Guest Column – Why China is the Wild West of alternative music by Diagrams

Guest Column – Why China is the Wild West of alternative music by Diagrams

diagramsDiagrams, the musical project of former Tunng member Sam Genders, released its new album Chromatics on Monday (19 January) and plays London's Lexington tonight (21). To mark the album's release Genders discusses the influence of China, and its changing music scene on him in a guest column for Q

I'd like to start by saying that China is a vast and multi faceted place which I imagine is comparable at least to Europe in the variety and depth of it's culture and peoples. When I spent five weeks in the south central city of Changsha this year, I dipped a small and relatively clueless toe into a huge and incredible pond about which I still know very little. No doubt there are a billion ways to experience China and an awful lot of people who could describe it's culture and arts scene more accurately that I can. That disclaimer aside, I'm here to tell you why I got so excited while I was there and why I expect to hear big things from the country's alternative music scene in years to come. I'm speculating here but I do suspect that musicians and the music industry in general have much to gain from looking east.

My mission In Changsha was to work as a musician in residence on behalf of the British Council and the PRS Foundation. As far as I understood, I would arrive to a busy schedule beginning with a solid week of rehearsals with a group of professional Chinese musicians, supported by good access to all the rehearsal facilities and musical equipment I might need. This demanding week would be followed by a prestigious performance at once of China's most famous music festivals - Orange Isle Festival, and the rest of my time would be spent collaborating with locals musicians and producers.

My excitement turned to disappointment shortly after I arrived and discovered from the programs' Chinese partners that none of those things were actually confirmed. What followed was an initially stressful week of exploratory meetings and negotiations with musicians and promoters, a kind-of performance at Orange Isle when I became 'guitarist no.2' for two songs at the end of Chinese rock band Da Mu's set and a growing realisation that nothing at all would happen in any kind of predictable way as I tried to organise some kind of proper performance and schedule of work. I could quite easily have found myself losing heart as plan after plan fell by the wayside but what began as hard work became an adventure of the highest magnitude as I abandoned my desire to control everything and soaked up the experiences and the enthusiasm of the people around me.

Like an early gold prospector arriving in California I was in a strange new world with plans to dig up alternative music nuggets and craft them into something glorious. Those first prospectors must have had to dig their own mines and it turned out I was also going to have to get digging as it became clear that most of my time would be spent seeking out those few promoters, players and networkers who could help me achieve my goals.

You can drop your common or garden alternative musician pretty much anywhere in the UK and she or he will find a flourishing network of small promoters, musicians, producers, venues, festivals and online resources dedicated to the making and appreciation of music that strives to be a little different. There are for example labels that specialise in alternative releases, agents that specialise in sending those bands out on the road and a huge audience of willing punters connected by an excellent network of radio, websites and printed press all working in appreciation of this alternative world.

The Chinese alternative scene I discovered was very much in it's infancy and incredibly hard to track down. I never really discovered an alternative-specific support network of promoters, labels etc. Everywhere I went I was bombarded by bubblegum pop and where there was a reaction against this it tended to take the form of 90's style rock and heavy funk inspired music.

I'm certainly not saying those forms of music are bad things in themselves and I'm not here to argue any kind of intellectual superiority for what I think of as alternative music. I was however, struck by the huge enthusiasm that greeted my arrival and the intense interest that my music generated. Anyone familiar with the UK alt-music scene, (perhaps your bog standard End Of The Road punter will know that I'm not an especially groundbreaking musician in relation to what else is out there. I do my best to play around with some interesting ideas and have some fun along the way and I have a blinking good time doing it but I'm essentially a musical magpie.

In Changsha however I was treated as something a little bit special and I also got the impression that I was genuinely inspiring people to think in new ways. This is a place where there are lots of great musicians and a fascination with all things new but where the indie and alternative explosion of the last 20 years hasn't really happened.

Where so many things haven't happened yet. I was told of how a nationwide chain of hugely successful mainstream music festivals had grown up in recent years - started by people with very little industry experience and who had to make up their working methods as they went along because there weren't any industry standards they could refer to as a UK promoter would.

I spoke to UK ex-pat and Changsha DJ Jamie Omer whose underground electric club night parties are finding huge success in the city. As the only promoters pushing electronic dance music they initially met with a total lack of places to play and were faced with constant requests for cheesy western pop and rock songs for audiences that didn't want to dance. They solved the problem by creating their own regular event with electronic DJs and actually went as far as hiring dancers initially and inviting their ex-pat friends to get up and dance. After a short period of initial apathy the nights have now exploded and play to mainly Chinese audiences.

I spoke to famous Chinese band Shuh Tou who as well as being the most alternative act I encountered in China, have also just set up an English Language website to attract a western audience and recently played at the Chinese-promoted Modern Sky festival in New York.

Where ever I went I saw the signs of people just starting to think about new ways of doing things. One arts contact I spoke to believed that copy right laws were beginning to evolve, with discussions and lobbying going on behind the scenes and it wouldn't be long before artists would start to have greater rights of ownership and might begin to benefit for the associated revenue streams.

And yet, I also spoke to a music fan who told me that due to political or police corruption a venue may suddenly be ordered to close down to make way for some other business venture in which someone high up the chain has a vested interest. This means that owners are reluctant to invest in much needed PA equipment and other facilities that would attract a greater range of artists to their venues.

In amongst this blend of exciting new ventures, uncertainty and logistical challenges I found myself feeing a little envious of a young Chinese musician with so many unexplored ideas at their disposal.

Much as in the old west there are going to be failures and unpredictable outcomes as China develops it's own unique take on the alternative music scene but I feel certain that though it may as yet be untapped there is huge enthusiasm for new approaches and the potential for fruitful collaboration with UK musicians and the music industry is limitless. Sam Genders @diagramsmusic

For more, including his latest live dates head to Facebook.com/Diagrams.