Artist Feature: Second Hand Rose and Rock’s Critical Edge (Part 2)

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Following on from our interview with Second Hand Rose’s (二手玫瑰) frontman 梁龙, we will now hear from tour organizer Eric de Fontenay (of MusicDish*China) who is organizing the tour, on themes relating more to the challenges faced when breaking Chinese bands in new territories.

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When looking to the U.S., bands can either choose to target Chinese communities and use them to gain a foothold, or go straight for genre-based niches. We feel a combination of the two is key – could you comment on whether you believe a mid-level act can survive by only targeting enclaves of Chinese fans abroad?

Considering the significant costs associated with an international tour (especially in the case of the US), it would be foolish to ignore the Chinese diaspora community. They are most likely to have knowledge of the band, if not being outright fans, and therefore most likely to buy tickets and merch.

In discussing with venues, this can also make a big difference. They realize all too well that indie Chinese bands have nearly zero draw to their audience. In the case of Second Hand Rose, their popularity in China and potential draw to the Chinese student body, which is large in all the cities, was the winning argument to secure venues like Hard Rock Cafe or Webster Hall.

Of course, you can’t just land in the US and expect the Chinese community to show up (unless you’re Mayday or some other pop act). You need to effectively work with the local Chinese media, influencers, student organizations and such. And the band’s fans must also be active in spreading the word on Weibo and Wechat. For a mid-level indie band that is relatively unknown to that expat community (which may be more focused on “Voice of China” mainstream acts), it can be a real challenge.

Having said that, foothold was an excellent term. There is no use touring the US if you are not using it to reach out and create awareness with local media and fans – it is an educational opportunity to lay a foundation for future tours. In the case of Second Hand Rose, we’ve enlisted companies such as PledgeMusic (crowdfunding), Blastro (live webcasting) and Torrpedo Media (online media and advertising). The band will also be giving ‘lectures’ at China Institute and Berklee College of Music on the cultural impact of rock in China. The idea is that you need to educate new fans.

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Looking at the performances alone, some may believe that the band is simply providing “edgy entertainment”. The promotional materials perhaps reinforce this:

“A first hand experience of rock music with Chinese characteristics”
“Hop on if you’re ready for an encounter with Chinese youth culture.”

Do you think that the critical edge that underlies what the band does could be missed on international audiences that lack understanding of the cultural context and history?

That’s exactly why we booked the lectures. The fact is that the story is compelling – that’s why I turned my business around to focus on China. It just needs a platform to be told and the right spokesperson to tell it, which I believe Second Hand Rose is. It also provides a more compelling story to the American media for whom China is “all the buzz,” whether it’s Ai Wei Wei, the Alibaba IPO, or understanding the societal and cultural changes in China.

In part 1 we referred to the video of the band playing Drop Around at Mako Livehouse, and asked the band whether they believed that in the eyes of those exposed to the live show for the first time, they could be reinforcing the idea that Chinese rock lacks authenticity by exhibiting things which are tied fundamentally to ideas of ‘Chineseness’, things that have always been seated outside rock’s centre. What do you think about this?

I could not disagree more. If you do not bring something culturally distinctive, something that really sets you apart, then you’re just one more fish in a very big sea. What attracted me to Second Hand Rose was their authenticity actually. Their ability to seamlessly mash-up traditional and modern Chinese themes with everything from Metallica to Michael Jackson. They are authentic because they reflect China’s struggle to reconcile with their past and tradition in a modern, globalized world, i.e., what is 21st Century China? This is what I have seen on my many trips to China and what I felt I recognized in Second Hand Rose.

To the contrary, the complaints I’ve heard of Chinese rock being inauthentic revolve around the lack of originality and outright imitation of Western rock.

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It looks like other underground movements have gotten a lot of traction, with Japanese Dancehall being a prime example. Japanese and Jamaican culture couldn’t be further removed, and yet the Japanese have taken this style and made it their own, with Mighty Crown Sound System making the first big impact in 1999. Do you foresee Chinese bands becoming a force in rock music that could even impact artists in the West, or will it always remain the purview of underground international Chinese communities?

Ain’t that the question! On the one hand, China is having a large impact and shaping the West’s entertainment world, whether it is sports such as UFC, Hollywood or the contemporary art world. China is resuming its historical role as a global power that has always had a big impact in its region and beyond.

On the other hand, I see little in the scene today that is likely to shape American or British rock. But the scene is young and has barely made any efforts to go beyond its borders, unlike J-Pop or K-Pop. This year may be a turning point with the Modern Sky Fest in Central Park. But a concerted and ongoing effort must be made in order to succeed. Look at the success of Scandinavian, Canadian and UK artists – they have a governmental infrastructure for the development, promotion and export of music abroad. More recently, major K-Pop players have been forging partnerships from China to Europe and the US in an attempt to become a truly global (rather than regional) force.

Another aspect necessary for Chinese rock to have impact is collaboration. Swedish songwriters in Asia have had incredible success in the Asian pop world, which was the result of years of collaboration. I was working with the Taiwan delegation to Midem in 2012 for example, which featured Jolin Tsai. I met three Swedish songwriters that had written #1 hits for her. Columbian singer Shakira broke through via Wyclef and continued with countless collaborations. It is this cross-cultural collaborative process that I believe could exert the most influence on Western rock.

Finally, in the case you give, Jamaican music is clearly something new and original for the Japanese. It clearly contributed something that the Japanese felt was not indigenous to their culture. Back to your point on ‘Chineseness,’ I believe it is developing a new form of rock – based on the unique experiences of today’s Chinese youth – that will make it more influential. We don’t need someone to reinvent the wheel; we need a new, fresh perspective on it.

Revisiting something we touched on before, in the case of Second Hand Rose, do you think their unique form of parody risks dividing the audience into two camps: those who truly get the underlying message and critique (which justifies the showy style) and those who only see the surface layer, and see the band as ‘something different’ a ‘bit of a gimmick’?

I think that this is the nature of things. Take Chinese festivals. Certainly many attendees are there for the music itself and to catch their favorite band(s), i.e. they get the message. But most I suspect are there to have a good time with their friends, and enjoy the overall experience. But that’s alright, because they are being exposed to new music that will influence their tastes.

So in Second Hand Rose’s case, you will have ‘real’ fans that want to understand the message, that get the context… and the ‘casual’ fans who might be intrigued by their newness. But this could be said for any band in the world, and in the case of a band like Second Hand Rose, it’s part of the educational process that hopefully flips ‘casual’ fans into ‘real’ ones.

I’ve been an ardent KISS fan since ’76 in elementary school. Everyone in my class hated it (as they swooned to “Saturday Night Live”), and most of all, hated the perceived gimmicks; from their costumes, to their face paint and name, which was rumored to stand for ‘Kids In Satan’s Service.’ Yet, they are one of the most influential bands in rock & roll and are still running strong (albeit mostly through reality TV today). What is sometimes viewed initially as gimmicky can ultimately be seen as innovative and launch new trends or styles.

Lastly, could you share any hopes for the tour? What would you like audiences to leave with?

If you talk to the average American about Chinese music, or even culture, they have a very outdated view. They know of Peking Opera, traditional instruments… even most of the movies shown are set in historical periods, not the present day. The average American simply knows nothing of China’s youth culture, that Chinese indie music attracts well over 100,000 attendees at major festivals, that there are very cutting edge and experimental things happening in the Chinese cultural underground. My biggest hope is that they can get a glimpse of “real China” through Second Hand Rose.

We also hope that this tour will lay the foundation for bigger tours as well as festivals in the future. That’s why we’ve enlisted some of the different partners I mentioned before.

End Note:
This feature on Second Hand Rose contains a wealth of insights that we hope can contribute to the continued documenting of China’s contemporary music industry. We hope the tour goes well and encourage readers to get the message out – China is coming!

Second Hand Rose Links:
Check out MusicDish*China for updates on Chinese artists and more!

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