"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.
Shen Lihui is the founder of Modern Sky, at this point a peerless arbiter of Chinese independent music and youth culture. His domain includes over 150 compilations and albums released on the official Modern Sky label and various umbrella projects, including noise rock sub-label Badhead, electronic imprint Guava, and recently merged-in collaborator Robust Husband. Since 2007, Modern Sky's most visible and ambitious project has been revolutionizing the large-scale music festival. They do two a year in Beijing — including next week's Strawberry Festival — plus offshoots in Shanghai, Wuhan, Xi'an, and Zhenjiang. They underwrite the rapidly growing Caoker video portal, which produces original music videos and live concert footage and syndicates like content from international artists. They organize hundreds of club shows for their more than 30 active artists throughout China and internationally each year. And they do one-off art and design projects on the side, just for kicks.
Over a decade ago, Anna Sophie Loewenberg and Jeremy Goldkorn profiled the then-30-year-old Shen in a Beijing Scene article entitled "Modern Sky Empire." If it was an empire then, I'm not sure what it could be called now. The "small one-storey building" off the west third ring that Loewenberg and Goldkorn visited has evolved into a post-modern three-story loft in the trendy 22 Art District northeast of Shuangjing. Decorated with neon orange bannisters and outsize album art reproductions, peopled by an odd dozen 20-somethings who look like they jumped out of some future Supreme lookbook, today's Modern Sky office looks like Willy Wonka's factory would if it produced skateboards and had a Silicon Valley zip code.
This is no accident. Shen once told Time Out Beijing that his major role model "was Michael Jackson, then it was Mick Jagger. Now it’s… Steve Jobs. These days I believe that business can change the world." But where Jobs wanted to put a piece of meticulously designed technology into the hands of an already technology-addicted society, Shen aims to put Chinese music in the ears of an indifferent domestic population and an overstimulated international audience. He's no longer concerned with being cool. Despite Modern Sky's phenomenal expansion in a market largely ignorant of modern music culture, Shen still primarily concerns himself with thinking big.
Shen Lihui sporting some Ray-Bans
SmartBeijing.com: Are you from Beijing originally or did you come here for school? Where did you study?
Shen Lihui: I'm from Beijing. I went to the Beijing Arts and Crafts Institute [Beijing Gongyi Meishu Xuexiao, aka Mei Xiao]. It's a vocational school, basically equivalent to high school. My major was fine art.
SmBj: So you were originally an art student. How did you get into rock music? I've read before that your earliest idols were Michael Jackson and Rolling Stones. How did you discover this kind of music?
SL: It's because Wham! came to Beijing in 1983. I didn't go to the show, but I got their cassette tape. At that time in China you could only hear pop, Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop. Then I heard Wham!, and afterwards I started to seek out this kind of music.
SmBj: What could you find at the time? Was it mostly dakou tapes and CDs?
SL: At that time we still didn't have dakou. In 1984 dakou hadn't even shown up. I could only find original-press cassettes at audiovisual expositions, that kind of thing. I bought David Bowie, etc. I thought his music was really weird. At that time the kind of music you could hear was Duran Duran, A-Ha, that kind of '80s New Wave stuff. Afterwards you could find Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc.
SmBj: When did you start playing music?
SL: I started playing in a band while at school, in 1988.
SmBj: That was Sober?
SmBj: So at the time you also had friends into the same music who wanted to start a band?
SL: Yes, the members of the band were all my classmates, three people. The band had four people total and three were from [my school] Mei Xiao. Later there were five people in the band and four were from Mei Xiao. It all came from Mei Xiao.
SmBj: When did you graduate from Mei Xiao?
SmBj: After that you worked at a record company right? Designing album covers?
SL: Yeah that's right.
SmBj: What bands did you design art for?
SL: At that time it wasn't for bands. At that time it was just folk and Hong Kong/Taiwan pop. In a word, it was music with no connection to rock'n'roll.
SmBj: Then in 1994 you put together a compilation, "Rock '94" (摇滚94). What bands were on it? How did you choose the bands?
SL: The comp had Sober, Shi Tou (石头), Fen Wu (粉雾)... also a band called DD Rhythm (DD节奏), our original bassist's other band. It was a hip hop band. There was also a heavy metal band… in all it was six bands. It was just friends grabbing friends, we were the only ones we knew doing this kind of thing.
SmBj: At that time, in '93 and '94, what places in Beijing could you play?
SL: Beijing venues, there were a few… there was a restaurant called Maxime's, and a few clubs, pretty weird ones. There were also a few nightclubs, and once in a while we'd throw a party.
SmBj: In 1997 you started Modern Sky, with the first release of Sober's "Hao Ji Le!?" (好极了!?). Why did you want to start your own label? Did you originally want to release other bands, or just put out the Sober record?
SL: Originally it was just to put out my own band's record. No one else wanted to do it. At the time I was doing a lot of print work, I had some money. Not a lot, but at the time it could be considered a decent amount. There weren't any good record labels at the time, just a bunch of pirated music. So we just decided to do it ourselves. So we did it and set up this label, and afterwards I thought having a label with just one band is pretty strange. So then we signed two more bands, but my main concern was still my own band. The other two bands were also our classmates, New Pants and Supermarket. They were all from Mei Xiao, though a bit younger than us. But those were the only other bands we knew.
SmBj: So New Pants and Supermarket were the second and third Modern Sky releases?
SmBj: At the time Modern Sky also had other projects, like publishing a magazine.
SL: Yeah, a bit later we did a magazine. I felt the other [music] magazines at the time were really bad, so I collaborated with a Hong Kong magazine called MCB. Half of the content was from them, introducing American and European music. And our half was introducing Chinese music. Doing the magazine gave us a lot of energy, but eventually we stopped.
SmBj: Was it difficult to do the magazine?
SL: I think it was really invigorating. Even though none of us had ever put together a magazine before, our magazine sold really well. But we were an independent magazine, we did everything ourselves. Every aspect of the publication. It was really hard to manage the sales numbers. We'd send out a lot of copies, but then we'd get a lot of them back later. We couldn't really sell the copies we'd get back, and eventually we stopped doing it.
SmBj: How many people were working at Modern Sky at the time?
SL: About ten people... more than ten.
SmBj: How many issues of the magazine did you do?
SL: All together we did eleven issues.
SmBj: And how many copies of each edition?
SL: We printed 25,000 copies. The first edition we printed 5,000 and sold out. The second edition we printed 10,000, and sold out again. After that we did 18,000 or more. In a word, it was really good at the beginning, but afterwards our sales tracking was imprecise and difficult to control, really troublesome.
SmBj: Each magazine also included a cassette tape compilation, right? How did you find the bands for each comp?
SL: By that time we were getting huge monthly shipments of demos from all over the country. When we put out the New Pants album, we included a return address in the insert, and we got over 8,000 replies. These days that's just inconceivable, 8,000 reply letters! We got a lot of audience feedback, a lot of demos, enough to fill one suitcase after another in the office, bands from all over China.
SmBj: So every day you're just in the office, listening to these demos. If you liked one you'd just mail the band back?
SL: Yeah, yeah.
SmBj: So what were some of the best bands you heard at the time?
SL: In the magazine I remember a band from Nanjing called 17:00 (十七点), but they weren't around for very long. There were a few other similar bands around Nanjing at the time, but they all didn't last long. It's really a pity. Because there was really no one in Nanjing to help them, the circumstances weren't right. At that time it was only Beijing. Actually it's the same way now, more or less. But today bands have it much better, because they have much more access to information. At that time there simply weren't the same means to do a band.
SmBj: Yeah, it seems that there were a lot of good bands from Nanjing in the late '90s, like West, but the only ones that are still around — like P.K.14 and Re-TROS — all eventually moved to Beijing.
SL: Yeah, yeah.
SmBj: Around the same time Modern Sky also had a sub-label called Badhead dedicated to more experimental or noise rock. Like Zuoxiao Zuzhou…
SmBj: Why did you start this spinoff? How many records did you technically put out on Badhead?
SL: In all it was fewer than 40 records… Because at that time Sober, New Pants, and Supermarket were too "metropolitan," I felt we were too fashionable, so I was getting frustrated. The concept behind Modern Sky was to destroy our own preconceived notions. So when we first heard this other kind of music, we thought it was really interesting. At the time I thought of Modern Sky as a sound museum. So while we were supporting a few bands with their own ideas, there were other, completely opposite ideas coming from other bands out there. At the time these bands did not at all have the same mindset. For example, New Pants and the Badhead bands. [laughs] So I thought it would be extremely interesting to represent both sides. Here we have totally different types of people, with different life experiences, different backgrounds, but they all reflect a real aspect of life from that time. I thought the more voices there were, the more accurately we could reflect this generation. So we essentially became sound documentarians. Badhead put out a few records, and we got a lot of people writing in saying, "This is so bad. Why do you want to put out this kind of music?" [laughs] But there were also a lot of people who really liked it. It was pretty crazy.
SmBj: Around the time you also had a club, right? The No. 17? When did that start?
SL: That was our golden age, roughly 1999 to 2001, those three years. At the time we had a magazine, we had a record company, I had a live house. That happened by chance. I had a friend who wanted to open a bar on Sanlitun South Street, he asked whether or not we could work together to make a live house. I said, "OK, let's do it." At that time, actually, tickets were really cheap. 20 or 30 [rmb] per ticket, and the shows would have P.K.14, Zuoxiao Zuzhou, all those kinds of bands playing together, and the ticket would still be 20 or 30 kuai. It definitely had no connection to business. We did that for about a year and then just stopped, I forget when exactly.
SmBj: Do you remember any particularly interesting shows at 17?
SL: I remember that 17 was really small, you could only fit 100 people in there. The funniest thing was just the bands at that time. Now a musician's social status in China is fairly high… At that time, in a night, we'd give each band member 50 kuai for cab fare, it was just like that. We didn't really think that much about it at the time. We just realized that it was inconceivable to make any money doing this kind of live show.
SmBj: So in the mid-2000s Modern Sky brought on a lot of new bands, like Hedgehog, Re-TROS, Queen Sea Big Shark, etc. At that time, were you going out and scouting these bands, going to shows and trying to find new talent? Or were these bands coming to Modern Sky looking for a record deal?
SL: It was some of both. It's still that way now. It's mostly just mutual interest in working together. At that time I remember talking with [Re-TROS frontman] Hua Dong, I thought Re-TROS was too boring, the live show wasn't good, all their songs sounded the same, everything looked and sounded too derivative. But afterwards we signed them, and they changed a lot. Queen Sea Big Shark we saw at a show, they were opening for someone else, but we thought they were really interesting. We talked with them and ended up signing them. At that time they weren't well known at all. But now the situation has changed. Now, because it's so much easier to access and spread information, it's really easy for us to find out about new bands just coming out.
SmBj: Last week I interviewed Fuzzy Mood, they said they got connected to Modern Sky through this "House Party" project. Basically the idea was to find five new bands and put out their debut albums. So for this kind of project, how do you choose the bands? Are they recommended to you, or does Modern Sky staff actually go to shows and search for bands?
SL: Basically we're not really actively looking for bands at this point. We don't have anyone who has this specific job. Because we are a different kind of label. We have a lot of middle-men and [band] managers, so of course they are always recommending bands. But I feel that it would be impossible to overlook a good band now. Today, in this era, truly good bands will inevitably appear on our radar, or they'll sign to another label and afterwards sign with us, that's also OK. Before the road was extremely narrow, now there are many roads. So now we don't need to worry about a band that has talent but no one to appreciate them. That's far less likely now than it was before. Now there are a lot of live venues, a lot of labels, a lot of people doing this kind of thing. I think that today, for this generation, we're not too worried about [finding new bands]. Instead, now we'll say, "Ah, that band is really good now, but they're already under contract with some other label, we can talk with them about their next plans." Of course our "House Party" project is also really interesting. We did this project together with [P.K.14 frontman and producer] Yang Haisong. We're keeping this project going, actually. We'll do it again this year. So, now, there are many roads.
SmBj: What other bands did last year's House Party project include besides Fuzzy Mood?
SL: Doc Talk Shock from Dalian. The first one was Fengyi from Henan. Also GLGB [from Nanjing], pretty much just those. At the time we didn't have any restrictions, we just wanted to help a few bands put out their debut albums. We want to think about this problem again, because there are so many bands from outside Beijing, but we just keep seeing Beijing bands. It's much easier for Beijing bands to show up on our radar. The hardest thing for most bands is precisely to put out their first record. So our plan with Yang Haisong was just to go out and find a few good bands and put out their debut record. We're still thinking about what else we'd want to do with these bands. Maybe not only record the first album, but maybe do their second record and manage them, etc. Because we've discovered that after a band records their debut album... If they're not in Beijing, even if we can bring them to come play our music festival, it's still hard for them to find an environment in which they can become a professional band. This is a really big problem. So we're thinking about whether or not to give these kinds of bands more support. We're also looking at whether the bands are even interested in going for this, whether they will devote all their time and energy to pursue this goal from their side. So at the beginning [with House Party] we didn't set any hard limits, but in the end we found two or three bands we'd like to work with in the long term.
SmBj: Another recent Modern Sky signee, Mr. Chelonian, is originally from Chengdu, but late last year they released their Modern Sky debut and moved to Beijing. Do you think this is necessary for a band from a smaller city to find more professional opportunities?
SL: Yeah, that's right. Objectively speaking, Beijing is really the musical heart of China, and the center of the music industry. Beijing has the right environment, the right infrastructure, venues, practice spaces, big music festivals. All of the media are here, pretty much all the musicians are here. So it's definitely more convenient for them to interact with all these elements here. But I think in the future, they'd definitely be able to do this in Chengdu. Or in Shanghai. But we don't know when that future is. It's really hard to predict. But for bands over the last few years, that opportunity has not come along. Actually for Mr. Chelonian, at the time they moved to Beijing because one of the members was getting married to a Beijing girl. So of course they wanted to come to Beijing. But in general it takes a really strong resolution to do it. Mr. Chelonian is doing really well... After their album came out I thought it was really good, they've been playing a lot of shows, they're a pretty successful example. Of course not necessarily every band that moves to Beijing will succeed. But I think bands should want to come and take a risk. They don't have too much to lose, so might as well come and try.
SmBj: But do you think it's better for bands from Chengdu, Wuhan, or Xi'an, for example, to come to Beijing as opposed to staying in their hometown and developing their local scenes?
SL: This really is a problem. For one thing Chengdu, Wuhan, etc already have a leg up because they have one important aspect: they have good live houses, like Little Bar in Chengdu, VOX in Wuhan. I think having a good live house is an extremely important factor in developing a city's scene. But then you have to see what kind of a life bands choose. If you're in Chengdu, even though you have a live house, you can tour, every city has two or three similar bands, but you want a higher level of development, you can pretty much only come to Beijing. That's just the practical reality, currently. If you choose this kind of life, you want more people to know your band, you need to come to Beijing. If you want a more comfortable and easy life, I think there's no problem staying in other cities. All of the bands in Beijing can also visit their hometowns on tour, so I think where they're from originally isn't a big problem.
The point is that Beijing has a concentration of people active in the music industry, people with different specializations working together in the same field. This is important for a serious band. The audience isn't really losing anything either, because after a band [that's moved to Beijing] achieves more popularity, they will go back to their hometown and play bigger shows. Live houses have accomplished a start in other cities, but later there will be people starting labels and doing more of this kind of thing. It needs time. Right now it still seems like it will take a long time. It's a problem, but we also don't know how to solve this problem. In Xi'an we've actually opened a Modern Sky office, we've signed Black Head, a band that sings in [local dialect] Shanxihua. Also Ma Fei, they also sing in the Shanxi dialect. I think that these are the two best bands in Xi'an now. So we have this Xi'an office to sign these bands, and we also have an office in Shanghai to do the same kind of thing. But we can't do too much, so it takes time. It requires people from every city doing this kind of thing, to find something different from Beijing and do a local version. Of course this will happen eventually.
SmBj: How many people work in Modern Sky's Shanghai and Xi'an offices?
SL: Shanghai is just a sub-office, Xi'an is a proper company. But each office only has two or three people.
SmBj: And you also have an office in New York, right?
SL: That's right. We have an office in New York but there's only one person there.
SmBj: OK, so let's talk about the music festival. You started in October 2007 with the first Modern Sky Festival. Now you do that, plus Strawberry Festival every May. Are music festivals Modern Sky's primary project at this point?
SL: I think Modern Sky's most important job is to be a record company. We're still signing a lot of artists. 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. But by now we've been signing artists for a long time. 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. We also organize a lot of smaller shows for our artists, several hundred in a year. Next year we might do over a thousand small shows for our artists. This is the most important aspect of our work. I feel the musicians are the most important thing, because if we didn't have these bands, we couldn't do a festival. Plus these bands want to put out records, to connect with their fans through physical products. That's extremely important. So I think actually producing records is our most important role. We started as a record company, and we don't want to change that.
SmBj: Besides Beijing and Shanghai, where else does Modern Sky organize music festivals?
SL: Yeah... Beijing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Xi'an, Zhenjiang, this year we might do one in Hong Kong, I can't say for sure...
SmBj: Do you think music festivals get more young people involved in the music scene? Does it just expose them to new music from a consumption standpoint, or does it also give them a new mindset?
SL: Because music festivals are really big, they can get a much bigger audience than any live house and grab people who don't go to live house shows. Music festivals attract a lot of people, and not everyone is necessarily there for the music. Maybe 50% are music fans, and the other 50% just think it's fun, but they're still at a music festival, listening to live music. Maybe some of them will get into music from that experience. For example, maybe there are some young kids who like pop music, and they'd never seek out a death metal record or whatever, but at the festival they see a death metal band, and compared with listening to death metal at home, seeing it live is much easier to accept or understand. Because seeing the music live is better. Some people have certain restrictions when listening to music, but going to a music festival they really have a lot of choices. A festival like Strawberry, it's really eclectic. There's all kinds of music, all genres, so maybe by going to a festival someone can really change their entire life's pattern of listening to music.
I think this is the very important contribution of the music festival. It's the point of entry for so many people who wouldn't otherwise experience live music. It can convert more people into the kind of people who would then go to a live house to see a show. As a band, you play at a fest in front of 15,000 people, whereas at a live house you're playing in front of 300 or 400 people. The challenge is to convert 10% of these 15,000 people into your fans. I think this is the challenge, but some bands have already succeeded with this, and that's really great. But the small shows also begin to build up the band's audience, so the work of venues is still critical. It's a mutually dependent relationship.
SmBj: In 2011 Modern Sky merged with Robust Husband Entertainment, which brought older bands like Omnipotent Youth Society and Brain Failure into the fold. How did this collaboration come about?
SL: We've had many of this kind of collaboration in the past. Modern Sky is about 50 people now. We've invested a lot of money to establish this system, this kind of organization. The idea [in collaborating with other organizations] is to take advantage of each other's resources. I think that right now the [Chinese] industry lacks enough people willing to engage in this kind of business. Everyone enjoys playing in bands, there are plenty of people playing in bands, but to focus on the business side of it is actually quite boring. Because to put a lot of time into the business side inevitably leads to criticism, etc. So the people willing to do the business part are really rare. It's not very profitable and it takes a lot of time, and it has the potential to present a lot of obstacles. With Modern Sky, we hope to find people who can take advantage of our system and bring more musicians into a beneficial cycle. That's more or less why we wanted to work together with Robust Husband.
And there are many other cases like this. I hope in the future it will be like this. I hope there will be more and more people active in the music industry, who will at the same time bring their own personality to it, because the industry requires all different kinds of people. Now we think there are so many artists, but the people around to prop them up are relatively few. Or you could say, the starting point is too underdeveloped. Maybe we can take advantage of Modern Sky's resources and experience to help bands develop more quickly. I think this is a really important factor to cultivating bands, to find people willing to invest their time and energy. This is an important point for us in the near future, to find people willing to invest time in building up the industry, reliable people…
SmBj: Besides Robust Husband, what other companies does Modern Sky work with?
SL: This year we started working together with Guitar China, which does heavy metal shows. We're currently investing in this project, and many other similar projects, including working with Xi'an's Zhang Guan Li Dai Music Festival. Last year we merged that into the Modern Sky Xi'an office. Because that festival is really small, we hope to find more local people in Xi'an to support it. These are projects we've already started, but we're still looking into other opportunities, looking for things that haven't been done before in China, looking and testing…
SmBj: Besides finding bands, putting out records, and organizing music festivals, what other projects is Modern Sky working on? I've seen you involved in some art-related projects…
SL: The art stuff is just for fun, to remind ourselves we still need to do some things that aren't as serious. Doing art exhibitions is also good, but we've already stopped doing that. We also do some artistic projects for fun, but we still do it in a rather serious way. Life needs its simple joys, and we want to do interesting and cool things to make people realize that besides music we still have other interests, that it's not all strictly business, to give our employees some fun. My personal ambitions with Modern Sky aside, I still think that simple pleasures are extremely important. Because I was an art student before, I see artistic elements in everything: fashion, fine art, music, I see it as all connected… So we like to work with interesting artists as well. We work on a few projects that are just for fun. 70% serious work, 30% of our projects are for our enjoyment, for fun. Even in our music festivals we try to do this. If you give yourself pleasure, you can also give others pleasure. So these projects are mainly for our own enjoyment.
SmBj: What is your personal role in Modern Sky these days?
SL: I'm not really doing any work on this music festival, so right now I'm primarily concerned with whether the poster design is good or not. [laughs] But I still advise our release timetable and our selection process for signing new bands. As for everything else, we've already become a system, a pretty good system, so I don't have to pursue any specific role. My biggest goal is to get Modern Sky to collaborate with bigger people. I think China, especially for rock music, for creative music, interesting music, in more than 10 years it still hasn't gotten much bigger. "Big" is the really important thing. Before we thought "cool" was the most important thing, and actually it is. But as far as I'm concerned, doing a really "cool" record company or label, in my opinion this story is already finished. In my opinion, this is really easy. I think that in running a music company, the goal should be to increase the value of a band. I didn't think that way before as much. So now I think our label isn't big enough.
[Someone who has been waiting to meet with Shen for the duration of the interview knocks on the door. Time to wrap it up.]
Doing "interesting" things... if you're a really small [label], the investment required to put out one or two records is really big, so you start a company and then just have to quit soon after. Or you do a music festival and it really sucks, you lose money on it, you're just out of business. I'm really terrified of going out of business. So when we think that something is really cool, at the same time I'm thinking, "How can I make this 'cool' thing bigger?" But there's no reference point for this kind of thinking, because we're different from any foreign label. And we're really different from any other Chinese label. There are so many unknowns. We don't want to do anything that's not interesting to us. That's also a contradiction, and something I'm thinking a lot about, how to get more people to acknowledge what we're doing. We don't necessarily need acknowledgement, but how to get more people to actually see this good music, no matter if it's through a music festival, a TV show, the internet, or whatever else. I think this is my biggest job, thinking about this problem. Other people can follow the model we've set up over the last 15 years. But for me, I'm trying to think about how to make this more interesting, yet at the same time more powerful.
Food for thought. Speaking of food, Strawberry Festival happens from April 29-May 1. Find the full lineup here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3. Find the full details of how to get there here, and a rundown of Strawberry's electronic music selection here. Finally, find SmartBeijing's suggestions of some under-the-radar bands playing Strawberry here.