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Beijing musicians: Not so far from home

By 8 June 2009 One Comment
Photo by Kelly West

Slim pickings: East Gulou Road musicians struggle to build careers |Photo by Kelly West

As a journalist from the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World — Austin, Texas — I wondered what life is like for musicians in a city on the other side of the world. And East Gulou Road in central Beijing is the place to find struggling musicians. Tiny music stores dot every block, and nestled between them is one of the best-known music venues in the city, Mao Livehouse.

“It’s the most rock-and-roll street in Beijing,” said Temuçin Gaglar, a high school junior and a guitarist in a heavy metal band.

Gaglar and a group of friends had stopped by a guitar shop on East Gulou owned by Xander Peng. The shop, which is crowded to the point of overflowing with four people in it, is covered floor to ceiling with guitars made in Korea, Taiwan, and China. Peng, a 27-year-old guitarist with long hair and tattoos, agrees with other musicians who work on the road that making a living in Beijing in the music industry is nearly impossible. Not unlike Austin, there are so many musicians that club owners can easily find bands that will play for little or no pay. Some bands scrape by playing outside the city, but most have to work a day job to subsidize their passion.

Peng and his wife live in a little room at the back of the shop that barely fits a bed. They have “no money, no car, and no bank account,” he said.

Just blocks away from Peng’s shop the rock club Mao Livehouse is selling tickets to see the American band MXPX for 250 RMB — approximately the amount a band might make on a really good night according to Peng. Usually they make just enough to cover beer and cigarettes.

Zhang Xin, who owns a tiny guitar shop across the street, also looks the part of a musician with his mohawk haircut and arms covered in tattoos. He says it would be hard for him to get a job in any industry other than art or music because of how he looks. In China, he said, you don’t have the energy to both work and play music well. He’s not all that upset about it, though. He laments the paltry pay, but would rather be working in his own music shop than in an office.

“I love this job,” Zhang said.

As I sat talking to Peng in his store, listening to his favorite American band God is An Astronaut, he explored what other options he might have in the music industry. He’s worried that slow business will force him to give up his shop. His back-up plan is to teach guitar lessons and continue looking for the right group of musicians with whom to perform.

As I commented on the similarities between musicians in Beijing and back home in Austin, I discovered that members of the East Gulou music crew harbor not a few distorted assumptions about how much better the scene must be in America. They think the U.S. government will give you money to live on, and provide health insurance if you want to just play music all the time. Little do they realize that Austin musicians have to struggle to pay bills, compete for a limited number of gigs, and work day jobs so they can afford to play music at night.

Why? Because just like their Beijing counterparts, they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Photo by Kelly West

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One Comment »

  • Ray said:

    No matter where the human being is…there will be music!! Great shots Kelly.
    Hope your having a great time and I look forward to hearing some story’s from all.

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