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Chinas Annual Rock Fest

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Beijing (Reuters): To see their favourite rock bands perform live in Beijing, 21-year-old Liu Tao and his friends had no qualms about boarding a train for 20 hours and sleeping rough for a few nights. ''This is our third time here. It's like a tradition now,'' said Liu, lying on a sheet and holding a cup of beer.

Like thousands of other young people from all over the country, the black T-shirt-clad group gathered in a park in China's capital to watch 40 bands and dozens of DJ's at the four-day Midi Music Festival. From crowd-surfing fans to over-priced bottles of water, the seventh edition of Midi held during China's May Day holiday week had all the traits of a typical rock festival. T-shirt vendors line the pathway to a massive main stage on which young Chinese bands spit beer into the air, swear at the crowd and adopt other rock star poses. Company sponsors sell guitars, lighters and jeans in tents nearby. Pictures of deceased Nirvana lead singer, Kurt Cobain, stare sombrely from the backs of hundreds of fans.

''Our goal is to develop this into China's biggest and best contemporary music festival,'' said Zhang Fan, festival director. Zhang, principal of Beijing's Midi School of Music -- the country's only school teaching rock, jazz and other modern genres -- has seen Midi grow from a concert for student bands into an international rock event attended by tens of thousands of people. ''More and more people come here every year... We are successful because the music has always come first.''

Profit, however, remains a secondary concern. In years gone by, Midi has never made money. Despite hopes that admission fees might help the formerly free concert break even, Midi lost 25,000 dollars last year. But with increasing support from sponsors-including Motorola, clothing company Lee, and guitar-maker Gibson-Zhang is quietly confident. ''We hope to break even this year. We need more sponsorship because we need a bigger budget to help the festival grow.'' Profitability and no-name foreign acts aside, Midi's development, in a country where large gatherings can make the government nervous, is an achievement in itself.

Where fans at other outdoor festivals in Beijing have been separated from the stage by a 30-metre space patrolled by marching security guards, Midi's intimacy and lack of police presence is a breakthrough but the trust of the authorities-who have cancelled Midi in the past citing safety concerns-has grown slowly, Zhang said. ''Before, they were very concerned about security and feared large crowds. They possibly felt rock was too radical and unrestrained and shouldn't be played at big venues like this. ''But after good talks with police and local authorities, there really is no problem now,'' he said. Zhang predicted some 60,000 people would attend Midi-weeks after thousands saw the Rolling Stones play in Shanghai.

Rock, however, remains very much a fringe taste in a market dominated by reality TV stars and forgettable pop songs, Chinese record industry figures say. ''I wouldn't regard 60,000 people attending Midi as a symbol of rock's success,'' said Lu Bo, head of Scream Records, one of a handful of labels that publish rock recordings in mainland China. ''When we get 60,000 seeing a single Chinese band, then we can say rock has made it.'' Government tolerance may allow small-scale bar gigs, the odd outdoor festival and the publishing of rock records that invariably lose money, but television exposure and mass media coverage remain strictly off-limits. This keeps rock firmly underground, says Shen Lihui, head of Chinese record label, Modern Sky. ''Young people's knowledge of music is limited to what they see on television or in the media,'' Shen said. ''They'll never see ACDC or Radiohead on television. They think acts like Mariah Carey are what music is all about.'' Festival director Zhang also hopes that more TV exposure will eventually convince people that ''pop music is rubbish''. Government support for the genre will be key, he says.

The very lack of it, however, hasn't stopped bands like Subs, a four-piece act, from exciting the crowd with high-energy rock sets during the festival. Each of Subs' punk-influenced songs drew ecstatic cheers and thousands of two-fingered metal salutes. ''Cakes never fall from the sky!'' screamed Subs lead singer, Kang Mao, using a Chinese expression that means nothing comes easy in life. ''And if they do, they'll just get stolen anyway! We've got to fight!,'' she yelled at the crowd.

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