Archie Hamilton: Local bands -- it's your time to step up

Archie Hamilton: Local bands -- it's your time to step up

The head of one of Shanghai’s most successful promotion companies and the man behind the JUE Festival, sounds off on what is keeping the Shanghai music scene down

Archie Hamilton -- tell me about it -- JUE FestivalIn a recent post on ChinaMusicRadar, Michael Pettis from D22 and Maybe Mars said: “One of the problems we have in Beijing is that the music scene has grown so quickly that it actually is too big for the audience.”

Festivals are expanding all over the country including Modern Sky’s Strawberry Festival moving south to Wujiang after an unsuccessful outing to Xi’an in May 2010, and Midi and Zebra coming to Shanghai.

There will probably be over 100 music festivals in China in 2011.

There has also been a significant expansion in the number of venues in China’s major cities and promoters are stepping up to fill them. This is all hugely promising for an inchoate alternative music industry that has spent 20 years trying to find a voice.

The worry that Pettis elucidates and I share is that there is so much going on (a good thing) there just isn’t currently enough of a domestic fan or talent base to justify it. The vast majority (like 97 percent at a conservative estimate) of potential fans and ticket buyers just aren’t aware that any of this is actually happening.

In all my years organizing shows in China, I don’t think the local support act has once, offered to do anything more than actually turn up, play and take their money.

The scenes in Shanghai and Beijing are still largely populated by expats and Westernized Chinese, while Shanghai’s pre-Expo momentum was destroyed by a flood of government-sponsored visiting artists creative who had little to no name recognition in China and (due to a general lack of organization and promotion) left very little impact and generally froze out the local audiences.

The second and third tier cities that don’t have the expat populations struggle to sustain even a single live house (although Vox in Wuhan, Nuts in Chongqing, Little Bar in Chengdu and various others are doing their best). What is clear is that more grassroots activity is absolutely vital to move things forward.

Labels like Shanghai’s ZhuluHeFeng and Beijing’s Maybe Mars are working hard at engaging the as-of-yet untapped student market, with university tours (in the case of the former) and street teams and as promotions (in the case of the latter).

Events like our JUE | Music + Art Festival and Modern Media’s “Get it Louder” look to give local creatives a platform to expose their craft to a wider audience.

You can see the fruits of this grassroots approach through our various partner events this year: Hongmen Live, the Bookworm x JUE poetry slam, ENTER at Source (which puts together two weeks of original programming), the JUE Next Gen photography competition and others are all organized in conjunction with other creative groups: this way, the festival can grow way bigger than anything we could do on our own and we hope this benefits everyone involved.

There has also been a significant expansion in the number of venues in China’s major cities and promoters are stepping up to fill them. This is all hugely promising for an inchoate alternative music industry that has spent 20 years trying to find a voice.

Beyond institutional progress, bands need to realize that their futures are in their own hands.

It’s a global phenomenon to be sure: in a world of DIY distribution and promotion channels and more direct-to-fan options than you can shake a stick at, why is it that most bands still harbor the dream of signing to a major label?

In all my years organizing shows in China, I have rarely seen a local support act offer to do anything more than actually turn up, play and take their money. (There are some big exceptions to this, including Hanggai Demerit and Duck Fight Goose. Most of the expat bands are bringing an increasingly proactive and DIY approach to bear.)

The options to get involved are boundless: some extra street team work, printing up own flyers for the show, trying to sell your own merch at the show.

Our shows are generally pretty full -- 400-600 people show up at Zhijiang Dream Factory, 250-400 people for Yuyintang. We are offering support bands the chance to expose themselves to a relatively large and often new audience, yet on only a couple of occasions has a support band tried to do anything different to attract more attention to themselves.

This is the kind of grass roots activity that needs to explode here in China to actually take the fan base to another level.

Selfishly, I want to see it desperately so we can continue to bring to China a variety of the world’s best bands, but also I want to see domestic bands step up and fulfill some of the very obvious talent that is already here.

Shanghai JUE Festival, March 11-April 3, See JUE website for details or call: +86 21 5404 4708. For more on the Shanghai JUE Festival, read on at "JUE Festival mp3s: You want 'em, we've got 'em" and "Bluffer’s guide to the 2011 JUE Festival."
The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Archie Hamilton.
Archie Hamilton is a partner at Split Works and music blogger, waxing lyrical at ChinaMusicRadar.
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