A new wave of Chinese musicians is taking Beijing by storm. Revolving around four venues spread across the city, this burgeoning group of performers are working outside government-controlled media channels, and in the process, capturing the attention of the international music community. They now constitute a fresh, independent voice in a country renowned for creative conformity and saccharine Cantonese pop. In Sound Kapital, photographer Matthew Niederhauser captures the energy of the performers involved in this innovative orgy gripping Beijing's music underground.
On October 3, 2007, I first entered D-22—a dive bar featuring live music in Beijing’s university district—to check out the current underground offerings. Smoking cigarettes and slamming cheap beers, a packed crowd jostled for space at the foot of a small stage where three women began to tune their instruments under dim, red lights. Five years had passed since I last attended a concert in China, and I was not particularly optimistic. In my mind Beijing continued to flounder in a creative mire when it came to live music. Nothing prepared me for what was to come: the next four bands completely floored me with their intensity, sincerity, and ingenuity. At the end of the night I fought my way out of a teeming mosh pit, camera barely intact, and left D-22 with some of my first images documenting the personalities behind the creative orgy driving Beijing’s underground.
Working outside of government-controlled media channels, this burgeoning group of performers gigged wherever possible across Beijing’s mutating landscape. Fortunately, venues such as D-22, Yugong Yishan, 2 Kolegas, and MAO Livehouse provided a steady platform for an eclectic mix of punk, experimental, rock, and folk performances and captured the international music community’s attention. More and more people flocked to these enterprising hubs, which incubated fresh, independent, and frequently irreverent voices in a country renowned for creative conformity and saccharine Cantonese pop. I became addicted to these live performances and fully possessed by the compulsion to catalog them photographically. As Beijing prepared itself for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the underground reached a critical mass with larger audiences and more bands making the move to the capital. It was a time of unprecedented change.
For now, China remains in a liminal state between the socialist idealism of old and a calamitous drive for wealth spurred by free-market reforms. This seemingly unbridgeable gap tears at the country’s social fabric while provoking younger generations to greater artistic heights, especially in the realm of music. The unique sound emerging from Beijing’s underground illuminates this void, aggressively questioning the moral and social basis of the fragile modernity on which it subsists. Near the heart of this cultural shift lies broader access to mobile phones and the Internet, which now mold China’s erratic social landscape. These technologies allow people with special interests and idiosyncratic tastes to readily connect with each other and access an exponentially broader realm of music, art, and news from both home and abroad. In large and densely populated China, patterns of conformity belie an attendant undercurrent of counterculture—people want to stand out from the masses. This increasing tendency toward individualism, coupled with newfound forums for public expression, represents the cornerstone of China’s emerging civil society, as well as the musical outpouring I document here.
If the underground thrives off underlying social conditions, it is nonetheless impossible to attribute a core message to these musicians. They come from diverse backgrounds and project varying messages that continually take on new form and direction. It would be presumptuous and misleading to label the motley crew of dropouts, hipsters, vagrants, bumpkins, intellectuals, and nighttime rockers as a whole. But if one thing binds many in the underground, it is a dissatisfaction with the rise of a rabid, vapid, and often unsustainable consumer culture. A select few may take more antagonistic stances and openly vent their anger with the government, but, in one way or another, every performer is a critic at heart. In the end, a greater part of the work draws upon more intimate worlds, subsisting on the creative fodder of relationships—loss, joy, and personal battles—sources of inspiration that touch on the commonalities of human experience. No matter who takes the stage, the music is still grounded in a contemporary China that harnesses foreign influences just as readily as traditional sources.
As important as the developments in Beijing are the inroads the capital’s underground is making in China’s heartland, connecting with new audiences without using the government-controlled media. While metropolises like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu support steady concert scenes, elsewhere more than a billion people lie in wait for alternative music options. Only recently has a network of venues begun to extend from these urban centers to reach the cities that spring up almost overnight across China’s interior. Even though this generation of concertgoers is enthusiastic, the nationwide underground scene remains incipient and sometimes uncertain. Chongqing, for instance, is one of the largest municipalities in the world, with over six million people living in the city center, yet it only offers places like the Nuts Club, which features a cramped stage in a bare, concrete room that scarcely holds a hundred people. At the end of the show I attended, the young audience quickly scattered into the night as if fleeing the scene of a crime. For the foreseeable future, many hurdles remain.
The greatest hurdle by far is the uncertainty emerging bands face concerning the long-term viability of working as professional musicians. China’s renowned taste for media piracy, for instance, can be devastating to the income of fringe performers and the handful of independent labels that dare to support them. In addition, there are few options for significant commercial success outside regulated media channels that are peppered with apparatchiks who favor cloying pop stars over anything considered remotely controversial or offbeat. Most of China’s underground musicians are forced to keep their day jobs or seek other sources of income.
One thing that can never be denied is the passion displayed by both the performers and concertgoers who lose themselves in the fray. The portraits presented in Sound Kapital are a comprehensive survey, culled from tens of thousands of photographs of more than a hundred bands, taken over the past two years. They strive to capture a moment in time in China’s musical evolution. Shot against the same red wall in D-22’s back room, the musicians featured are some of the most important contemporary performers emerging from the underground. They constitute a formidable new wave of artists striving to expand their creative limits in an autonomous and compelling fashion. Even though it is too early to tell what may come of the innovative strides made by these musicians, there is no doubt that they will continue to break ground within Beijing’s nascent artistic landscape, helping to push the boundaries of an already expanding realm of independent thought and musical expression in China.– Matthew Niederhauser
After studying anthropology at Columbia University, Matthew Niederhauser split his time between the National Committee on US-China Relations and the International Center of Photography, before returning to Beijing as a fulltime freelance photographer. Over the past year, his work covering youth culture in China has appeared in the New Yorker, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, PDN, and the Guardian Weekly amongst others. While his nights are spent photographing Beijing’s underground music scene, Niederhauser also works on a large-format, photo-documentary project entitled Visions of Modernity that investigates urban development and new architecture in China’s swelling capital.
Ca Zhuxi is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Beijing. After graduating from the Communication University of China in 2006, he helped found the Cult Youth collective, and subsequently produced two anthologies of the group’s comics and graphic shorts. His sometimes morbid but engrossing images mirror the kaleidoscope of often-conflicting interests, desires, and traditions found in modern China.
Yuli Chen is a music producer and sound engineer based in Beijing who grew up in Paris and was trained in New York City. Most notably, he recorded, mixed, and produced the music for the Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, working closely with Director Zhang Yimou to create a fascinating score that fused both western and eastern sensibilities. As a trusted indie music producer, Yuli Chen continues to work on a dozen highly acclaimed underground projects in China.
© 2009. All rights reserved.