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Chinese run with rock coming to a close

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beijing (Reuters): Like their music, the location of rock band Subs' rehearsal space will probably never be popular with mainstream Chinese. Hidden in a poor fringe of Tongzhou-a satellite city of Beijing-the nine-square-metre space is a study in rock credibility and a stark reminder of rock's ''long way to the top'' ethos. Trucks thunder down a cracked road and crop-laden tractors chug along past the cramped houses of the capital's less affluent. But the real noise is inside.

''This space costs us about 250 yuan to rent a month,'' said lead-singer Kang Mao, between blaring song rehearsals. ''We were spending too much money hiring rehearsal rooms in the city.'' Amongst the hundreds of bands vying for stage-time in Beijing's handful of live music venues, Subs are one of the most popular. They make about 300 yuan each on a good night. ''Actually, we're really happy to make 300 from a bar gig ... But, there are only so many weekends every month,'' Kang said. For Kang and her three band-mates, making a living from music in China is a beautiful dream and so far, like most rock bands, an elusive one. But the cost of living and other frustrations that Subs sing about are not just shared by the bands.

The traditional stereotype of fat-cat record label executives enriching themselves off the sweat of overworked, underpaid rockers just doesn't hold in China, according to Scream Records label boss, Lu Bo. ''No one makes any money in this business,'' said Lu from the label's headquarters, an apartment in Beijing's western suburbs scarcely larger than Subs' rehearsal room. ''I thought about giving it away, but if I didn't do this there would be no Scream Records and China would have 50 per cent fewer rock albums.'' The handful of albums Scream releases every year might sell about 10,000 copies and net a typical band a one-off payment of 30,000 yuan. ''Each band member might get 5,000 yuan. They'll buy a guitar and that's all their money gone,'' Lu said. Limousine rides and trashed hotel suites are beyond China's most highly paid rockers. ''No one here lives the rock star life. They might sell a few records but their lives stay basically the same... then again, most rock bands have pretty low demands.''

The soft-spoken rock fan started Scream Records after his live music venue, also named ''Scream'', folded in the late 1990s. After a couple of years of reasonable growth, the label's sales plummeted in 2002 as online piracy exploded. Now, the few records Scream releases into a hostile market dominated by reality TV stars and Canto-pop crooners end up on the internet within a week. Piracy, however, can't be blamed for rock's failure to break the Chinese mainstream, Lu said. Culture-and rock bands themselves-are responsible. ''Chinese people's greatest fear is to appear different...

If you're in a rock band or like seeing rock music, people might think you're angry with society or something,'' Lu said-but bands do little to dispel the notion of ''rock as rebellion''. ''They absolutely refuse to borrow pop elements to make hit singles. They take the line that 'we're above pop -- we're artists'.'' If commercial success is at odds with artistic integrity, China's rock bands can also thank concert promoters for safeguarding their ideals. June's ''20 Years of Rock'' festival, billed as a celebration of China's short history of rock, was roundly denounced as a spectacular failure by bands and fans in local media reports.

Exorbitant ticket prices, dubious scheduling during the World Cup finals and the odd choice of location -- Shenyang, the grim industrial capital of north-eastern Liaoning province -- meant the 100-odd bands on the bill played to half-empty stands. Touted by organisers as the first of a series of concerts to tour the country and spread the gospel, the poor debut has placed the tour in question and rock's commercial viability further in doubt. And for struggling bands like Subs -- it's another reason to be angry. ''We played in Norway at a festival once and the crowds were going crazy,'' said Kang Mao. ''They kept asking us -- how do you maintain the rage?''

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