One of my favourite Chinese sites, Neocha, has teamed up with the very talented producer Dave Liang, of The Shanghai Restoration Project, and created eXpo, a 10-track collection of Chinese electronic music that goes on sale today.
I generally accredit Neocha as the source of reversing my opinion about creativity in China. The site is a SNS for Chinese creatives of all disciplines, and while it’s all in Chinese, it does a great job of bridging out to the English speaking world with its NEXT player for streaming independent Chinese music, and the awesome NeochaEDGE blog that showcases the best of Chinese creativity where ever it may bloom.
I chatted with Neocha founder and CEO Sean Leow, as well as The Shanghai Restoration Project’s Dave Liang to get the skinny on the album, the Expo and the state of independent music in China. Here’s what they had to say:
Lost Laowai: How did the idea for eXpo come about? Did the Shanghai Restoration Project approach Neocha, or vice versa?
Dave Liang: The concept was conceived in late 2009 during a brainstorming session between the two of us over coffee. Ever since we met back in 2008, we’ve been thinking about ways to bring more exposure to the local Chinese independent music market. Putting out a compilation during the Shanghai Expo seemed to be the perfect way to do this since a lot of media attention would be on China at the time. With Neocha’s access to independent artistic culture in China and SRP’s brand establishment in the West, we felt it would be an ideal partnership.
Lost Laowai: Why the “eXpo” title — what does electronic music have to do with the Shanghai Expo?
Dave: “eXpo” by definition is “a collection of things (goods or works of art etc.) for public display” (according to WordNet). Since countries from around the world were coming to Shanghai to show off their works during the World Expo, we felt it would be appropriate to show off a portion of China’s artistic culture at the same time. We felt electronic music would not only be the most accessible outside of China (no lyrical barriers) but also best represent China’s modernization. Lastly, the “X” in “eXpo” represents the 10 artists selected for the compilation.
Lost Laowai: No doubt China is banking on the 2010 Shanghai Expo being a heck of a follow up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. Do you think it will do more, as much or less in giving the world a better idea of what the country is really about?
Sean Leow: The 2010 Shanghai Expo seems to be primarily directed at a domestic audience so we don’t think there will be as much of an effort on foreign PR as there was for the Beijing Olympics. As a result, the Expo will not really give the world a better idea of what China is all about and they don’t want to mess with the good impression it created during the Olympics anyway.
Lost Laowai: So, how does China’s independent music scene and youth culture play into that?
Sean: To be honest, we don’t think it will play into that at all. Whether the government is promoting to domestic or foreign audiences, we highly doubt they will use independent music and creative youth culture-–it’s just not on their radar in any meaningful way.
A lot of projects in Shanghai are not formally tied in with the Expo as the bureaucratic red tape to get “officially approved” is fairly burdensome. Projects like eXpo and others are simply releasing around the same time as all eyes will be focused on Shanghai at the time.
Lost Laowai: What do you think is the most common misconception the rest of the world has about China’s (electronic) music scene? What’s the reality?
Dave: Most people are simply not aware of the electronic music scene in China. Not only has China traditionally not been a source of music in this genre, language and cultural barriers (lack of developed independent music market) have made it difficult for global electronic fans to discover good Chinese content. With the artist community sites such as Neocha enabled by the Internet, it is now that much easier to find music around the world.
Lost Laowai What sense or feeling do you get from the artists on the album about potentially reaching a much wider audience than they’ve ever had before by being on this album?
Sean: They are certainly excited and we can’t wait to show them promotional material, reviews, etc. once the album releases. For almost all the artists on the album, this is their first time ever being apart of an official CD release, not to mention being listed on iTunes, Amazon, China Mobile and having a physical release within China.
Lost Laowai: How about choosing the tracks for the album? What was given the most priority — cross-culture playability, relative diversity of content or simply the best of the submissions?
Dave: All three. We wanted to pick songs that would appeal to a Western ear and didn’t really care what style it was within the electronic genre. We went through hundreds of songs and picked out the ones we liked the most and narrowed our selections down due to a variety of additional criteria (e.g. was the artist willing to participate, did the artist still have the original audio files, etc.).
Lost Laowai With radio play, wide-physical distribution and TV appearances reserved almost exclusively for pre-fab pop acts; how do Chinese indie musicians find their audiences?
Sean: Almost entirely via the Internet. There are a few independent labels which may pick up an album here or there, but it’s almost entirely up to the artist to promote their music and shows through the Internet. This avenue is effective within China as most young people, and especially creative culture participants, use the Internet as their key sharing and consumption platform.
We’re trying to give them one additional channel with eXpo by promoting their work to a Western audience that they would otherwise have a hard time reaching.
Lost Laowai It seems like a rising wave of creativity is coming out of China, why is it happening now? Or has it always been happening, but the rest of the world just didn’t have access to it?
Sean: It’s a combination of the two. The sweet spot for creatives right now are the post-80s generation who are getting to an age and level of experience where their creative work can really stand out. At the same, audiences outside of China have not had much access to creative culture with the exception of the contemporary art scene. Projects like eXpo and our work at NeochaEDGE are trying to change that impression.
Lost Laowai So, what’s the future of the independent music scene in China?
Sean: Despite the obstacles that exist in the local market, we’re optimistic that the indie scene can find its footing and continue to develop. There is a lot of passion and goodwill among the people in the scene, which is always encouraging.
Many of the economic issues that the independent music scene is facing in China are the same that exist around the world with piracy–-that is really a global industry-wide problem that will hopefully improve soon. Domestically, we hope that mainstream media can do more to promote independent music as this is a crucial (yet highly monopolized) channel for the scene to grow.
Lastly, without a proper ecosystem for Chinese electronic musicians to develop within, it’s difficult for anyone to make a living off of their music. The result of this is that no Chinese musicians have the time to fully develop their talent and truly influence the scene. There is only one musician (B6) on the compilation who can make a living off of his music.
With the eXpo compilation we’re trying, in our own small way, to change this by giving the musicians the opportunity to be compensated for their music, which is extremely rare in China. At the same time, a lot of our interaction with the musicians has been an educational process, teaching them about music industry standards, contracts, etc. As a result, we hope they will be better prepared when negotiating with record labels/commercial entities in the future.
Lost Laowai: It sounds like you two work well together. Any plans to collaborate again? What else is on the horizon for you guys?
Dave: We haven’t discussed anything formally, but we’ve definitely enjoyed our collaboration thus far. Our roles were quite complementary (Neocha handling language, content, relationships, Chinese press; and SRP taking on distribution, US press, contracts) so working together again could be easy to pull off with the right idea. Regarding news on the SRP side, immediately after the eXpo release I will be headed to Tokyo to help promote an album I produced for the Japanese artist Miu Sakamoto (daughter of composer great Ryuichi Sakamoto).
Sean: It’s been a blast working with Dave and we’d love to continue in the future with more compilations, music/visual art crossovers or anything else that helps push forward China’s creative community. As for Neocha, we’re continuing to work on some cool consulting projects with brands and agencies through NeochaEDGE. We’re strengthening these capabilities with the “EDGE Creative Collective” which is a carefully groomed cast of China’s premier creative talent that we engage first when delivering against our clients’ briefs / project requirements.
We’re also excited about a partnership we’ve recently established with Artsprojekt where we’ll be setting up shops to turn our Chinese creatives’ work into on-demand products that can be purchased around the world.
Lost Laowai: I’ve listened to eXpo repeatedly now, and really dig it. Out of curiosity, what are your favourite tracks on the album?
Dave: “Moon” by Mu Xiao Hu
Full Disclosure: I enjoy an awesome ‘professional’ relationship with the Neocha guys, and performed the tech work behind both edge.neocha.com and expoartists.com.
May the 4th be with you.