[ Cont. from 103] Today, only School Bar remains open. “I walked around Gulou recently and it’s totally different now. It’s quiet. Too quiet,” says Zhang. “I don’t think the music scene has a chance in the city center anymore. It’s lost; it’s gone.”
Dusk Dawn Club and Temple Bar were the two most recent to close. Predictably, Beijing’s coronavirus lockdown played a role; livehouses were closed for more than eight months and were some of the last businesses to reopen in the city, along with movie theaters. Dusk Dawn Club was hit hard by the lack of income and ever-shifting reopening projections. “By May , we had no hope that the pandemic in China would get under control,” says Zhang. “It was a disaster for us.” After reopening, Temple Bar started receiving more scrutiny from inspectors, leading to its landlords’ imposition of new curfews for shows and temporary closures to bring the facilities up to code. Finally, after an unsuccessful bid to renew its lease, the club closed in January.
When the surviving livehouses began reopening in September, they were packed. Quarantine had translated to months of musicians livestreaming from their apartments and, occasionally, broadcasting shows from stages running on skeletal staff. There was angst to burn.
But some of these returns were short-lived. Temple Bar’s closure showed that Gulou’s livehouses could still shutter due to legal problems that predated Covid-19. To hold a concert in China, performance licenses are required for both the artist and venue, and both can be difficult to obtain. The artist must submit their lyrics, ID, and video footage of prior performances to a censor, who might deem them offensive and reject their application, much like the process for releasing an album. Clubs must be located within city-designated “cultural zones” to receive such permits, and in Beijing, these zones tend to appear far from the city center. After Mao Livehouse closed in 2016, reportedly because of “rising rent and meddlesome officials,” it reopened in one such approved zone — about 30 miles from Gulou.
“It will only take a matter of time for local governments to squeeze the remaining venues out of the city center who have been able to stay there because of their guanxi — their connections — and because they’ve been there for several years. But eventually, they’ll be pushed out,” says Domer. “The only spaces for venues will be in spaces designated for arts and culture.”
For his part, Dusk Dawn Club’s Zhang believes this community can persevere in Beijing — with some compromises. Though he is currently focusing on the club’s sister venue, DDC Aranya — a performance space in a well-heeled, private beachside community about 300 kilometers from the capital — he plans to open a new DDC location in Beijing in the fall. It’s inside a mall in Chaoyang, a district east of Gulou, so not as far a displacement as other livehouses have faced. “I feel very lucky,” he says. Still, he acknowledges the area doesn’t have much of a music scene — and that another recently relocated club in the area, Lantern, was closed by the government after just one month of operation. But, he adds, “I told the landlord my worries about this, and they said they will give me help if I need it.”
Helen Feng, frontwoman of the Beijing rockers Nova Heart and a former MTV China VJ, stresses that this censorship of music, and the increased scrutiny toward livehouses, are not efforts to suppress art so much as they are initiatives to support larger gentrification and economic development in city centers. Culture is a casualty of this change, she says — not a catalyst. “People get wrong that most of the pressure on the scene is coming from the government. It’s coming from economic revitalization,” says Feng, who splits her time between Beijing and Berlin. “It’s not like in the music community, you’re this medic who’s running into the field and everybody is bleeding and you need to patch them up, and you have a noble purpose. It’s more like you run into the field and the enemy is just doing a general spray, and you just happen to be in the way.”
This urban gentrification and restructuring — which, party messaging repeatedly celebrates, is boosting the country’s middle class — may also be a temporary boon before sharper economic decline. “You have to be an idiot to think that everything’s always on the upswing, and it’s been on the upswing for 40 years in China. No real economy can sustain that; it’s impossible,” says Feng. “China is a totalitarian government that is terrified of its own people, which is a very unique thing. And a terrified totalitarian government is going to make certain moves very quickly that democracies cannot.”
Last summer, the second season of reality show樂
隊的夏天(usually translated to The Big Band or Summer Rock Show) aired on the online video network iQiyi. An American Idol- style talent competition for indie-rock bands, its first season in 2019 had been popular and a career boost for its participants (especially the winners, the perky dream-pop band New Pants). But its second season was a sensation, abetted by a bored and housebound population: 170 million people watched as 33 bands of varying ages performed under jewel-tone lights, faced emotional elimination tribunals, and gave variably gossipy confessionals to the cameras. (They also consumed a lot of yogurt; a yogurt company was the main sponsor.)
It wasn’t the first time a music competition had exploded a subculture into a countrywide trend — the show’s predecessor on IQiyi, 中国新说唱 ( The Rap of China), was a hit in 2018-19 and made stars of several upstart MCs — but it was a quantum leap for the bands that participated. By the fall of 2020, as bars and clubs reopened across China, the impact was clear: Suddenly, bands that had been unknown outside their modest DIY circles before lockdown were selling out national tours. Their songs were being sung between BTS and Ariana Grande at karaoke bars.
The winners of the season, the Nanjing post-punks Re-TROS, were well-established going into the show — they’d played festivals, been the subject of a tour documentary, and opened for Depeche Mode and Xiu Xiu — but now, they are headlining arenas. (Re-TROS, through a representative, declined to comment for this story.) Other bands have leveled up similarly: Despite being eliminated in an early round, the Xi’an post-punks Fazi reportedly sold out a fall show in Beijing within minutes. “The show was a very big switch for the indie music scene,” says Carsick Cars’ Zhang. His band finished outside the top 10. “We are now playing clubs twice as big as before. People recognize us at train stations and airports. And after every show, we have to sign CDs or take photos with people for an hour and a half. This never happened before.”
Perhaps most improbably of all, School Bar — Gulou rock’s grungy, sneering, stubborn holdout — is suddenly an influencer hot spot. Because the livehouse was mentioned regularly on the show as a favorite spot of many of the bands and judges, and a place where “real” rock could be found, fans of the show now clamor to take pictures and tag themselves at the location. “When School Bar reopened, it had lines around the block. The venue would just pack out with them,” says Domer. “That spilled over to shows, though many people leave by 11 o’clock and it fills up with regulars. It has become a very trendy spot because of the TV show.”
But to some longtime patrons, concerts are now a disorienting experience. “We’re always taken aback just by the amount of energy. Some of it feels very performative,” says Krish Raghav, an artist currently working on a graphic novel about underground Chinese music. “A lot of people are coming to shows the same way you would go to an amusement park. It’s like you’ve bought a ticket for a theme-park ride: ‘Give me the rock-show experience.’ ”
Some accuse The Big Band of having similar artifice. A music-industry figure familiar with the casting process says that musicians who have been jailed are not allowed on camera. The lyrics the musicians sing can be unfamiliar, too. “Some of those bands are quite subversive, but because they are on this show, there is basically national-level censorship,” says Yan Cong, a Beijing-based photographer. “Everything is either toned down or they just have to pick songs that are very harmless.”
Raghav says The Big Band is creating a template that ambitious new rock bands are already following. “It’s a very particular kind of sanitized indie rock that has nothing to say, is catchy, and comes with a background story you can sell on TV,” he says. “A few bands I like are moving in that direction already. Their new music feels different. It’s all positive energy and feel-good phrases, where in the past it was angrier and weirder.”
Carsick Cars’ Zhang notes that because of the show’s popularity, new livehouses are being built — far outside the city center, in the culturallyapproved zones — but that they have large capacities, often more than 500. “Maybe that’s the downside of this growth of indie music. Everything will be more commercial,” he says. “A lot of small clubs are closing and very big venues are opening, but young bands can’t afford to play those. So they are doing research on what the most people will like and playing that.”
But Zhang believes that even if indie rock’s trendiness declines, the music will retain many of those supporters. “Some of our new fans only know us because of the show, and before that they only listened to K-pop idols,” he says. “Maybe some of [indie rock’s] followers will leave, but I think most of them will keep listening to this kind of music because, honestly, I think it’s much more powerful and honest than most of the pop music in China.”
If these millions of fans keep listening, indie rock may prove popular in the Chinese mainstream for years. The Big Band may run for many seasons, pushing new bands into riches. New livehouses will spring up, new albums will be released. Maybe Mandarinand Cantonese-language rock will have the crossover success of K-pop or música urbana, spreading outward to global domination.
But if that happens, some might say those fans may never know what they’re missing. They may never know how truly powerful this music can be. They won’t have seen the fear, the euphoria, the loneliness, the community. The suffering, the stubbornness, the reproach, the pride. Where the music happened before it reached their screens, before it filled their air.
What it sounded like — who it looked like — before it was allowed.