Foreigners in Foreign Lands, Part II

Exotic Occidentals

by Jonathan Campbell

27 August 2006

The second in a series of two examinations of foreign musicians, in which the Devil returns, literally, to China, to suss out those abusing the 'foreign' tag.

So you’ve got a band. You get gigs. You tour. No major deal, probably, but you’ve got some records out there. You here about This Thing Called China. You’ve heard they’ve got bands over there. You’ve heard that bands from towns just like yours have gone over there, played some gigs, put together a tour. You’re not thinking 1.3 billion record sales, but you’re thinking, “Hey, why not take a couple weeks and hit the road?”

Great news for people like me, who hope that more and more people like you are thinking this way; not simply because people like me want to organize more shows, but because the more bands think this way, the more shows get organized and the easier they become to organize. Great news for local bands; they get an opportunity to play alongside bands like yours, bands that they only might know through MySpace and other websites. Great news for local fans; they get a taste of music being played in the markets to which they look for inspiration and for their music in general.

A host of bands have plowed through Beijing and beyond in the past few years, and the number is steadily growing. German metal, Norwegian rock, Swedish punk, Canadian rock, French electro — the list goes on. The list, you may already have noted, is populated by bands that live in countries — whether or not all bands take advantage of it — that are traditionally supportive of the arts to the extent that governments will tend to financially support international tours for emerging artists. Which helps. And again, it’s great news for people like me, who get the financial pressure of international airfare taken off by governments who understand that music is something worth supporting. Actually, it does more than help. Without this support, these shows, quite simply, wouldn’t happen — I am talking of club-level rock shows, and even successful club shows in Chinese cities can do little more than pay for a band’s time in-country.

So we’ve got eager artists, and eager local audiences; we’ve got eager governments to support them and eager promoters to put the shows up. Everything’s there.

But there’s something not quite right.

Let’s look, for a moment, at the Midi Festival, China’s largest (and only, really) annual rock festival. I was its Foreign Affairs Director in charge of the acts from overseas. From May 1-4, more than 10,000 local fans showed up daily at a park to take in dozens of bands spread throughout four stages featuring everything from experimental music to metal to techno and beyond. Eleven of the bands performing at the festival were from overseas. Why these 11 bands? There wasn’t a selection process — at least not from where I sat. There was a selection process from where the artists sat: They found us. My role wasn’t to select the best/most appropriate/most deserving; I was there to fit them into a schedule, to keep them posted, and to figure out how to get them where they needed to get. Each band was told the deal we had to offer: You pay the plane fare. You find money for the hotel. You find money to live off while in-country. We will give you the opportunity to play a gig in front of 10,000-plus screaming Chinese kids.

In short: You wanna come? Can you afford to come? You’re in. We had 20 bands initially interested; 11 came (if you’re thinking of coming next year, I will warn you now: this will change). Which is great, don’t get me wrong: It shows that there are people out there genuinely interested in China, people who will come not to get their normal (or, any) fee, not to sell a billion records, but to come and play for an eager — and new — audience. Most of the bands were great. But the process by which these bands came is emblematic of the problem I struggle with in private, and now, here, in writing, in front of you all. I struggle again at the risk of sounding as though I’ve been involved with less than quality acts (not to mention pissing off those I have worked with). I will say this in my defense: I have loved working with all of the bands I have dealt with. They have been made up of great people. They have all been good at what they do. But I have loved the music of only most of the bands I have dealt with, and not all, though I recognize why people might love those I don’t. The ones that I haven’t loved were the derivative or out-of-date acts that gave me the impression that they may not have gotten many gigs back home.

Why, then, did I work with them? Because up to this point, I have felt as though I needed to take what I could get; that things are not at the point where I can go out and attract acts that I want to see perform in China. Though this will change — and though this is not the case across the board — it seems to me that bands that can afford to take the time to come to China are not the bands that are typically at the top of their game. Or, they might be at the top of their game, but their game isn’t a game you’d want to watch. They’re just…how to put this diplomatically? They’re just not that good.

The crux of the problem, I think, is this: The lesson bands and organizers have learned thus far is that it’s enough just to be Foreign. And here I’m not talking about the corporate-gig scene where foreign monkeys are called upon to dance, smile, and love it by condo complexes and television shows. I’m talking about on the rock circuit: Dirty clubs in not only the two major rock cities (Beijing, Shanghai), but also in the rock ‘n’ roll countryside: Guangzhou, Wuhan, Guilin, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Anyang, and other cities — large cities, don’t get me wrong — but second-tier cities in terms of market, accessibility, infrastructure, etc. Constantly we hear about a random band touting themselves as the “first [insert country name here] band to tour China”, who are arriving imminently, and have booked a 12-city tour. Shows are promoted as “featuring foreigners”, with little more than the country of origin of the act. I will admit to having fallen into that trap (to wit: I organized a nightly club series during the Midi Festival featuring the bands that came from overseas). But much of the audience comes out to the shows because of the curiosity factor. (If it hasn’t before now, it must be clear now why this is the second article in a series of two. The tables are turned; the pot, too, is black; revenge is best served cold — and, perhaps, mediocre).

Based on reports from the various stops on the average rock band’s cross-country circuit, the kids still come out in droves and the kids still love what they see. But there can only be so many mediocre German punk bands passing through even far-flung Wuhan before the kids first look up the band’s MySpace page, and, instead of learning the songs so they can sing along at the show, they surf to a different site after a few minutes and don’t bother showing up at all.

Again, I’ll repeat: Bring on more overseas acts. But mediocrity can’t last. It will not stand; I won’t allow it. In fact, Beijing audiences are already tiring of the “foreign” label. Beijing opened earliest, and has a thriving local scene; rock audiences here are not, for the most part, lemmings. They know what they like and won’t waste their time on something that they’re not convinced will move them. And with MySpace, they are finding out, long before they pay the cover, whether or not the next foreign band is worth their US$4.50. And too many recent passers-through are not — a reality which is ruining things for the future, since mediocre bands coming to China make local audiences think that quality bands might never come. It’s hard, with a lack of a real club-level live music infrastructure, to do a proper promoting job that focuses attention on what the band is like rather than where the band is from. And it’s hard for organizers to be too picky: We are sought out, and we don’t like saying no, because there are not that many opportunities to put on shows for folks from outside of town.

But things will change, mark my words. They must change. They have already begun to change. They will keep changing, and suddenly, the flood of foreign bands will create a marketplace in which audiences will have to choose — possibly on one given night, just like in many big music cities — which of the high quality foreign acts they’ll end up spending their gig bucks on. One thing I fear won’t change is that citizenship will play a huge factor in those decisions. But we’ll do our best to ensure that the imports will be offering international-standard music.

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