Thursday, October 07, 2010

Festival overload??

How many rock/pop music festivals can one city (region, country...) take?

When it's a country such as China, where the music scene is still in an embryonic phase and the number of really good bands is probably to be measured - at best - in the dozens rather than the hundreds, I'd say... not that many.  In Beijing, although we probably have the best of the country's music scene, I really don't think we can support more than 3 or 4 festivals a year.  Yep, 3 or 4 - in total.  This year we've had that many going on at one time - twice.  And a whole bunch of others, in between those two 'Golden Week' peaks bookending the summer.

Perhaps it's partly an outpouring of optimism as the scene does start to take off, and even draw some overseas recognition.  Perhaps it's a release of energy pent up by the two-year ban on outdoor music we've just endured through the Olympics and the PRC's 60th Anniversary celebrations.  Perhaps it's mainly a bandwagon phenomenon, as would-be promoters see how successful the Midi Festival is becoming and greedily seek to emulate or surpass it.  Whatever it is, this year it's just got CRAZY.

We have reached festival satiety, festival ennui.  Enough, already.  This past weekend's Modern Sky and Pilot Records events were OK, but... they were a pale shadow of the best of the May Midi events (which have been getting progressively bigger and better through the Noughties) or the 2007 Chaoyang Pop Festival (which, for the first time ever that I can think of, actually had some big name foreign acts on the bill [who didn't get cancelled at the last minute by a paranoid/national chauvinist Ministry of Culture]); they were basically a slightly smaller re-run of this year's May festivals, with thinner crowds and chillier weather.  Why bother?

Even without this festival overkill, we are in danger of our favourite bands going a little stale on us through over-familiarity.  We do get lots of opportunities to see them in the city's small-to-medium-sized music bars throughout the year.  And Chinese bands tend not to develop new material very fast.  Most acts you saw at these October festivals were probably playing near-identical sets to the ones they performed in May (and at all the other festivals since).  Whereas a show in a music bar - even with exactly the same material - tends to take on a unique character from the distinctive ambience of the venue and the energy of the crowd on a particular night, I find that most outdoor shows by Chinese bands end up feeling pretty much the same.  And therefore we don't really need to see them play outdoors more than once or twice a year.  
[There may be a problem here that not many Chinese bands really know how to work a stadium or a festival.  There are one or two who might possibly be better with a big crowd than in a smaller venue (Brain Failure and Omnipotent Youth Society come to mind; and, strangely, Shan Ren); and a few who do a good job on the big stage, but are really even better in a club (SUBS, Ziyo, Perdel); but the majority of bands here are short of stage presence even in an intimate setting, and almost lapse into invisibility on a festival stage.]

Organisers are probably starting to run into price resistance as well as boredom: this latest Modern Sky event was charging 150 rmb per day.  That's what we were paying for a four-day pass to Midi five years ago!  A lot of the Chinese fans simply do not have that kind of money to spend.

I love me a good music festival, I really do.  But this year we've had FAR TOO MANY of them for anybody's good.  With the size of the music industry in this country, we really can't support - really don't need - more than ONE big four-day festival during the May and October National Holidays, and two or three smaller events dotted through the summer.

Let's hope that's what we'll see next year.

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