Is this China’s Woodstock?

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The beginning of May each year marks the start of the festival season in Beijing. During the 3-day May holiday in China, Beijing is host to a number of cultural events, from live music, theatre, and visual arts.

This past May holiday I spent three straight days at Modern Sky’s Strawberry Music Festival. Modern Sky is one of China’s most successful and pioneering independent music labels. They have, over the course of over 10 years, built a portfolio of some of the most influential, original and popular Chinese indie bands. The Strawberry Festival is an assembly of many of Modern Sky’s own bands, plus a number of international music acts. This was the second year they’ve done the Strawberry Festival, billed as a ‘Folksy’ music and art festival. And indeed it was.

I attended with my partners at China Youthology. As we took in the entire experience, we made many observations. Here are some snippets of what we discussed:

1. The music scene is alive and kicking, and in a big way that only China can do. The most obvious observation is the sheer number of people attending these festivals. While it does not compare to the reportedly 500,000 people that showed up to Woodstock, the Strawberry Fest had about 20,000 to 30,000 attendees each day for 3 days. Some people may scoff at Strawberry Fest’s paltry numbers when compared to Woodstock, but here’s an extra detail: Strawberry Fest was only one of three music festivals going on in Beijing simultaneously during that long weekend. Each of the other music festivals MIDI, Ditan also had thousands of attendees, and in MIDI’s case, tens of thousands of attendees like Strawberry Fest. For a country where to many foreigners the only image of mass public gathering also involves tanks to suppress, having three outdoor festivals with tens of thousands of participants is no small feat.

2. Strawberry v. MIDI: Shifting cultural tastes. MIDI is a hardcore punk rock and metal music festival. It has been the premier music festival in Beijing for over ten years. Strawberry, an Indie-pop, music and art festival, emerged just two years ago and has already equaled if not surpassed MIDI in numbers. What does this say about the changing tastes of Chinese youth? Or perhaps more insightfully, are we seeing a new wave of young people discovering the music of their generation, in juxtaposition to the music of the youth that preceded them? Even while at the music festivals, we met many patrons who would swear by one of these festivals while shunning the other. It is clear that Indie-Pop, with the free-flowing hippy fashions, funky retro-electro-rock influences, and geeky, cute, graphic designs are on the rise, while Angst-Rockers, black shirts, and grunge may have an uncertain future. Only successive music festivals will reveal.

3. Rising quality: It was immensely impressive the quality displayed by some of the bands. Aside from the fact that a number of the bands are multi-ethnic, these contemporary Chinese indie bands are showing an intense exposure to world influences. They are incorporating innovative elements that define the best of world-class musicians. These bands are also exhibiting a refinement in sound quality and production that only comes from long experience touring overseas. Indeed, many of these groups have toured Europe, North America and other important musical melting pots, multiple times. They come back with best-in-class musical standards. One aspect that surprised me the most was the large majority of original songs by Chinese indie bands that are all written and performed in English. In contemplating why this is, I could think of two reasons: 1) The bands are so highly influenced by international music standards that they are creating, processing original music in the same language, 2) The bands are strategic-enough to expect their music has the ability to cross over to other international markets, thus making English songs would improve the probability of success exponentially. I think the reason is a combination of both, but I’d like to believe it is the former that drives this phenomenon.

4. Performance-ship: Another outcome of Chinese bands touring abroad is that their performances become more sophisticated. Understanding the power of audience interaction, the best bands are intimately conscious of their performance. They understand their performance experience is intricately related to their brand. From costumes to props to audience participation, Chinese bands are creating interactive experiences with their patrons never seen before in China.

5. Commercialization: Strawberry Festival was also impressive because of the strides it took in commercialization. While there wasn’t any new commercial inventions, the pervasiveness of commercialization within the festival was impressive. From Volkswagen cars enjoying product placement on the performance stages, to a fully-branded vodka bar beside the electronica stage, sponsorship and product placements were fully optimized at every opportunity. What is more though, it was not overbearing or intrusive to the experience, in fact, all the attendees accepted the brand presence and took it as part of the identity of Strawberry Fest. What does this say about the Chinese and their acceptance and embracing of brands as an integral part of the cultural experience? I think many marketers and media specialists are thinking actively about this question today.

6. Creating shared collective memories: Perhaps the most important take-away from these cultural festivals, in their size, experience and novelty for this young generation, is that they are creative key milestones of shared collective memories. Sooner or later some of the youth that attended these events will realize, recognize, or characterize some aspect of the experience and it will germinate into an artifact of this generation’s identity. What this artifact will stand for, what it will mean for the constituents at ascribe to this generation, and what it signifies for everyone else, is the job of researchers and anthropologists. Much like Woodstock, Beatle-Mania, or Elvis on national TV, it is these events and experiences that are happening right now, molding the mindsets and perspectives of China’s youth.

7. Cultural trends, nuisances, icons will start here: If these festivals continue, you’ll see that these events will be the genesis for new trends, icons and generational habits. The Strawberry Festival invites and encourages an open market where independent shop owners, artists, and aspiring entrepreneurs can set up shop to sell and exhibit their wares. This year we already saw white ‘Jabawaki’ style face mask become virally popular. I can foresee that as these festivals and markets grow bigger, the markets will become just as important if not perhaps more, than the musical performances. Certainly for trend watchers, the markets may be where the real insights will be.

Of course, this is all dependant on the government’s good graces in allowing these mass congregation of young people continue to happen. It is always a risky endeavour, and China’s track record with these kinds of events has been haphazard to say the least.

So is Strawberry Festival China’s own Woodstock. It could be. Or perhaps more accurately the whole consortium of festivals together, their compounded effect on this generation, could be the beginning of an experience that helps anchor a generation’s identity and provides a place for new generational artifacts to emerge. If you haven’t yet been to one of China’s music festivals, maybe you should thinking about coming next time. If you missed America’s Woodstock, make sure you don’t miss China’s.

Update: Archie from China Music Radar wrote a wonderful post on the music festivals as well, draw different conclusions. I encourage you to read his post. I understand there are a lot of people with differing points of view, especially on such a passionate subject such as music. I say, Good! Lets keep discussing and debating!