tenzenmen records: Indie rock from Oz to the Middle Kingdom
While international brands from Converse to Ford are just now recognizing that Chinese rock music is a viable, powerful way to market their products to a generation of Chinese youth with growing purchasing power, Shaun Hemsley, 43, of New South Wales, Australia, beat them all to the punch.
Hemsley is managing to influence this group with a grassroots approach, via his independent record label, tenzenmen records, some 8,000 kilometers away from Chinese soil -- with their latest venture hitting Shanghai this weekend.
- More on CNNGo: Shanghai's best dive bars
“It's exciting because we're watching the genesis and development of new music in countries, in much the same way as watching a band play their first show in a garage to their friends,” says Hemsley. “You know something is happening in China and I feel I'm a part of it.”
After already successfully sending a handful of independent Australian artists to China, Hemsley and tenzenmen are now set to bring critically acclaimed New Zealand noise punk trio Die! Die! Die! to the Chinese mainland, a feat that might have seemed impossible just four years ago.
Back in 2007, while traveling through China, Hemsley stumbled upon the fledgling Beijing rock scene at Haidian district mainstay D-22.
After some crafty networking and genuine interest, Hemsley hooked up with the then largely unknown Maybe Mars label to license and distribute the label’s catalog in Australia.
While Hemsley was initially rather excited and ambitious about the project, his passion for Chinese rock music was not met with any particular interest among the Australian public, and the “Maybe Mars Series,” as it was known, fell on deaf ears.
“I started licensing the Maybe Mars back catalog for release in Australia,” says Hemsley. “I soon found out that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for discovering new music from new regions, and it became obvious I would need to get the bands here to play.”
A new approach
Undeterred, Hemsley spent the next few years designing a new approach to bridge the musical gap between the two nations, and eventually formed the Sino Australian Music Exchange (SAME) with help from Sydney’s Chalk Horse Gallery, and funding from the Australia International Cultural Council.
With the grant in place and increased momentum, Hemsley and SAME were optimistic about this new direction, but still felt they were missing one final and important piece of the puzzle. Enter Tom Matessi, 29, an aspiring rock promoter and booker for Beijing-based This Town Touring.
“I want to bring over independent rock and punk bands, who are open-minded, easy-going, and keen to play shows anywhere and anytime,” says Matessi.
- More on CNNGo: Archie Hamilton -- Local bands, it's your time to step up
Their team finally solidified, tenzenmen and This Town Touring made their initial inroads into China in October 2010, with the arrival of Melbourne trio The Vasco Era, and quickly followed up with tours by Dead Farmers, East Brunswick All Girls Choir, Digger and the Pussycats and The On Fires.
I started licensing the Maybe Mars back catalog for release in Australia. I soon found out that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for discovering new music from new regions, and it became obvious I would need to get the bands here to play.— Shaun Hemsley, tenzenmen records
“[Hemsley] initiated the whole thing,” says David Akerman, guitarist for Sydney’s Dead Farmers. “He put out a CD version of our album for the tour. There was lots of stuff to do, it got pretty intense with such a short amount of time, but it all worked out well.”
tenzenmen's next step
While Hemsley and tenzenmen continue to expand their existing structure and model (they are currently applying for a grant that will allow them to send promising Chinese bands and artists abroad within the next 12 months), the group, at its core, is designed to improve and increase musical relations between China and Australia, and turn Chinese youth onto new music: a mission they are slowly and steadily completing.
“I would have these organizations just make the gap a bit smaller,” explains Rhys O’Loughlin, an Australian expat in Shanghai and drummer for Pairs, a group that regularly supports tenzenmen artists in China.
“Ideally, they can expose Chinese youth to different bands, attitudes, styles they wouldn’t see otherwise,” he continues.
Of course it remains to be seen if tenzenmen’s grassroots approach can actually compete with the financial backing of big money ad campaigns, but at the end of the day, their successes are measured by remaining true to their initial intentions and opening up Chinese minds up to quality, underground music.
“[It’s a] special thing is to watch, how I've inspired others in some way, and to see kids getting involved,” says Hemsley. “Chinese audiences are appreciative of any bands making the effort to come and play in China.”