Not long ago, Beijing was considered home to one of the world’s most exciting underground music scenes. Venues and record labels proliferated. The music — new wave, post-rock, grunge, noise — was raw, loud and, above all, original, reflecting the angst and uncertainty of a city in the grip of constant change.
Now it’s all in doubt, squeezed by rising rents and intensifying political scrutiny. Venues are closing, festivals are relocating to the provinces, and musicians are switching careers.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, who assumed the country’s top political posts in 2012, has spent his early tenure shoring up Communist control over all levels of society. In recent years, authorities have detained scores of activists, muzzled journalists and muted once-fiery public debates on social media sites.
Beijing’s musicians, club owners and promoters say that building a robust underground music scene on the Communist Party’s doorstep has never been easy. But many are now revisiting the assumption that the scene’s small size — and in most cases, its apolitical nature — has inured it from official pressure.
“I think especially the past two or three years, we can feel it — there is pressure,” said a Beijing-based musician who requested anonymity so that she could speak freely without fear of reprisals. “We talk secretly, saying that when Xi is no longer in his position, maybe things will get a little bit better. But now, we feel the censorship is getting more and more serious, year by year. We always try to encourage ourselves, saying it will get better one or two months in the future, but it just keeps getting worse.”
In October 2014, Xi called for artists to “carry forward the banner of the Socialist core value system” and “use true-to-life images to tell people what they should affirm and praise, and what they must oppose and deny.”
It does feel like it’s less vibrant, less passionate — there are fewer younger [local] bands, younger people getting into this scene.
Sources say that although authorities were once wary only of explicitly political content, they are now intent on reeling in anything that doesn’t conform to Xi’s vision.
“The music scene in Beijing hasn’t been doing so well for maybe the past year and a half or so,” said Ami Li, the managing editor of City Weekend Beijing, a local English-language magazine.“Anecdotally, it does feel like it’s less vibrant, less passionate — there are fewer younger [local] bands, younger people getting into this scene.”
Perhaps the greatest pressures are financial, she said. Piracy is rampant. Rents are rising, and the city’s underground venues (most of them cheap dive bars and hot, sticky performance halls) find it impossible to break even.
Yet the political uncertainty — the threat of censorship, cancellations and worse — hovers over Beijing’s scene like a cloud.
In late April, the Dawn Dusk Club — an intimate bar located down a hutong, one of Beijing’s windy, traditional alleyways — hosted a show by Lin Ce, an experimental performance artist known for risqué, sometimes topless shows. Afterward, when photos of the performance began circulating online, police forced the club to close and temporarily detained its owner. (The club has since reopened; its owner, who goes by the nickname “69,” did not respond to an interview request.)
In a rare development, the crackdown spread. Police reportedly investigated ModernSky Lab, another popular venue. Mao Livehouse, a storied, nine-year-old underground rock venue — which shut its doors in late April because of rising rents — postponed its final farewell show. A music festival and conference, Sound of the Xity, axed its showcase performances and refunded ticket holders.
The crackdown came as a blow to many people in the scene, even after an unusually hard two-year stretch.
In August 2014, police raided the underground rock club 2Kolegas and detained nine people for taking drugs; the club closed soon afterwards. In summer 2015, authorities forced at least three Beijing music festivals to either shut down or relocate from the capital.
Last August, China’s Ministry of Culture explicitly banned a list of 120 songs that “trumpet obscenity, violence, crime or harm social morality,” effectively blacklisting their performers. The list’s top 17 songs were all by In3, a Beijing-based, socially conscious underground hip-hop group. In September, authorities briefly detained the group’s three members following a performance.
A representative for the group, speaking via online chat, confirmed the detention, without providing further details. “We don’t want to talk about this in China right now, as we have to continue living here,” the representative said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Beijing’s rock scene, the first in China, dates back to the mid-1980s. The rocker Cui Jian’s song “Nothing to My Name” — a gruff celebration of individualism — resonated with China’s disillusioned youth and eventually became an anthem of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Then came the crackdown, and over the following decade, Chinese rock music’s popularity ebbed and flowed, bolstered by currents of discontent and smothered by censorship.
In the 2000s, China’s rock scene experienced a revival. The Internet made foreign music easily accessible; the economic boom brought a flood of capital, some of which trickled down into less lucrative pursuits. Several bands attracted substantial local followings: Joyside, the Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, P.K.14, New Pants, Queen Sea Big Shark, each a rebuke to the saccharine pop music that floods the country’s airwaves and karaoke parlors.
Many of the era’s biggest stars have moved on to other careers, according to Hu Pan, 33, drummer for the Beijing-based rock band Elenore and media director for the indie record label Maybe Mars.
“It’s because of life pressure, maybe — when you get into your 30s, it’s family pressure, it’s work pressure,” she said. “These maybe forced them to find jobs to take care of themselves.”
She added that Maybe Mars will soon lay off up to half of its dozen-or-so employees, including her. “In China, indie music cannot raise a person to live normally,” she said. “They’re still poor.”
Rock in China isn’t necessarily dead. Some say that China’s music scene has been a victim of its own success — that it’s gotten too big, and too commercial, for the authorities to ignore. They say that Beijing’s decline is offset by a surge of creativity in less-developed cities — Xian, Chengdu, Wuhan — where rent is cheap, and political controls less intense.
“I don’t know if [Beijing’s music scene] is declining — it’s just in a moment of transition,” said Nathaniel Davis, founding partner and director of operations at Split Works, a China-based music company.
New bands are still forming, and new venues are replacing the old. In June, according to the listings site Douban, the city’s events will include performances by a group called Quantum Poetics, a nine-member Chinese jazz group called the Faith Ensemble, and an event called the Third Chinese Grunge Alliance Indoor Music Festival.
But “it’s a sensitive time,” Davis added. “I can say that — it’s a sensitive time.”
Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report