By Laura Fitch // Photos of Beijing’s INTRO Festival by Caroline Killmer
BEIJING—Creativity is booming in China’s urban centers, where young musicians, designers, illustrators, and artists are redefining a generation and fueling a growing sense of individuality among the country’s youth.
But when it comes to marketing alternative art and music, banking obstacles, lack of experience in the market and the lack of a developed market around them often mean an artist’s creativity doesn’t go much further than a personal blog. But businesses are popping up in this space, providing much-needed links between China’s burgeoning creative community and the market.
Is Anybody Out There?
According to the country’s national census bureau there are roughly 200-million 15-24 year olds in China, a demographic roughly five times the size of the entire population of Canada. Those under 35 were born after the Cultural Revolution, have experienced steady, double-digit economic growth, are often only children, have unprecedented personal liberties, and are incredibly optimistic in terms of future employment opportunities, says Ben Cavender of China Market Research.
What China’s 18-35 year olds are buying is pushing the country’s economy from one that is export-driven to one based on retail. Increasing economic and personal freedoms are encouraging the development of a lifestyle economy, a key part of which is China’s burgeoning creative class and alternative arts scene.
Though lifestyle purchases are still considered pricey – whether it be an up-to-the-minute t-shirt, or concert tickets to see the latest band – young people have yet to put away their pocketbooks, says Cavender. “This shows how important these choices are becoming.”
Increasing disposable income and personal freedoms combined with a large generation gap are breeding a cultural shift similar in scope to that of the 1950s and 60s United States, says Michael Pettis, a Tsinghua University economics professor, Maybe Mars record label owner and founder of D-22, a live music venue in Beijing that is largely responsible for consolidating the city’s now-booming indie music scene.
In the U.S., a deep chasm between generations coupled with growing economic prosperity formed a counterculture movement and a rise of individuality that eventually moved into the mainstream. “You started to see the popularity of books in particular like Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ” says Pettis. “Both of those books are huge cult hits among the college students in the big cities here in China.”
Though alternative culture in China still largely resides under the mainstream radar, young people increasingly want to look, dress and act differently, says Renee Hartmann, co-founder of Eno, a chain of apparel shops that successfully targets China’s youth market by utilizing young Chinese artists to create t-shirt and apparel designs.
Chinese youth are dying their hair, getting tattoos and piercings, and are looking for brands that reflect their personalities and make them stand out in a crowd of 1.3 billion, says Hartmann. “Art and music are relevant to young kids today and what they’re doing.”
Art and music in China are hardly new. A host of galleries in Beijing and Shanghai feature Chinese art, both contemporary and classical, and they enjoy wide appeal in both domestic and international markets. Classical and traditional Chinese music also have a following in China, along with a pop industry that rivals that of the U.S. in size. Major cities have symphonies, Chinese opera houses, stadiums and other venues to accommodate exhibitions and performances of the highbrow and mainstream arts. But the alternative arts, well established in developed markets with accompanying venues, fan bases and histories, are a new arrival.
“The whole world looks at China as a copycat nation. But really there are some interesting and creative people here, and there’s not always an outlet for that to be shown,” says Hartmann.
Unknown artists working outside the bounds of traditionally defined art have little chance of making a name for themselves, says graphic artist and illustrator Yan Wei. Like Yan, most use the Internet to connect with each other and display their works.
Though Yan has earned a reputation as an up-and-coming talent in the Chinese creative scene – the 28-year-old has worked with Levi Strauss & Co. on ads, and her face adorns Levi’s posters on walls throughout the country in the company’s ad campaign that seeks out and highlights China’s alternative artists and musicians – she still faces logistical problems that limit her marketing potential.
“I don’t have an agent, so I don’t have a marketing plan,” says Yan, who was introduced to Levi’s through a personal connection. Something as simple as being unable to provide invoices for services rendered to a company that can’t pay without one can easily prevent artists from doing a substantial amount of business on their own. Shipping expenses and the hassle of arranging international bank transfers are enough to prevent Yan from selling her works overseas.
“Young Chinese creatives are not necessarily the best at dealing with the commercial space,” says Adam J. Schokora of Neocha.com, an online artist community for young Chinese, and Neocha Edge, a fledgling consulting company that deals with large firms looking to link in to that creative connection that already counts Nike and Converse among its clients.
The commercial space is unexplored territory for many young creative talents, and in the case of alternative art, often the market itself is new. Artists are working with a blank slate, with no idea of how to negotiate rates, or even what things should cost, says Schokora. Brands, on the other hand, aren’t clear on how to approach and deal with the youth demographic.
Neocha.com and Neocha Edge provide artists with a crucial business structure – they can arrange payments and invoices, and research and negotiate decent prices for works, says Schokora. Through Neocha.com, they have ready access to a pool of young creative talent, which large corporations don’t have the time or resources to look for.
There is interest in connection on both sides, but neither really knows how to do it, Schokora says. “We play in that space.”
But connecting with brands isn’t the only challenge alternative artists face in the world of commerce, says Hartmann. The logistical difficulties of opening a business in a developing market can present insurmountable problems for independent artists.
Issues in dealing with factories, quality, distribution and sales in China’s underdeveloped retail market can hinder designers from striking out on their own. In developed markets independent designers can drum up business for themselves by selling to small boutiques and shops. “But in China it’s really hard to grow that way,” she says. “There just aren’t that many sales channels open to you.”
But even when facilities are available to produce or distribute works, the cost can put them out of reach for most. Mainstream record labels in China require their musicians to pay for and produce recordings themselves that the label then feeds into their distribution networks. It takes about four or five days to lay down an album, and another four or five to mix it. With a day in a Beijing studio costing upwards of RMB 5,000, the full tab is prohibitively expensive to most musicians, considering that the average wage of a white-collar worker in Beijing starts at less than 2000RMB a month. Maybe Mars Records turns the process around, prioritizing quality recordings and bringing in young artists to record, often at the expense of its own pocketbook, says Pettis.
A lack of clear rules governing these growing industries can make them subject to sudden, unexpected changes, says Miao Wong, co-founder of electronic music label Acupuncture Records. Begun in 2007 as an electronic music company promoting local talent, AR events started off small, with few people in attendance. Just two years later, AR events regularly draw crowds of thousands. Over 8,000 people attended their first full-scale electronic music festival this past May in a large, empty lot near Beijing’s trendy 798 Art District. This past May, INTRO’s second run drew in over 11,000. Major AR events draw in gross revenues upwards of RMB 100,000.
China’s legal system dates back to 1949, and many of the laws governing industry were created as the country progressed. Operating in this grey area means that unless there is a specific law that allows a certain practice, businesses are often unsure of what they can and can’t do, says Wong. And what you can and can’t do may change in accordance with seemingly unrelated events. This past summer in Beijing, several large-scale music concerts were suddenly shut down, relocated or otherwise interfered with due to government security concerns before China’s 60th anniversary celebration in October.
This uncertainty also presents problems for business growth, says Hartmann. Franchise owners generally don’t pay fees to the parent company for franchise stores, and the parent company has little control over the day-to-day operations of the franchise. This makes careful selection of franchise owners, who will be perpetuating a brand image throughout the country, a crucial choice, as there is little legal protection for companies who choose this method of expansion.
“You’re always worried, you’re always stressed, because until it’s black and white on paper you just don’t know,” Wong says.
Educating the Market
One of the biggest challenges facing the development of alternative industries in China is a lack of a market educated and interested in alternative culture. In developed markets there are support networks for alternative, creative industries. There is a fan base educated through magazines, radio shows, documentaries, festivals and other events dedicated to electronic music, as well as a history of the genre that stretches back at least two decades and has produced a list of star DJs and producers. “Here we don’t have the kind of support and resources we can draw from this market. Everything you do you, have to do it yourself,” Wong says
Wong estimates AR reinvests 85% of the revenue in generates back into events aimed at building an educated local market for electronic music, including documentary screenings, hosting foreign DJs, throwing large-scale parties and teaming up with other electronic music related events in Beijing. “The only way to have sustainable development is to let the culture find its roots.”
Eno’s business model also incorporates elements of grassroots growth. Eno’s flagship store in Shanghai is also used as a performance venue for local bands and other events that link Eno with the alternative scene and boost its presence in the community. This mindset of helping grow a scene from scratch is also evident in Eno’s business model, which uses young artists to create works for Eno’s target market – themselves.
While most apparel businesses work from the top down, dictating the types of designs they want artists to create, Eno works from the bottom up, relying on their team to produce designs that will speak to their core market: young Chinese with an interest in alternative fashion and lifestyles. And it’s working. Eno boasts stores and franchises in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Ningbo and Chongqing, with business growing between 30 and 40 % over the past year alone. Retail sales in 2008 hit U.S. $1-million.
In addition to creating a local base, reaching out to the international alternative arts community is also key to local growth, Wong says. AR has made a concentrated effort to export Chinese electronic music, most recently sending its DJs on a world tour that saw them play at major electronic music festivals in South America, North America and Europe.
MMR also connects local musicians with international producers and performers, such as Martin Atkins, Sonic Youth and Blixa Bargeld in an effort to acquaint international audiences with China’s alternative musicians. Last month three MMR bands, Carsick Cars, P.K. 14, and Xiao He toured the US.
Though growing, China’s alternative art scene is still in its nascent stages, and it will take time for the market to fully develop, says Schokora. Those looking to make a quick buck cashing in on China’s subcultures might want to consider other options. The payout, if any, may be a long time coming, he says. “We’re definitely doing it for the love.”