Helen Feng on the Future of Music and Everything Else
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2017-09-01 09:47:22

Singer, VJ, promoter, music critic, event and tour manager — Helen Feng has worn many hats in China’s music industry since she first came to Beijing from the U.S. in 2002. Described by media as the “Blondie of China” and the “Queen of Beijing Rock,” the Beijing-born artist is perhaps best known as the lead vocalist for rock group Nova Heart, which was the first Chinese band to perform at U.K. music festival Glastonbury and is now working on a second album.

Over the years, Feng has watched as the Chinese music industry has embraced new styles — such as punk and hip-hop — and been rocked by innovations such as digital music formats, the internet, and smartphones. In the place of LPs and CDs, several major digital streaming services now dominate — a form of music distribution that Feng describes as a “horrible user experience” that is “not community, not a person onstage, and not an object that you can keep on your shelf.” Feng noted several years ago that, faced with numerous problems in the industry, music professionals felt paralyzed and often reminisced about better days.

Left: Helen Feng poses with butterflies in a picture by the late photographer Ren Hang; right: Nova Heart band members pose together in a photo by Ren Hang. Courtesy of FakeMusicMedia

Left: Helen Feng poses with butterflies in a picture by the late photographer Ren Hang; right: Nova Heart band members pose together in a photo by Ren Hang. Courtesy of FakeMusicMedia

Around this time, Feng grew increasingly interested in non-music subjects such as science, technology, and politics, observing that these fields were characterized by an energy and dynamism that her own industry lacked. After her partner, DJ and promoter Philipp Grefer, returned from Berlin-based interdisciplinary technology festival Tech Open Air, the pair were inspired to create their own event: NEU China, which gathers the brightest minds from a range of sectors for lectures and discussions on “everything.”

I think the biggest challenge right now is that there’s a virtual hegemony in the way that music is distributed — in digital distribution.

After a successful first event in Berlin last year, the second installment of NEU China took place at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing last weekend. Guests discussed the future of investment, artificial intelligence, robots, e-commerce, virtual reality, and music, followed by an evening of live tunes.

Ahead of the festival, Feng spoke with Sixth Tone about NEU China and the current state of the nation’s music industry. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: You’ve been involved in China’s music industry since 2002. What changes are we witnessing in the industry this year?

Helen Feng: Well, one of the changes we can see is the commercialization of hip-hop. I wouldn’t say it’s the popularization of hip-hop, because hip-hop has been around for quite some time in China. It’s already had its stages of being quite popular, but in those days, it wasn’t exactly digestible for all; it wasn’t exactly cotton candy. It was often very confrontational toward authority, staying primarily within its counterculture kind of world.

Now, you can see on the TV program [“The Rap of China”] and everything else that it’s becoming more of a commercial product; it’s become like any other music type, sticking to particular archetypes of what youth is. The messenger has become more important than the message. That’s how commercialization happens: when you’re creating stars rather than messengers. I’m a huge fan of Gil Scott-Heron, who essentially invented hip-hop. That’s an example of the messenger not being as important as the message. For a long time, it was all about the message, but now it’s more about the messenger, more about the pop star. I think in China that’s happened as well, in hip-hop.

Rappers greet screaming fans as they arrive at the recording studio for reality show ‘The Rap of China’ in Beijing, Aug. 31, 2017. VCG

Rappers greet screaming fans as they arrive at the recording studio for reality show ‘The Rap of China’ in Beijing, Aug. 31, 2017. VCG

Another music trend is the revolution where IP [intellectual property] is being protected. Me and my partner, Philipp Grefer, belong to an organization, Fake [a China-based music label and tour organizer]. We and lots of other people belong to the International Music Manager’s Forum [a professional community of music managers]; copyright and IP and this kind of stuff comes up constantly.

But there’s kind of a catch-22. I think that the way everything is working now means that the discovery process is [declining] for everyone. When there’s too much information on one platform, everything gets centralized into what generates the most numbers, most clicks — algorithms start taking place, and then you have less. You actually have more resources and less discovery, less community. That’s essentially what’s happened here, what’s happening now with the digital revolution of music internationally.

I think the communities are also blowing up much faster, stars are created within those communities much faster, and then incidentally, the community dissolves — it becomes less relevant faster. All of these things happen at breakneck speed, where people really haven’t had the time to digest, or even to really cultivate culture.

Sixth Tone: One of NEU China’s stated aims is to “explore the opportunities and challenges of our near and far future.” What do you think these might be in China’s music industry?

Helen Feng: There’s so many. I think the biggest challenge right now is that there’s a virtual hegemony in the way that music is distributed — in digital distribution. You have a couple of major players that are more or less moving with each other, except for maybe one or two on the sidelines. The way that the distribution works is just like in the West: Very, very little ends up trickling into the hands of artists — most of it stops in the hands of middlemen, the person who controls the data, the record company who gets the advance from digital streaming, etc. All of this music is being commodified in some way or another, but the community is being broken down in a way.

The problem with [Chinese] music festivals is that the particular cultural element — the creation of a tribe and the perfect environment for that tribe — hasn’t really happened.

And then there’s also the flood of back catalog. One thing that artists don’t understand is that all of the artists they love and [who] nurtured them as musicians are now their competition, because all the stuff that’s already out there is in the digital domain and is not really categorized. It’s all floating in the same universe of zeros and ones. And frankly, I’m not going to write a better song in my lifetime than many of my heroes. There’s already just so much good music out there on the platform — there’s too much volume. The only good thing is that because China’s music industry is relatively young, that back catalog is not very rich — not like the West.

Sixth Tone: Recent years have seen growth in music events like festivals, sponsored by brands and even local governments. Is there a growing “performance economy” in China?

Helen Feng: I think there is. On the positive side, it’s basically training an entire generation of people to appreciate music, to interact with music, which is very important. Even if there’s a big ugly logo on the back of the stage, a not very well-done sound system, it’s still the beginning of something, so I have to give it that. But I think that trend peaked more a few years ago; I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s in a rapid moment of growth now. Four or five years ago, there was a huge explosion when — all of a sudden — music festivals started popping up everywhere, and brands started getting interested.

A crowd of young people at the Strawberry Music Festival in Wuhan, April 3, 2017. Li Leiwei/IC

A crowd of young people at the Strawberry Music Festival in Wuhan, April 3, 2017. Li Leiwei/IC

I think a lot of the time [internationally], people go to festivals to enjoy a happening that is surrounding a certain kind of lifestyle. The music is the soundtrack to that lifestyle, and the festival is the place you go to be with people that share a similar belief system to you. Music is kind of a name card.

The problem with [Chinese] music festivals is that the particular cultural element — the creation of a tribe and the perfect environment for that tribe — hasn’t really happened, outside of just having a really commercial tribe. If you’re super materialistic and into trends — if you’re like the “hipster kid” — there’s a couple festivals that have done that in China. And maybe one or two festivals like MIDI that are like “Yeah, I’m hardcore” — they’ve done that as well.

While this is a big part of 60, 70, or 80 percent of festivals in the West, in China, it feels like a lot of people are going to festivals just to go. They don’t necessarily understand the cultural implications or the tribe that you belong to in the festival. You’re not with people who are part of your tribe, whatever tribe you chose to be in, and a lot of times you’re dealing with bad lip-syncing, bad sound, red tape, etc. I don’t know if that trend is necessarily going to fizzle out.

Editor: Denise Hruby.

(Header image: Nova Heart performs in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2013. Courtesy of FakeMusicMedia)