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Chinese Bands Should Learn to be Gratefully, Dead

I don’t mean Chinese bands should sleep with the fishes…obviously. But I do think Chinese bands need to start thinking about the business side of things like the Grateful Dead did. Here’s a few business lessons from the Dead.

1. Live first.

Everyone loves a good album, that’s a given. But the disruptive force of the internet makes it very, very hard to make money off an album. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make them, however. Albums help legitimize and advertise your band. Every couple of years you need to make an album to let people know you’re still here. Just don’t expect a lot of people to buy it.

The Dead, for whatever reason, could never really make an album that successfully captured their on-stage magic. But it didn’t matter. The Dead put the live experience first, relentlessly touring and building a strong fan-base.

Being a live band is grueling and building a fan-base takes time, but I don’t see an alternative in China. Maybe, if you’re beautiful enough, you can become one of those pop star/actor/advertising personalities.

 

2. Let them tape, let them share.

The Dead didn’t build their audience through touring alone. They crowd-sourced their fans as a broad distribution network by allowing anyone & everyone to tape their shows. No Dead show was complete without a strange battery of recording equipment brought by fans who wanted to capture the Dead’s shows and share them. Slowly, a worldwide tape-trading network developed and the Dead’s music was advertised through word of mouth and a community of rabid fans. For Free.

Deadheads had to trade their shows the old-fashioned way: either you had a circle of friends that included a taper or you traded cassettes through mail-order vines. Today, the process is much easier. Web 2.0 has so many different audio/video sharing options it is pointless to list them. Anyway, you don’t need to control where your audience puts their recordings and videos. Give them the opportunity to do it and they will.

 

3. The connection between live first + let them tape.

The real key for Chinese bands is figuring out how to combine points 1 and 2. If you aren’t amazing live, no one will want to listen to your shows. It’s important that bands in China start working on their live shows, making them more entertaining and more unique. If every show is the same, no one really needs to trade it or come back for another bite. As a band in the 21st Century you’re making content, and like any other content, music has to be great and unique for people to share it.

 

4. Residence A

Residence A is a band that’s on the right track. They put on a great show and they’ve self-booked a 30 date tour. Hopefully a community of audio/video traders will develop around the band and help take them to next level.

 

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Kill Your Heroes

I am sick of all the genre bands in Beijing. I don’t need to hear someone’s take on the Blues with Chinese characteristics or Chinese Punk. Or ska, or “folk music” or whatever.

When you go see those bands, you’re not really listening anyway. What you’re doing is using them as a conduit to whatever the best band in a given genre is. The highest praise for one of the genre bands is something like, “Those guys are great, they sound like Oasis or the Skatalites or XXX.” There’s nothing organic about the experience at all. You might as well be drinking gin and listening to your iPod.

I’m not interested in hearing a rehashed version of the music I already like. Good music is about having something to say, not being authentic to some kind of cannon or form. The cannon is there to be learned, assimilated and then destroyed by something new. Fuck the cannon and fuck your heroes. If you can’t, then you’ll just be a pale imitation of what you like.

It’s time for musicians in Beijing to burn the fucking history books and the how-to manuals. It’s time to throw out the music that inspired you.

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Are there any great bands in Beijing?

A difficult question that I have a pretty uncomfortable answer to.

But before I answer the question, I’d like to define what I think a great band is. To be a great band, you have to meet the following criteria:

1. Your music has to be groundbreaking. Basically you can’t be a “genre band.” If a genre is established in the wake of your art, however, that is a strong indication that you’re a great band. Muddy Waters, therefore is a great band (artist) but Robert Cray isn’t. Robert Cray operates in Muddy’s wake.

2. You have to be amazing live. Not a great stage show, not cool clothes. You’re music has to touch people when you play out, whether you’re in a club or an arena.

3. You have to produce quality work for at least 5 years (unless you die tragically young). Most decent bands have 1 great album in them, usually 5-7 years worth of songwriting goes into a first album. If you can’t follow that up on your next go-round, you’re not a great band.

4. Your music has to impact listeners across cultures. If you’re only great within a defined context, I don’t think you’re great. Politics are a huge part of Fela Kuti’s music, but understanding Nigeria in the 70s isn’t essential to enjoying the music.

5. Your music must be danceable. Doesn’t mean you have to swing or pound with 4 on the floor beats, but your music has to have a heartbeat.

6. You must have something to say. Being a great technician isn’t enough, to be great you have to be using music as a way of expressing something meaningful that comes from deep in your soul.

Now that I’ve spelled out what I think constitutes a great band, back to the initial question: Are there any great bands in Beijing?

Unfortunately I have to say no. That doesn’t mean I don’t like and respect a lot of bands in Beijing, but I don’t think there are any bands that fulfill my criteria.

So am I full of b.s.? Are there any great bands in Beijing? If so, let me know in the comments section below.

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