BEIJING – The live music scene in Beijing is one of the great perks of living in the Chinese capital. As we reported a couple of years ago, a thriving community of independent musicians and artists can satisfy practically any music craving.
Experimental folk? Check.
Indie electronica? Check.
Rock with comic cross-talk? Check.
But if you crave big marquee names, better move to Tokyo.
In the past year, China has seen only two major-league performers come from overseas: Usher earlier this month, and Beyoncé last October.
Photo by Ed Flanagan/ NBC News
Usher's popularity in China is in part due to his wholesome image.
For a major international city with nearly 18 million permanent residents, that’s a pretty poor showing of global mainstream pop and rock acts.
One reason for the paucity is censorship.
Since Bjork’s controversial act of shouting "Tibet, Tibet" at the end of a song called Declare Independence during a concert in Shanghai in March 2008, China’s Ministry of Culture has maintained strict restrictions on foreign performers.
Since then, a handful of western artists have had to cancel gigs because of their perceived politics. In 2009, ministry officials revoked permits for Oasis to perform, calling the band "unsuitable."
Photo by Adrienne Mong/NBC News
Thousands of young Chinese fans turned out for Usher's concert last weekend.
Bob Dylan was due to perform in Beijing and Shanghai this year, but concert promoters said the Chinese Ministry of Culture denied him a permit, perhaps concerned about the legendary 68-year-old musician’s counter-culture origins.
But it’s not just about politics.
"Anything that talks about violence or things that are a little bit extreme, those tend not to be approved here," said Adam Wilkes, managing director of 8th Round, a live entertainment company in Beijing that organized this month’s Usher concert.
Usher’s mass appeal in China is in part due to his wholesome image as well as his talent, the accessibility of his music (R&B remains extremely popular amongst the young urban set here), and his fame in the west.
Chinese acts still reign
Concert promoters face other challenges trying to bring overseas rock/pop acts here.
"Foreign mainstream artists are not particularly influential in China," said Jia Wei, a music critic.
"They are merely competitors in the local music scene."
Photo by Ed Flanagan/ NBC News
Chinese pop stars like Taiwanese-American Wang Leehom have no trouble holding concerts in China.
Usher drew a large audience at the spiffy Wukesong Stadium, which looked to be about 70-80 percent full. That’s not a bad turnout considering the cheapest tickets went for $41 in a city with a median monthly income of $550.
But that was nothing compared to the sell-out concerts by Mandopop stars like Jay Chou or Wang Leehom, who attract at least 35,000 people per show. (In fact, Wang made a special appearance at Usher’s concert and sang a duet in Mandarin with him, triggering screams of delight from the audience.)
The night of the Germany-Argentina World Cup quarterfinal, Chou staged a show at the Workers’ Stadium in Sanlitun, where expats and locals converged on a concentration of bars, restaurants, and clubs to watch the match. And I’m pretty sure the traffic snarling up the roads in Sanlitun were because of Chou, not the soccer.
And when tickets were released this month for a series of comeback concerts in China by Faye Wong, a semi-retired Hong Kong pop singer, they were sold out within ten minutes.
But there’s also the fact China’s music industry is new and relatively undeveloped, with the concert industry really only five years old.
What little music recording infrastructure exists here revolves around local talent, said Wilkes, who’s spent almost a decade working in China.
"For the most part, the mainstream state-owned media does not focus their attention on Western popular culture," he said. "So most of this information comes in organically through the Internet, so it’s available, but it’s not driven."
So for the foreseeable future, it seems Beijing will still only be attracting A-list music performers at the rate of one a year.
Thank goodness for the underground music scene.
Mongolian hip hop, anyone?