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2016-09-29 04:22:26 Commentary

I remember well the afternoon in May when I visited Studio Juju, an underground music rehearsal space. I asked my bandmate Xiao Wei to send me the address: “Good luck finding it,” he replied dryly.

Currently, Shanghai is home to only around 10 underground practice spaces, dotted around a number of different districts. Most of them are downtown, a prime location for musicians—you’ll usually find them tucked away near a subway or bus station.

They are, however, rather difficult to find. Some are hidden away in residential areas, while others are in the basement storerooms of office buildings. If you’re not in the know, you could be practically on the doorstep and just walk right past.

Many of these spaces are active only at night, when Shanghai’s musicians clock off and converge on their practice rooms. With affordable, soundproofed practice spaces very few in number, they have been forced to get creative. Many can be found in underground garages, warehouses, and even former bomb shelters.

The margins for running a rehearsal space are extremely narrow. Without a proper booking system, most bands simply make informal appointments with the owner of the room. Sometimes the revenue from a single band’s practice sessions has to be stretched to cover rent and maintenance. Without quality soundproofing, residents’ complaints can lead to closure at short notice.

Studio Juju is in a downtown residential area at the intersection of West Huaihai Road and Huashan Road. As you might expect from a converted air-raid shelter, it is very well concealed. At the end of a long corridor bedecked with band posters, security notices, and — oddly — residents’ complaint forms, you eventually come to the studio.

Nobody’s in it for the money, because there’s no money in it.

Li Wei, the proprietor of Juju, is tall and slim. His pulled-down denim baseball cap hints at a low-key sort of personality, but his long ponytail gives away his links to rock music. Li used to be in bands himself, and when a friend told him about the disused shelter, he decided to repurpose it as a studio. 

Thick, soundproof cotton cladding covers all the walls in the studio. There is no mirror in the narrow room, so the lead singer and drummer rehearse face to face. Most of the musicians are Li’s old friends, like the eclectic local sixpiece Mercy and Sorrow. New bookings are dwindling; most popular local bands choose to book their own studios.

When I visited Juju on a Sunday afternoon — a key rehearsal slot — there was only one band booked in. Rental prices for the studio are about 100 yuan ($15) per hour, the average rate for the industry in China. With a young daughter to take care of, Li freely admitted that he only came by the studio when a booking had already been made — his day job is running an instrument rental business. When we spoke about the future of Juju, he said there was no detailed plan.

In contrast, Lei Zi is far more optimistic. Lei is the owner of Rolling Studio, located in the underground warehouse of a commercial estate near Dapu Bridge, a couple of miles southeast of Juju.

Even though running a 500-square-meter rehearsal studio in downtown Shanghai comes at a hefty cost, Lei still thinks it is worthwhile. “We are all about the music,” he grins. His customers come from all over the world, and count rock bands, choral groups, and traditional folk orchestras among their number.

Sporting an impressive set of dreadlocks, Lei comes across more like the doorman of the studio than its owner. He insists on staying until the last band leaves, no matter how late it is.

Lei says his life changed when he first discovered rock in middle school. As a devoted member of the Chinese rock scene, his rehearsal studio has allowed him to meet a number of friends with common interests. He has been among the first to hear bands that have gone on to achieve international acclaim, such as metalcore acts Chaos Mind and Before The Daylight.

Of the three studio owners I interviewed, Liu Xiao, the manager of Slow Jam Studio, looks most like a businessman. Having left a multinational corporation last October, he positions himself as a “total entrepreneur.”

Slow Jam Studio is just a few steps away from the Shanghai Circus World metro station. The entrance to the basement is incongruously decorated with a few posters for academic training courses, but as you step into the studio a bright, clean space opens up. There is no graffiti or stickers on the walls, heightening the more commercial aura of the space.

Liu has divided the business of Slow Jam Studio into five parts: rehearsal, recording, instrument sales, video production, and music production. As rehearsals are becoming less and less profitable, he is thinking about reducing its role in the business model.

Customers can reserve rehearsal or recording slots at Slow Jam on group booking websites. The discount these websites offer has led to an upsurge in customer numbers, and his profits are accordingly seeing steady growth.

Liu is seeking investors to take the commercialization of studios like his to the next level. He is currently considering setting up a nationwide booking system which could connect musicians to studio owners more directly: “In Japan, a highly standardized rehearsal booking system has existed for some time now,” he explains.

Running a rehearsal studio doesn’t generate much money. From rock loyalists like Li and Lei, to more commercially-minded musicians like Liu, it is a passion for music that drives them to persevere with their projects. Despite their contrasting approaches, they agree that the rehearsal studio business can only bloom if the Chinese music market improves.

In Liu’s words, the dynamics of China’s fickle music market mean that more and more young musicians are pursuing viral hits rather than spending time honing their talents. The one-off success of songs like “Gangnam Style” and “Little Apple” has focused attention on writing catchy pop hooks in place of composing a strong body of work. For rehearsal spaces to succeed, emerging musicians should look beyond instant success and get back to enjoying the communal thrill of rehearsing in a group setting.

“If you look at who’s running the rehearsal studios, they’re all good people,” Liu said. “Nobody’s in it for the money, because there’s no money in it. It’s only people with a true passion for music who keep it going.”

In this hyper-commercialized context, it is no wonder that Shanghai’s rehearsal spaces are flitting in and out of existence. So far, however, whenever one has died out, another has been quick to sprout up in its place. Regardless of the fortunes of the city’s rehearsal spaces, its musicians’ passion for music ensures that the show will go on.

A Chinese version of this article first appeared on China30s.com.

(Header image: The band Top Floor Circus practices in a basement rehearsal space in Shanghai, Dec. 15, 2010. Wang Chen/Sixth Tone)