In April 2011, I posted an interview with Josh Feola, co-founder of Beijing’s Pangbianr and central engine of Beijing’s DIY music community. Pangbianr, which translates loosely as ‘fringe’, was a wee one year old at the time, and was only beginning to feel its way, coalescing a sense of energy and self-sufficiency in the city’s underground music scene.
Almost two years later, Beijing DIY still feels like a nascent phenomenon, ever-morphing and ever on the brink of becoming (as any good DIY scene should). It’s more international than ever, hosting an increasing number of overseas acts, from punk to experimental to noise. At the same time, though, there are more mid to top-level labels in town, more of a push to ‘discover’ and promote Chinese rock – and an urge to become a ‘real’ band.
Contemporary China has a habit of building industries, or art complexes, for the sake of economy and reputation, overlooking the value in grassroots cultural communities. In this catch up interview, Josh gives an update on the scene, pointing to the value in the DIY ethos, and the dangers of commercialising too early.
Can I start with an update on Pangbianr? How did it start and what has it grown in to?
Basically it started in the late Spring or early Summer of 2010 (we call June 1 our official starting date) so we’ve been going for about two and a half years now. When it first started it was kind of a loose collective, there was no real hierarchy or organisational structure. It was me and a few friends – about half Chinese, half American – and we were all involved in various capacities. I was primarily involved in concert bookings and promotion. Everyone else was kind of involved in the concerts but also in writing content: music, films and reviews.
When we started we had this statement that we were focussing on art, music, film and food, but pretty quickly we zeroed in on music. At this point we don’t really call ourselves film promoters or an art organisation in any way – we’re pretty much just a music platform. Most of the original members have all moved from Beijing. We still collaborate though, and many of them have gone on to do somewhat related projects. Pangbianr is, as ever, an amorphous entity.
What’s evolved to be our main – or I guess ‘unique point of entry’ – in the Beijing scene is curating this series we call IntlX, which stands for International Noise Exchange. Basically we try to plug DIY, experimental, noise acts from other countries into China; we provide this non-profit entry point. So you’re not going to make money on the show, but if you’re an artist who wants to come for the pure experience, and have some meaningful artistic exchange with local artists – that’s something that we can help people with.
Actually ‘fringe’ would fit what we do. If someone asks what ‘pangbianr’ means I usually say ‘to the side of’ and then kind of expand on that. I explain how we’re not really in the mainstream, we’re not front-and-centre; we’re kind of set up on the side. But honestly, fringe is better.
And obviously DIY is still a central organising principle to the way you guys organise.
Absolutely. We haven’t done a single event where we’ve received outside funding. And at this point, I’ve been doing this long enough so that if someone’s got a band or an artist who wants to come to China and they don’t really fit in anywhere – say they’re hard to classify, or they’re experimental – they’ll point them to me because they know I can fill that grey area.
So when we do a show we’re totally DIY. We don’t take any money. We’ll basically find a venue, confirm with the venue, book opening bands and make sure that the opening bands understand that if it’s an international band the majority of the door money will go to them. And then we promote it and get people on the door.
That’s all that we do. We don’t have funding. We don’t have guarantees in the sense that we don’t want a certain amount of money from the show to take for ourselves. By the same token we tell the bands that we can’t guarantee that you’ll take any money from the door sales. So as long as people get this basic standard DIY agreement down from the beginning, that’s the way that we operate.
Have you had to resist becoming more professionalised at any point? Has anyone ever approached you and said Hey kid, we could take what you know, take your contacts, and make money?
Yes and no. Because I know a lot of people who are already in the middle tier, working in capitalised promotion companies. I have good working relationships with people doing that in Beijing, and they all know my position.
Basically the music I’m involved with booking in Beijing is the least commoditisable there is. So if there’s a band that’s maybe a little more palatable, or a little more saleable, I’ll usually just kick it up to another promoter and just tell the band to work with them, because they can give the guarantees and everything that’s needed to work with them.
Personally no one has really expected me to trade in on my expertise because really, at the end of the day, these shows I’m doing aren’t profitable. The most successful shows we’ve done are for people like the guitarist from Acid Mother’s Temple who are a Japanese psychedelic rock band. He’s pretty well known, he gets a lot of people on the door, but he’s kind of an outlier in the shows that we do.
First of all, it’s the way I’ve always done things. Even when I was in high school playing in punk bands, putting together my own zines – that kind of thing. I think, philosophically and ethically, it’s a really clean way to operate.
Then specifically, even though China is obviously more and more in the public consciousness – a ‘rising super power’, etc. – for artists and especially musicians China is still a very big unknown. Maybe in the last few years there have been just enough bands who have come and played in China from the US, or from Europe or Australia, to get the word out about this underground scene. But it’s still daunting for most bands I think, to look at this country. The language is completely different; the culture is opaque. It’s still basically unknown to many people, just how you’d begin to plan a tour here.
Even Japan, as a comparison, has had a very progressive and radical underground culture since the 1960s, but China has only started to develop this since the late 1980s. So the whole idea of there being an underground music culture in China is still a very nascent phenomenon.
I think the reason I do this now is that I have a feed into both worlds. I know how to book a Chinese tour and I know what a foreign band is looking for, and can help them figure out how to do it for themselves. So I’m a kind of middleman. I’m also a musician myself, so I understand both sides: the promoter, and I guess the writer/performer.
So are you saying that China is DIY anyway, by necessity? It’s the right philosophy for you, but the underground music scene in China is so germinal anyway …
Yeah, it really is. It is DIY by necessity, and because of that I’m surprised there isn’t more DIY activity. In the last year I’ve seen more bands that are finally getting the idea and putting out their own CDs, making there own t-shirts, things like this … But by and large, in Beijing at least, it’s still pretty dominated by a handful of promoters and labels. Beijing’s labels and promoters aren’t even that big, but they’re trying to, I think, prematurely push the music scene into this higher stage of development. When it’s really not ready for that yet.
I think we need a lot more DIY activity. And I guess that’s another reason we do what we do. If we can show by example that it’s possible to get your own bands out there, to book your own tours … Hopefully there’ll be more activity like that in future.
It sounds like the DIY in China’s music scene is, on the one hand, coming from the outside, but then at the same time it’s also necessarily homegrown.
Yeah. I think in the very earliest days in China there was DIY by necessity. You had no other option. You had a lot of people who were literally making cassettes in their apartment and they would mail them into a print magazine because that was the only place that anyone was writing about music.
Yan Jun was one of the earliest critics, and he has a massive collection of these bootleg cassettes that bands would send him from all over China because he was known as the rock critic, or the guy who would pretty much listen to anything and write about it.
So you’ve progressed from that to today where you have a label like Modern Sky, who’ve been around for about 15 years, and now they’re dominating the conversation in a way that has for some reason killed a lot of DIY activity. Now a lot of bands want to turn their bands into a Modern Sky band, or more recently a Maybe Mars band. I think this maybe isn’t the best thing.
Does the idea of independence come up in a lot of conversations in Pangbianr’s extended community? Is the concept of independence important?
It’s not something that’s talked about because there’s so little economic opportunity in the music scene here. The general attitude is that it’s great to be independent, but if you have some guy or some label who’s interested in throwing you money to do a tour or make a record then take it, because you’re not going to get this opportunity very often. That said, most of the people we work with don’t really run into that kind of opportunity.
As for the community, there is a community, but it’s not just a community around Pangbianr per se. It’s more like an interlocking nodal network, a more nodal system, where we’ll work with Yan Jun who does Subjam, or we’ll work with someone who does their own branded night or branded series or something like that. We’ll work together in this very small scene of Beijing, where there’s maybe 20 different people that we would organise with and book with. Everyone knows each other and we just combine in different ways I guess.
Yes, I’d say that. We’re all trying to figure out ways to do this. On the one hand it’s easy enough to just keep the doors open for any band that comes through and to say, Look, I can book you a show. I can’t promise you any money. That’s easy enough, and that’s basically what Pangbianr does. But lately we’ve been working with people like Yan Jun and looking more and more at getting cultural funding, institutional funding from places like the Japan Foundation, or Alliance Francaise.
Chinese arts organisers are always looking overseas for this kind of support.
Right. China doesn’t fund this kind of thing at all. Neither does the US. Australia does, actually. Australia seems a bit more progressive in fostering pan-Asian relationships. I realise it has to do with economic relations, but even that … I wish more countries realised this opportunity for ‘soft power’ exchanges.
Well yeah, the community has changed. It’s funny because I feel like when I talked to you last it would have been pretty early on in the trajectory of Pangbianr, but I was so excited because there was Rose Mansion and a lot of these Zoomin’ Night bands were putting out there own tapes and all this.
Literally nothing has happened since that conversation. No more of that kind of activity. Rose Mansion has virtually gone. Some of the people who were working on the label are still in the city but they haven’t done anything. I’m not sure why, or what the broader trend is here …
Rose Mansion is a good example. They released these maybe five or six cassettes and then one vinyl LP, and then one of the bands had a member who was in another band who was with Maybe Mars, and then they put all their energy into the Maybe Mars band and then dropped Rose Mansion. And then another band wanted to get paid for a tour and they didn’t so they just disbanded and some of them moved to Hong Kong. It’s like they were kind of fishing and when they didn’t catch anything they didn’t want to do DIY any more. It was kind of like DIY stuff was a side project for them getting more label recognition or something.
And the people who are doing DIY stuff in Beijing now are predominantly foreigners. Maybe you’ve heard of Jing Wei’r, which is these guys who are doing a label where they do zine and CDR releases. They are like textbook DIY label. They record a live show, and then a week later they’ll have a CDR of it. But those guys are all pretty much foreigners. They also do a photocopy zine which is also like a typical DIY thing – and it’s really cool they’re doing it, but it’s all in English and it’s going to impact mostly on ex-pats who are living here. I think what they are doing is great. I just wish there were more local kids doing it.