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August 25, 2011

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Local musicians struggle to be heard

LAST week I profiled crate after crate of CDs available at Shijiu Jiancia Market: a cornucopia of available sounds, copious amounts of new wavelengths to feed the ears. And when it was time to turn to the section for music from Shanghai, or China -- think globally, act locally - I was thwarted.

Such a section doesn't exist. And that's not to blame the nice lady at the market at hand. No, a place to buy CDs from locally produced artists simply doesn't exist. (Note: Uptown Records, a new record store in Shanghai, promises to stock local music, but they're still in the process of opening.)

A selection of Shanghainese pop singers and classical performers sprinkle the DVD stores around town ... and that's it. Great homegrown and expat acts with releases like electric duo AM444, Rainbow Danger Club, and Pairs have released albums. But these releases remain only downloadable, or available at a show, if that.

Guitarist Adam Crossley of Shanghai rock band Friend or Foe has been consistently stymied in his attempts to get his band's products out to fans.

At a recent festival, he planned to sell his band's T-shirts: "They didn't have a [merchandise] tent set up." Even at other regular music venues, he describes trying to sell as a foreign concept to the management.

Never mind that interesting merchandise is a great way for a band to connect with the audience, giving the band a visual element to accompany their music.

With bands making little money if at all from the shows, Crossley wishes, "It would be nice to have a few more avenues available to make a little money off of [the music]."

Adam Gaensler, guitarist, sound mixer and blogger at, agrees and would "love to see more [merchandise] tables" but has a different take on the situation.

He says there are a "bunch of CDs coming out" and that very few people in Shanghai are professional musicians, so they don't expect to make a profit from their music. As Gaensler puts it, "The reality is we're all waking up at 9 o'clock for our day jobs."

While I think Gaensler makes some good points, there seems to be a lack of ambition that could give a lift to the scene in Shanghai.

Due to a bevy of free media available, audiences do seem reluctant to buy music, especially CDs. Still, there seems to be compromises available in between the former model of artists selling CDs, and the current one of artists mostly giving away haphazardly ripped CDs or giving them away online for free.

Audiences - and artists - need to understand that tangible merchandise, whether it be T-shirts, CDs, or posters, has a more lasting appeal that is in essence less ephemeral. MP3s used for music on computers are literally made of zeros and ones - mere concepts. With those, they can be edited, moved or traded, and there is no physical evidence to their being altered.

Merchandise is resilient as it may be made with paper, cloth, plastic and etc. An alteration requires an act of violence. It discourages changes, meaning the artist retains more control, even after the product has changed hands.

I have no problem with the audience changing a product to suit their names (collage art and remixing are both fine in my book, with caveats), but the original artist is still the original producer and that should be respected.

When local artists don't have the ability to control their product, everyone loses.


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