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Rock concerts fill city coffers

GOVERNMENTS that once saw big outdoor rock concerts as a blight of racket, rowdiness and intoxication now see them as a boon and a way to make money and earn culture points. Yao Minji reports.

Young Chinese rock fans, who not long ago had to struggle to find live performances, are suddenly spoiled for choice.

Nearly 50 large outdoor music festivals have been scheduled all over China this year, more than 30 of them between July and October. Last year's national total was around 20.

They are held in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing and in tourist attractions like Lijiang in Yunnan Province and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province.

More surprisingly, this year almost one-third of these festivals are directly supported and financed by local governments, who see these periodic bashes not simply as cash cows (that's uncertain), but as a way to build a reputation as a cool and cultured city.

And this despite the fact that big outdoor rock was generally considered dangerous, and stereotypically linked to beer, drugs and unruly fans.

Five years ago, there were only a handful of concerts in a year and cops made sure no one had alcohol. Today it's sold.

Governments are not only supporting the festivals but also have put a lot of effort into the projects. One of them was the recent (October 1-4) Changjiang Midi Festival, one of the oldest and largest of its kind, held on Shiyezhou Island in Zhenjiang City of Jiangsu Province, not far from Shanghai.

The city government dedicated all its cultural affairs staff and many technicians to the show and donated a lot of equipment. It paved new roads on the remote island, and provided accommodation for staff, performers and media.

The Tanglewood Great Wall Music Festival, which took place a few weeks earlier at the Great Wall in Beijing, had a venue that was totally renovated this year. The area of rugged hills and outcropping was completely reshaped and paved. Now there are convenient roads and the hills are round, grassy and easy to climb. The government face-lift cost "a few dozen million" yuan, according to industry insiders.

This change in authorities' attitudes stems from changed perceptions of the alternative "underground" music scene.

"My dad used to dislike anything related to rock, underground, or fest, because that all represented danger and trouble to him. He hated it because he didn't understand it," Candy Chen, a 21-year-old fan from Nanjing, Jiangsu Proivnce, told Shanghai Daily at the Midi Festival.

"But over the years he has forgotten the idea and doesn't see it as a monster anymore. This time he didn't object to my coming and he even offered to drive me and my friends to the island."

Rock music critics, who had kept repeating "Chinese rock is long dead" are now talking about the "revival" or the "blowout" of the Chinese rock scene.

Dedicated rockers, who are not known for high living, say they can make a pretty good living these days, with all the invitations from music festivals. Five to seven years ago a band might make as little as 30 yuan in a club night; many played for free just to get heard. Today, top bands can earn as much as 50,000 yuan to play at a music festival.

Festival organizers and sponsors are pleased with the results, both financially and culturally.

"We are very satisfied with the outcome last year, hence the larger and longer festival this year and a long-term contract," an official from Zhenjiang government tells Shanghai Daily.

"We don't care about the short-term profits from this one event, we are looking more at the long standing financial and cultural return," says the young official, who declines to give his name.

He and a few other officials in their thirties had connected the local government with the Midi festival organizers. Older officials in their forties and fifties even showed up at the party.

They even promised not to put any city propaganda logos or posters in the festival plaza, so that the music festival wouldn't look like a tourism promotion. There wasn't even an opening ceremony and an official speech.

"It took a lot of communications with the officials. We kept telling them it would be very peaceful without any trouble, all purely art and happiness," explains Zhang Fan, headmaster of Beijing Midi Music School. The original Midi fest was held in the school's dining room in 1999. "We promote our festival as part of the creative culture industry, a field greatly supported by the government."

He added that at first governments didn't like rock music or outdoor fests because they didn't understand them, and human beings tend to worry about the unknown.

"Over the past 11 years, they have been seeing from our fest that there's no trouble, no fights, no instability. Young people come here to find pleasure, which creates a harmonious atmosphere that the government likes," says Zhang.

It is not only the harmonious atmosphere, but also profits that officials love. Zhenjiang officials reported that 100,000 people turned out over the four-day party, an impressive number given Shiyezhou Island's remote location. Jiangsu Province also ranked Zhenjiang at the top in terms of hotel occupancy during the National Day golden week holiday.

It seems the underground scene has finally come above the surface, with support from governments, some of which even signed 10-year contracts with organizers. Midi and Tanglewood have 10-year deals.

But whether underground music, once strongly associated with counterculture, is actually mainstream is open for debate. It depends on how one defines rock.

One thing for sure: it's not about a handful of angry young men.

Industry observers have different views. Some are pleased that rock music is finally recognized and prospering; others are concerned that it won't last and that quality will decline; still others lament the commercialization of festivals and say they have lost their free, spontaneous spirit. Now they're becoming like modern temple fairs for young people.

The old rock festivals were filled with loyal fans who believed they were not understood by society and that they were in the minority. Not anymore. Young people, whether they love or hate the noise, come anyway to have fun.

Some young couples even take their toddlers and have a family picnic as they listen to heavy metal.

"It's like a shelter for the music industry when CDs are not selling right now. When one music fest makes money, everyone just tries to cash in - music industry people see the profits and possibilities while local governments see the idea of cultural branding," says Peter Zhang, a festival organizer who used to work for an independent recording label in Beijing.

Like many other observers, Zhang insists that the current prosperity is transient and doubts how many festivals will remain after two or three years.

"Of course, we are grateful to have more chances to perform, but it is not the music fest that keeps us alive or brings rock back to life," says Liang Long, lead vocal of the band Second Hand Rose.


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