Rock Festivals: the 3rd mininova of Chinese rock

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Rock Festivals: the 3rd mininova of Chinese rock.

by --Websl@ve 09:38, 30 May 2010 (UTC)

this is a draft version for a collaborative article on Festivals with


Once upon time

Since Cui Jian's success in the late 80's the first real explosion of Chinese Rock lies back in the early 90's with the first and 2nd generation of Chinese rock bands such as Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, Cobra, The Breathing, Overload, The Face, The Compass, Again, etc. Huge rock festivals were already a main plattform for new artists back then (e.g. Gongti in Beijing or Hongkan in Hongkong), the only difference was that the audience were more caught up with the whole long haired and noisy sound sensation that has never been there before. Soon, the music industry (if you can call it as such at that time) realized, this new hype wasnt a sustainable path to go for when it comes to revenues.

The 2nd wave of Chinese rock music came after it all chilled down a bit during the 2nd half of the 90's. New clubs, bands and also DIY underground labels/magazines/online communities started to emerge at the beginning of the new millenium with less mass-impact but more reality-awareness. Bands has gone through copy-cat-learns-to-rock processes to original creativity and individual identity.

Ever since, Chinese rock music has been long enough considered as non-profitable and nobody really supported or used it to have a significant influence on it from the commercial side of the business. So rock musicians can do what ever they like on their music path and remain widely untouched or unspoiled. But the flow of time in recent years has changed this situation a bit. Not only festivals have their impact on widening the horizon, also newer films and tv productions are starting to use local chinese rock music more and more, giving it the same more exposure and requirements for expressive quality as festivals do.

Of course it always has a certain negative side to see the small beautiful landscape of rock gets exploited by a bust of attention in tourism style, but thinking for the poor citizens of Rockia it is acutally a good thing and the right extra nutrition needed for them to thrive. Even though some will bend for more revenues and eventually loose some of their originality or go for compromises, but still most rockians will remain on their path since these changes dont come in such a might that could over roll the realm of diversity and independence, at least not in the fashion at the beginning of the 90's where there were only a hand full of rock bands who has been sucked up into the machinery of big labels trying to remodeling rock formations into pop music mass production and there for destroyed them in this attempt. And also, underground bands have seen enough weird business models to coupe with labels and media companies in the past that didnt work out well anyway, they dont go for new try-outs that easily anymore, especially not if it doesnt suit to what they have in mind. I guess most rockians would have learnt from early lessions and know better what reality is these days.

The Age of Festivals

As for festivals, these are only one of many plattforms for rock musians to choose and use and it is actually a good thing that festival organizers can find good ways to make some revenue, get more media explosure and social attention. Festival organizers wont tell musicians how to do their music, the only thing that might effect the authencity is that programm directors might have a choice among bands that they think are more suitable for commercialized cooperation, but since there are mostly more than two stages, also less mass-oriented bands can get a more or less equal change to be part of it. In the end, the only way to messure the quality of a band would be the impact of a band on its (target) audience. For exsample, if a black metal band can fully convince all black metal fans on-sight with their gig, these scene-geeks would multiplicat this impact onto non-metal-fans friends even though not every one can tell whats good or bad about a music style they are not familiar with. So one shouldnt mix up the quantity of a whole festival with the quantity of the total sum of all genres in music. The scene of rock and underground music doesnt differ too much from the structures of pop music in general, for the basic understanding to begin with, you still need/have opinion leaders and multiplicators who are meaning full for spreading the word about bands. The general idea of "quantity" only multiplicates what ever there has been quality before, i dont think that the original quality would get "watered" by the naturally emerging mass. The more festivals there are the more changes it means for bands. More revenue oppurtunities for bigger names since festivals want to attract audience with names they are familiar with; and more exposure/performance oppurtunities for smaller/newer bands (at least the youngsters of Finger Family wont my heart this way!).

And plus the new uprising festival fashion led by Midi and Modern Sky (Strawberry), one should point out the difference between those faked festivals for TV productions by CCTV (the "Same Song" TV serious, Tong Yi Shou Ge) which trying to catch up the mass hystery about several pop stars in a live performance, all inszened for the TV broadcasting only, let's say "TV Festivals" and the new "Rock Festival" to differ in terminology. On TV Festivals, it doesnt matter if a star really had an impact on the on-sight audience, as long as it seems to be so on the sceen, it all works well for the sponsors who are the main financial force behind it. But Midi and Modern Sky have to keep it real cause you cant fake it on Rock Festivals via cut and paste to replace desinterested crowds with pre-recorded audience sequences in a TV studio. All aspects of a Rock Festival will be immediately judged and results into a instant choice for visitors where to go the next day. So the festival overkill of this May was actually not too bad for the quality awareness of organizers and the quantity in terms of the variity of offers for visitors, hence actually enough ppl came both to Midi and Strawberry Festival.

As for now, i dont see any negative effects of advertising and sponsorship on rock festivals yet. Both Midi and Modern Sky are based on their traditional Beijing festivals where their revenue and budgets are coming from ticket sales and sponsorships. Since the last two years, they also go aboard and do the same or slightly different set up in other cities where a 3rd income factor comes into play, the local government support/money. It's been said that Midi Festival in Zhenjiang last year got an total support of local city administration in value of 6 Mio. RMB! And this year, they should expect the same amount in cash and are currently looking for available big names in the international rock world to head line their festival program. Which means, they both have to keep it real with their "home play" festivals to prevent their brand quality, so they can make sure to work on revenues on "guest performances" somewhere else. Commercial sponsors become less important to make those "guest performances" happen, and as for the "home play" instances, they also sure wont want it to change the taste and flavor for the sake of money to risk the impact on their faithfull and yet more picky crowd.

It is a good question to wonder if China is ready for such an Rock festival overkill. I personally would guess, at least the flow of time of mass-culture and mass-media has pushed it to come this way. Rock festivals have been established as an cultural term for media ppl, cultural officials and the audience all alike. Since the mass media No. 1, the TV is lacking in offer quality contents, many young and bored Chinese are looking for a new excitement in town. There is still a waggle memory about the exciting pictures of those CCTV festivals and as soon as they are on sight of Midi or Strawberry, they'd discover it has far more to offere than just a huge stage with a huge crowd in front. So a real demand by the audience has been there. With the need of several open minded local governments willing to use the term of Rock Festivals to promote the local residence of tourism and cultural resources, this kind of festival models started to thrive apart from major cities and spread nation wide. The biggest problem though lies in the infra structure that sure isnt ready for such complicated set ups and technical/logistical requirements. Both Zhanbei and Hebei/Yixian are exsamples where they had a super sound, a well done stage, but everything else (from transportation to toilets to hostalities) was lacking so much. But this problem can be solve sooner with the experience of production teams with time.

Now the next quesiton emerging would be, how long may this go well. Since the driving force of this newly upcomming Rock Festal fashion lies mainly in the local governmental support, i would say, as long as the vast country has enough locations to offer where local officials still see a certain value in Rock Festival as an positive social and cultural event, this new working model will remain alive. The formula Rock Festival + govermental support has began several years ago with Beijing Midi Festival pairing up with Haidian District government, Beijing Pop Festival by Chaoyang District, JZ Jazz Festival both in Shanghai and later Hangzhou. The huge Project of "Germany and China together in Motion" by German and Chinese government (the biggest cultural project ever funded by any single European country in China) pushed this form of Rock Festivals onto new height in bringing an open air festival to several 2nd level cities in China for ca. 10 days each where local ppl (incl. media, police and citizens) never have seen such a festival before. Even though this event series didnt get too much nationwide media exposure, it established music festival as an understandable and touchable term for all locals where ever they have been doing their eye and mind opening German Pop Festival. Also Snow Mountain Festivals and Grassland Festivals in the past has evened the path for later festivals apart from major cities.

Fellow Followers

So how will all this go on in the near future? One possible development would be like what has happened to club shows in the last decade in Beijing. After several huge concerts involveing over 10 bands regardless of style at one night, the live scene slowly splitt into subgenres and themed gigs dominated the clubs, driving on a more fine segregation of sub-sub-genres until it gets too hard to make any revenue with too few visitors into a too specific sub-style. Ditan Folk Festival might be one of the first being more specific on a certain genre/style/target group. Metal Festivals, Goth Festival etc. might emerge as a like-wise answer to all the huge cross-genre festivals in the next few years. Also the form of set up might go into more alternative ways, such as street/shopping mall festivals, club-chain festivals (Jue Fest?) etc. Market segregation is a natural way because it eases new comer organizers to start out on terrains they are familiar with and good at. So market segregation will also mean a bigger variety in this new festival cultur.

Almost all of nowadays institutions in rock festival has started out in a DIY fashion and while they succeeded with their mixes and experiments, they also are functioning as role models for later siblings to follow big bro's steps to innovate and regeneral the playground for the younger generation. Skilled club gig production teams will also switch onto festival productions, underground labels and agencies might also be a strong force with the new plattform for their bands and products. Activists in the rock scene of the past years are now facing a new plattform with different dimensions and power. It all emerges into a win-win situation both for cultural officials/major compamies (top-down) and underground people (bottom up) to develope things in their comon interest. Apart from the bearable governmental restrictions (no F-words on stage, no politically sensitive messages and blah) which no body really take too seriously, it all serves the growth of Chinese rock music for good, very good actually.

There is a Chinese saying "Ba Xian Guo Hai, Ge Xian Qi Neng", which means "The gods use their different power and magic to cross the sea". With the seemingly sudden coming up of all kinds of festivals everywhere, ill-competition might be a reason to be concerned about but in the end, competition is a nessesary selection process for the survival of the best and a natural result to the burst of variety. At the end of the day, you can't fool the real crowd who nowadays knows exactly what they want. Even though the main focus of Rock Festivals will remain in the major cities and bigger 2nd level ones, this movement marks a new start of Chinese rock development in means of the whole nation while Festival in smaller cities/county towns will maybe become a stage for new comers to practice their handcraft skills and working competence. Might this affect club gigs in a negative way as it more or less happened to club tours in Europe during the each festival season? As Doro Adam, club owner of Yugongyishan puts it, "it all depends on the choice and arrangement of your club program". Wisely choosen and well promoted club gigs with bands coming to town along with the festivals may still benefit club gigs as a proper "long player" or "full scale" performance alternative to the constantly mind blowing huddle of 40min festival sets.


All in all, let's be looking forward for a new era of hyperactivity in Chinese rock, driven in a creative fashion to full fill the still almost empty paper. For the next two or three years, we will witness a mininova of rock happenings, both on and off stage and last but not least also behind the curtain. And here i quote guitar virtuoso Ko (Suffocated and Spring & Autumn): "Let's get busy! It all will be fine."


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