Midi Awards 2011

This time of year, folks make lists. One list to which Chinese-rock-watchers will be paying special attention is the list drawn up by Midi Productions, hander-outer of the Midi Music Awards. This year marks the third time bricks will be bestowed upon the “top” artists across several categories of yaogun.

Midi, you’ll perhaps recall, began as a music school in 1993, drawing those about to rock from the four corners of the Middle Kingdom. In 2000, the school hosted what was less a festival than a showcase for the bands formed by students. Four years later, it outgrew its campus quad moving into a huge park; by the Olympic year, ‘festival’ and ‘Midi’ were synonyms and the festival expanded to other cities.

I’ll pause here to say that in addition to having played at and worked on several years’ worth of Midi Festivals as well as having worked with Midi on getting several artists on their stages, I have, since 2009, been one of the awards’ hundred-plus judges.

See Rock in China for the 2009 nominees and winners;

The 2010 nominees are here; the winners are here;

Beijing Daze has the 2011 short-list.

The Midi Awards are like the Festival itself: On the surface, all is fantastic. But a look deeper reveals a state of affairs not so much sad as it is disheartening; sad and disheartening in the way that awards generally are, but also in other ways. First, the standard awards narrative: One bemoans the exclusion of the ones one deems worthy of inclusion, damming the spectacle as a result. Until, that is, one’s personal favourites are included, in which case there’s the short-term celebration, sometimes skipped over completely, in the face of the bittersweet experience of the effects of that attention: That morning-after feeling that defines the way many watch their favourite movies, bands, authors cross over in the mainstream. Of course, there’s no risk of pop-co-optation resulting from the Midi Awards, but it’s a feeling with which, I think, anyone who’s felt like they’ve discovered something is familiar.

There is, though, a disheartening element of the awards that goes beyond the standard awards-are-bunk experience. If Midi is yaogun’s judge, Midi needs to be up to snuff, or else yaogun suffers from their mistakes. The short-lists tend to look like the line-ups of just about every Midi Festival since day one: AK47, who won the first Metal award, appeared at all but one of the Midi Festivals; ditto for Miserable Faith, who swept four of the eleven categories at the Awards’ first instalment. Categories are messy as well: XTX and Miserable Faith were nominated, in 2009, for both Rock and Hard Rock band of the year; in 2010, Miserable Faith was nominated in Rock and Hard Rock; 2011 sees Ordnance and Yaksa nominated in Hard Rock and Metal categories. And though I’m jazzed that Omnipotent Youth Society is back on the list again this year, how does a song qualify for Best Song two years’ running?

I was convinced by the argument of influential critic, and one of the eight members of the awards’ Standing Committee that oversees the awards, Hao Fang, that these awards were something Midi ought to do. Movies, he said, weren’t taken seriously until the industry started the Oscars. “Eventually,” he says, “they got respect as a form. After you’ve respected your own form enough, others will too.” But then, the Midi Awards have given many reasons for others to hold off on that respect, the most blatant of which was bestowing upon themselves, in 2010, the award for biggest contribution to Chinese rock. Have they contributed greatly to yaogun? Most definitely. Is handing themselves an award for their work the way to get the rest of the world to notice, care or, well, not point and laugh?

This year, judges were sent upwards of thirty albums, and given thirteen category options. That new categories over the years have opened up – folk, album art – are treated as news that the awards are getting more inclusive. I’d argue they’re like the rush to add stages at the festival: Just because you have them doesn’t mean they represent a collection of artists that should be celebrated. Am I saying that there are no worthy folk acts or album art? No, I am not. But the rush to expansion is made at the expense of examining what one has.

It hasn’t all been bad news: I was personally glad to see Perdel, the Gar and Wang Wei get noinatd in 2009. 2010’s acknowledgement of Omnipotent Youth Society also brought joy. This year, Zhaoze, a mesmorizing post-rock band, and Long Shen Dao (LSD), a reggae/dub collective, are highlights; they stand far above the pack of upwards of thirty albums judges were sent (I found very few worthy of even a full listen). But my picks didn’t make the cut. Judges don’t vote on the short-list, their votes help create it. A Standing Committee of eight makes the final decision, announced at a concert on December 10.

I haven’t given up hope that the Midi Awards will live up to yaogun’s potential, but I also recognize that, like the festival, it’s going to be a long time until that happens. Fortunately, nobody’s making music just to please the Midi judges, so I think that yaogun will do just fine – even if the Midi Awards don’t notice.

Here are my picks:

(First: A note on the translation, which was done by Midi. “performance” doesn’t refer to a particular show; it refers, rather, to a band or musician. So Best Metal Performance is actually Best Metal Band)

最佳年度摇滚专辑 (Album of the Year) Zhaoze: Cang Lang Xing

最佳年度摇滚歌曲 (Song of the Year) LSD: “Sway”

最佳年度摇滚乐队 (Best Rock Performance By Group With Vocals): Omnipotent Youth Society

最佳年度摇滚男歌手 (Best Male Rock Vocal Performance ) Deng Pei (Lonely China Day)

最佳年度摇滚女歌手 (Best Female Rock Vocal Performance ) Sun Xia (Dear Eloise)

最佳年度硬摇滚乐队 (Best Hard Rock Performance) Rustic

最佳年度金属乐队 (Best Metal Performance) Voodoo Kungfu

最佳年度摇滚乐器演奏 (Best Rock Instrumental Performance ) Han Han (Duck Fight Goose)

最佳年度摇滚现场 (Best Live Performance ) Lonely China Day

最佳年度摇滚新人奖 (Best New Artist ) Bad Mamasan

最佳年度民谣音乐奖  (Best Folk Music)Guo Long and Zhang Weiwei

最佳年度专辑设计奖(Best Album Art)Omnipotent Youth Society

中国摇滚贡献奖(Contribution to China Rock) 2 KOLEGAS (a Beijing venue)



Touring in China: Crazy!

We've come a long way from Cui Jian's map, 1992, of cities to be liberated on his Long March of Rock and Roll (via Jeroen de Kloet)

Sometimes, you forget that the touring situation for bands coming into China is actually quite normalized. There are clubs, presenters of some form, festivals and audiences awaiting in major cities across the length and breadth of the map. Rock, jazz, folk, metal, blues and other bands have been on what could be diplomatically referred to as trouble-free tours — speed bumps exist and appear on the proverbial road with a predictable regularity (though the size, shape and form of the bumps are never predictable), but a system, of sorts, is in place and has been, for a few years now. Just because it doesn’t look like touring the States doesn’t mean it’s not a system.

But, like I said, sometimes you forget. Because sometimes, you come across word of the recent experiences of a family band in China. And then you remember that there are crazies operating just outside the ‘system’ to which I referred, close enough to give the impression to bands of the rock ilk (those that play clubs, tour and sell CDs) that they are yet another presenter of gigs in the general rock and roll understanding of the term, but far enough from it that anyone who’s even had a glance at the touring road of the Middle Kingdom can smell an intruder from a mile off.

The trials of Joei and the Fulcos — and, I must add, these are not trials that seem to have upset the group/family much; they had their rose-coloured glasses on for their entire China visit, and it’s a good thing — are one reminder of the Other Side. The Fulco family, who describe themselves as the Partridge Family with attitude (and who were featured on ABC TV’s The Wife Swap), was drafted to perform at the Zhangjiajie International Country Music Festival. It’s a festival that has a pretty wide-ranging definition of country music, as evidenced by the festival website’s rundown of performers, such as the Wangqing dance troupe, at left, from northeastern China.

The Fulcos’ bio does not seem to appear on the festival site, but their bio wouldn’t seem to belong among the dance troupes and large numbers of nothing-to-do-with-country-music acts gathered under Zhangjiajie’s banner (see, also, this article for a look at who was on the bill). The China Daily emphasized the tourist-related benefits of such a festival — alarm bells to the ears of those familiar with China’s frenetic festival scene, where local government departments with visions of endless tourist revenues are eager to jump into the festival-production fray — and concluded with talk of the mayor cartoonified, strumming a guitar to “Country Roads” (pictured above; the video is here).

While one doesn’t want to take away from the Fulco family experience, one does want to emphasize the variety-show nature of the type of tour on which the band was put. The best thing that can happen with these wacko tours is that they create good fodder for writing and for stories told around the proverbial campfire. The worse thing that can happen, though, is that bands with genuine hopes fanned by excited and excitable presenters will wind up upset at the prospect of being little more than performing monkeys helping to sell condos in some far-flung minor city, or in front of an  audience super-psyched to get photos and autographs but one that doesn’t, on the large scale, tend to be too picky. Or, remember your name beyond “band from USA”.

Is there a chance that the Fulcos, and others before and after, can win hearts and minds over to the rock and roll (or country, or anything genuine, authentic or remotely original)? Absolutely. Is that part of the draw of touring China? Certainly. Having been on stages large and small in front of just those kinds of audiences, I’ve been both excited and depressed by the prospects, experience and aftermath. And the Fulcos’ experiences underline a big reason for touring in the first place: It’s news-worthy, a peg upon which a band, even in 2011, can hang some nice press coverage back home.

But for a band making a cross-continental trip, the key is to know what one is getting into. So Future Fulcos and assorted others: The Chinese music industry is in its infancy. Don’t be afraid, but do be aware.

Same Story, New Locale UPDATED

Ok, not exactly the same, but close.

Afghanistan had their first rock festival in “more than thirty yearsover the weekend. One observant in the ways of rock in China, while impressed and excited about the idea and execution of the event, can’t help feeling a twinge of recognition, and disappointment, in the way the event was portrayed. As a result of the allure of rock music outside the West, there’s a nearly-by-the-numbers form that stories like this take.

To wit:

The story is not filed under ‘music’, but rather, under general news, and there’s a suspicious lack of coverage or sampling of the actual music being performed that could, were one a pessimist, be taken for a judgement about the quality thereof (unless it’s a sign that the reporter is not one schooled in or comfortable talking about music). When music journalists are sent to cover the story, we can figure that the interest is less than passing.

There is, always, the “weird” local twist: China has censored lyrics and a tea-sipping Party presence, while in Kabul we have pauses in the action for neighbourhood prayers, no booze and kebabs-only snacking.

There is the requisite reference to the disapproving eyes of onlooking elders: Dressed, in China, in Mao suits and hats; in Kabul, “turbans and long beards” (who were, one must grant, quoth Reuters, “not entirely disapproving”).

There is, too, an element of danger hanging not far into the background of the story, and it is more than any parental disapproval. This sets up the rock-as-freedom paradigm, which tends to (not always incorrectly) colour discussions of rock in these frontier territories. In China, there is certainly an Official disdain of expression a-la rock and roll and political consequences of being on the bad side of it, though these days, when every podunk city of ten million has their own rock festival, it is less severe than in the past, despite what some reports might imply. In Afghanistan, though, the threat is much more imminent: With the Taliban roaming, there is genuine danger in the idea of a gathering for rock fans in Afghanistan’s capital. At least, that’s how one would figure based on the news reports one hears about the country; it’s a reasonable assumption to figure that, like in the case of China, there are massive misconceptions about the country based on the news.  But we can surely trust that in Kabul, there is genuine danger in gathering to worship on the altar of rock and roll.

So, in rock and roll terms, is Afghanistan the next China? And: Will it bode good or evil for the nation’s scene? There’s still a mixed legacy of international coverage on China’s journey, a legacy that, one hopes, one’s book-length examination (ok: just plain Book) of China’s rock and roll development will help to improve. Afghanistan certainly has a China-sized obstacle to overcome before news of a cultural sort can be processed by outsiders without being overcome by headlines involving chaos, war and more.

Meantime, check out the organization behind the festival. (One could point out how the international nature of the org adds to the deja vu, what with China’s rock and roll history being peppered with folks from outside the Middle Kingdom and all. If one were looking to name names, one might bring up the French restaurant Maximes, which was the earliest regular host of rock shows in Beijing, or the German Udo Hoffmann, who was instrumental in the early-nineties party and proto-festival scene).

And also, while you’re at it, check out the travels and tales of the festival’s head.

Most importantly, though, be sure to listen to the artists that participated in the festival. And let’s hope there’s more to come.


The Update:

I was remiss for not mentioning the efforts of Luk Haas, who has been collecting and releasing music from hitherthen-uncharted rock/punk/etc territory (including, one is quick to add, China!) at Tian An Men 89 Record for years now. Here’s a guy that skips the ‘this is news’ step and goes right for the music, and there are many others like him, like Jason Flower, who wrote a history of Victoria’s underground scene but also got further afield for tracking down Mongolian fuzz-rock and Inuit metal.

Also, WNYC’s Soundcheck interviewed one of the organizers of Kabul’s festival: Sound Central: The Central Asian Modern Music Festival, as well as talked about rap’s role in the Arab Spring.



Festival Season(s)

It’s festival season throughout much of North America and Europe, and I was going to say it’s festival season across China as well, but that would only be part of the story: Festival season, lately, has been happening multiple times each year. In recent years, with “explosion” being a massive understatement, it’s hard to know when the season ends (festivals used to be limited to the holiday weekends of Oct 1 and May 1). Between late July and early August I know of the following festivals: 2011 Ocean Midi Music Festival, Ark Beach Music Festival, the InMusic Festival, Zebra Beach Music Festival, Rock Aid and the Da Ming Palace International Music Festival. There are others, but it’s nearly impossible to keep track.

Midi Festival, Beijing, 2010

Many point to the proliferation of music festivals across the country as a sign that things are looking good for yaogun. An important half truth at the very least: Music festivals – or, more accurately, events with the word ‘festival’ in their name – are, indeed, an increasing occurrence around the country, especially as local governments have come to see value in backing such events.

Festivals make both a good and bad model upon which to base a judgement on the rock scene, because, like the scene itself, looks are deceiving. Just as it takes more than a proliferation of bands to make a vibrant and internationally-ready rock scene, there’s more to a Festival Scene than an increasing number of stages under the banner of ‘festival’. And an increasing number there certainly is: Check here, at the encyclopaedic Rock In China, for a list of many recent festivals.

Some recent highlights include: The short-lived Beijing Pop Festival, which brought an increasingly significant lineup of international acts, culminating with Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and others in its final, 2007, event. Record label – and, many would add, PR agency – Modern Sky has an eponymous festival as well as the Strawberry Festival and a folk festival in various locations across the country. The Zebra Festival emerged in 2009 in Chengdu and has plans for expansion (in 2010, the fest went to Hangzhou; 2011 saw a Shanghai version). The Midi Music Festival, most often referred to as the leading festival light of the country, has long outgrown the campus of the eponymous music school where it began in 2000, with events outside of Beijing beginning in 2009 and expanding rapidly thereafter.

Each festival has had, and continues to have, its own challenges to overcome both from outside – the unpredictability with which the authorities limit the events, for one – and inside – organizational chaos leads to festivalian chaos – though anyone beyond industry insiders would be excused for seeing nothing but good news: The festivals look right and get great coverage in the local and international media. But artists, staff, volunteers and observant attendees (and I have been in all of those categories) run into elementary problems of the type that shouldn’t exist at this level. It’s not that the glass is half-empty, it’s that it’s hard to know what kind of cup we’re talking about, and what kind of liquid (if a liquid at all) is being poured (unless it’s being drained). And the more pouring that gets done, the tougher it is to get the stuff to go into the glass.

“In China, if someone does something successfully, then all of the sudden, there’s a million people doing it,” influential radio DJ Zhang Youdai told me. “It ends up ruining things for everyone. Recent festivals have turned people off.” He said this in 2009, and while things then seemed to be getting out of hand, it was nothing compared to what was to come (one is also quick to add that Youdai himself headed up a festival in 2011, Kama Love, which received good reviews)

Over the course of the millennium’s first decade, a number of festival attempts were made, to varying degrees of success. There were the non-festivals, like 2003’s First Annual Lattetown Music Festival, named for the condominium complex (one of a million ridiculous real estate development names in the country) in the southern outskirts of Beijing. Metal bands Suffocate and Spring and Autumn joined pop-punks Reflector and grunge guy Xie Tianxiao and others celebrate the condo’s opening. “We’re trying to show that Lattetown is a fashionable and modern place,” said one saleslady charged with handing out pamphlets that day to the mix of rock fans confused over the setting and nouveau riche confused as to why their search for a new house had to be so loud.

Death metal band Suffocate at The First Annual Lattetown Music Festival, 2003 (there was no Second Annual)

There was 2005’s cryptically dubbed “Carnivalesque Party of 1 vs. 120,000”, part of the International Beach Tourism Culture Festival, in the small city of Beihai, in southeastern Guangxi province that combined rock performances with a bikini competition. Soon thereafter was the Gegentala Grasslands Music Festival, which seemed to be a decent enough festival with good potential for a future, but was revealed to be an attempted cash grab by a Sichuanese strawberry magnate. The trip out to the Inner Mongolian grasslands looked like it would be worth the ride until the supposed seven-hour ride became, for many, a twenty-hour nightmare; word was unpaid bills nearly stopped the music on several occasions. Gegentala, Part II was not forthcoming; meanwhile lodging and food prices had been inflated to the point of comedy.

Gegentala Grasslands Music Festival, 2005

What’s interesting about the current situation – in which one estimate claims that 2010 saw as many as one hundred festivals; all indications point to an increase in 2011 – is how suddenly it all seems to have happened. Which isn’t exactly the whole story: The festival era didn’t begin with the Midi Festival, and what’s more, despite appearances, things haven’t come all that far.

In 1990, then-new-Beijing resident Udo Hoffmann put together what he says is the country’s first festival. News of the event got to a city official who said that ‘hell had opened its gates’, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that his Hoffmann’s second attempt – for which, he says, five thousand tickets were sold – was cancelled two days before the event. He learned from those first events, though. In 1993, he started the Beijing Jazz Festival; the event lasted through until 2001. Hoffmann was also behind the Heineken Beat festival, held in Beijing in 1999, 2000 and 2001, it was the first large-scale international festival in the country (the lineups for the Jazz Festivals and Heineken Beat are here).

1990’s 90 Modern Music Festival was a two-day event featuring Tang Dynasty, Ado, The Breathing, 1989, Cobra and Baby Brother (Baobeir Xiongdi) at Beijing’s Capital Gymnasium that was said to have drawn eighteen thousand spectators. In a similar vein was the New Music China Xinxiang Concert, for which Huang Liaoyuan brought nine bands – via a “rock and roll train” full of musicians and fans – to a stadium in the small city in 1998. Six years later, he put together the Helanshan Music Festival alongside a motorcycle festival in the desert of western Ningxia. Other than the hard-to-reach venue, the reviews were positive.

2002’s Snow Mountain Music Festival, held in the southwestern corner of the country, nearby the once-mythical and recently-official Shangri-La, was supposed to be the Chinese Woodstock that everyone had been waiting for. With Cui Jian as the festival’s artistic director, the international media certainly played it that way, but the rainy season and the far-flung locale kept the audience numbers low. Episode two wasn’t until five years later; subsequent installments went further away from rock.

In the first years of the nineties, filmmaker Sheng Zhimin (whose 2009 Night of an Era [再 见乌托邦] is a fantastic look at the nineties’ rock scene), like many current festival organisers, was approached by a local government official who was told that adding a rock component to an otherwise unsuitable-for-rock event would be great for local business. His ‘festival’, which took place inside a (working) roller coaster in a Beijing suburban celebration of Chinese New Year, was put together with not much more than his personal connections to local bands and the dreams that he and his crew had from watching Woodstock videos. The situation would be laughable if one didn’t appreciate Sheng’s deep sense of mission. What is laughable, though, is when one is confronted with the possibility that not much since has been learned.

The governmental support that abounds these days – it is a shocking thing to behold – is one of the reasons that it’s easier for festivals to flourish. “As long as the musicians are healthy and not opposed to the Communist Party, why not let everyone enjoy the rock and roll?” Li Xuerong, secretary the local Communist Party Committee for Zhangbei, the site of the InMusic Festival, told the Global Times. Li’s comments represent the feelings of many a local government official eager to put their own towns on the map, and, for now, are convinced that music festivals help them do that. Multiple-year deals between local governments and festival organisers have been signed, a trend that looks to continue as long as it appears that the festivals are adding to the image of the locales in which they are held.

On the other hand, festivals are still battling the cultural obstacles of a nation new to the idea of massive outdoor events. “People go to restaurants – they don’t even really go to bars,” Liu Chang, a Midi School graduate who has worked on the Midi Festival since 2007, says. “Most people who go to the festivals probably have no knowledge of the music or any band. To them it’s a simple gathering.” Liu Chang’s boss, Zhang Fan, knows this to be true: “Fifty percent of (the audience) aren’t necessarily coming for the music,” he was quoted, in 2006, as saying. “They’re just coming to have fun.” While there are certainly a few fan favourites, the overall idea was that you could go to the park, hang out, and maybe possibly see some music you’d like. “For the festival-goers, half of the time is spent wandering around,” he told a China Daily reporter in 2007. “The festival is not only performances but rather, a relaxed lifestyle.” Add to that the far-flung locales festival organisers are now exporting to, and you have an audience comprised of a large number of locals just trying to figure out what the heck is going on in their hometown. If people are attracted to a music festival for any reason other than music, we are not talking about an event that gets filed in the same category as Boneroo, no matter how many people are in attendance – and that number is impressive – or how many stages may dot the grass fields of any given park in the Kingdom.

And one ought to look critically at who is standing upon these stages. I knew I’d been seeing the same names year after year, but it came home after a quick survey of Midi Festival lineups from the past dozen years.  Miserable Faith and Yaksa have appeared at twelve Midi Festivals; AK47 and Brain Failure at eleven; Twisted Machine and Sand, ten; Subs seven; Ruins and the Verse (six). Here is not the venue for debating these bands’ worthiness for the stage. But it is the venue for questioning the variety in the lineups of the country’s leading festival – and, by association, the country’s other festivals, who are all picking from the same limited pool. When festivals go looking for the local Big Guns, they don’t stray far from that list. There is Cui Jian, the biggest star in the country; Xie Tianxiao, who is being tagged as Cui’s successor. There are a few others, who straddle that line betwixt yaogun and pop: Wang Feng, He Yong, Zhang Chu, Xu Wei, Tang Dynasty, Zero Point, Heaven.

What one hopes is that festivals live up to their potential, and bring yaogun with them. What one fears is the triumph of the status quo: The same bands headlining the same events plagued with the same problems.