A topical curmudge for my latest 'Top Five' list: a dissection of the inadequacies of my least favourite music venue in Beijing.
The Top Five Reasons Why Yugong Yishan SUCKS
5) Terrible space
That room is just too goddamned LONG. A shallower and wider space is better for a rock venue, so that most of the crowd can get close to the stage, even if they're pushed off to the wings a bit. The elevations seem wrong too (as I've observed before): the stage is just a little bit too high, making you feel rather cut off from the performers even if you are right down the front, while the rear part of the room is much too high, putting you rather above the level of the stage.
4) Awful acoustics
The high, gabled roof - and the ceiling space made even more irregular by transverse roof beams and one or two skylights - make it inevitable that (even with the best sound system in the world, and the best sound engineer - and Yugong has never been able to boast this either) there are going to be frequent areas of 'muddiness' in the sound. Add to that the room being much too big, and the wrong shape... and having no damping on the walls or the ceilings (they've conducted numerous half-hearted experiments with things like velvet drapes over the walls [that helped - why did they give up on it?]; what they really need is some heavy egg-boxing on the roof, and foam or at least thick wallpaper on the walls)... and there always being an horrendous background din from the bar area at the rear. The sound at Yugong is often DIRE. Rock bands can usually get away with it: it's relatively easy to balance up the sound deck for a basic bass, guitars, drums, and vocals combination, and if it's LOUD enough, the loss of detail in the sound and the tinny echo aren't going to matter so much; you can even drown out (or intimidate into silence!) the infernal background chatterers. But acoustic performances - or quieter electric ones - just don't work at all at the new Yugong.
3) Dreadful bar
Time was when at least the Long Island Iced Tea provided reasonable value, and included mostly non-fake booze. Everything else was too bloody expensive. And mostly fake. Now, EVERYTHING IS FAKE - and poisonous. They seem to have given up on trying to make much money off the bar; the last few times I've been, almost no-one has been buying anything from it. A lot of people are smuggling stuff in from outside; a lot of people are nipping outside for xiaomaibu beers between bands (the advantage of a generous readmissions policy); a lot of people are just going dry during the show, and then heading off elsewhere to slake their thirst as soon as a band is finished.
2) No sense of community
The original incarnation of Yugong Yishan - in the infamous Gongti Car Park - had a show of some sort 4 or 5 nights a week, often of a rather haphazard or impromptu nature, sometimes just a jam. It was the kind of place where musicians would drop by, just to see what was on, and maybe get up on stage to play a little unadvertised set. In those days, Gouzi or his wife Doro were almost always behind the bar themselves (I never see them at the new place any more); and they had a small team of regular staff helping them out (I used to drop in quite often just to play pool with their main barman on slow nights); now, I seldom recognise anyone there - I suspect it's a bit of a revolving door for the bar staff. A lot of the problem is that godawful bar: the new place is not somewhere anyone - musician or punter - would go just to hang out. But I think it's mainly down to the nature of the venue itself; whereas the first Yugong was a music bar - which, thanks to its central location, readily became a favoured meeting place for everyone involved in the local music scene - this second, much larger space has become purely a special events venue. It's lost the intimacy, the friendly welcome, the cosy charm - it's lost all character. If you want to keep up with the local rock scene now, you go to MAO Live House. If you want to hang out with musicians in a dive bar and hope to catch an impromptu show, you go to 2 Kolegas. You only go to Yugong for a big out-of-town or overseas act, and you don't care about the sound being a bit shit because it's your only chance to see them.
But the No. 1 thing that pisses me off about the new Yugong is....
1) Annoying clientele
Because of this much larger space and the focus on visiting foreign acts, we tend to get some much bigger crowds at Yugong now. And, for most shows, they are predominantly foreigners (local fans just can't afford the high door fees now being charged). And a particularly irritating, pretentious, posey variety of foreigner, at that. And they will TALK the whole bloody time! Partly, again, it's down to the nature of the space - the long, raised rear part of the room being too removed from the stage, and the seating area further encouraging people to ignore the bands and get lost in their own little world of conversation (even the first Yugong suffered from this a bit: sofas arranged booth-style in one corner - and the small pool playing area in the rear - encouraged people to zone out from the music and start chattering loudly). But also, I think, it's a cultural shift: young people today have no manners! And affluent young professionals go there because they think it's a trendy place to gather on a weekend night, a place to see and be seen - before heading off to a nightclub somewhere. Whatever the reasons for it, it's quite insufferable: whether the crowd is large or small, exclusively foreign or largely Chinese, the background chatter in the damn place invariably spoils the music.
Yugong Yishan is celebrating its "7th birthday" tonight (a cheat: the original venue was founded 7 years ago, but there was no continuity - either temporally (the original space closed down 2 or 3 months before the new one opened) or thematically - between the two venues; the new, CRAPPY Yugong is not yet 4 years old). I will not be going.
I'm not sure that I will ever be going again. I have seldom had an experience there that was not profoundly disappointing, and lately I have been finding myself reluctant to go there even to see bands that I really like (DH & The Hellcats, Dirty Deeds) because I fear that even the very best bands may fail to transcend the extreme suckiness of the environment.
If I were a visting overseas or out-of town musician, I would choose to play MAO Live House - for a better atmosphere and a much, much, much better sound experience. (Or, if I felt a could draw a crowd of >400 people, I'd play at Tango. Or, if I doubted I could draw a crowd of >100 or so, I'd play at 2 Kolegas. Or, if thought I might not draw a crowd of more than a couple of dozen, I'd play at What Bar. For a mid-sized gig, I might even consider playing at Mako Live or The One, which are great venues, but, unfortunately, way out in the sticks. I would never, never, never play at Yugong Yishan.