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…

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