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Internet Helps Liberate, Create Music in China

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Internet Helps Liberate, Create Music in China

Internet Helps Liberate, Create Music in China

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Back when Americans were listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, China's airwaves were full of songs with lyrics from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. Things have loosened up a bit since then, but China's government still bans music that mentions sex, violence, or has low class humor. That rules out a good chunk of the Ryan Seacrest Top 40. Turn on the radio in China today and you're most likely to hear something like this.

(Soundbite of Chinese music)

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well now the internet has given Chinese music fans free access to pretty much everything. As part of our series on the affect of the Internet on Chinese arts and culture, NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile of an independent musician using the Internet to make a name for himself.

LAURA SYDELL: B6 is eating a slice of pizza when he opens the door of his apartment.

Hi, I'm Laura.

Mr. B6 (Chinese electronic musician): B6.

SYDELL: Nice to meet you.

The 27-year-old electronic musician lives and works in a high rise on the outskirts of the city. We sit down in his studio and he explains it was the Internet that really allowed him to explore his passion for electronic music.

Mr. B6: (Through Translator) While I was in high school, I used to listen to rock and roll music. It was very hard to get foreign or Western music. You had to go to the black market to get CDs.

SYDELL: But when B6 got access to the Internet in 1999, it opened up a whole new world.

Mr. B6: (Through translator) We use those peer-to-peer websites like Napster to download music.

SYDELL: B6 fell in love with electronic music, such as techno and intelligent dance music out of Detroit, Michigan. Now, his own compositions range from dance music to the contemplative.

(Soundbite of song, "My Post Rock Yard")

SYDELL: This is a piece he calls, "My Post Rock Yard." It's about the small and somewhat disheveled garden outside the window of his studio.

(Soundbite of song, "My Post Rock Yard")

Mr. B6: (Through Translator) People misunderstand electronic music. Electronic music does not necessarily have to be cold. It can be very human, and even warmer than acoustic music.

(Soundbite of song, "My Post Rock Yard")

SYDELL: Not only is the internet helping B6 find new work, it's helping him make a living from his work. Until recently, musicians who weren't officially sanctioned by the government couldn't sell CDs or get airplay, but now the market has opened up.

Mr. B6: (Through Translator) Sometimes I sell some of my own CDs and sometimes I would help do soundtracks for commercials and movies, and sometimes I do soundtracks for installation art at galleries.

SYDELL: B6 knows it's rare to be able to make a living from your music in China, and he wants to help other independent musicians support themselves. So a couple of years ago, he became one of the founders of a website called Neocha. He and co-founder Sean Leow wanted to figure out a way for independent musicians to make money. But Leow says they didn't know what it was.

Mr. SEAN LEOW (Co-founder of Neocha): Necessity is the mother of invention, in that Chinese musicians and Chinese labels and everybody that's in this industry is getting pushed so hard and trying to figure this model out that maybe they'll come on a solution before someone in the U.S. does.

SYDELL: Neocha sells advertising and they split the revenue with the artists. They don't even bother trying to sell the music because there's so much piracy in China, there is no point. One way Neocha promotes the music is with an online music player called Next. Turn it on and you can listen to a random sampling of songs by Neocha musicians.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Don't like that? Click the button that says, next, and you get something else.

(Soundbite of music, scrolling through Chinese songs with Next)

SYDELL: Sean Leow says that what independent musicians in China need is a way to make a living with their music.

Mr. LEOW: It's kind of a cyclical thing that we need to help them just get to a level where they can start making some money so that they can live out and achieve their creative potential.

SYDELL: The Internet isn't just a way to help musicians make money, it's also a way for them to connect with each other.

(Soundbite of noise on a train)

SYDELL: It's a Thursday night and B6 is hopping on a packed train with three musicians from Japan. They're all heading to play a club in Nanjing, a gig they planned together online.

Mr. B6: We have like a - the internet, like MSN Live Message, so we can, you know, get connected with all the musicians from all over the world.

SYDELL: Two and a half hours later they arrive in Nanjing and head to a smoky basement club called Castle Bar. It's packed with trendy-looking, young Chinese and Westerners. It's a pastiche of brightly colored hair, cargo pants, blue jeans, and short skirts. B6 stands behind a glass window in the DJ booth. His MacBook is hooked into the sound system. The crowd looks on and then starts to move out to the dance floor.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: The club doesn't empty out until after 3:00 a.m. A couple of fans stopped to talk with me, Johnny Ju and Yao Lian. They give the same answer when I ask them how they first heard electronic music.

Mr. JOHNNY JU (Fan of B6): On Web site.

Mr. YAO LIAN (Fan of B6): (Chinese spoken) …Internet.

SYDELL: B6 has his criticisms of the way the communist party still manages the media in his country, but he feels optimistic about the future. He says the government is trying to encourage creativity.

Mr. B6: (Through Translator) I know that in the minds of many foreigners, China is the world's factory. That is not the image the Chinese government would like to project to the world.

SYDELL: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Here's a song by B6 about what he thinks the world will be like in 50 years.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Coming up tomorrow, Chinese novelists putting their writing online. They're applying new technology to an old Chinese tradition of underground writing. Back in the time of Mao, writers had to pass around notebooks with their handwritten novels.

Unidentified Man: It was very dangerous to copy them and to pass them around. You could get in trouble if you got caught with them.

SHAPIRO: Now Internet novelists get their readers to pay by the chapter and some of them are breaking into traditional publishing.

(Soundbite of music)

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