"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.
In April, I wrote that "with all the recent uncertainty on the Beijing live music landscape, it's encouraging to see a relative newcomer to the scene like DDC really hitting its stride." Now it's July, that uncertainty hasn't gone away, and DDC's more crucial than ever. Almost painfully so. For all of Beijing's musical explosion, all of the new generations of disaffected youth picking up guitars, there's a glaring paucity of suitable venues with the open-mindedness and open stages to host them, to develop new sounds in this strange city.
DDC is one of the last venues standing on this front. Even though it's only been around for a year, I can't imagine the Beijing live music scene without it at this point. They're celebrating the one-year milestone with a full week of killer gigs, starting tonight with a SUBS showcase. Ahead of that I sat down for a few beers with 69, the indefatigable live music fanatic who's put his entire life's savings on the line to keep Beijing's music underground fertile.
SmartBeijing: Let's start off with the basics. Where are you from? What's your background?
69: I’m from the south, from Fujian. My focus in high school and college had nothing to do with music. First I studied physics, then computer science.
SmBJ: Why did you move to Beijing from Fujian?
69: Before I ran a music hostel in Fujian. It was very cozy, very smooth and comfortable. Fujian is in the south, the weather is very comfortable. But for music or for indie culture, I think it’s a tiny market. So I thought I wanted to move to the cultural capital, Beijing.
SmBJ: Considering you had more of a scientific background, why did you start working in the music industry?
69: This is my personal love, my interest. From high school I listened to music… Pink Floyd was my favorite. I got deeper and deeper. I really enjoyed music and live shows. And drinking. [laughs]
SmBJ: So you moved to Beijing and almost immediately started working at Jianghu Bar. How did you get involved with them?
69: When I moved to Beijing I ran another, normal business with a schoolmate from my hometown. He went to Peking University. But it was very boring, just commercial, money money money. I worked with him for half a year, and in that time I’d go to Jianghu and listen to music, and then I befriended Tian Xiao, the founder and owner. Before he had another musician helping with the club, but he quit and moved to Yunnan, like many musicians. So Tian Xiao needed help. He thought about selling Jianghu, but then we met and thought it would be good for both of us to work together.
SmBJ: What were you doing at Jianghu? Booking shows? Managing?
69: I was a partner, I paid a share, half and half. I worked on promotion, editing events, Photoshopping posters. It got a little confused. Because many musicians are friends with Tian Xiao, but they’d book gigs with me. And in the end Tian Xiao wasn’t so happy with that. I had another vision about live music, to combine different, fresh elements together, like modern art or something. We just had a different idea about that.
So I quit Jianghu in December 2013, and I spent one or two months working on the business papers and raising money and finding venues for DDC. I went to maybe 15 or 20 different places near here, some hutong spaces and buildings.
SmBJ: How did you find this place? What was it before?
69: Before it was like an art space, a studio run by a woman from New York. Before here I found a little courtyard, smaller than this one, in Wudaoying hutong across from The Vineyard. I almost signed with them but I had a small disagreement with the landlord. I’m really glad because then we found this place, I really like it.
SmBJ: What did this place look like when you signed the lease? I know you put in a lot of work renovating it…
69: When I first saw this place it was naked. It was rough. The building wasn’t even finished. But from that first time I could see what it would become. I have a friend who’s a professional interior designer and I put many ideas to him, like about having the trees inside the courtyard, or the Lonely Planet bricks, or the lamps. And also the colors. I didn’t want it to look like every other hutong courtyard, I wanted the music and the culture to mix. So there are some “Western” colors with some “Oriental” colors.
SmBJ: DDC was successful pretty quickly. What were some early events that gave you good feedback?
69: We had a crowdfunding project before we really opened. And it was successful, I reached my target, 150,000 kuai. And then the opening gig was on July 25, we had a big party. Almost 400 people came.
When I was building the space, a guy from the band Slap — another underground band sort of like Secondhand Rose, we call that bin sun yaogun, local culture rock’n’roll — he came here when we were setting it up and he thought it would really suit their shows. So we booked them here twice, on August 1 and August 9, and both times we got about 400 people here. So it was good.
And then Horse Radio. Me, myself, with the band Horse Radio, we grew up with each other at Jianghu. I invited them here in August also. And I discovered that many of my friends wanted to support me in this new project, in DDC.
SmBJ: You use the computer science / net culture term “Open Source” to describe your booking philosophy. What does this term mean in the context of live music?
69: I think this idea has been very successful. I invite different people to come to DDC, like Will [Live Beijing Music] and Djang San, and the assumption is that they’re the host. They can do it their way. I think it’s very good to them and to me. So far, maybe 300 different bands have played here. Maybe 60% or 70% were not on my radar before. They were beyond my sight. So it’s good for me. And when those bands play here, they feel it’s cool. So I think Open Source, the first idea is that everyone builds together.
organizer Will Griffith crowdsurfing at his Spring Fever event last April at DDC
SmBJ: Outside of music, you’ve also attracted other communities to DDC. People running small restaurants, microbreweries, visual and performance artists. What have been some of DDC’s most successful events outside of live music?
69: Our main topic is music, but I want to combine other topics, like modern art, film, photography. I think they can combine together. We did the Craft Beer and Music Fair, we had some food, and the microbrews, the best in Beijing, and we invited some musicians to play, to make a party together. I think for the breweries, it was a new way out, to reach more people. And of course all the musicians really enjoyed the beer.
SmBJ: What is your typical work day like?
69: When I wake up at high noon, the first hour or two go to my children. I’ll play with them at home. After lunch I move to DDC. I love working. When I’m working I’m very clear and very happy. I’ll have some meetings or do some photo editing, Facebook, Gmail, so many details… Then, maybe at 5pm or 6pm the band will come for sound check. At night I’ll go to almost every show we have, and photograph, and drink. [laughs] Sometimes I’ll go out to socialize and listen to some different music. Yugong Yishan, Temple, Dada…
SmBJ: You’re pretty young, yeah? 30? You’re still in the early stage of your career. Do you plan to be running DDC for a long time?
69: Yeah, I was born in 1984. I plan to keep doing this. For me, besides my home and my family, this is my whole life. My full time and full energy are here. And I get a lot of help. The artists, friends, they help me, so it’s a good deal. I have big plans for the future. Maybe later I will do some festivals, work more as an artist manager. I want to book bigger shows for some of my friends’ bands. Maybe later I will put more of my time outside, but I need someone who can run DDC. Maybe we’ll aim to be like Modern Sky or Tree Music, but not so big. We’ll aim to do our own festival or a commercial tour.
My idol is JZ Club. I think that’s my way. We can have different venues, and we can host our artists elsewhere. But here, DDC, I think I’ll never quit. As long as I can handle the neighborhood. [laughs]
Little Punk at DDC (photo by 69)
SmBJ: Have you had any problems with that? As you know, many small venues in Beijing have been closing recently…
69: I’ve had big pressure the last few months, ever since Sound of the Xity. I think the Beijing government is very sensitive right now. And we just got the smoking ban, so everybody’s going outside and upstairs to smoke, and talking. So now the police come often. I’m very worried about this. But I think if we can stop the music before 11:30pm or midnight, I think it’s ok.
SmBJ: Can you talk a bit about your program for the first anniversary? How did you put it together?
69: Yeah, the first one is a big rock star, SUBS! I’ve been working on the anniversary program since just after the Spring Festival. I asked a lot of bands, like Low Wormwood, Zhang Weiwei, Dawanggang. The problem is, they want to support me with their bands, but now they’re all signed, to Modern Sky or Tree Music. And when I talk to the companies, I feel it’s so hard to push. They will charge a commercial event fee. So I said, “Fuck off. We can have our own lineup.”
I think later this problem will get bigger and bigger in the music industry. I can understand why SUBS hasn’t signed with anyone. But on this topic, I think Maybe Mars did it very well. They’re not so commercial or so formal. When Maybe Mars bands play here, or Michael [Pettis] or Charles [Saliba] come here, they don’t carry themselves like a big label or a big company. I think it’s very open, working together with them.
The rest of the program comes back to Open Source, and also to my personal taste. World music and traditional music are my favorites. I also like progressive or artistic rock. Maybe not too noisy, like too metal or punk or emo, and not too wild.
Dawanggang's Song Yuzhe at DDC (photo by 69)
SmBJ: Now that DDC has reached one year, what is your plan for the next?
69: One topic is, last time when we were doing the FFF, Fake Fuzz Fest, I talked to [event organizers] Dann [Gaymer] and Will [Griffith], I said, “Maybe we can do FSF here: Four Seasons Festival.” They didn’t take that idea, but I think maybe later I will take it. Spring came and we had Spring Fever, and in August we’ll have Summer Blaze.
In the future I will give more space to different hosts. More promoters, more labels, like Tree, Maybe Mars. We’ll have more cooperation together. And I will try my best to discover more new bands, more good music. Beijing is so refreshing. Many new bands pop up, and they are good. They have very good ideas. Like Luv Plastik and The Harridans, they’re genius. Before if I just stayed at Jianghu, I would not hear these new bands. In China we have a chengyu, “井底之蛙“, “the frog at the bottom of the well.” I want DDC to avoid that perspective.
SmBJ: How do you find new bands? How do you keep DDC fresh?
69: I watch Douban every day, and sometimes friends introduce their music or their friends’ music to me over email or Facebook. If I think they’re cool I’ll give them some time here. I will take, and I will get. I’ll wait for you to come, but I’ll also take things that are interesting to me. I don’t follow any specific concept, like this is Chinese rock’n’roll, or this is indie music, or this is alternative… I think we can help each other to grow up together.
I’m working on a festival at the end of September, I will help maybe 10 or 15 bands out. I think it’s good for each other, we can get some money for the bands to share. So I’ll spend time on this, not just the bar, but I think both projects are mutually beneficial. Not just a bar, not just a shop. Some bands play here, and they feel very happy. And I’ll promote their show afterwards, not just before. After the show I’ll have some photos or some videos, and then many friends will invite them to bigger, commercial shows. So I think we are helping each other.
DDC has a packed program of anniversary gigs running from tonight through dawn on Sunday. The marquee event, on July 25, is an all-day carnival featuring live music from 3pm on from Li Gaoyang's Electrik Jazz band, Dawei, Li Dong, Djang San Band, The Harridans, DJ Demone, and more, for an all-in price of 100rmb. The rest of the events will run you 120rmb at the door and start at 8pm. Full program:
TUE 7/21: SUBS special performance
WED 7/22: Maybe Mars showcase feat. Carsick Cars
THU 7/23: Moxizi Band special performance
FRI 7/24: Liangxiaoxue Band special performance
SUN 7/26: PUSH Band special performance