ performers up to D-22 to take those photos? No. They were all playing there in there first place. (Actually, I did have to drag New Pants up there, but that is a different story.)

    Also, since it seems like you guys didn’t take the time, read the introduction to Sound Kapital. Yes, I know I mention my first experience at D-22 in the first paragraph (the band that blew me away that night was actually the Subs), but it is not a facile accolade to Maybe Mars. I tried to be balanced and look at the emergence of alternative music in China as a social phenomenon, not as some one-trick pony performing for a media circus. Moreover, I know I did not cover the Club 13 scene or the hip hop scene. Quick frankly it was too big of a chunk for me to try to handle at once, and instead I tried to focus on the bands playing at Yugongyishan, MAO Livehouse, D-22, and 2 Kolegas – performers who I feel are really pushing in new directions. In my humble opinion, if there is any music scene in the city that is extremely derivative, it is the metal/screamo/numetal scene (except for Voodoo Kungfu because they kick ass).

    Finally, a few respones to Max’s incoherent rant. You sound like a bipolar dyslexic. Don’t call for the downfall of those who are hyped, and then backpedal with a “statement of clarification” complimenting D-22. You make no sense. Also, you lost all credit with me at the beginning when you said that Carsick Cars, the Gar, Snapline and White all sound the same. Do you even listen to these bands? Also, the main reason there has been so much international press these past six months is due to the fallout of the conjunction of the Maybe Mars China Showcase USA Tour and the release of Sound Kapital. Charles Saliba and I busted our asses in the media, and it paid off. Lots of people came to the concerts, and the book was well received as a glimpse into the Beijing music scene. Modern Sky had a chance before with the Sing for China Tour, but they didn’t get the publicity together even though they had a strong lineup. I can’t help it if other labels don’t have the right contacts (or just don’t know what the fuck they are doing) and if some of the journalists didn’t do enough research. I would have severely edited a lot of those articles if I had the power. Also, Bloomberg means nothing and stop citing that shitty Washington Post article from 2006. Furthermore, journalists go to Michael LoJudice at Modern Sky, Doro at Yugongyishan and Matthew Kagler at Tag Team, aside from many others, all who speak great English. In fact, I personally sent a lot of journalists in those directions. There is no “single point of entry.” Quite frankly I don’t have the time to go through the numerous holes riddled throughout this article. It could be broken apart paragraph by paragraph. Also, if you want to talk shit about Carsick Cars and political undertones, look at the fucking new album. It’s called, “You Can Listen, You Can Talk.” There have been problems with free speech and media in China for awhile now. Get it? Also, Shou Wang of Carsick Cars, Yang Haisong of P.K. 14, Bian Yuan of Joyside, Chen Xi of Snapline and Spike of Demerit don’t like to open up to loudmouths and meddling journalists when it comes to politics. Read their lyrics and then engage them personally if you want to hear about it. They are intelligent and well-spoken individuals.

    In the end, I think this argument is pointless and Max’s article petty and useless. Yes, there is a lot of music in Beijing and around China that hasn’t been highlighted and discovered. Isn’t that exciting at the same time? Please show us! There are much more worthwhile ways to promote music in China and highlight its diversity and ingenuity than taking unfounded potshots at the current success of others. If you look at my old China Music Radar interview, the one thing I stressed at the end is that the alternative music scene in China definitely needs a good kick in the ass and some new blood. May bands spring forth across China’s interior! Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts!

    Word Up,
    Matthew Niederhauser

    PS. Sorry for the snarky tone. I am actually a rather mellow guy.

  • @Luke: Add this to the list of “don’t touch the computer when you are drunk” and “don’t write emails when you are angry” 😉

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  • Damn Matthew, you plastered that comment everywhere 😛

    Check out Beijing Noise for the reply.

  • @Matthew:

    “To begin, did you fucking idiots even look at Sound Kapital?”

    Dear Matthew, I am sorry, but I refuse to answer on your post, as I had hoped we can have a polite discussion and not enter into personal conversations surrounding the word “fuck”.

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  • Mikey Love

    Michael here from Modern Sky…

    For a sec­ond-year fes­ti­val in mainland China, the Straw­berry Fest was a big step forward – as anyone with experience producing large-scale music festivals in mainland China can attest to. We had 20,000+ attendees on avg. per day (not 6,000 as mentioned above), production overall was an improvement from last year, no major issues with permits/gov. policy, etc.

    That said, there are several areas Modern Sky must focus on improving if the Strawberry Festival is to truly become a great festival for fans and artists. These include proper backstage amenities for all performing artists, increased production, a better overall layout (stages, etc.), better on-site medical facilties, and a new approach to working with brand sponsors.

    The suc­cess of this year’s fes­ti­val will bet­ter allow Modern Sky to make necessary improvements, add staff, increase the level of pro­gram­ming, etc. next year.

    Now, re: this from the above admin. post:

    “But for the first time in Tongzhou Canal Park, we saw confirmation of a side to Modern Sky that has been developing for a few years: it has become less about the music and more about the money.”

    Modern Sky has done more over the past 13 years to support the independent music scene in mainland China than anyone else – by a long shot. It certainly has not become more about the money – if that were the case, we would definitely not continue to support new bands/release their records, send bands overseas, develop further projects we know are sure money-losers because they are positive for the music community/benefit worthy charities, etc. We are definitely focused on growing as a business in the impossibly tough Chinese music market, and being profitable. Does that mean we’re “more about the money”? As we and other music-biz companies in China grow/mature, so does the amount/level of opportunities for independent artists. We are working towards helping to build a more sustainable industry that supports independent music in China. I guess time will tell…

  • Hi Mikey, I’m not the admin, but I think I’ll put in my 2 scents…

    I think first we need to acknowledge that one side of the argument is on a sliding scale (admin: more about the money, less about ….), the other side of the argument is 1 and 0 (we’re doing this, we are helping out with art in China)….

    now, nobody is denying or not giving credit to all the great things Modern Sky is doing right now or have done (but you got to realize appreciation is one thing but we are allowed to point out what we think are flaws as well, so I hope you understand). But, admin is pointing out from going to the Strawberry fest, as he wasn’t the only one, a lot of the writers and observers, even friends of mine, who are locals less involved in the scene have told me similar things… in Chinese, it’s called “no wind, no wave” (无风不起浪)

    I personally did not go to Strawberry fest, but from observing the artists and effort put out from Modern Sky over the past few years: an example would be releasing the album by Sandee Chan (陈珊妮), 康晓熙 (from the commercial girl pop group Mei Mei) and being involved with super girls such as 曾轶可. Now, those 3 person definitely do not represent the Chinese underground art and music culture (one is not from mainland China). I would even argue that the three are full blown commercial pop, but ok one can also argue it’s a grey area which I guess that’s what you guys are playing with.

    I recall an example from the 80’s Automotive industry in US, where workers from, say, Ford, is given money to buy American cars from other companies, to help the industry grow. It is sort of similar, if you want to keep your involvement in the Chinese underground art culture, you have to keep putting in efforts to support it. Nobody is arguing that you have turned into a full blown commercial pop label/company, like the trillions of loud and sparkly commercial pop peddlers in China, which is why you still have the support from the Chinese creative community.

    But, and this is my central point: you are walking a line here, and unfortunately, one side of the line is very opinionated thinkers who are passionate about their art and will voice their opinion when their art and culture is tempered with (the other side of the line probably not so much). Now how you walk that line, is very very tricky (I’m not saying it can’t be done, but, tricky indeed), as you can see there is already displeased voices from one side of the line after the Strawberry festival, and if you keep on, maybe more displeased voices will come out, and then who knows if you still will have the support of the creative community…. you see where this is going….

    I think this is fair to warn you about right?

  • Mikey Love

    Hey LouisLeiYu,

    Much of the criticism re: lacking artist accommodations, long lines, sponsor branding, competing stages, etc. is warranted. I have no issue with such criticism. Everyone here at Modern Sky feels the same. We’re focusing on these issues and others now so as to make future festivals more enjoyable.

    I felt the generalization that Modern Sky is now “more about the money” was unfair and untrue.

    In my opinion, working with artists classified as commercial, while also continuing to support those deemed more artistic or representative of the Chinese indie/underground scene is not a bad thing. There are lots of reasons why we decide to release certain records by certain artists, sometimes a $ motive exists. We’re definitely not moving towards a major change in the type of music we put out/promote.

    We definitely do not want to alienate you and others. Walking a tight-rope is definitely not where we want to be.

    Thanks for the input.
    Michael

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