Undercurrents is an ongoing column on SmartBeijing in which we talk to creators of Beijing cultural content within the context of the large economic and social landscape in the city. These are the manufacturers of cultural capital. This is the business of art, craft, and music in Beijing.
While Beijing has been losing live music venues left and right this year, it's also seen quite a few new labels crop up like so many mushrooms after a spring acid-rain. One such label is RAN Music, which had its first official release in May with Luv Plastik's Electric Fantastic EP and has continued to steadily drop pleasant sonic earbombs, including a recent teaser single for a forthcoming full-length album they'll put out for Beijing producer Soulspeak next month.
RAN has much more in the chamber, though. There are six more releases scheduled for the rest of the year, and on Saturday at DDC they throw their first RAN Live label showcase , an event they hope will grow into a full-fledged outdoor electronic music festival.
Ahead of their offline Hello World I sat down with Shen Lijia and Dan Lenk, RAN's creative director and overseas PR manager, respectively, and both musicians with a long pedigree in the Beijing scene. Here's what RAN's about and what they've got coming:
SmartBeijing: Where are you from originally? What brought you to Beijing?
Shen Lijia: I'm from Xinjiang, I've been here for seven years now. I came first in 2007 for university. After I graduated I just stayed. It's totally an accident. I studied physics in college, and music was just a hobby then. I'd go to D-22 and participate in that indie music scene, I got to see Maybe Mars being established. And later I developed this into a career. Now I'm a full-time producer and sound engineer.
Dan Lenk: I'm from England, but I've been in Asia for most of my life. I moved to Beijing with my father for the first time in '99, we also lived in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, he worked in a lot of different countries. This most recent stint in Beijing started in 2008, when I came here to study.
SmBJ: I know you've both been involved in the music scene here for quite a while... what sucked you in at first? Can you give me a brief CV of different bands or projects you've been involved with?
Dan: Honestly, D-22. Without the existence of that club, I wouldn't have caught the music bug which has been pushing me ever since. CV of bands... I started with a college band called Happy Go Shop, then joined Candy Monster on bass as a hired gun, was one of the founding members of Yantiao, started making electronic music with Michael Cupoli of Noise Arcade under the shitty name D.C Bros, played in a duo with Michael Winkler during the Jingweir days called Guijian, formed Luv Plastik with the indefatigable Dan Taylor, and now I am kick starting Death Narcissist with Tim Zhang of Nakoma and Carlo Fuentes of a whole shitload of bands.
Shen: The first band I formed was Yantiao, in 2009, with Dan Lenk and Michael Winkler. Then in 2010 I started producing electronic music, I had a solo project called Headmaster. At that time there was no Dada and I didn't really perceive the club culture [in Beijing]. So Headmaster was kind of an amateur project. But in the mean time I kept playing in Yantiao, and later in 2011 I started to listen to more and more house and techno music. I started to understand the club culture, I found Lantern. So I started making club music with a friend and playing live under the name Dumb Plants.
SmBJ: How did you become involved in the industry side of the music scene? Where did the idea for starting RAN Music come from?
Shen: After I graduated I actually wanted to go to America to get a Master's degree and continue studying physics. But this plan was not very realistic, obviously you need a lot of money to do this. So the first job I had out of college was as a freelance programmer, and I was producing music at the time. Of course with electronic music you need to handle mixing yourself, because when you're producing you're already kind of mixing. Later I helped friends [in the music scene], they all thought my mixing skill was good. So gradually I started to do a lot of mixing and even some recording, mostly for friends' bands. In 2013 I went to Zhongguancun to buy some equipment, and I met this audio equipment seller, also from Xinjiang. His business was really big, he's the official [China] distributor for Native Instruments and other big audio brands. Eventually he asked me if I wanted to be his partner, doing technical support. I know a lot of people from that period. A lot of people came to me, asking for technical support, or asking for advice on choosing microphones and other equipment. I accumulated a lot of knowledge and got a chance to use all the audio equipment.
Dumb Plants performing at a Native Instruments Maschine launch event
Shen: Earlier this year one of my friends came to me [about starting a label]. He used to be the founder of a software called 360手机助手. All the Chinese Android users need to use that to install software, because the Google app store is blocked. He sold that app and made his fortune, and he wanted to do something more meaningful, more influential. He wanted to invest in cultural things. So he came to me and said, "Since you've already been getting in touch with a lot of musicians and doing mixing and mastering, recording, why don't we extend this service? Help them release it, promote it, help them to develop." So that's how we started RAN Music.
SmBJ: Who else is involved in the label?
Shen: Of course my investor has been helping a lot. He's very familiar with the IT industry, Xiami, all these internet companies. So he does PR for us, helps us get exposed on video and music platforms like LeTV. He's been helping a lot, he's definitely a very important member. He's not just an investor. He's participating a lot, very active.
Dan is a longtime friend, I've known him for seven years. He really loves music, and I knew he'd want to be involved in anything related to music. So I invited him to handle our overseas PR, Facebook, Soundcloud. We have a designer also, and we have some other people helping. My girlfriend Nico used to be the promoter of Lantern, and now she's helping RAN Music with domestic PR. We also have a mastering engineer who's very professional, he's been doing mixing and mastering for over 15 years for top Chinese pop stars. He's handling all the mastering for the label. So basically we're a five-member team right now.
Dan: Shen is undoubtedly the powerhouse behind the label, he handles all of the music production work and also manages the label. I was honored when he approached me to assist with the label and was happy to come on board. We are planning to expand the team next year and grow the label.
SmBJ: A few new small-scale indie labels have sprung up this year, responding to new opportunities in the growing market for alternative music in China. Why do you think this is? What does RAN add to the mix that other labels have neglected or can't address?
Shen: It's been the case for a while, in China, that when you talk about serious labels it's only Modern Sky, Tree Music, and Maybe Mars. There are not too many labels. And of course Modern Sky is more focused on music festivals. I feel like they don't treat releases, the music itself, very seriously. They just give their musicians a budget and ask them to do it. Tree Music is the same. I also find that Tree Music and Modern Sky don't have time to help establish new talents. They just watch the market, see who's popular, whose gig brings in a lot of fans, and then sign them. They don't actually start from square one. They just see who's already been tested by the market.
And Maybe Mars, I really respect Maybe Mars. I was part of the D-22 scene, I know those people are very talented. But Maybe Mars has their own style, it's not all kinds of music. They have a very specific style. So I feel a lot of people have seen the situation, and especially in the electronic music scene there are a lot of people making different kinds of music. Bass music, house music, hip hop, all kinds. So I think a lot of people feel the need for new labels, new platforms.
Dan: I think it's great that different labels are filling niches within the Chinese music scene, that's really important for the scene to move forward, and away from a very centralized style of music production and promotion. We are very proud of the productions we have released so far this year, we care greatly about production values, and we want to combine that with enabling upcoming musicians to have the best music possible, in order to build their own reputation and develop as musicians.
SmBJ: So far it seems to me that RAN is differentiating itself with a focus on high production quality and a mostly net-based release strategy. What are the core values of RAN? What do you offer to artists on your label?
Shen: With RAN Music we have a very specific definition of what we want to do. We want to do live electronic music. It could be a band with an electronic influence, synthesizer, sampler. It's not genre-specific. And the other thing is we want our artists to be able to deliver a really good live performance. Not just going to a club to DJ your music. We want to produce a showcase happening in live venues. So all of the artists, they either already play live or we ask them to develop new live stuff. And also the promotion will take different forms. We're going to do interviews, shoot videos, just keep promoting them.
Dan: Yes, as I mentioned, high production quality is definitely our focus. We don't feel that CD or tape format play an important role for our label at this moment, but one thing we would like to do next year is to expand into releasing vinyl on a consistent basis. If you look at the Chinese music market, there is just so much opportunity for providing netizens with access to interesting music, and having a large digital footprint is increasingly important. On the other hand, music is something which is very sensory and communicative so it is important to preserve that culture and not too entirely commodify something which some are increasingly taking for granted with the trend of digital streaming and free downloads.
We want to work with our artists on releasing creative and forward-thinking albums which have great potential to garner a lot of interest, and increase their own profile. In addition, the artist also keeps all of their songwriting copyright, and they are free to work with RAN for as short or long a period of time as they wish to, which personally as a musician I can't stress enough the importance that has on the long-term flexibility and prospects of an artist.
SmBJ: What is your release schedule looking like?
Shen: We have planned six releases already. At the end of this month we'll release my music, a collaboration with Luv Plastik. It'll be a really interesting release, what happens when a rock band meets an electronic music producer. Next month we'll have Soulspeak's full-length EP. The two singles we just released are to promote the EP. And at the end of October Soulspeak also has this amazing electronic jazz band started with a drummer, Lucas, the best jazz drummer I know in China. He plays with Cui Jian too. They did ten tracks with drums, synthesizers, samples. It's kind of electronic jazz, a really good album. They haven't played live yet and not many people know them, it's kind of a secret project they've developed over the last two years. And in November, Soulspeak and the trumpet player Toby Mak will also release their album.
In December we have a bass album coming out. UK bass or dubstep, bass-oriented, kind of a compilation. We're still deciding on the artists.
Dan: We just put out a release by a new house music producer called J.R.G., definitely worth checking out!
SmBJ: You're having your official offline release event this Saturday. Can you give a preview of what we can expect at the show? How important are offline events for RAN and do you plan on doing more?
Shen: To have a label showcase, live events, is important to every label. Beyond the recording, the other side of an artist is the live performance. And since we're a serious company, we've got proper funding and investment, we have huge ambitions. We want to develop this into an outdoor electronic music festival. So all the RAN Live shows we'll treat using a festival standard. For this one in DDC we'll rent our own PA system, our own mixer, we'll have a really good VJ. And we're gonna have live broadcasting through Yema Live, you can stream it live on their app or on LeTV. So we treat it very seriously.
Dan: Offline events are an important way for us to reach our audience personally and to cultivate a community, so they are incredibly important. We are really excited about the artists which we have on the lineup, it's going to be a dynamic show. Our offline events will be a regular thing, we plan to expand them in the future to become a fully supported outdoor festival.
SmBJ: Do you have any other long-term plans for RAN?
Shen: Yeah, we're also doing this video series called Half Live, kind of inspired by KEXP or BBC Live Launch. This will eventually become an app. For now we'll do it every month, but later we want to do it regularly. For example, every Friday at 8pm, open this app and see our new live video. That's another platform we want to create, and not just for our artists. Half Live Volume 2 will feature Soulspeak and J-Fever, who just put out an album together on D Force Records. We'll invite other artists we respect and shoot live videos for them.
SmBJ: Anything else you want to add?
Dan: Thanks to everyone for their support so far this year, it has been an exciting journey. Come check out the showcase and see what RAN is all about.
Shen: I want to emphasize our attitude. I don't want to say that we're here to set the music scene right, it's not like that. I know a lot of people bullshit, say about Modern Sky and even Maybe Mars that they don't really care about their artists, they only care about money, these kinds of things. I don't have that attitude. Of course no one is perfect. We're not very experienced, we're still in our learning curve. We're not perfect. I really respect Modern Sky and Maybe Mars. They make their contribution to the music scene.
During their first five years, ten years, Modern Sky influenced a lot of people. When my partner was in college, the only thing he would listen to were Modern Sky releases. Modern Sky had a huge impact on him. And me of course, the Maybe Mars stuff. Carsick Cars, Joyside, P.K.14. So I don't think RAN Music is here to say, "Ok, we're going to set the scene right." We just want to participate, do something. Everyone knows this industry is not for making big money. My partner's from the software industry. If he's looking for money of course he'll do another app or something. He wouldn't invest in this scene. So this is not for money. We want to do something influential.
And we want to be everyone's friend. I think we've set up a really good model. Stallion Ear, The Harridans' label, and also D Force, they signed Soulspeak and J-Fever, but we did mixing for both. We took part in those releases as a production company. We've also done mixing for [Modern Sky bands] Queen Sea Big Shark, Hedgehog. We want to collaborate with everybody, make the scene better. Make all the artists' lives easier. Artists should be in the center. We are all just doing a service.
Catch the launch of RAN Live on Saturday, September 12 at DDC, and keep tabs on their WeChat for new tunes, videos, and updates on their evolving Live series.