In August 2009, the music scene in China took a significant step forward with the soft opening of what could be considered as China’s first world class venue. With a flown D&B rig packing a serious punch (albeit rarely used properly), a good-sized stage lit by a decent selection of lights, and a nice square room with pool tables, bar and seating surrounding a large dance floor, this is a room for proper bands.
MAO (Livehouse) is a brand/ franchise backed by the Japanese record label Bad News. They opened the first branch near Nanluoguxiang in central Beijing in 2007. The frontage was an iconic reddish (rusted?) sheet metal, the venue was well equipped and laid out, and it quickly became a permanent fixture in Beijing’s live music movement.
2 years on, and Bad News have teamed up with Shanghai’s Soma Records to bring that same rusted sheet metal to the building that was opened as Club O2, quickly became Club Candy, briefly flirted with Shanghai’s nightlife as WTF (best known for the hastily rearranged Ghostface Killah show) and in August 2009 reopened as MAO Livehouse. According to Bad News, they are hoping to open a string of MAO Livehouses across the country, looking to become China’s premiere music brand.
The improvements between the opening of the Beijing branch two years ago and the Shanghai venue 2 months ago are plain to see. This is a good indication that the Bad News boys are going to continue to make good on this promise. The Shanghai room is just better in every way. In Beijing, the bar and drinking areas seem like an afterthought, tacked onto the main room. There is rarely more than one barkeep, and this makes the prospect of actually hanging out at MAO to have a drink with friends unlikely. The room in Beijing is extremely dark, and often feels cold and sterile. It just doesn’t vibe as much as it should.
Shanghai is certainly cleaner, and sometimes feels more like a wine bar with live venue attached as an afterthought. There have been some strange moments, such as when we arrived at Beijing skinhead punk band Misandao’s recent Shanghai show, and the 100 or so people were seated at candlelit tables, listening to background acid jazz – hardly the best precursor to 4 of China’s fiercest bands. But the place has hugely high ceilings and massive LED walls behind the stage, a legacy of the ambition of the initial building designer and owner of O2. As a result, the venue seems bigger and more spacious than it actually is. It just a great room for music, and for this we are thankful.
Soma Records have had a controversial start in the venue business. You can read more about that HERE. You do have to give them credit for putting Bad News together with the Red Town venue space, and investing their own money into the project. They are now running it, and from a success point of view, there has been a slew of great shows over the last 2 months. The venue has been packed full on a few occasions (and this is a hard place to fill -400 is about the point that it starts to feel that you have company and it can probably top out around 800-900). Soma themselves have filled the place on both their soft and their hard openings, although both shows were free, and both much bolstered by ex-Soma band the Mushrooms. Outside of these two, all the other big shows have been by external promoters (Modern Sky/ STD’s Mono, Antidote’s Pet Conspiracy, Lychee’s Richie Hawtin) while many of the self-promoted shows have lacked bodies. What’s worse is that MAO are picking up many of the shows that would be much better suited to Yuyintang – 50 people in YYT and you have yourself a vibe – in MAO, it takes 5-10 times that many. Is this the bands, the promoters or MAO themselves? Is it a money thing? Obviously, the equipment in MAO is hard to resist, but c’mon people. Anticipate what kind of crowd you are going to attract and choose the venue accordingly.
This brings us to our final point. Before the arrival of Mao Shanghai, promoters, venues and bands rubbed along nicely. STD promoted ReTros and New Pants at YYT in 2008 (two of Beijing’s bigger alt-bands), while Split Works promoted a Maybe Mars showcase as part of January 2009’s JUE festival. All the shows were massive successes, with well over 600 at ReTros and Maybe Mars, and 500 at New Pants (but hey, it was raining).
Fast forward a few months, and now Mao/ Soma are doing it all. This weekend, ReTros are playing, and in two weeks time, Mao will host New Pants. On January 22nd 2010, Maybe Mars will bring PK14, the Gar, 24 Hours and Rustic to Shanghai, to play at Mao. Of course, there will be more money in it for the bands and their labels by cutting out the local promoter, but promotion has already suffered as a result for the ReTros show. So why, when there are already established (and successful) relationships, are these bands and labels going direct to SOMA, an outfit that have hardly covered themselves in promotional glory before?
According to a well placed source at a prominent Beijing record label:
“the local culture in Beijing is less promoter and more club based, so people here don’t always understand the importance of having a good promoter who will work the promotion. The regular clubs in Beijing do ok with their promotion in the local listing mags, email lists and regulars… but they don’t reach out to new audiences the way a good promoter would”
And so we have the rub. MAO’s arrival is most certainly a good thing for Shanghai and China’s music scene. The city has been crying out for a well equipped mid sized venue. Bad News and Soma have delivered this in spades. On the other hand, Shanghai’s music industry has traditionally been a friendly place, with people working with each other to move things forward: bands, promoters and venues. Soma have yet to prove that they are a part of this, and it will be interesting to see how their forays into serious promotion go. ReTros tonight, New Pants in two weeks, Maybe Mars in January.