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!

Is pragmatism killing China”s future potential?

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Image Source

Recently I have been reading a lot of literature about America”s historical and present advantage; namely its ability to innovate and create in all disciplines: military, industry, business, art & music, process, thought, identity, etc. Popular perception at the moment is that innovation is the name of the game for competing countries and economies (a big reason why America is so concerned with young graduates and general brain drain to developing countries with hot economies).

Innovation and creation in any context first requires a culture of optimism, dreams, risk-taking, and perhaps a good amount of naivety. Even before talking about whether a society/economy has the right industry cluster, or entrepreneurial & intellectual excellence, or incubation & venture capital ecosystem, I feel the first fundamental question is whether the culture has elements of dreaming, risk-taking and naivety. Without these elements in the soil of a society, no-matter what kind of structures you build on top of it, nothing will grow out.

So how do you tell if a culture has these elements? I think there are many ways, but one way I would propose is to look at a society”s Arts culture. To me, the Arts demands the greatest amount of risk-taking, naivety, and commitment, but also represents innovation and creation in its most purest form. Look at a society”s arts culture, and see how far it integrates and influences general culture. I don”t propose that there is a direct correlation between a society”s Arts and its innovative industries. But the Arts speaks, reflects and cultivates the general society””s aptitude and tolerance for risk-taking, inspiration, dreams and courage.

Recently I was speaking to some friends who are doing in-depth research in China”s 3rd and 4th tier cities. Before they could process their analysis and key findings, I asked them what were their gut feelings from the first leg of their trip. One of the head researchers mentioned that he was impressed by the depth of realism the Chinese youth in these hinterland cities had about industry, business, and the real world. My researcher friend said he felt these young people, still in their teens and early twenties, could see just as clearly the risks and rewards in the working world as he could, he more than 10 years their senior. The discussion then moved to observing how these 3rd & 4th tier city youth would dabble in the arts (visual, music, design, theatre, and general hobbies), but never commit. They would try many things, but never embrace one thing, and allow that hobby/art-form define them or their identity process. The reason being that many can see how difficult and risky a life pursuing the Arts would be, and therefore decide it best not to invest time exploring the arts further, even when they feel the most engaged, enthralled and energized in that art-form.

Chinese skateboarder jumping

Chinese graffiti artistImage Source (2)

It is normal that a large majority of people never enter the arts full-time, even though they are highly exposed to the arts as an adolescent. But in most innovative societies, there is still a significant culture of trial and error, a balance of dreams and realities, of success stories and successful failures. Most of us know at least a handful of childhood friends who tried their hand at being an artist of some kind. Some made it, and some didn”t. But we have that expectation, and count that the norm. As my friends and I are starting to see in China, Chinese youth stop their role in the creative process even before they start, because they are so aware of the real risks and rewards of pursuing their artistic dreams. What does this mean for China””s innovative industries, and at a macro level, China””s future competitive advantages?

China industry equals YuanImage Source

If you take any course in international studies or cross-cultural communications, inevitably you”ll hear the Chinese, or China, as described as ”Pragmatic”. Its true. The Chinese pride themselves in being rational, reasonable, and seeing the situation as clearly as possible, weighing all the options, risks and rewards. But as we”re seeing in today”s Chinese youth, maybe pragmatism has entrenched itself to the point where it is inhibiting risk-taking, dreams, and healthy naivety. China has only in the past few years developed to the point where per capita disposable income, greater access to information, and life/occupation choice allowed enough room for creative industries and entrepreneurial start-ups grow. But, even with room to grow and structures being (marginally) developed to encourage creative growth, the soil of China””s society may not be ready to embrace it.

Deng Xiaoping white cat black cat

Mobile China and China Youth: Video Lecture

Posted: February 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I recently spoke at the Illinois Technology Association”s Mobile Visionary Roundtable and gave a presentation about the state of China”s mobile environment, the issues that make up the China youth experience, and how youth culture and technology influence each other.  I”ve had the chance make a video of the presentation for your viewing pleasure.

There are 16 parts to this video (it was originally about 1 hr. in length), and I”ve uploaded both YouTube and Youku versions of each part depending if you”re viewing from within China or outside of China.

Special thanks to China Youthology, Enovate China, and Mobile Youth for their insightful contributions!

** Special note: Unfortunately Youku has censored the last 8 parts of my presentation. This second half is about China Youth Culture and grass-roots events that have happened that illustrate Chinese Youth pushing the limits of new media and censorship. Apologies to all who cannot view YouTube videos.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Unfortunately Youku has blocked the last 8 parts of my presentation. This second half is about China Youth Culture and grass-roots events that have happened that illustrate Chinese Youth pushing the limits of new media and censorship. Apologies to all who cannot view YouTube videos.

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16