Indie music has been no stranger to China in recent years. Live houses and an ‘underground’ subculture have been the lifeblood of bands less known to mainstream audiences.
However, many indie bands in the Middle Kingdom have also found ways to take their music in a more mainstream direction.
The variety television show The Big Band, known as 乐队的夏天 in Chinese, first aired on streaming platform iQIYI in May 2019 and returned for a second season in July the following year. As of press time, the hashtag The Big Band has been viewed 7.48 billion times on Weibo.
Audiences of the show have been introduced to bands like Hedgehog (刺猬), a mix of electronic sounds and guitar with reverb effects, but have also seen more well-known acts such as Joyside, a beloved punky Beijing rock outfit.
As COVID-19 took hold across China in early 2020, so too did fears that lockdown measures would damage the indie scene, particularly the live shows so crucial to the genre's fan base. However, with life largely back to normal, indie in China appears to be thriving, with COVID-19-control measures in place, of course.
Beijing-based music promotor MusicDish very much has a finger on the pulse of the current indie music scene. Their upcoming event at Great Leap Brewing on Wednesday, December 8 is entitled ‘You are the DJ!’ and is a celebration of indie music’s progress in recent decades.
READ MORE: ‘Unplugged’ Live Music in Beijing
Ahead of the event, MusicDish founder Eric De Fontenay spoke to That’s about the meaning of indie music, China’s indie music scene during and post-COVID-19, and whether indie becoming mainstream risks the genre losing its ‘underground’ appeal.
Some people may not be familiar with what the term ‘indie’ means. What defines indie music?
Well, like ‘world music,’ it is a nebulous term that has different meanings depending on where you are. For example, in the United States, indie used to refer to bands not signed to a major label. However, it is now in fact a genre.
In China, I would refer to indie as ‘alternative,’ an alternative sound from the mainstream and as such, not genre-specific. It is typically live music acts, ranging from punk to rock to electronic (not including DJs). You will find indie music in your local live house and in the lineup of major festivals like Strawberry and MIDI.
The rise of indie music in China and elsewhere has typically relied on an ‘underground’ scene and small live-house venues. What kind of impact did COVID-19 have upon these kind of establishments in China?
The impact was relatively limited, especially as compared to other parts of the world, because the live music scene which is the lifeblood of indie music, started reemerging in the summer of 2020.
While some venues like Beijing’s DDC did fall prey to COVID, several others closed for reasons unrelated to COVID and many new ones have emerged since restrictions were lifted; places like UFO Space and 24D come to mind. Even DDC will be reopening bigger and better than before.
Now that life is largely back to normal in China, with occasional local COVID-19 outbreaks, have we seen a post-COVID revival of China’s indie music scene?
It was actually quite a feat to witness. As soon as restrictions were lifted around the summer and fall of 2020, it was like a gun going off at a horse race; a lot of bands started playing and touring. Even more importantly, the fans showed up and shows were selling out everywhere.
While I had expected ticket prices to go down in order to incite fans to come out, they actually increased compared to pre-pandemic levels; that was pretty impressive. So, I would say that the state of the indie music scene post-pandemic is very encouraging.
Who are the big players on China’s indie music scene right now?
The obvious candidates are the bands that have appeared on iQIYI’s 乐队的夏天, known in English as The Big Band (most often referred to as Summer of Bands). This is supported by our crowdsourced playlist for the Great Leap Brewing event. The most recommended songs were from bands that received a lot of attention from the show like 新裤子 New Pants, 刺猬 Hedgehog and 痛仰 Miserable Faith.
But what is particularly encouraging is the wave of new bands that have emerged and the quality of their music and performances. Some of those bands like 丢莱卡 WastedLaika and 柏林护士Berlin Psycho Nurses have grown nicely in a short period of time.
MusicDish has acknowledged (in the WeChat post about the ‘You are the DJ!’ event) that many indie musicians have had increased exposure through television shows, festivals and more. You’ve also mentioned that some “nostalgic fans miss the good old days when indie music was purely underground.” If indie music becomes too mainstream, is there a danger it might lose its appeal as being ‘underground,’ ‘alternative’ and even ‘independent?’
I generally hear this fear expressed, especially as a result of The Big Band that has thrust indie into the mainstream spotlight. The complaint is that bands are increasingly creating music to fit those shows.
While there may be some truth in that, I generally don’t buy it and think it is overblown. Humans are by nature nostalgic and crave the good old days which always seem better than today. Since 2020, we’ve been compiling playlists of our favorite music being released each year, as well as a playlist of bands releasing their music for the first time.
I can tell you that there is plenty of music that sounds as underground and experimental as a decade ago, if not more so.
MusicDish has an upcoming event at Great Leap Brewing. Tell us more.
The event is called ‘You Are The DJ’ and is a celebration of how far indie music has come over the last three decades.
Basically, we reached out to our mutual communities to crowdsource the best indie music out of China which I’ve curated for a two-hour night of music madness!
Songs range from early music as far back as 1991, as well as music released recently and everything else in between. The idea is to share all this great music as a community, but also to encourage music discovery, as I’m sure everyone will hear (and hopefully fall in love with) some tracks from bands they’ve never heard before.
For those who participated in the crowdsourced stage, if one of their song recommendations is selected, they get a free beer! It’s gonna be a party worthy of yaogun!
To find out more, scan the QR below and follow the MusicDish WeChat Official Account:
[Cover image via Unsplash; all in-text images via MusicDish]