Detours and Developments in Beijing’s Music Scene

By Leo de Boisgisson

The music scene in Beijing can no longer be simply pinned downed to punk-rock versus karaoke. Since the mid-nineties, the music scene has evolved and diversified immensely making the city richer and more complex. Nowadays Beijing features a patchwork of independent and globalized entertainment settings, with concentrations between Haidian university district, CBD and old town Dongcheng.

It is not a coincidence that Beijing is the capital of Chinese rock, as pretty much most of the musicians and producers live and work here. Even though the city still suffers from a latent political stiffness, Beijing has a real creative potential and a sort of artistic quality label.

There’s no doubt the 90s were a synonym for struggle for a lot of musicians. They literally had their own ‘long march’ (consider Cuijian’s song) of obstacles: a combination of overwhelming Chinese pop, heavy state-owned record industry, rampant piracy added to real political sensitivities. All this while sleek entertainment venues mushrooming all over the place. A new generation of musicians emerged from around 2005, along with music promoters, labels and organizers.

Until recently, independent music was segregated into what’s known as ‘C’ category bars randomly located in the north of town. The first and most iconic was Scream club in Wudaokou, which lasted until 1998. Then places like Get Lucky (near Jinmao university then relocated to Nvrenjie) or Nameless Highland (near Beiyuan lu) followed and insured some kind of amateurish platform for the scene between 2000 and 2007. In any case, going to a rock concert was never convenient; it felt like a game of hide and seek in the city and inevitably involved long cab rides.

Sanlitun has always been a focal point on the scattered Beijing music map, being the first nightlife hub in town due to its proximity to the embassy district. Not surprisingly, Sanlitun was also the first official foreign ghetto. Unlike Sanlitun’s North street, which is a typical Chinese bar street with cheesy music, neon, Budweiser and pop corn, most of the cosmopolitan crowd preferred to hang out in the more bohemian South street. The complete destruction of South street, close to the Workers' Stadium with its increasing presence of giant nightclubs, accelerated the transformation of the scene.

Between 2005 and the present, Beijing's music scene changed dramatically; there was an acknowledgement among the officials that youth culture can be profitable. This made a lot of improvements possible. The C category bars were erased from the map and replaced by real live houses with better equipment. This evolution meant that more bands appeared and quickly developed beyond the amateurish level of their predecessors.

Over a period of three years the diversity of locations attributed Beijing with the status of China's music capital. The bohemian Sanlitun doesn’t exist anymore with new forces shifting toward old town Dongcheng. The completely regenerated drum and bell tower area saw the emergence of music activities around Mao Live house and Yugong Yishan. Meanwhile, Haidian remains one of the most influent music hubs: club D22 stands out, while its label Maybe Mars is pushing a new breed of local musicians.

The formerly marginalized niches now have a recognized status even though the implementation of a cultural business plan for these venues is still difficult and a lot of players continue to operate in a juridical grey zone. Today, going to a gig on a Friday or a Saturday night is just a normal cultural activity, and not an underground commitment. Nowadays, we don’t really use the term ‘underground’ anymore; promoters, labels and artists refer to themselves as ‘independent’ when talking about their music or themselves, registering their distinction from the mainstream while stressing the culture of DIY.

Promoters have learned to collaborate with the government, which is a mandatory requirement in order to organize big outdoor festivals such as Midi Festival or Modern Sky festival.

It seems that Beijing's music scene has evolved enormously in terms of artistic creation and human resources. There’s certainly room to develop this further, either by adopting an organic or more market-driven approach. One key remaining difficulty is that of Beijing’s political predisposition. As China's cultural and political capital, Beijing often finds itself at odds with the driving forces of creative communities and civilian interactions.

Leo de Boisgisson is a former Sinologist turned music activist. She’s the co-founder and co-manager of 86/33 LINK, a non-profit organization promoting independent music and organizing events in China, France and Europe. She’s also the agent of Chinese producer Dead J and when she has some time left she plays records in small bars.