I love music. Don’t well all? Music is awesome. But I hate pre-fab pop. Don’t we all? Pre-fab pop is crap.

That China’s mainstream music scene is near completely made up of boy bands and girl groups is a sad fact. But mainstream music scenes usually are (sad facts). So, when after digging around a bit I couldn’t find even the remotest signs of an independent music scene to offset the crud cracking out of cheap shop-front speakers, I was crushed.

That was three years ago. Despite being a musician (of sorts) and having worked as a music journalist (of sorts) before coming to China – I shelved my musical appetite and accepted that when it came to Chinese “music”, S.H.E. and Jay Zhou was about as good as it got.

Oh sure, every once in a while I’d hear from a friend upon their return from a visit to Shanghai or Beijing that there was a growing (punk) scene. But out here in the second tiers… I was lucky to get a Filipino band and mediocre Matchbox 20 covers.

But then I was introduced to Shanghai-based Neocha.com, and the site’s NEXT player. Clouds parted and a chorus of angels sung (in Chinese, for the most part).

Neocha is a unique Chinese social network service that gives members the ability to upload a variety of artistic media in an effort to provide them with a platform in which they can promote it to a greater audience.

The NEXT player randomly pulls music from Neocha’s vast library of Chinese independent music and streams it over the Internet for all to hear. If something doesn’t strike your fancy, just hit the big NEXT button and you’re on your way to discovering your next Chinese indie fav.

Should a particular tune appeal – you can click the artist or track name to get more information and additional music.

Ecstatic that I could finally delve into some cool Chinese culture that didn’t involve polished text-book statements and dusty social identities, I just had to track down the man responsible, thank him and ask him a few questions.

A few words with Neocha.com CEO, Sean Leow

Lost Laowai: It’s a bit of a long-standing joke among expats that when asked what music is good in China we all answer that there isn’t any. For more than a month now I’ve had the Neocha NEXT player blasting out proof that the statement is completely false. When was it that you first realized there was a lot more going on musically in this country than the pop radio stations and shop speakers would have you believe?

Sean Leow: When I first came to China in 2001, I was fortunate to meet some expats friends who were into the local music scene and also some Chinese friends who gave me really good music recommendations. Based on that, I started going to live shows and started to realize that there was good original music out there. But the biggest problem was — I had no good way to find out about shows. The information and content was not really aggregated anywhere. That’s one of the main reasons that we started Neocha.

LLW: Another blanket statement that tends to float around laowai circles, and that Neocha goes a long way to destroy, is that Chinese people just aren’t creative. Aside from being an overly generalized, and somewhat ignorant, statement, why do you think foreigners have this opinion of China and the Chinese?

SL: This statement is consistent with the concept of China as the world’s factory, pumping out cheap copycat goods, with a Confucian education system that rewards rote memorization and not creativity. And there are definitely elements of truth to the above. But China is changing unbelievably quickly and in all the chaos there are definitely burgeoning elements of Chinese originality and creativity. People just need to look a little bit harder and that is something that we try to illuminate at Neocha and I’m happy to email anybody a list of creative links to get them started [ed. Sean’s e-mail can be found at the end of the post].

LLW: Independent music, by its very nature, tends to be quite, well, umm… independent. But not just independent from the trappings of corporate pop, but also independent in that lyrically it tends to speak to deeper and more important issues. Have you found this to be the case with some of the music featured on Neocha?

SL: The lyrics of the Neocha musicians are certainly not as saccharine as Asian popstars, but I’m not really enough of an expert to comment on what different topics are most meaningful to the musicians. One interesting trend that I can note is how much of the music on Neocha is instrumental, whether it be the Gameboy sounds of Sulumi or the soothingly traditional themes of 曾小剛.

LLW: Though a bit unaccessible to non-Chinese speaking foreigners, Neocha is much more than just the NEXT player. It is a social network that fosters creativity throughout a number of mediums. Are the majority of the users from major modern cultural centres like Shanghai and Beijing, or do you see users from a wide cross-section of the country?

SL: The geographical breakdown of our user base is: 25% Shanghai, 25% Beijing, 5% Guangdong and then 4-5% from a series of 2nd tier cities like Wuhan, Changsha, Kunming, Xiamen and Chengdu. There is no question that Shanghai and Beijing still dominate the landscape, but recently I’ve been inspired by the creativity emanating from 2nd tier cities. And this is not limited only to music – there is graphic design, independent bookstores, lomography clubs, indie magazines, etc.

LLW: Obviously being a China-based community for Chinese there’s little need or obligation to bring in an English-language version of the site, but any chance us monolingual music lovers will be blessed with such a thing down the road?

SL: We’ve always wanted to give more access to non-Chinese speaking people and NEXT was our first attempt at that. I really think that there is demand from both China-based expats and other foreigners for authentic Chinese creative content. So while there are no current plans to develop a totally bi-lingual site, we will actively explore ways to engage non-Chinese audiences. This is most likely to focus on music, which is more easily appreciated in spite of language barriers.

LLW: The NEXT player was designed to be as simple as possible, giving the user but one direction to travel the Neocha playlist. Are there any plans to have a more sophisticated player option?

SL: Good question. We struggled with this concept when we created the NEXT player, but we ultimately opted to make it as simple as possible for the first iteration. I’d like to add more “smart” functionality for future versions – for example, filtering by genre, recommending songs and personalizing the player so that it “learns” what you like. Other well-known music websites have had success with this type of functionality and I’d love to get feedback on what would make sense or be different for an indie Chinese music library.

LLW: I noticed that artist profile pages offer the ability for visitors to grab a code snippet and insert artist’s songs on their own Web sites and blogs. Are there any other ways for visitors to get their hands on the music – possibly for download or on CD?

SL: We don’t support downloads at this point because we want to respect the musician’s copyrights. In terms of getting someone’s music, you can either contact them directly thru Neocha or Neocha can ask on your behalf. We’ve done this for everyone from fans who just want a certain artists’ song to clients who are looking for cool, Chinese music to support their videos and advertisements.

LLW: Does or will Neocha also utilize the site’s userbase to take some of this creative energy offline as well? Maybe in the form of shows, music festivals, etc.? If so, what, where and when?

SL: We’ve actually done quite a few offline events and I think they are extremely important to helping the development of creative communities in China. The most well known event we did was our launch event – Neospring – where close to 10,000 people came (see video below). Since then we’ve worked with many of the large music festivals including MIDI, Rock It!, Lijiang Snow Mountain Festival, Yue Festival, etc.

However, because of the Olympics it has become very difficult to do any large-scale events right now, but starting in the fall you should start seeing us organizing or working with partners on innovative offline events.

LLW: What do you feel is the biggest challenge to running a site like this?

SL: I think any start-up website will tell you that there is a new disaster every week and you feel like you’re just running around putting out fires all the time. Lately, our biggest challenge has been to make sure that the site is not too slow, which is actually a good problem (but still a problem) because the site is growing and a significant portion of that growth involves streaming music. But we finally bit the bullet this month and doubled the bandwidth allocation, so we hope that everyone will be able to enjoy non-interrupted streaming of Neocha music.

LLW: Finally, looking ahead, what’s in Neocha’s immediate and/or long-term future?

SL: It’s hard to plan ahead more than a couple months, but there are a few initiatives that we are working on. One is to find a good way for independent musicians to make money in China. Another is to plan more offline events so our users can get together and can show off their talents. At the same time, we have to keep growing our youth culture consulting business, as this is what allows us to run Neocha and everyone to enjoy the music!

Sean Leow, CEO of Neocha, is a half-Chinese/half-American who has called China home for over half a decade. If you have any questions for Sean, he’s happy to field them at sean@neocha.com

Additional Reading

More information about Neocha can be found in this great post on Mobinode. Additionally, you’ll find the Neocha NEXT player embedded in Lost Laowai’s new China Music page.

Discussion

14
  1. Thanks Ryan. Our little team definitely appreciates the very nice review and hope we can keep growing the Neocha music library so more people can find good, independent Chinese music.

    Sean

  2. Profile photo of

    Not to reiterate my gushing about it – but really, I should be thanking you. Not to aggrandize the service, but Neocha has helped changed my perceptions of creativity in China – which goes a long way to changing my perceptions about China in general.

    Plus, it simply rocks!

  3. Yes! This post has made my day. I’m a far happier person for having read it.
    I’ve also been looking around a lot online lately, but I never stumbled across Neocha. (SEO people get to work!)

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  10. Thanks a lot Ryan!
    I was looking for this kind of music for 3 years now. I’m so happy, at last I will listen to some good chinese music (really, how many times can a person listen to 甜蜜蜜 and 绿岛小夜曲 ;) )
    Thanks again,
    Ada.

  11. I think allowing downloading of the music could only support these artists. I mean personally I’m not gonna go out and try to buy an album of someone whos songs I like. But I would share a downloaded album with friends. Downloading can only help spread the fame of the artists which is more valuable than the 30 rmb they could get from me for an album. Once they get known the money will come.

  12. @Ada: No problem.

    @Stephen: While I’m very much a creative commons and copyleft supporter ideologically, and I agree that giving away the music may lead to an increased fan-base, it’s doubtful getting known will bring in much money.

    The underground (ie. non-radio) music scene in China is building, but it’s far from lucrative. I am willing to bet that only the best indie acts can even scrape by with enough cash for gear and gas.

    The industry in China is just crap. There’s little ability for a non-mainstream artist to be grabbed by a progressive label and made into a star like there is outside of China. Things here are just at far too polarized extremes — the only “thing” that can get big-label representation is an artist that is the “package” — singer/dancer/actor (and I use ALL those terms in the loosest way possible). Basically, a non-feather-ruffling, looks-good-at-Spring-Festival-Gala, sparkley-haired no-talent asshat.

    So, give me the option to buy an indie band’s album for a few bucks on Taobao, or cheaper via MP3 download and I’ll happily do my part to support music I actually enjoy. And if years down the road the industry changes and word-of-mouth rags-to-riches is anything more than the lotto drawing that it is now, I’ll happily support in another way.

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