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.

The Music Biz and China

So Maclean’s magazine just ran a story on one Canadian effort to bring its music industry into the Middle Kingdom. Yes, yours truly was quoted in the piece, but it sheds light on an important, if small, idea. We can talk (and write) about China’s musical output and of the international bands performing there, but there is something lacking in all of those discussions: China’s music industry. The industry in China is even newer than the music, and it’s currently in a strange place: Like so much of the country, the music business is playing catch-up with the rest of the world, squeezing into a few precious years the study that has taken decades in the West.

Combination music festivals and conferences are long-standing traditions in much of the world, where industry folk hobnob, make deals, talk to eachother and, often times, listen, about the issues facing the ‘biz with regularity. It’s a great way for artists to be seen by the Industry and, when done well, it leads to more opportunities for artists and businessfolk alike.

But there’s been a real lack of Chinese presence at these events. MIDEM (in 2008’s installment, China was country of honour) and Canadian Music Week, the Cannes and Toronto events, respectively, have had some luck with Chinese presence, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Not that China isn’t a subject at these conferences — it often is. There just aren’t many representatives from the country there to be involved in the discussion. And that’s a problem.

I was one of six invitees to comprise a panel at 2007’s South by Southwest Festival on the Chinese market. None of us were China-born. It was hard, organisers told me, to convince Chinese music folks that it was worth the investment of the plane ticket and hotel to show up because the potential delegates hadn’t heard of SXSW. By then, SXSW had long been the leading music industry (and music, period) event in the land, but the ignorance on the Chinese side of SXSW is totally understandable. But that’s not the only reason folks didn’t make the trip, because a little research would have shown them what they were missing out on. I believe, as I said in the Maclean’s piece, that there’s a sort of prom-queen-esque outlook where the Chinese know that everyone wants a piece of them, and they don’t need to engage to come upon opportunities (and, one might add, if they do engage, they ought to be wined and dined, and flown around to do so). At Oslo’s Oya Festival, where, in 2005, I was one of five Chinese delegates (I was the only non-Chinese of the bunch) invited, Scream Records’ founder and boss Lü Bo was swamped by all of the folks that wanted to work with him to the point that it caused him obvious discomfort. So perhaps that’s part of it too: Why make oneself available to all, when staying away can help whittle down the suitors.

Besides, the amount of music industry reps that have come through China on fact-finding missions attests to the fact that the world will come to China. Because, unlike (many of) their Chinese counterparts, a trip to China to scope out the music scene is worth the lark, even if no business is done, because of the country’s near-mystical allure. So the industry often comes to China. In forms like TransmitCHINA, the subject of the aforementioned article.

But before Transmit, it’s important to note, there were many other similar industry events. I have spoken at British and Spanish delegation meetings, and hung with a United Nations’ worth of industry folks who have come to China, with governmental help, on fact-finding missions. While observers (and participants) may question governmental involvement in junkets such as these, it’s essential to the process, because of the long-term investment required. Proof of the efficacy of this support isn’t in record sales or number of touring acts, or ticket sales: It’s impossible to measure, but it’s clear that countries like Norway, Germany, Denmark, France and Britain have made the most inroads into not just the Chinese market, but, more importantly, the Chinese consciousness.

There was the afforementioned Oya Fest’s 2005 festival that flew and hosted five of us at their festival, alongside Chinese garage-punk act Subs, in hopes of establishing relationships. France’s Year of France in China (2004) and Year of China in France (2005) had a strong musical element. The Norwegian embassy has long been one of the most active in getting artists into China, and their efforts are the reason that, when I took jazz bands into universities in far-flung cities, the students, teachers and administrators I dealt with already were familiar with the country and eager for more. Close observers will also note that Norwegian bands were the first international acts to be included in the Midi Music Festival, China’s best-known and biggest rock fest. Denmark’s SPOT Festival has invited (and flew) Chinese delegates (yes, including yours truly) to their event dating back to 2006 (and they had Wang Wen perform in 2008), and have sent a range of different folks — bands, techies and others — to festivals.

These are still baby steps. But they are key. China’s music landscape is the Wild East and more international industry events inside the country, and Chinese presence at international events, will help everyone navigate through.


Banned in the P.R.C., Part II: “Enemies” from the Outside

Back to the recent Blacklist of the songs that the Chinese government deemed unacceptable for online music sites to stock. Though most were, in fact, Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop, the story in English was of the Western names upon the list. And it’s a reasonable story to investigate. But the Backstreet Boys and Lady Gaga are only the most recent groups to find themselves out of favour with officialdom, and, in fact, are some of the least interesting.

China’s relationship with non-Chinese has been, over the centuries, a fascinating story, and its a story that can be, crudely, perhaps, distilled in that feeling anyone from elsewhere who has spent any time in China with enough Chinese language skills to understand when they’re being called “foreigner” will likely have experienced. As a closed society with a history of negative, xenophobic, scared, patronising and just plain mean reactions to peoples from the outside – not to mention the experiences with them to justify some of those reactions – there is certainly evidence to back the feeling.

In the yaogun world, that outsider status applied, from the get-go, to the pop music that slowly found its way to folks who decided to rock. Informed by the Soviets, who were still convinced that pop music generally, and rock music in particular, was an imperialist weapon in the battle for hearts and minds, the Chinese authorities did all they could to control the flow. But as the music, slowly, got through, so too did the idea that the musicians behind it might also make landfall in the Middle Kingdom. It was inevitable that those that did, those who tried, and many who didn’t, would end up on the wrong side of Official graces. How some of them got there is worth looking into.


“Enemies” from Without

The Rolling Stones
In 1979, the Stones decided that gigs in China was more realistic a goal than more gigs behind the Iron Curtain – word was their 1967 Warsaw concert had scared the Soviets enough to keep them out. They got as far as a meeting between Mick Jagger and the Chinese Ambasssador to the US, and there their efforts stalled. ” The opinion within the Stones camp,” wrote  On the Road With the Rolling Stones author Chet Flippo, “was that Mick blew it.”

Mick Jagger + Cui Jian, 2006

It wasn’t until mid-2003 that the band was scheduled for China, but it wasn’t long before the gigs were cancelled. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was SARS, but the show seemed to be staged upon wobbly legs from the get-go (and somehow involving a charity auction [Chinese]). Pessimists will have noted that the Hong Kong shows cancelled for SARS were rescheduled in November; China had to wait another three years. Meanwhile, four proverbial licks were slashed from the official China release of the band’s greatest-hits double-album, Forty Licks, and, in advance of their 2006 concerts, were told to not perform a handful. By the time they’d made it to the Middle Kingdom, it was hard to imagine they’d ever been banned from anywhere.

Six years after Mick met the Chinese ambassador, Wham! was taking the title for first international pop group to perform in the Middle Kingdom. But in Wham!’s wake was Queen, snubbed by the sneak attack of Simon Napier-Bell, Wham!’s manager and mastermind behind the China concerts. Upon hearing that Queen wanted in, Napier-Bell produced pamphlets for both acts: Wham!’s portrayed the duo as straight-laced nice guys’ Queen’s emphasized the homosexual implications of the band’s name. Wham!: 1; Queen: 0. We’re still figuring out the score for Chinese rock.

Another victim of Wham!’s China tour: Men at Work. Then the most famous lads from the “Land Down Under” were all geared up for a China tour, but in the wake of Wham! getting the youth “overstimulated”, plans were called off, despite some high-level Australian government wrangling to get it all going in the first place.

Jan and Dean
The surf-pop duo’s gigs in what Dean (Torrence) told one reporter was “one of the strangest places” they’d played caused something of a riot. First off, though, some lighter controversy: After gig number one, officials approached the band, insisting that the Americans had no idea what the Chinese kids wanted to hear and had some suggestions: “Country Roads”, “We Are the World”, a Stevie Wonder song and a Lionel Richie number. Oh, and the theme from Love Story that was, in fact, an instrumental. (On a related note, this is a practice that didn’t end in the eighties: I couldn’t count the number of ‘suggestions’ my bands were given upon being hired to play at various events over the years. “You’re a jazz band? Great! Can you play ‘Country Roads’?” “Blues band, eh? Great! You can play ‘Country Roads’!”) The controversy got heavier with another suggestion: That Jan should be removed from the gig. Said Dean, years later: “I was told that seeing a handicapped person reminded most of the older people about the Cultural Revolution, when many people were maimed and killed. I figured,” he added, “that was their call.” Heavier yet: Dancing in the aisles, inspired by the music that officialdom knew the kids didn’t want to hear, lead to a security crackdown: First, claims of violence against dancers;eventually, protests across the city; three years later, Tiananmen Square.

The scandal surrounding the Swedish duo’s 1995 trip to China was minor, but still noteworthy, particularly considering they were the first name act in many years to visit the Middle Kingdom: Told that the lyrics to “Sleeping in My Car” weren’t suitable for China, the band agreed to change things up. After all, if Jan and Dean can cause nationwide protests with surf rock, who knows what would have happened if the words “Sleeping in my car – I will undress you/ Sleeping in my car – I will caress you / Staying in the back seat of my car making love, oh yea!” were uttered through a Chinese sound system. Well, actually, we know what would happen, because the lyrics were not, in fact, changed live.

One wonders, though, what the Chinese made of the meeting between Roxette’s female half, Marie Fredriksson, and Mick Jagger. The Stone wanted advice on how to get to China, and Fredriksson’s advice must not have been all that great, since it took several more years before his wish was granted.

The Icelandic Pixie Queen’s spring 2008 cry heard round the Middle Kingdom, “Tibet! Tibet!” altered visibly the flow of foreign visitors to China’s stages: It wasn’t so much what she said, but rather, when she said it. Those pre-Olympic days, when the nation was marching full steam toward a Perfect Event that would show the world How It’s Done, there was tension in the air. Artists had been submitting set-lists and lyrics since the earliest days, but after Bjork, those submissions were investigated with a fine-tooth comb. I wondered how the threat of potential “trouble” would play out at the instrumental jazz concerts I was presenting: If the duo strayed from the setlist, which included a song titled, because they needed a name for the submissions process, the date of one of their concerts, Bad Things would happen. But it is useful to note that Bjork had a by-all-accounts-successful visit to China in 1996 when she even was shown on television in the lead-up to the stadium show.

Harry Connick, Jr., of all people, was caught up in those Bjorky times, when his big band had to sit out the bulk of the show: The setlist submitted on his behalf was not the one that his big band was able to perform; when officials literally walked onstage during a rehearsal to confirm the songs on the submitted setlist, Connick, Jr. had no choice but to fly mostly solo.

Newness @ and Beyond

It’s not just Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll season. It’s also new content at season, as well as high time I lead you to some jWc/Red Rock news Out There on the world-wide interweb.

First, at “home”: You’ll find a new section at RED ROCK: THE BONUS TRACKS. Unlike Red Rock: The Liner Notes, which give more footnote-type illuminations on the text of the book, the Bonus Tracks bring elucidations of a multi-media kind. I’m time-releasing these bad-boys, to let you do some reading before you dive deep beyond Red Rock‘s pages. Oddly enough, I’ve opted to start with Chapter 1.

Next, “Out There”, where word is slowly starting to spread:

The Library Journal said very nice things about Red Rock. Read those things here.

The China-based Global Times newspaper ran a story about yours truly and Red Rock. That story is here. A companion piece on yaogun’s journey is here. published an excerpt of Red Rock‘s first chapter.

Not long ago,the Taipei Times ran a lukewarm review of Red Rock. The same author wrote a warmer review for the South China Morning Post, which is behind a paywall.

I appeared on web-tv channel That Channel’s Liquid Lunch in late September. You can see the video of the entire episode here.

The Beijinger, an English-language events magazine, ran a profile in their tenth anniversary issue, viewable online here.

As previously mentioned, Time Out (Beijing) asked me to chart Five Major Moments on yaogun’s path.

And don’t forget: Red Rock is available via Amazon:

Early Visitors

It’s been a long time since news of overseas performers performing in the Middle Kingdom is big news – with maybe a few recent (Dylan, Stones) exceptions. These days, whether in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan or Nanjing, touring bands are a normal part of rock and roll, and pop, life. But even a decade ago, the descriptor “foreign” was enough to fill a room with fans equal parts curious and hungry for something from the general direction of rock and roll’s homeland.

Rewind the tape further, and you quickly enter the dark ages.

The nineties saw a literal handful of visitors, large-scale and small. There was Paul Simon (1991), Roxette (1995), Air Supply (1995), and Bjork (1996 – the same woman who, a dozen years later, would cause kerfuffle over her shout-out to Tibet that pissed off local authorities and citizens on the large side. Small-scale shows included BB King (1995, to open Beijing’s Hard Rock Cafe), Bill Laswell (with the Uzbek-Japanese-Mongolian-and-more project Flying Mijinko Band, 1994), John Zorn (1995), Pridebowl and Envy (Japanese punk bands, 1997), International Noise Conspiracy (1999).

As for the eighties, it was even slimmer pickins: Jean Michel Jarre (1981), Filipino surf-pop band Nitaige’er (1982), the Chieftains (1984), Wham! (1984), sixties surf-rock legends Jan and Dean (1986) and German pop-rock band BAP (1987).

There’s more to come, in blog and in book, on the details of a selection of those events, all of which, by virtue of just having occurred, are noteworthy. For now though, a slice of something I just came across – admittedly by accident, and, unfortunately, long after the deadline to include it in the pages of Red Rock passed.

On May 10, 1986, a year after George Michael graced the Middle Kingdom with his presence, and mere days after Cui Jian’s unveiling of a homegrown rock and roll, Billboard reported, deep in the issue, on an upcoming China tour under the headline “SheRock Will Be Rocking China; 1st U.S. Pop Act Visit”.

Six months prior to the announcement, before they’d even played a show, their demo had made it into the hands of the director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, who was impressed with the band’s “healthy attitude” and set to work trying to get the band to China. By mid-May, 1986, the band was playing an invite-only show at LA venue The Roxy to garner local interest in what would be the first American pop act to scale the Great Wall. The crowd was half comprised of officials from the Shanghai Bureau of Culture – and of waitresses dressed more conservatively than usual, due to presenters “obviously concerned with maintaining a ‘wholesome image’ after the fiasco of Wham!,” as Billboard put it. The publication also noted the band’s efforts to remain “squeaky clean for the diplomats”. It paid off in at least a trip to China, where, between late July and early September, they performed sixteen shows in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou for an estimated total audience of 125,000. There was also talk of a hundred million viewers via television broadcast, as well as a trip to a studio for a Mainland-only album.

“We had to modify our dress and lyrics,” frontwoman Edie Robertson told a reporter, adding that they were happy to oblige, since they were representatives of the US.

Cover of SheRock's 1986 tour flyer. The band was known in Chinese by the transliteration "xi luo ke". The title is "Friendship Great Wall"

The band’s manager, Walter Stewart, who had worked with many artists over many years, was asked about the greatest challenges of his career. “Attempting to teach the Chinese technicians the art of multi-track recording and over-dubbing,” was his reply.