Michael Winkler (right) and a fellow musician set up at experimental music mecca Raying Temple in Tongzhou. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Winkler
Compared with most Chinese rock bands, Beijing-based post-punk band PK14 are lucky. They are currently on a nationwide tour playing to rapturous audiences to support their fifth album, titled 1984. As giants of the anti-commerical rock music world that is still considered "underground" in China, PK14 have managed during their 16-year career to tour China and Europe extensively while releasing their music through various independent outlets.
But Yang Haisong, 40, the band's lead singer who writes lyrics mainly about China's disillusioned youth (PK14 stands for Public Kingdom For Teens) makes no bones about how important it is for his band to be signed to a record label - in this case, local record label Maybe Mars.
"We work with them because they show us support so we show it back. It's about respect and understanding," Yang says of the label he co-founded in 2007 but then quit in 2008 to concentrate on being a touring musician full time.
Such is the level of support and belief in the band's cultural status that Maybe Mars coughed up a budget of $30,000 so that Yang could fulfill a dream of working with notable American engineer Steve Albini of Shellac, Pixies and Nirvana fame.
"Yeah the budget was pretty big," Yang chuckles. "But we got to record [the album] at Electronic Audio [a Chicago-based recording facility] for five days. After that we mixed and mastered it in Sweden for two weeks."
As far as Chinese globetrotting recording contract rock stars go, PK14 are perhaps at the zenith of where a local band can arrive. Yang admits that his music is not commercial but he says that the spoils of status and travel he now enjoys are the culmination of years of hard work.
"Maybe Mars is good because they focus on musicians and they spend a lot of money on their artists," Yang says.
Yang hopes the band will sell all of the 500 pressed vinyl and 5000 CDs of the 1984 album.
"I don't think you can call the label really successful," Yang ponders for a second. "I know it still loses money. But the music business has changed."
The dawn of a new millennium saw the music business experience an irreversible change. Gradually and then almost instantaneously, people stopped buying physical representations of the music they wanted to hear.
Instead they started downloading - both legally and illegally - and in the process blew wide-open any finite industry business model that put financial gain on the top of its list.
Despite the fact that in China the compact disc has enjoyed a slightly protracted "Indian summer" of sales, young Chinese love their downloads and free streaming. For example, websites such as Xiami and Baidu are huge databases of streaming music that may even surpass Western websites such as Spotify for musical diversity.
Of course this has a direct impact on the artist - who relies on sales and licensing fees for income. But the inverse result is that it is becoming much easier - if you're an artist - to release your own music online. Building a music career without the financial backing of a traditional label is now a viable option for aspiring musicians.
Michael Winkler's electronica project Arm Trick. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Winkler
Subs walk alone, without label support. Photo: Courtesy of Kang Mao
Philadelphian musician and sound engineer Michael Winkler, 28, knows exactly what "releasing" music in Beijing entails. In 2011 he started Jingweir, a DIY (Do It Yourself) digital label that helps artists release CD's of their albums to be either sold at shows or to be given away as musical business cards. So far Jingweir has done 12 official CD releases.
"Jingweir's business model is particularly no-budget," Winkler says. "We are not spending a lot of money on advertising campaigns and poster runs. There are no contracts or anything like that."
Winkler says that the idea of starting Jingweir was - aside from being a musician himself who makes music under various monikers - to document the vibrant Beijing music scene and to give artists an outlet to feel pride in their work and to encourage networking.
"Websites like Xiami are like a big fortified pirate kingdom that pillages musicians for their goods," Winkler says humorously. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing for someone with nothing to lose.
As a small grassroots label with no major expectation to generate income, Jingweir is in an airtight "can't fail" predicament, according to Winkler. Reportedly, a few Chinese artists are wrangling with Xiami over royalties concerning access to their songs without payment. Winkler says he knows a few of them but doesn't name them.
However, Winkler himself would be flattered if someone wanted to pirate music from his label. Being uploaded to a free streaming site would make it easier for people to get into his and his friends' music, he says.
"I mean ripping me off would be a good thing because I wouldn't be losing revenue," Winkler says. If you have nothing to lose financially, you might as well give all your music away for free.
In fact, at this stage of the game for Jingweir, exposure is the most important goal.
Baltimorean Nevin Domer, 32, has found a way to connect Chinese bands to underground scenes abroad by selling vinyl.
Domer launched his vinyl-only passion project Genjing Records - the first of its kind in China - in March 2011.
Initially it was intended as a platform for Domer's own hardcore band Fanzui Xiangfa - to release and distribute the band's own recordings but also as a calling card for vinyl-centric collectors abroad.
"The choice to do vinyl is because serious collectors in the underground scenes abroad in the US and Europe now pretty much only collect vinyl," he explains.
"So Chinese bands not having vinyl puts them at a very big disadvantage to making those connections."
As of April this year, Domer has released a total of 19 vinyl records on Genjing - quite an achievement considering China has no vinyl-pressing plants.
Domer works for Maybe Mars and describes it as a typical label with bands "putting out full-length releases and getting tour support."
But hard-boiled economics are at the heart of Genjing, which trades in vinyl, an already extremely niche market in Beijing.
This means Domer has to feel confident that he will see a return on the acts that he chooses to receive an exclusive vinyl makeover.
"I'm selective with the bands I work with but I'm confident with most of the ones on Genjing that I'll be able to sell the product to make money back," he says.
Domer charges 50 yuan per record and sells them at shows and in select stores but reiterates the set price because "it is literally as low as I can sell them in China."
"I'm not trying to make profits," he concludes. "Breaking even is the goal."
Releases from Genjing, Nevin Domer's vinyl-only label.Photo: Courtesy of Nevin Domer
Kang Mao of the Subs hates labels. Photo: Courtesy of Kang Mao
No label of love
For Kang Mao, punk-pixie female lead singer of Subs, a Beijing Chinese rock band founded in 2002, the role of a label still plays a critical role in the way music is controlled, released and distributed in China. But that doesn't mean she is happy with the status quo.
"I really hate labels," she states. "We are a DIY band so we don't have a label."
In pure punk and DIY spirit, Subs self-released their latest album "The Queen Of F**king Everything" in July 2010. The problem was censors soon caught wind of the title and duly intercepted.
"In China, releasing an album has to go through a few procedures," Kang says.
In order for bands register a sound recording they need to obtain an International Standard Recording Code, which identifies sound recordings for legal purposes. China is no different.
"We had to give them all the lyrics, designs and name of the album," Kang remembers. "It's normal censorship. It wasn't like the police found us out. But the name of our album - the use of that word couldn't pass."
In Kang's mind, the Chinese album industry is still very "immature." She draws a distinction between labels such as Maybe Mars and Modern Sky in Beijing with notable Western labels such as 4AD and Sub Pop.
"There isn't a label here that can help us in the way I think those labels [4AD, Sub Pop] can," Kang concludes.
"If you sign a contract with a [Chinese] label, you are already in a system," she says. And this rails against the ideology of DIY and the artistic freedom Kang and her bandmates value.
"Opportunities found by labels must satisfy their need to generate money. So you cannot say no to them when you sign a contract. That's why I don't have a label."
Sun Siyu contributed to this story