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Drowned in sound

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:22 October 20 2010]
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A performer's eye view of the 2010 Zhangbei Inmusic Festival. Photo: IC

By Zhang Lei

Ten years ago, the Midi Music festival held in the campus of Beijing Midi School of Music was China's only such outdoor affair, giving the rock underground its first chance in the sun. This year, industry insiders estimate that China saw more than 60 outdoor music festivals of every variety. The weeklong National Day holiday in early October alone saw more than five major festivals.

And the festival sponsors are not only in the music industry. What was once a two-horse race between Midi and record label Modern Sky back in 2007 (Strawberry Festival, Modern Sky Music Festival) has now turned into a land grab. Everyone from governments seeking to boost GDPs and tourism, to property developers looking to hype new projects are holding music festivals.

More open-minded authorities looking to ride the sudden wave of festival popularity are embracing the once shunned underground scene. This warm reception coincides with the central government's decision to further stimulate its cultural industries earlier this year, and earmarking lots of money for it.

Different goals

"Many cities are planning music festivals with different intentions. Some hope to build a brand, others want to promote a cultural image," Lao Lang, a well-known songwriter and singer, told Southern Weekly.

Although it is an exciting time for music in China, when it comes to local governments using them as a promotional vehicle, there is an overt naivety.

"I still think outdoor festivals are a work in progress," explained China music industry expert Archie Hamilton, China Music Radar blogger and managing director of Split Works, which organizes both the Yue Shanghai and Jue festivals. "I mean, people generally in China have no experience being outside for two or three days in the blazing sunshine listening to music. It's still really out there as a concept."

For Zhangbei, a poverty-stricken county in Hebei Province known for its vast prairie, its music festival organized in part by Pilot Records magazine, not only made it known to the world, but also helped it rise from the poverty line last year.

'Dirty music festival'

On August 7, 2009, the three-day festival gained widespread attention with not only a solid domestic lineup, but also international acts including UK trip-hop artist Tricky. The local government threw large sums of money into the infrastructure to prepare, including the water, electricity and Internet feeds in just one month.

But it also turned out to be a festivalgoers' nightmare. The so-called Zhangbei grasslands were grassless, the air laden with clouds of dust. Media quickly dubbed the event Zangbei or "dirty music festival."

Due to the lack of experience by both Zhangbei and Pilot Records, there were also blaring logistical oversights. Shortages of accommodations and toilets, lack of transportation for the talent and foreign bands not being provided all they were contractually promised. Those working for organizers at times were even ignorant of exactly who was performing.

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