Yar Matey! Sailing the Pirate-infested Seas of Beijing’s CD Shops, or: Piracy: A Defence

Let’s see… Britney Spears? No thanks. Radiohead? I’ve got one that looks like that one… but this has two albums’ worth of songs. Kenny G, Yngwie Malmstein? No and no. Mercury Rev? Interesting. Richard Clayderman? Not so much. A three-disc retrospective of Arabic chill-out music? Sure, why not.

Just another day in the wilds of the Beijing CD-shop jungle (this all on the same shelf, mind you). Today I’ll leave with some of the coolest CDs I’ve seen since my last trip to the shops, dropping — literally — a few dollars.

While the recording industry frets over P2P networks, broadband hasn’t lead to massive amounts of illegal downloads in the land of over 100 million Internet users. Most kids — potential music buyers/stealers — are too busy using their broadband connections to slay dragons in cyber games, turning local Internet cafés into smoky dens where hours are whiled away to the sound of screamed curses. Besides, those in search of music you can’t find on pop radio (a scarily small group) can get just about everything they want at their local shop for a pittance.

Let me say this clearly: Pirated CDs are wrong. Buying them is wrong. Selling them is wrong. That said, I don’t know where to find real CDs in Beijing. Or, perhaps more honestly, I should put it another way: It’s hard to find real CDs here (let alone real CDs that I’m remotely interested in buying). But that aside, there is more to this pirate industry than just under-priced discs. You may be thinking, “This guy’s just trying to justify his large, illegal collection, assuaging his guilt with high-minded blathering”. If so, you have a point, but so do I. And before I lay out my defence of piracy, let me make one more thing clear. This all rests on the belly of the 800-pound gorilla sitting atop the house of cards upon which the pirate market is built: Should the Powers That Be seriously decide to crack down on piracy, it would be gone quite quickly. To wit: When the National Peoples’ Congress, the Middle Kingdom’s version of Parliament, meets for its annual get-together, local purveyors of pirated products mysteriously vanish. For the course of the week-and-a-half, that is. Then it’s back to business. Yes, it’s partly a shopkeepers’ pre-emptive strike, but it’s done with an understanding that during the 10-day session there are more eyes hunting down illicit goods.

When I think about CD shopping back home, my memory is fuzzy. For one, I’d been blessed with access to CD collections of the radio stations at which I worked for the years leading up to my move to China. My broadband connection and willingness to go the not-so-legal route boosted my personal stash. But I remember the shop experience, and the prospect of having to sort through alphabetized shelves of albums separated by genre is nightmarish. The Beijing music buying experience has changed the way I think about a trip to the store. Piles and piles of discs, in boxes, on shelves, strewn across the cashier’s table — there is no method to the madness of the bulk of the shops in the capital. And then there are the duffle bags and backpacks huffed to the city’s cafés and bars by stringy and sketchy men and women hailing from the provinces that supplement the already comfortable confines of a range of local hangouts.

The beginner will freak out over the chaos of unalphabetized collections and the genrefication techniques employed (or, more often than not, not employed), but the experienced CD buyer learns to abandon the desire to find something in particular, and leaves himself open to the Zen of “just looking” (which, in a sickening twist, is the call of the thousands of stall-keepers at the markets of Beijing trying to lure non-Chinese into buying the piles and piles of worthless crap on sale: “DJAH-SI-TA LOO-KING!!” they yell, confident that this is the magic spell that will cast the desire to buy over the multi-millionaire foreigners — all foreigners, after all, are rich — that wander through the city’s markets). The CD shops are full of crap, but there are so many jewels to be found, if you’ve got the patience.

Of course, these treasures come at cut-rate prices, which only makes the hunt that much more exciting. But this is about more than great (pirated) CDs at unheard-of prices.

I can count on one hand the number of places I know of where one can find seemingly official CDs for sale. Even the shops that sell CDs at overseas rates aren’t necessarily selling official copies; they’re selling copies that were official when they were acquired from places like France, where an inordinate amount of Beijing’s records (complete with the original price tags) come from. Might this be related to the just-passed Year of France in China? It would be nice to think that the year-long series of cultural exchanges and events have extended to local music shops, but it’s been going on for years now. “Import” CDs run in the hundreds of RMB, and the local record buying community couldn’t afford to buy much more than a couple of albums a year at that rate. I could bring up the fact that the average Beijing annual salary hovers somewhere around the US$2000 neighbourhood, but everything is priced basically relative to this “low” income (US$15 is a week’s worth of meals for most here), and the music that these average income-earners would purchase is not the hard-to-find non-mainstream music whose pirated form I am defending. And besides, the average salary-earner’s music abounds in official (and easy-to-find pirated) form.

The Country only officially approves a certain number of albums for import each year; a growing number, to be sure, but a finite one nonetheless. And those records that labels believe are worth the effort of applying to the Ministry of Culture are the ones that get past the process, since they are pop records that will sell. (Well, mostly: The Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks, the greatest hits package that was released in China in the run-up to their soon-to-be-cancelled 2003 concerts in Shanghai and Beijing, became, in China, Thirty-Six Licks when censors ixnayed four tracks on the two-disc set. Of course, by then, the pirates had already released the full Forty). The process is easing up. Just ask Cui Jian, China’s first rocker, long on the Ministry’s list of bad boys: Not one of his lyrics was altered on his last release. But still, the Official Release List for overseas artists is a small one.

The piracy I’m defending is not that of the Britneys and J-Los of the music biz; I am referring to the kinds of artists that would never get put in line to potentially pass the Ministry of Culture censors. I am talking, here, of the kind of music that inspired a generation of kids to grow mohawks, wear leather, and pick up guitars. With a market that can’t afford to put down big bucks, record labels aren’t exactly lining up their low-level rock artists for Mainland market entry.

The current crop of rock musicians would not be the current crop of musicians without the pirate industry. Plain and simple. There was no legitimate way to move beyond the cassettes that were brought over with the ’80s and ’90s generations of foreign students, tapes that were played until they literally disintegrated like a reverse Mission: Impossible pitch. Luckily, future rockers were blessed with something called Dakou.

Major retailers and labels in the West would take the surplus of unsold/unsellable albums, gash the spines with a saw (“dakou” is generally translated as “saw-gash”) and ship them off to dumps in foreign lands. It didn’t take long before shrewd entrepreneurs thought that perhaps the shiploads of cut cassettes and CDs with origins in the West destined for southern Chinese dumps had more potential use than landfill. (Some might call them evil bastards intent on sucking the music industry dry and depriving artists of their hard-earned cash. It’s really a tomayto/tomahto kind of thing).

Suddenly, kids from Wuhan to Urumqi had access to a range of international artists, from Michael Jackson to Rush and literally everything in between. Sure, the albums might be missing a track or two, but the basic idea was there. And, while illegal, they weren’t exactly pirated, though nobody was really considering the intellectual property implications at the time. This musical landfill-to-landfall story occurred in the wake of former Premier Deng Xiaoping’s call to open up the country to the outside world and the hyper-speed economic development that resulted, and so, intellectual property — not to mention keeping track of major label garbage — wasn’t exactly high on the priority list. In those pre-Internet days, kids didn’t really know what they had gotten or were getting into, and choices had to be made based upon cover art or word of mouth. Radio stations wouldn’t conceive of playing this music — its illegal nature was certainly one of their concerns, but not the only one — and thus, it was up to savvy music fans to spread the gospel and figure things out.

Dakou discs still abound, but they are outnumbered by an amazingly proficient pirate market. Out of this access to music naturally emerged a large amount of music magazines; not the likes of Rolling Stone, which just debuted in the Chinese market, but rather the more ‘zine-esque publications that are available at every corner magazine rack. They often include CDs with a combination of local content (for which permission was granted) and tracks from major and minor overseas acts who will be surprised to learn that they are being distributed. From the magazines it was a simple jump to the Internet, and what you’ve got today is a very well-informed fan base. When they’re not going crazy on BBSs writing about last weekend’s shows or the leading laptop artists in San Francisco, they are reading about the leading Norwegian death metal act and the next big NYC disco-punk band. And they’re starting their own labels.

None of this would be possible without the pirate market.

I know, I know: Does that make it any less illegal? Nope.

But you know what? Maybe it’s time, like many have suggested, that CDs are envisioned as a promotional tool. In this age where club-level artists from Norway can tour eight cities in China, having their CDs available in pirated form is not a goal unworthy of striving toward.

Maybe it’s time that we focus on digital delivery, which can be cheaper but more sustainable than piracy. With mobile phones the one thing that unites 99.9 percent of the residents in this city (not to mention an insatiable appetite for the latest and greatest), it’s only a matter of time before the web chips away substantially at the pirate market via digital delivery to phones and mp3 players. Especially when you have a player like Wanwa, for example, which just acquired distribution for a host of indie labels including Cooking Vinyl and Nettwerk.

But no matter how things progress, the groundwork has been laid by piracy, and I don’t think you’ll find too many rock bands upset that their music — despite how it got to where it got to — was responsible for a revolutionary change in a country still recovering from revolutionary change, albeit a revolution on a small, rock ‘n’ roll scale. Because that, in the end, is what this music is about, isn’t it?