Melody mania at Beijing's MIDI and Modern Sky festivals

Melody mania at Beijing's MIDI and Modern Sky festivals

Bands, DJs, rockers and ravers are descending on Beijing in May for the city's two biggest musical feasts. Here's a little appetizer
reptile and retard
Reptile and Retard and a little crowd surfing at a show. Reptile and Retard will be playing at Modern Sky this year.

Four days, 10 stages, 46 DJs, 216 bands... Beijing, capital of the world’s most populous country, is about to be overrun with indie rockers, punks, metal heads and ravers, all of whom will descend upon the city for the annual MIDI and Strawberry music festivals.

“I think most bands across the world have heard rumors of this festival, it being China's premier and most cutting edge one,” explains Carl Stormer, front man for Norwegian hardcore outfit Turdus Musicus, who are set to play MIDI's Tang stage on May 3. “I believe MIDI is the most important factor in the explosive growth and development of the Chinese music scene.” 

MIDI: Historic homecoming

Founded in 2000 by MIDI school president Zhang Fan, the MIDI Music Festival is China’s longest-running and most well known music festival, attracting roughly 10,000 fans per day. While the festival was forced to re-locate to Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, for its 2009 edition, May 1 marks MIDI’s homecoming to its former site in northwest Beijing’s Haidian Park. And with the festival’s return comes a wealth of local and international talent.

“I'm definitely so excited about going to Beijing for the first time,” states Fish Zhao, better known in Shanghai as DJ Fish, of his maiden voyage north and Yen stage set on May 2. “There are a lot of really good DJs, musicians and people, and it makes me excited to play in front of them.

While Fish is one of the many Chinese hopefuls en route to display his talents in front of the country’s largest live audience, foreign bands have also been paying increased attention to China as a viable music market, jumping in on the festival fun whenever they have the chance.

Sahara HotnightsThe hot Sahara Hotnights.“I was surprised by the amount of bands and the fact that Punk and ‘Oi’ was existing and growing,” offers Tim V, front man for legendary U.K. punk quartet Sham 69, who toured the mainland in 2009 and are making their first MIDI appearance on the Song stage on May 1st. “It’s very important for us and other bands and fans in other parts of the world to see that China is blooming. There’s a real burning ambition by the kids here in China to be creative and to start bands and design new concepts musically and also with fashion. I found that really encouraging.”

Originally invited to China by Xi’an punk outfit No Name, Sham 69, who are in the midst of their own revival in the U.K., are not alone in their cross-cultural musical efforts. Bands like Finland’s Stalingrad Cowgirls and Sweden’s Sahara Hotnights are also coming to China on musical missions that are occasionally sponsored by local Embassies. 

“I think we are good ambassadors for Sweden," comments Sahara Hotnights’ guitarist Jennie Asplund of their May 3 Tang stage performance. “We like meeting [a] new audience and seeing new places. It’s so much fun to have been given the opportunity to finally go to China and play.”

Modern Sky’s Strawberry Festival: A new breedAlthough Sahara Hotnights is one of the few participating bands that have had chart success on both sides of the Atlantic, their 2001 single "Alright, Alright" receiving attention for its placement in several motion pictures, including 2002’s "Jackass", the overall festival vibe is centered around the independent music movement, a movement that has become so big in recent years that Beijing now supports demand for two simultaneous festivals.

Located in Canal Park in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, just 20 kilometers from the city center along Batong metro line, Modern Sky’s Strawberry Festival is set to commence its second rendition after a successful 2009 campaign.

“The Strawberry Music Festival this year, in all respects, has improved over last year,” comments festival booker and Modern Sky Records representative Hei Dao. “The venue area has expanded, there are six stages [and] 132 artists participating, creating the country’s largest music festival.”

An offshoot of the annual Modern Sky Festival, held every October since 2007, the Strawberry Festival will not only feature some of China’s most notable rock bands like Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (Re-TROS), Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, AV Okubo and Queen Sea Big Shark, but will also present a stage specifically dedicated to showcasing rising Chinese talent.


“The Chinese music scene is on the up,” states Reggie Bape, better known as DJ R3, who’s scheduled to appear on the Electronic stage on May 1st. “There's a certain pride and curiosity that rings through all of the [artists], something that is vital for any kind of scene, in particular a growing one.”

“If the [Converse] sponsorship money wasn't there, then we probably wouldn't have been able to come out and play our music to people,” explains Dan Coop, keyboardist for U.K. electronic rock group Does It Offend You, Yeah?, who are set to play the Strawberry stage on May 1st. “There is quite a big commercial pop scene, so it [will] be great to show people a more alternative type of sound.”Reggie Bape, aka DJ R3Reggie Bape, aka DJ R3.As part of their efforts to bring Chinese indie music up to international standards, Modern Sky has formed partnerships with groundbreaking American labels like Kill Rockstars, who are bringing experimental rock outfit Xiu Xiu to Beijing for a May 3rd Strawberry stage set, and aligned themselves with hip brands like Converse to help fill out the festival line-up.

While these lucrative corporate deals are helping push the Chinese scene further, Modern Sky remains dedicated to the independent spirit of rock and indie music, inviting Danish electro-blues duo Reptile and Retard, who are making their second trip to China, to perform on the Strawberry stage on May 2nd, despite the band’s lack of label support or any mainstream breakthrough.

“Last year we played in Changsha for 200 local Chinese indie kids,” offers Reptile and Retard vocalist Mads Kristiansen of the band’s 2009 independent China tour. “Ninety percent of the audience didn’t speak a single word of English, but they really connected with us. In music the typical language barriers are broken down. Art is a universal language that everyone can relate to.”

“Sometimes you get the impression that you're rated on a different scale or according to a different system than you would if you were Chinese,” adds Boys Climbing Ropes bassist Morgan Short. “I'm just happy we get the opportunity to play.”Boy's Climbing Ropes Boy's Climbing Ropes.Aside from the wealth of local and foreign talent, Strawberry Festival organizers have also finally chosen to acknowledge the musical efforts and contributions made by expatriates in China, selecting Shanghai-based, Canadian indie rock quartet Boys Climbing Ropes to perform on the Love stage on May 2nd.


The big picture and where it’s all headed

Despite the fact that the independent musical trend is thriving in Beijing and China’s other first tier cities, the continued leanings towards these big, grandiose festivals doesn’t compensate for the fact that the majority of the country is still without proper infrastructure and resources for regional music scenes.

“There’s been this explosion of festivals, but bands should be built locally from the ground up. There’s still not enough local venues to support touring,” explains Helen Feng, lead singer for electro cabaret outfit Pet Conspiracy, who will perform on the Strawberry stage on May 2nd.


Also the lead vocalist for dance rock quintet Free the Birds, who will perform on MIDI’s Song stage on May 4, Feng is quite realistic about the festival trend’s ability to skew local perception of growth, adding that “the money from one of these festivals could probably open three [live music] venues.”

Regardless, Feng, one of the few artists performing at both MIDI and Strawberry, as well as Chengdu’s Zebra Festival, is still excited by the overall growth of the Chinese rock scene, stating that “it’s good to see more normal people going. Tthe audience base is expanding and the music is starting to cross over.”

Festival details

MIDI Festival
Where: Haidian Park (2 Xinjiangongmen Lu, Haidian, 新建宫门路2号)
When: May 1-4 (1pm - 9.40pm)
How Much: RMB 80 per day, RMB 240 for four-day pass
More info: Midi Music Fest

Modern Sky’s Strawberry Festival
Where: Tongzhou Canal Park
When: May 1-3 (1pm - 9.30pm)
How Much: RMB 80 per day, RMB 180 for three-day pass
More info: Modern Sky (non-English language)
Travel: Take Batong Subway Line to Tongzhou Beiyuan. Modern Sky will provide free shuttle buses, which depart every 20-30 minutes between 10am and 6pm. Return buses are available every 20 minutes from 6-10.30 pm. You can also take a cab to Tongzhou Canal Park (通州运河公园) from the Tongzhou Beiyuan stop for roughly RMB25.

Writer, front man, promoter and visionary, Dan Shapiro's a Renaissance man who's been covering Shanghai's music and nightlife scenes since 2007.

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