Foreign indie music faces challenges in China
On American indie musician Brian Seymour’s 2006 Web site promoting his tour through China, he promised a “fostering of cultural exchange and creative collaboration.” So when he decided to perform at Shanghai’s Cotton’s, a restaurant with a predominately expat clientele on June 22, Seymour’s intentions for his most recent tour in China seemed to demonstrate otherwise.
As expected, Seymour’s audience at Cotton’s was a large expat crowd. If the listeners were not Chinese who either lived or were born abroad, they were foreigners.
The derailing of Seymour’s good intentions is not all that uncommon. Despite hopes for performing for more ordinary Chinese when touring China, foreign indie artists often find themselves playing for large expat crowds. In fact, the economics of touring make it almost unavoidable. Artists and their promoters have a hard time making a profit if they do not tap the expat demand.
“Expats are a bit hungry for good music, so they come out of the woodwork,” Seymour says. “But I’d rather play for the Chinese. I much rather introduce what I do to them.”
Unlike other Asian countries such as Japan, China has not seen a large influx of American indie music. Because the Chinese tend to fear acting outside of society’s norms, there is a lack of desire among many to explore non-mainstream culture, including music. Most music without an instant catchiness or the popularity of a famous artist usually does not appeal to Chinese audiences. And since China is not a profitable market for bands to tour, nor is the Chinese government particularly eager to provide worker’s visas to unknown American musicians, not many American indie artists find it logistically feasible to come here.
“If you pay 60 [RMB for a concert ticket in China], then that’s already considered really stretching the wallet,” says Elaine Chow, editor of Shanghaiist.com, an Internet portal for events happening in Shanghai. Therefore, bands cannot expect to make too much money from Chinese clientele, Chow says.
Abe Deyo, a freelance promoter who coordinates American and Canadian indie bands to tour China, forewarns his clients to not expect to perform for large Chinese crowds. In fact, he believes that having large expat crowds who are familiar with the bands that he promotes will influence more Chinese citizens to explore foreign indie music. Therefore, Deyo like many others, promote foreign indie shows on expat Web sites and print media.
“Having a lot of expats actually helps promote because the locals will see the energy that the expats get off from the music and that helps,” says Deyo, adding that if bands wanted to play only for Chinese citizens, the turnout would be disappointingly low.
International booking agents tend to not make much profit bringing foreign bands to China. As a result, many will not offer their clients to play in China. However, Deyo, whose main job is a creative writer, treats promoting as a hobby, and therefore is able to bring more indie bands to China.
“For me, [promoting] is helping out China’s underground music scene. You inevitably lose money doing it,” Deyo says. “It’s just for fun.”
Seymour, however, did not work through a promoter. He was able to come to China in May as a part of an Asian studies development program paid by the University of Hawaii. Not only have his travel expenses been minimized as a musician, he also feels more in touch with the Chinese culture and language through his studies, a factor, he says, that draws more Chinese citizens to his music.
“The point for indie bands who want to get here is to find your way,” Seymour says. “Then once you’re here, make most of the opportunities.”
Although Deyo believes that more Chinese will follow foreign indie music in years to come, he doesn’t think the foreign indie music scene will gain the same momentum as it has in Japan. Chinese infatuation with mainstream culture will not allow for an impressive indie scene, Deyo says. However, Seymour, through his interests in Chinese culture, represents what artists for their own part can do to help promote the future of foreign indie music scene in China.
“ I just want to learn more about China,” he says. “I think that the possibilities for songwriting with Chinese connections are immense. There really hasn’t been a crossover artist. Hopefully that will happen in the near future, and hopefully I will be part of that wave.”