With Record Store Day celebrated across the world this weekend, we chat with 18 of China's finest indie labels about what label life is like in 2016. And don't forget to grab some of these records at shops like Shanghai's Uptown Records, Beijing's fruityshop and more. (For Part 1, click here and for Part 2, click here.)
Increased online streaming regulation? A budding national touring circuit? Glastonbury Festival appearances and DJ Shadow collaborations? For years a paradoxical joke, does the future actually hold hope for China’s indie labels? We surveyed some of the country’s best and they answered a resounding 'yes.' In this three-part series, they share their thoughts and their 2016 plans with us. In this chapter, we chat with a diverse group of labels ranging from Shenzhen shoegaze to Shanghai jazz to Wuhan post-punk.
As CFO of Maybe Mars, the last thing Nevin Domer needed was to oversee another label. But while he was on tour with his fastcore group Fanzui Xiangfa, he noticed the impact that vinyl releases were having.
“I realized that Chinese artists looking for exposure abroad benefited from vinyl releases,” he explains. “In the West, there’s still a large audience for underground rock that prefers vinyl.”
This year, Dormar promises releases from Shanghai’s Little Monster and Brazil’s Negro Leo, a collaborative project between “the godfather of indie-rock” Tyson Meade and members of P.K.14, and a 7-inch box-set from Dear Eloise.
“We’ve got a couple other tricks up our sleeves and some rather big names, both domestic and international,” he teases. “But I won’t ruin the surprise.”
Although one of the youngest labels on the list, Shenzhen based Boring Production has already made a resounding impact with two releases. Founder Jovi raves about receiving an e-mail from the founder of Sarah Records in response to the label’s tribute compilation and is thrilled to have released the debut disc by local shoegazers Chestnut Bakery.
Enthusiasm is one of Jovi’s biggest traits. Inspired by Guangzhou’s indie scene and Shanghai based raconteurs Pairs, he began booking secret shows, publishing fanzines and cassettes of underground records during his freshman year of college.
"Boring Productions is a label without ambition. Our biggest goal is to sell 100 copies of our record,” he laughs. “We might shut down the label after releasing 99 records and then in 20 years, hopefully some people are still talking about us and thinking we had a beautiful existence. This is our mission statement.”
Admitting that “innovation isn’t really my thing,” Boring Productions has an 80s indie aesthetic, filled with midwest emo, shoegaze and C86 acts. Upcoming releases include Shenzhen’s milkmustache, dream-pop band Butterbeer and the unnamed side project from City Flanker’s vocalist.
“Vintage will always be a fashion trend,” he notes. “More and more people are willing to buy CDs, vinyl or cassettes to support their favorite bands.”
Rising out of the ashes of the legendary DIY Guangzhou label Full Label, Qii Snacks promises to continue “troubling the local music scene with crudely made releases.”
While label co-founder Kiki snorts, “when you live in a city which doesn’t even have an independent record store, the idea of a so-called record industry is a joke,” that hasn’t stopped Qii Music from lining up a busy 2016.
They recently released Volume 6 of the Manman Think zine accompanied with the Sky Sky Porn “audio book,” a single from alternative hip hop act Man Man Man Man.
“We’re also in touch with some of our favorite bands to tour China,” Kiki says. Their inaugural concert takes place at SD Livehouse on Apr 16 featuring Taipei’s alternative rockers Youth Line and Hong Kong soul rockers Empty Bottles, with hometown heroes like NOGM and Die!ChiwawaDie!
“We do this because we don’t want to be simply spectators to the scene,” Kiki reflects. “We want to do something fun.”
Thanks to the efforts of SMZB, Wuhan has developed a reputation as China’s punk capital. While the group is in the midst of recording their latest fiery opus, its co-founder and former drummer Zhu Ning is ensuring that their hometown continues to be a standard bearer for Mainland rock through VOX Livehouse.
Last year, the venerated venue launched a label after spending years organizing The Sound of Wuhan university tours. “The VOX slogan is voice of youth, voice of freedom,” says Li Ke. “Wild Records will amplify that voice.”
Although the label has only released one compilation and one album, that disc was the full-length debut of self-described “emo” quartet Chinese Football. “It’s been our happiest moment as a label,” Li says. “The national tour was a great success, the album received a lot of awards nomination and sales were good on- and offline.”
While Li admits that challenges remain convincing listeners to actually pay for music in a “world of streaming media,” he’s optimistic the label is making in-roads with fans eager to see what comes next. Already Chinese Football has released a compilation celebrating their last tour with plans for another EP to come. Meanwhile two of the label's three other acts (WWW, Da Cat and Extr-O) will release albums later this year.
Fake Music began as a way for founders Helen Feng (of Nova Heart) and Philip Grefer to invite their artist friends to China. While they’ve since brought acts like CSS and Hot Chip, Fake Music’s biggest focus is Nova Heart. In 2015, that meant a European album tour and a Glastonbury Festival set.
They’ve since teamed up with Beijing’s Pilot Music and Berlinbased !K7, with plans underway to release a disc by producer SHAO. Talks are ongoing with South Acid Mimi Dance Team, who performed at the label’s Christmas showcase at Yugong Yishan. As for the type of acts that appeal to the label, Grefer has simple requirements: “Originality, amazing music and that sparkle in their eyes.”
Nobody has done more to restore Shanghai’s reputation as China’s jazz capital than Ren Yuqing. The former Cui Jian bassist notes, “I’m originally a musician, so I founded JZ Music to share live jazz and for people to gather around new music.”
With a growing empire of clubs that opened new venues in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Wuhan last year, Ren is excited about jazz’s current popularity in China. “Other cities are welcoming jazz music through our festivals and clubs,” he notes.
Although JZ Music has released past records like last year’s Jazz Speaks Cantonese compilation, Ren promises there will be much more this year. He sighs, “I can’t tell you every detail right now, but we will present great jazz albums by local artists and bring some big cats to China this year.”
Thankfully, our intel tells us that soulful Guangzhou singer Jonas Seetoh is in the studio, while colorful singer Coco Zhao is recording China’s first big band album and the multi-cultural pop jazz group RTM are also wrapping up sessions.