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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 8, December 3 - 9

Modern Sky Empire
by Guo Jieming and Su Fei

Rising up next to Beijing's West Third Ring Road like a massive sewage pipe on Viagra, the China Central Television Tower dwarfs the anonymous highrises and gray, anomie-inducing apartment buildings around it. Two kilometers north of the tower are the offices of a very different kind of media company from the state-owned Goliath whose anodyne programs jam up the airwaves all over China: a small music production, printing, and publishing company known as Modern Sky Records.

The Modern Sky office is housed in a small one-storey building inside the yard of a residential apartment complex just off the Third Ring Road. To get there, you have to walk through an iron gate, past a dusty building site and into a dilapidated brick structure containing several desks, a water dispenser, anarchic piles of calendars and advertising flyers and - usually - several young Chinese men with long hair. Following the longhairs behind an architecture of cardboard boxes, you will find a staircase leading down to an underground room, softly lit and furnished with bleached-wood furniture and chrome. A gaggle of designers sit at an L-shaped desk, manipulating images on a row of aqua-colored Apple computers. They won't look up as you walk past them into another room, furnished with a desk and cluttered with stacks of CDs, cassettes and printed papers. If you walk through this room, you will arrive at the underground heart of Modern Sky, where you will probably see a toy train set on the floor and a man with a very cute mole on his left cheek sitting on a beanbag while he softly strums an electric guitar.

This man is 30 year-old Shen Lihui: artist, designer, lead singer of popular funk-pop band Sober (Qingxing) and mastermind of a small media empire in the making. With his hip, art-yuppie clothes and thick black spectacle frames, he is reminiscent of a young Richard Branson in the early days of Virgin Records. The comparison is valid beyond appearances. Shen has transformed his knowledge of what appeals to young Chinese urbanites - garnered as an art student and musician - into an innovative company that releases more contemporary Chinese rock music than any other Mainland-based record label, publishes a music magazine with nationwide distribution, and operates one of Beijing's most popular live-music venues, the No. 17 Bar in Sanlitun.

Shen studied at the prestigious Beijing Arts and Crafts Institute (Beijing Gongyi Meishu Xuexiao). Shortly before his graduation in 1990, he and some classmates formed the band Sober. After graduation, he worked for a year at the China Recording Company designing album covers. A year later, sick of the daily grind of designing folk music cassette covers, he started his own design and printing company. Shen had no outside investment nor experience doing business. The company took a few years to turn a profit, but by 1994 there was enough spare cash to branch into a field that Shen was passionate about: music publishing. His printing company cooperated with a small record company to produce and distribute a compilation featuring lesser-known Chinese rock bands (Rock '94 - Yaogun '94).

The album sold well enough to convince Shen that his printing company could successfully produce and market rock records. He spent his musical energy during the next three years composing, performing and producing the debut record of his five-man band Sober. Their record was also the first album released under the newly-formed Modern Sky label, attached to Shen's printing company.

Entitled Hao Ji Le?! (It's Great?!), the album was released in December 1997 and sold well both on the Mainland and in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The success of the record brought public recognition to the Modern Sky name in the Greater China music market, and gave Shen the production and marketing experience necessary to continue cutting and selling records.

Sober's record was followed in June of 1998 by a compilation entitled Modern Sky 1. One track by Sober helped to sell the compilation, but the other artists were bands with no recording history, unknown outside a small group of music fans in Beijing. A relaxed attitude toward music publishing on the part of political authorities, and an increasingly enthusiastic fan base allowed the company to continue releasing records one after another: electronic band Supermarket (Chaojishichang) came out with The Look (Mo Yang) in August of 1998, followed by New Pants' (Xin Kuzi) eponymous debut album in December of last year.

Since then, Modern Sky has released 17 records, and started an 'alternative' label - Badhead Records - to release music that appeals to what Shen calls the 'underground' by bands like noisy rock poets NO and alternative folk-rocker Hu Mage.

But the project that has put Modern Sky firmly on the Chinese music map is their monthly magazine, simply called Modern Sky Sound Magazine (Modeng Tiankong Yousheng Zazhi). Also known as New Music New Life (perhaps because it is always useful in China to have two names), the magazine has already won legions of readers ranging from high-school dropouts who have just picked up their first bass guitar to music industry professionals, to foreign correspondents trying to keep up on Beijing's fast-changing youth culture.

Each issue of Modern Sky - the fifth one has just been published - is a three part, plastic-wrapped package consisting of a 48-page large format magazine, a small supplementary pamphlet, and most importantly, a compilation album on CD and cassette. Some of the articles in the magazine are about the music on the compilation album, but there are also stories about other music-related topics as well as book and film reviews, cultural commentary and occasionally short fiction. Stories that don't fit into the large magazine are printed in the pamphlet, but the raison-d'etre of the pamphlet is technical rather than editorial. The larger magazine is printed on paper cut from standard sheets. The left-over bits of paper are an odd size and would be thrown away if they were not used to make the pamphlet. The compilation album contains a mix of new foreign and local rock music. Each month, about half of the local music section consists of songs by mainstream bands who may already have record contracts; the other half is devoted to 'underground' bands. Many of these bands are obscure, either because they are not from Beijing and so have no access to the Mainland's biggest music scene, or because their music is just too bleeding edge to be popular.

This music distribution system is unprecedented in China. A magazine called Music Heaven run out of Guangzhou has been releasing a bimonthly magazine/cassette with foreign pop songs since 1993, but Modern Sky's compilation records are the first opportunity for Mainland listeners to buy, on a regular basis, new music that is considered 'alternative' even in the West. Moreover, the local bands represented on the compilations range from relatively well-known performers on the Beijing circuit like Fly and Chen Dili to raw underground bands like AZ Cat - a Hebei province ensemble nobody had even heard of let alone sampled before their inclusion on Modern Sky 4. Bands like AZ Cat can get their songs distributed nationwide with Modern Sky magazine, an opportunity for which aspirant musicians in highly-developed Western music markets would gladly amputate picking fingers.

The CD compilation is vital to the whole magazine for another reason: Modern Sky is produced with a music publishing license rather than a print publishing license. This means that Modern Sky has not had to negotiate the excruciating and often deadend process of publication approval from the State Press and Publishing Administration, a government department not known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles or magazines about rebellious youth culture. Modern Sky is not alone in using such creative means to publish on the Mainland - in recent years many start-up newspapers and small magazines have used the quasi-legal vehicle of 'advertising licenses' to outflank China's conservative cultural czars.

Modern Sky magazine has a print run of 30,000 per issue. Of these, 5,000 are distributed with a CD (sold for RMB19.80) and the remainder with a cassette (RMB15). "We want this music to be available to ordinary people," Shen says, "so the price has to stay as low as possible."

The magazine's editor-in-chief is 27 year-old Beijing native Tao Ran. He says the biggest difficulty in producing the magazine is that there are very few people in China who can write knowledgeably about rock music. Most of the articles about foreign rock music are provided by a Hong Kong company that produces a similar magazine to Modern Sky called Music Colony (Yinyue Zhimindi), but Tao is not enthusiastic about music criticism from Hong Kong either. "They write differently from the way we do on the Mainland, and their prose is often awkward for us to read," he laments. But Tao remains upbeat: "We want our magazine's content to be specialized, but popular. I think we already have a fresh style. If we can increase our distribution, we will affect the lives of a lot people."

Modern Sky founder Shen is even more ambitious. He is personally modest - he refers to future projects as "our" ideas, and claims that he just sits in the back room playing guitar, "while everyone else works hard." But he has big plans for Modern Sky. He hopes to set up a film and music video production house, and talks enthusiastically about a "very, very big" Internet project that the company expects to be involved in next year. When asked about Modern Sky's rivals - such as Jingwen Records in the recording business and Pop Songs magazine in publishing (see sidebar) - he claims to welcome competition. "The more magazines and music of this kind available in China, the better for all of us," Shen declares. "I hope we are all contributing to a revitalization and internationalization of Chinese culture, and I welcome anyone who adds to this."

Modern Sky is a typical post-modern PRC paradox. Their work space and subject matter are underground, but the music and magazines they publish are commercially successful. Shen Lihui has laid the foundations for what may one day be a media empire. Then again, it might not - instability is inherent to the publishing and music business, especially in China. But listening to Shen describe his projects with boyish enthusiasm and a can-do candor makes Modern Sky's future and indeed that of China's media industry seem hopeful.

Modern Sky Magazine Subscription Details

Modern Sky - RMB19.80 per issue (with CD), RMB15 per issue with tape (plus RMB3 to order a catalogue)
Mailing Address:
P.O.Box 2816, Beijing 100044
Email: modernmaga@hotmail.com

Subscription & Mail Order Department
Tel: 6847-5087, 6847-4598, 6848-3778 ext. 29/30
Editorial Department
Tel: 6847-5087, 6847-4598 Fax: (010)6847-4859

Mainland Alternative Music Publications Modern Sky is not the only voice of China's fledgling rock music scene.

Below is a list of other publications that cover alternative music and youth culture
Electric Ark

Published by the same people who run New Ark bookstore, their one and only issue came out in the winter of 1998. The black and white magazine is an introduction to the origin of underground music in the west: Henry Rollins, Tom Waits, the New York Dolls etc. RMB15 per issue or free for club members of the bookstore (RMB30 annual membership fee, includes bookstore discounts). New Ark Book Store carries most Mainland music publications, as well as a small selection of CDs and hard-to-find books on youth topics. Address: New Ark Bookstore 1 A, 1/F, Bldg 24, Zhanlan Lu, Xicheng District 100037 Tel: 6835-0801, 6832-8997 Opening hours: 9 am-8 pm

Music Colony

The Hong Kong biweekly counterpart to Modern Sky, Music Colony has a similar layout and design to Modern Sky but focuses more on the international scene, with occasional features on Mainland rock.
Mailing Address: P.O.Box 60062, Tsat Tsz Mui Post Office, Hongkong
Fax: 2516-7778
Subscriptions: Tel: 2563-8397 Email: mcb@netvigator.com http://www.netvigator.com
HK$15, or RMB18.8 per issue Available in Beijing at the following stores:
New Ark Bookstore (see address above)
Jinghuatong Audio and Video Center
51 Xinei Dajie, Xicheng District
Tel: 6255-3834

Pop Songs

One of the first music magazines on the Mainland to feature local bands and introduce international pop music. The monthly magazine offers reviews of new releases, lyrics and musical scores of popular songs. In circulation since 1987, its focus moved away from pop to rock music in 1998. RMB6.6 per issue 44 Tiyuzhong Dajie, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province 050021 Tel/Fax: 0311-5815-028
Punk Era This was a monthly magazine featuring foreign rock and punk bands. It has been out of print since September, but plans to resume publishing in the new year. P.O. Box 015A, Guangyuan Zhong, Guangzhou, 510405 Email: gzmusic@publicl.guangzhou.gd.cn Tel:(020) 8638-3691

Start From Scratch

A bilingual music magazine featuring punk rock and hardcore bands in Hong Kong and on the Mainland. Includes reviews of local and international record releases and Hong Kong distributors' price lists. Mailing Address: Start from Scratch c/o Riz Farooqi B3 15Fl. Hankow Ct. Ashley Road, Kowloon, Hongkong Email: sfscratch@hotmail.com

Music Heaven

Published bimonthly since 1993, the magazine focuses on mainstream music with an occasional feature on Mainland alternative rock. Every issue includes a CD or cassette tape featuring foreign pop music
RMB13 per issue
Mailing Address: P.O.Box 015A, Guangzhongyuan Post Office, Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province 510405
Tel: (020) 8663-0010, 8662-1299
Fax: (020) 8662-1299
Subscribe in Beijing at: Dalian Ligong Publisher 256 Book Market, Jintai Lu, Chaoyang District
Tel: 6508-2081

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