When America was rocking to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, the airwaves in China were dominated by songs with lyrics from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.
It's more open today, but the Communist government still bans anything that mentions sex or violence, or that has "low class humor" — which bans an awful lot of American music. So the music most likely to come pouring out of the radio in China is syrupy ballads usually produced in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
But Chinese musicians and fans are finding a whole new universe of sound on the Internet. And it's helping to create and nourish a new generation of independent artists in China.
From Black-Market Discs to Napster and Beyond
One of them is B6, a 27-year-old electronic musician. He lives and works on the first floor of a high-rise on the outskirts of Shanghai. He's part of China's burgeoning electronic-music scene.
Growing up, the CDs B6 listened to were mostly sold on the black market.
"When I was in high school, I used to listen to rock 'n' roll music," he says. "At that time, it was very difficult to get foreign or Western music."
And then, in 1999, the Internet came to China — and B6 and his friends could suddenly hear all kinds of music.
"We would visit those peer-to-peer Web sites, like Napster, and we would download music," he says. And B6 fell in love with techno and intelligent dance music, or IDM.
His own compositions range from dance music to contemplative pieces. Sitting in his studio, he plays back a prerecorded piece called "My Post-Rock Yard." It's a slow-moving, moody tune that B6 says was inspired by the disheveled garden outside of his window.
"There's a misunderstanding that many people have about electronic music," he says. "Electronic music does not necessarily have to be cold. Actually, it can be very human, and even warmer than acoustic music."
Connecting Online and In Person
B6 is that rare creature in China, an independent musician who is making a living from his work. Until recently, the Chinese government limited the number of CDs that could be sold — and music piracy is rampant. But the Internet and the burgeoning capitalist economy have opened up other options for independent musicians like B6.
"Sometimes I get to sell some of my own CDs, and sometimes I would help do soundtracks for commercials, and sometimes I do movie soundtracks and music for installation art," he explains.
B6 wants to help other independent musicians support themselves, so in 2006 he became one of the founders of a Web site called Neocha. It's an online gathering place for independent musicians to promote their music.
Neocha co-founder Sean Leow realized that music might never really take off unless the musicians could find ways to make a full-time living from their work.
"When you can only spend a quarter or a half of your time on your creative interest, you're never going to get to a level where it's good enough to sell," says Leow. "It's kind of a cyclical thing, where we need to help them both get to a level where they can start making some money, so they can live out and achieve their creative potential."
Neocha now has music and home pages for over 1,200 artists from all over China. Visitors can listen to and download music for free. The site sells advertising and splits the revenue with the artists.
One of the ways Neocha promotes the music is with a player called "Next." It streams music from the site; if you don't like the song, you hit the "next" button and listen to another, selected at random.
Leow thinks that China is a blank slate — and that therefore it could be the place from which a new economic model develops to sell music.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," says Leow. "Chinese musicians, Chinese labels and everybody that's in this industry is getting pushed so hard in trying to figure this model out."
The Internet is certainly broadening the reach of B6's music. It's also helping him connect with other electronic musicians. Recently, he performed at a club in Nanjing. Three of the musicians performing came from Japan, and the Internet has been crucial to his collaboration with them.
"Because we have the Internet ... we can get connected with all the musicians from all over the world," he says.
Nurturing a Creative Class in 'The World's Factory'
In the Nanjing club, called Castle Bar, B6 creates a mix of drum beats, rhythms, and synthesized voices using a MacBook as his instrument. As he performs, the crowd gazes at him through a window in the DJ booth.
There are about 200 fans in the club, and they don't look much different from club crowds in the West. They are a pastiche of brightly dyed hair, funky earrings, cargo pants, blue jeans and short skirts.
As the club empties, sometime past 3 a.m., a couple of fans explain how they first heard electronic music. Johnny Ju and Yao Lian say they heard it — where else? — on the Internet.
B6 still feels frustrated by the way the Communist Party manages the media in his country. But he's optimistic that the growing economy and the presence of the Internet will help make changes.
"I know that in the minds of many foreigners, China is the world's factory," he says. But B6 believes "that is not the image the Chinese government would like to project to the world."
B6 says the government wants the Chinese people to be more creative. So, he believes there will be more openings for independent artists like himself — especially as more young people explore what's on the Internet.