The article presents a superficial retreading of familiar ground, a sterling example of a sub-genre of Western journalism convinced of the fact that the mere existence of independent art, music, and film China is a story in itself. Nevertheless, it raises a valid point: up until recently, there have been very few labels with the funding, consumer insight, and industry savvy to give Chinese artists the financial and marketing support necessary to get their music heard around the country and around the world.
That's changing. The most recent player to enter the China indie label game is Douban.com, a social media platform with ten million daily users and a range of music-oriented products, including a featured artists streaming page, a web radio station, and over 35,000 individual pages hosting music submitted by artists from throughout the country.
Douban has effectively owned Chinese music social media since launching Douban Artists in 2008. They've grown the music side of the business through an artist-focused approach, to the point where many Chinese bands today will have a Douban page before they have songs to put on it, or even a name.
Douban Music's latest project seems counterintuitive for an online network: D Force, a label that produces, among other things, physical music releases. Why is a Chinese tech company putting out vinyl in the Internet Age? To understand where D Force came from — and how it might significantly effect the Chinese indie music industry — we first need to get the lay of the land.
The China Label Pyramid: Three Tiers
In China, the record labels sucking music up from the underground and packaging it out to the world generally fall into one of three tiers. At the bottom of the pyramid are DIY labels: small operations that put out low-budget releases for free download or on inexpensive formats such as cassette tape or CD-R. There are many of these in Beijing, some examples being the cassette imprint recently started by the guerilla organizer of experimental music performance series Zoomin' Night, and the web-only, compilation-focused Seippelabel. DIY labels offer very little to the artists they work with besides a small amount of exposure.
DIY tape release by gig series turned label, Zoomin' Night
The next tier up is what you could call mid-range labels. They usually have some amount of angel investor funding, and are able to spend more money on production, distribution, and promotion. Recent examples of this in Beijing are Fake, which represents label co-founder Helen Feng's band Nova Heart, and Ran Music, which works non-exclusively with a broad range of producers, musicians, and even other labels. Ran CEO Shen Lijia calls out the difference between his company and DIY labels:
"When it's all digital releases, anyone can do a label. Upload your music, announce it, have a release party, burn some CDs for people. That's not really a 'release.' In this digital period, a proper release means getting enough exposure on media platforms like LeTV and Xiami, getting positions on their home page. All of our releases will have a position on the front page or be promoted by the official WeChat accounts of these platforms. We have to have our artists get enough exposure."
Mid-range labels in China don't usually "sign" artists in the traditional sense. That happens in the top tier, where labels sign exclusive contracts with artists in exchange for a 360 deal providing a recording budget, marketing, merchandising, promotion, distribution, tour support, and festival bookings. In China, there are three major Big Indie labels in this tier, operating with two opposing business models.
Maybe Mars, which just celebrated its eighth anniversary last weekend, is artist-focused to a fault. The company often opts to lose money on expensive recording budgets and international tour itineraries for marquee acts, like Carsick Cars and Chui Wan, before compromising the label's integrity or taste. They're also hemmed in by their rather narrow aesthetic focus. As Maybe Mars founder Michael Pettis told me in a recent interview: "The disadvantage of focusing [on a certain style] would be that there were certain types of music that we weren't going to support. But the advantage was that we would become much better at promoting the certain type of musicians that we especially liked."
the Maybe Mars artist family tree
For its fans, Maybe Mars's aesthetic tilt towards darker and more experimental strains within the Chinese rock underground is its justifiable raison d'être; for its detractors, it perpetuates an insular, over-exposed bubble of hype. In either case, the label has hard financial and stylistic limitations when choosing which artists to promote, and has historically operated more as a patronage system than as a sustainable business.
On the other side of the aisle are the two more business-oriented Big Indie labels, Modern Sky and Tree Music. Both have been around for over a decade, and have grown from small, artist-oriented labels into diversified businesses in the fields of music licensing, merchandising, and, most crucially, large-scale music festival organization. "I feel like they don't treat releases, the music itself, very seriously... They just watch the market, see who's popular, whose gig brings in a lot of fans, and then sign them," says Ran Music's Shen Lijia about Tree and Modern Sky.
When I interviewed Modern Sky CEO Shen Lihui in 2013, he claimed: "From the outside it looks like we're more of a festival organizer, because the festivals are a really big undertaking and our work on them is more visible. [However] we currently have about 30 active artists. This year we plan to put out 15 to 20 new records, it'll be our biggest year yet as a label... So I think actually producing records is our most important role."
The stats are accurate, but his claim about the primacy of the label aspect of Modern Sky doesn't square with the level of spend evident in the company's massive domestic festival network, their stated goal to open their flagship retail space-cum-livehouse Modernsky Lab in 20 cities within three years, and the bi-coastal US music festivals they have planned for next month. While Modern Sky does release new music from emerging bands on a regular basis, within the industry these releases are widely seen to be loss leaders for the organization's far more lucrative festival business.
Enter: D Force
D Force's leader, Xu Bo
D Force is jumping in at the top tier, with sure hands at the reins. Its director, Xu Bo, has been at the center of the Chinese indie scene's big bang for fifteen years. He's led the charge in some respects as lead guitarist, since 2001, of Beijing indie rock progenitors P.K.14. He's also no novice to the industry side of it: he learned MIDI in the early 2000s and earned his living programming video game music and ringtones. He joined Douban's then-fledgling music department in 2006, and for the last nine years has run lead on every new music product that the company has released.
I arrive at Douban HQ, which sprawls across the entire second floor of an office building near Siyuanqiao, and am buzzed in by a middle-aged woman in a Douban t-shirt cutting watermelon for the staff. She points me to the room housing the D Force team, which is preparing for the upcoming album release tour for Beijing MC/producer duo J-Fever and Soulspeak. Xu Bo's carved an hour out of his jammed schedule — he books me in between two crucial operations meetings.
"Douban's music services have been based entirely on the online project and products," Xu Bo tells me, "but there were two big questions we couldn't address through that. First, we didn't accept the conclusion that the overall music industry situation here is healthy just because we're in the Internet Age. Even with Spotify and iTunes, with all these fancy online products, it's hard to tell if these services are actually encouraging people to devote their time to creating new music, or even helping artists to get more money, more benefits."
"The second problem," Xu Bo continues, "is that specifically in China, everything's different. People have a different cultural background. They don't know much about a lot of music, and they spend money in different ways. So it's hard to say whether doing things online this way is going to help the overall situation. That's why Douban started doing offline projects."
Online to Offline
Douban's first major step into the offline world was the 2011 launch of Abilu, a user-oriented awards voting platform culminating in an annual live event. Over the next few years, Xu Bo and his growing team — now split into a standalone corporate structure under the Douban umbrella called Pianbei — began to quietly build their roster.
"Soon after they'd made this plan to start putting out records, to start D Force as a label, I talked with them, and felt really comfortable working with them as these plans developed," says Beijing rapper J-Fever, who will release his new album Color Blind tonight at Yugong Yishan. J-Fever had been burned by a bad record deal in 2007, with a label that no longer exists. That led the artist to stick to the DIY, self-release route for the next several years. Sensing a feeling of mutual respect and camaraderie, J-Fever eventually signed with D Force, which will release his album on CD and 12", gatefold vinyl, along with a suite of merchandise including hats, tote bags, and hoodies. "Up to now, the services that D Force has provided have exceeded my expectations. I get the feeling that everyone at the company is busy actively supporting its artists, they're all very motivated and diligent. And the results show it."
J-Fever at the press release event for his D Force album, Color Blind
Like Maybe Mars, D Force is acutely artist-oriented, giving the same amount of attention to established artists like J-Fever and relative newcomers like Chengdu's Stolen, who'll release their debut album, LOOP, tomorrow night at Yugong Yishan. "With Douban's support we went to Taiwan to record, to 112F, a really great analog recording studio," Stolen's lead vocalist Liang Yi tells me from the road. He still sounds somewhat starry-eyed about the whole thing, if a little winded from the exhaustive 32-city album release tour D Force booked for the band. "The timing has been very tight, but for us this was a test. Douban arranged a sound engineer to go on tour with us, an assistant, a van and a driver. The experience for us has been fresh and exciting, and also [a] very serious [challenge]. Because of Douban's help we only need to worry about focusing on our performance, our music."
The Chinese Market
D Force is seizing on a sea change, an inversion of the way Chinese artists and consumers are figured into the global music marketplace. One of their earliest signees was Shanghai's Ma Haiping, who produces thinking-person's minimal techno under the alias of his acronym, MHP. Ma has released singles and LPs for a number of established local and international labels, but gravitated to Douban's unique offer, as a social network stretching to the offline world, to reach China's growing domestic audience.
"A lot of people here have the idea that artists making certain types of niche music should first establish themselves overseas, and only then start to think about building a domestic audience," MHP tells me. "I also used to have this roundabout logic. But over the last two or three years, I've been paying much more attention to listeners within China. The times have changed. Now a lot of foreign musicians are paying much more attention to the Chinese market. So D Force came along at just the right moment when my own thinking was changing."
Ma Haiping also appreciates the label's primary focus on music above all else. Labels like Modern Sky and Tree, he says, "are already able to do things outside just putting out music, like large-scale music festivals, playing around in financial markets, etc. The goal of these big labels is to attract average music fans and fashionable youth, to pull them into a certain atmosphere and supplement their lifestyle through music. D Force, by contrast, is aiming at a small, core audience. If you look at the artists they've chosen to work with so far, you can see that it's emphatically not directed at the masses. That includes my music. I think D Force's position is definitely not to satisfy other people's music lifestyles, but rather is oriented towards fans who would actually die without music."
MHP — read SmBJ's long-form interview with him here
"That's basically a Douban tradition," Xu Bo says, echoing MHP's view from the label side. "Douban has never done anything that's starting from a commercial or financial motivation. For D Force and for Douban Music, it's not about replacing someone else, because no one really has the answer. Everyone's trying new things. It's an open process. But deep down, it's about people, it's about the team that's running things."
D Force's fifteen-person staff reflects this, composed entirely of either musicians or music fanatics. Publicity Director Zhao Yue, who caught the indie bug while getting her Master's degree at Oxford, immediately jumped into the industry upon returning to Beijing. "When I came back, that's actually when I realized that indie music had been going on all this time in China. I remember the first shock was when I saw Hedgehog at D-22." After working with concert promoters Split Works for a few years while simultaneously managing Chinese media for the indie rock oligarchy Beggars Group, Zhao Yue was scooped up by Xu Bo as D Force was beginning to make its first coordinated publicity push.
The artist- and fan-oriented approach is fine, but what about the business side? While Douban lacks the industry bona fides of a group like Modern Sky, its social network component is a powerful, potentially game-changing advantage in promoting and distributing its artists, as well as identifying new talent. "We have 300,000 original songs in the database, and every day we get a few hundred more," Xu Bo tells me. "We have the advantage of having this gigantic database: we get to see from the back stage which artists are trending, or who are the newest artists we think are interesting." They also have a built-in audience of ten million daily users, and a concrete plan to expand their reach to key international markets.
D Force actually offers two separate services: D Force Records is the label I've been profiling up to now. D Force Music offers additional distribution services to artists not on the label's roster, but still hand-picked by the label's staff. D Force has, for example, bought the copyrights to a large portion of Maybe Mars's back catalogue, and is now working to get that heard by a much larger, global audience.
"We've been handling international distro for Douban's two labels since March this year," says Alex Taggart of Beijing music rights management company OD Rights. "They’ve got a total of 133 releases on the board, from headline acts like Stolen and J-Fever & Soulspeak to grassroots artists making tunes in their bedrooms all over the country." Speaking to Douban's user ecosystem, Taggart adds, "I think Douban's huge, loyal community of creators and music fans puts them in a great position as a label. They know what’s popping off, and they have a built-in level of trust among artists. The quality of D Force Records' output so far reflects that artist-first approach, I think."
J-Fever x Soulspeak's Color Blind vinyl layout by D Force Records
While OD Rights is placing D Force's deep archive of original releases and back-catalogue copyrights on international platforms, and even in the inboxes of editors at digital music stores, D Force is working closely with their colleagues down the hall to find new ways to reach — and build — a Mainland audience. "That's actually a new function we're looking into right now, a location-based service," says Xu Bo. "After that's fully developed, everyone will be able to see what new music is coming from which area of China." The ultimate goal, in addition to an altruistic desire to foster independent music across the country, is to funnel talent directly to D Force. "Other than Xi'an, Chengdu, Changsha, key cities like that, there are more talents showing up from even third- or fourth-tier cities, places like Ningbo. But for now, to learn about the cool, interesting new bands, we still mostly trust information circulating among our friends."
For the time being, D Force is sticking to a simple rule, one ethic. "Music is our product," Xu Bo says near the end of our talk. "I think in this case, aesthetics is closely related to ethics. We need to put out music which we believe is good, and we have to do things that are responsible and suitable for the artists."
Can D Force change the local industry with a model that promotes artists' interests while accounting for financial sustainability? "I'm not optimistic [about] any major changes in the Chinese music industry, or overseas," says Jeff Liang, aka Soulspeak, an established producer with more than a decade of industry experience between Beijing and Los Angeles. His relationship with D Force, cultivated through the release of his album with J-Fever, is a positive one. "The people are all really great and love music there, and that's why we've decided to work with them," he says, but adds that he's not sure good faith alone is enough to make a significant change in the Chinese music industry. "Once it becomes an industry, the rules are set. They change in accordance to social trends and technology but ultimately it gets co-opted back into 'the industry.' To me it's more important for artists in China — well, anywhere — to have an honest voice. To create without thinking about trends. To me, independent labels help support this growth or offer a community for these ideas to get out. But as far as a significant change, I think only time can tell."
"That's our ethic," Xu Bo tells me, unknowingly seconding Liang. "In a word: honesty. We have to be honest to the artists, honest to the consumers, and honest to ourselves."
Catch D Force in full effect this weekend, with the official record releases for J-Fever x Soulspeak's Color Blind tonight (FRI Sep 25) and for Stolen's LOOP tomorrow (SAT Sep 26), both at Yugong Yishan.