In Beijing, consumerism is growing at a rapid rate. Chain stores, coffee shops and KTVs are more prominent than ever with China’s capital proving to be an attractive investment opportunity once again, post pandemic. When it comes to nightlife, live houses are becoming fewer in a market that needs good business sense and a passion for music. The two aren’t mutually exclusive but they create a certain paradox that can only be tackled by a special kind of person.
Put a musician in charge of a business, you’re likely to get more party than profit. Put a businessman in charge of musicians and it’s less soul, more sales.
DDC also has late night DJ sets after bands - Image via DDC
Zhang Jincan, who goes by the name 69 (we’ll get to that later), formed Dusk Dawn Club in 2014. After battling through a pandemic, the venue is now in its second location in the city. He’s been on a journey of providing a special platform for performers while trying to keep things profitable.
“I'm not a musician” Zhang tells That’s. “I’m a promoter and a businessman. Dusk Dawn Club is a home for musicians, drinkers and friends. It's more than a live house. I came to Beijing 14 years ago after my first step (in this business) was a music hostel in my hometown in South China. What’s important here is getting everyone together, all having fun no matter where anyone is from.”
The club, which is fondly referred to as DDC, had its first incarnation in a quiet hutong. A courtyard bar ran parallel to a performance space and made for one of those places that typified Beijing’s unique music scene. After garnering a reputation for good bands and affordable drinks, a certain prestige came with playing on that stage. External factors came knocking in 2020 and 69 and his team were forced to shut the doors.
Popular Beijing band Axis Neptune playing at DDC - Image via DDC
But the guys behind the club were not done. Even through a pandemic, Zhang wasn’t undeterred in finding a new spot where its loyal patrons could (in both senses of the word) play.
A new neighborhood was found but it turned out to be in stark in contrast to the old. Ritan Park is just off the Central Business District (CBD) and its nightlife caters to a far different crowd. What was once a Chinese restaurant in a food and entertainment mall was to be transformed into a live music venture. An ambitious and expensive project.
“We launched the project at the new location almost two and a half years ago. When we secured the place, we had to pay for everything. We had to pay the rent, for designs, for the decorations and for the professional equipment so we weren’t ready until April 2022. In one year, including the lease, we spent 3 million yuan. But we can’t do anything without live music, so we had to move forward. We don’t care about this street and if people come to this building for DDC, I think they already know what they are going to get.”
The location may have changed but the talent has remained at the same level. The relationship with its performers has always been solid especially when it comes to shows with foreigners. At DDC, acts with non-Chinese members often share the stage with domestic musicians in a scene that has become more separated at other venues in 2023. This is not a diplomatic venture from its owner, just a simple way to promote great music from all over the world.
“Music is our bridge in life” the promoter says proudly. “It’s a (different) kind of lifestyle and night life. People just care about the music itself. DDC is still very alternative and underground but, we’ve had pop stars, K-pop and hip-hop. People like different groups. As for foreign bands and good quality musicians from overseas, I think they will come back more and more.”
Although he hopes plenty of talent will return, a lot has never gone away.
July 17-22 saw a special series of shows to celebrate DDC’s nine-year anniversary since first opening. Peking Floyd and Macondø have been two of the most popular acts to play at the current and previous locations. Scott Slepicka is in both groups and laments the importance of the venue and what it means to city’s live-music scene.
“DDC has been a home for many of us fans and musicians alike for nearly a decade. A real gathering place. And it was an honor and a privilege to be part of their ninth anniversary, with many more to come.”
Finland’s Jukka Ahonen, also of Peking Floyd and others, praises the venue’s dedication and professionalism.
“DDC has always cared about the technical quality of the show, having capable sound guys as well as well-maintained equipment. Quality venue, a rare treat in Beijing.”
Packed house at DDC - Image via DDC
The most ringing endorsement comes from South African player Liane Halton, who performed at Dusk Dawn Club with group Seed eight years ago. The community-like experience influenced her decision to move to China and embark on a new adventure.
“Playing with Seed when I came to visit in March 2015 was the beginning of my whole musical life in Beijing. I met many people at that first show who became bandmates and great friends. I am grateful for the community and early connections I found at DDC were a springboard for many musical collaborations and opportunities.”
And while the Beijing location has garnered a decent following amongst live-music lovers, 69 has something similar, yet completely different going on at the Aranya resort in Qinhuangdao. Amid the first location closing, plans had been in place to open a DDC at the exclusive seaside town in mid-2020. Its interior is the same as is the quality in production and music. However, as the boss tells us, its clientele is slightly different.
“I’ve had people say (at that venue), ‘what was that (stuff)?’ and then ask for a refund,” he laughs.
“People want to go to the beach; they want to have a drink by the seaside, and we must serve the community (in Aranya). The hotels pay for the band’s transport and accommodation. The life and scene are very hard (to tap into). It’s very crowded but most people, even if they pay for a ticket to a live show, don't care about the music. Sometimes they can’t get into the bands or the music. But it’s been a market education for us. We know what to do better.”
The Aranya location doesn’t carry the same clout as the space 275 kilometers to the west, although it does provide an enjoyable weekend away for bands. But what Zhang has shown in his willingness to invest and manage a place like DDC is a faith in his customers and a firm belief that his market is one that will always need to be catered to. Many bar owners and businessmen may have gone for safer options instead of reviving a brand that had already been told no once due to reasons out of their control.
“We (69 and DDC audience members) have the same taste. I just want people to be comfortable here drinking and listening to music. This a personal project, not like a capital business.”
“When I was in high school, I learned about Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd and a lot of the music coming out in that era. It was all about the spirit. 1969 was a utopia age.”
It’s often said you can’t through life living off fresh air but as 69 continues to prove, when your heart is pumped by rock ’n’ roll, you stand a better chance than most.
[Cover photo via Dusk Dawn Club]