Music to our ears, but not to Westerners

Updated: 2012-04-13 09:27

By Mu Qian (China Daily)

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Music to our ears, but not to Westerners

Comment | Mu Qian

A group of international music agents and festival programmers gathered in Beijing recently and saw shows from more than 10 Chinese bands. The result was rather disappointing: None of the bands really impressed them.

"From my perspective as a Western promoter, I think it's very important that you have some certain identity if you want to play abroad. What I'm looking for is not a band that copies a famous Western band. I'm looking for music that brings something extra," says Bertus de Blaauw, a booker from Mojo Concerts, presenter of the Netherlands' Lowlands Festival.

Jerome Williams, another Dutch agent, with the Earth Beat company, shares the same opinion.

"It is very important to be original. That doesn't mean it has to be traditional. It can be punk, electronic, or rock, but try to create your own style as a band," he says.

They were speaking at the International Urban Music Culture Summit, held last week as part of the Sound of the Xity, a series of musical events that also included performances and screening of music documentary films. Present at the summit were also programmers from the Sziget Festival of Hungary, Ulsan World Music Festival of South Korea, and Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Every now and then some Chinese bands take overseas tours, but few of them, if any, have been really accepted by the international market.

Cui Jian, China's number one rock star, once said the audience of his concerts in the United States was almost entirely Chinese. Ironically, there are more foreigners in the audience when he performs at home.

Williams tried to book shows at this summer's festivals in Europe for Xie Tianxiao, another famous Chinese rock musician, but didn't succeed.

"If you are competing as a rock artist, you are one of thousands to the agencies. That makes it very hard, even if you are huge in China," he says.

Compared to Chinese films, visual arts and literature, Chinese music is less known around the world. CDs of Chinese bands are hard to find in Western record stores, and Chinese names are absent from most of the major international music festivals.

Language is certainly a barrier, but what De Blaauw and Williams point out is probably more important - the lack of originality and identity in Chinese musicians' works.

Chinese rock music started in the 1980s, and until the late 1990s when the Internet emerged, information about the international music scene was fragmentary. Then, all the styles from the history of rock music are presented altogether in front of Chinese musicians. It's like someone who has been starving suddenly finding so much to eat that he suffers from indigestion.

The good news is that rock music has created a market in China, though maybe still a niche market. In most big cities ,there are clubs that put on rock shows, and music festivals have been flourishing all over the country in recent years.

The government is also more tolerant towards rock music than before. The Ministry of Culture will even sponsor Chinese metal band Yaksa to tour Germany and perform at the Wacken Open Air in 2012.

"The Chinese market for rock music has never been so good as it is now, and I think it's time that Chinese bands try to enter the international market," says Zhang Ran, CEO of SX Music, which presented Sound of the Xity.

Zhang hopes to create a platform through the project for the international music industry to know more about Chinese music, and vice versa.

Although no international agent found a suitable Chinese band to work with from this year's Sound of the Xity, all of them say they are learning about the local music scene.

Chinese music workers, who are enjoying more success in the local market, have also been able to see themselves from a wider perspective after listening to the opinions of international programmers.

Zhang says that Sound of the Xity will be an annual event, and next year he will call for some more Chinese bands to perform at the event.

"But we will not look for something like a Chinese AC/DC," he says.

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