Event Review – Shanghai Jinshan Zebra Music Festival

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Note: For various reasons, I waited a while to post this review. But here it is, raw and uncut. Also, shout out to whoever managed to time-travel back to 1994 and have Sega and Capri Sun team up to design this flyer.

I need to write about this festival, because I’ve seen many praise the event on various social media and I’m compelled to offer a different perspective – the perspective of a customer, rather than someone who organized, performed at, or otherwise had their hands on this beast they call Zebra. This is what happens when music festivals lack organization by competent people who love good music and then brands fill the void. I’m not writing this to attack anyone except for the brands and consumerism that ruined what could have been a really rock-and-roll experience by the ocean.

Zebra Music Festival could have been amazing. I mean, how hard is it to fuck up a music festival on the beach? Not that hard, apparently, once brands get involved without any  oversight. The only beautiful moment was when rain suddenly poured down in the middle of some terrible electro house and only the crazy ones stayed dancing in the sand while others scattered for awnings and umbrellas. But even then the lights were too hot and bright.

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Imagine for a moment that KTV* put on a music festival. That’s what Jinshan Zebra resembled – loud, repetitive 128 beats per minute electronic music pared with blinding lights, fake renao* (热闹), and heaps of branding and corporate presence poured on like oil in a Shanghai restaurant. Having participated in half-ass music festivals here, and given the desperate, midnight-hour promotion that promised “the biggest, best musical festival in Shanghai,” I feared Zebra would disappoint, but I had no idea just how bad it could get.

KTV = Karaoke TV; the whole spectrum of Asian karaoke halls, which ranges from places for family fun to deafeningly loud dens filled with flashing lights, sensory overload, hookers, dice, dissociatives, whiskey-and-green-tea, and people making business decisions. I’m referring to the latter end of this spectrum.

renao** = exciting, happening; something entertaining to watch. Could be used to describe the atmosphere at a bar, especially one like M2 in Shanghai. In this context *renao* also carries the meaning of loud, bright, and “high.”

Note: Through [questionable] luck and circumstance, I didn’t pay for transportation or tickets to this festival. Had I paid I may have caused a bigger scene.

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We spent the 1.5 hour drive to Jinshan drinking Russian vodka in an American mini-van and watching the sun set. The night seemed promising and it felt good to leave the city. We got closer and closer to the beach and passed street hawkers selling inflatable ducks and swimsuits, then we arrived.

If bad house music got into a car accident with an advertising company it would look like the sprawling, confused beach scene that lay below.. Products, sounds, brands, and ads collided in total chaos down on the beach. Jinshan Beach is by the ocean but this wasn’t Venice Beach or even Hainan. Rumor is the sand gets imported from the latter though.

It was loud. And not in a good way, with at least ten soundsystems booming simultaneously, arranged for maximum interference and annoyance. The omnipresent speakers belted generic 128 beats-per-minute house music from tents/booths repping companies like Coke, Bacardi, and some shit you’ve never heard of. I heard “Gangnam Style” twice, and that song would only be appropriate here if sung by a Mao hologram. This was Guantanamo. To a DJ it all sounded like one colossal trainwreck, but occasionally when we passed between two systems, two songs lined up perfectly for like ten seconds. Brilliant.

Beyond the brand tents, there were KTV booths and even a place to soak your feet in a tub of bacteria-eating fish. Seriously. This was like a car show with Chinese characteristics. And yes, there were cars on display. On the beach I counted at least three under a tent with price tags. Never heard of that brand either.

We walked away from this mess and through the sand toward the main stage, where we found some kind of wacky salsa competition where the MCs called up people from different countries and had them compete in a dance-off. One Chinese guy was dressed up like an Arab and the host said, in Chinese, “oh you know those Arab people – they’re conservative and like to wear a towel on their head!”  This was at 6:30PM on the main stage of a music festival with a few thousand people. This was a show to watch, not a music experience, and I fucking hate seeing shows when I’m trying to listen to some music.

Around 7:30, one of the weakest bands I’ve ever, ever seen took stage and stumbled through a few songs before I left; some local university students barely fit for an open-mic night slot. Don’t know how they got that slot. We had to heckle, and they were visibly shook but didn’t respond. People deserve more at a music festival.

Tragically, the biggest musical act of this festival was DJ iTunes, who often showed up at  seven places at the same damn time, like the Bacardi tent, which stood right next to the main DJ stage at a 90 degree angle and had equally loud speakers. Or at the knockoff Gatorade tent, or the Coca-Cola booth that was actually SELLING Coke to people while blatantly attacking them with advertising and sensory confusion, or the Skull Candy Booth, that whore of headphones. What can I say about Skull Candy besides the fact that they’re shit, look tacky, and the company will sponsor anyone but no real sound pro would rock their shit? But they so #fashion! 怎么办??

We tried to find refuge from the bad music and hot, blinding lights by hanging out by the beach. I mean, it’s the ocean right? The inflatable slides looked cool but the water’s hue wasn’t exactly inviting, so we sat in white plastic chairs and stared at the sky until a countryside goon donning heart-shaped red neon glasses (frames) and a t-shirt rolled halfway up his stomach stumbled over and demanded 100RMB (about $15) each for the chairs. He looked like a villain from a B-movie about a haunted roller rink. There were hundreds of empty chairs. The wooden beach chairs, all unoccupied in these dark hours, were double that price.  Who does that money go to? Is there a chair mafia? I bet many, many crayfish are eaten with that chair money.

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So we went back to the show. The excitement. The renao. I’m not judging, but most of the crowd, probably 85% local, was there to watch a show, not dance or a have summer of love sesh. Fair enough. Music festivals are new phenomena in China and there’s no cultural background of e.g. Woodstock or Acid House. But unfortunately this festival was not organized by people who understand the magic of music festivals either. Instead of showing patrons something new and crazy, this festival became nothing but a vehicle for pushing products on consumers, with comfortable, accessible, and “high” music as a mere aid to the transaction.

Honestly, music played by actual DJs or musicians represented maybe 5% of the music audible at this festival. On the one stage with two or three decent DJs over the whole weekend, even tried-and-true songs like Beenie Man’s “Who Am I” and hip hop classics didn’t do much because the sound didn’t really bump. They should have called Pat. The MCs had heart and hyped up the crowd of camera statues by screaming “Jinshan put ur hands up” et al and pouring vodka straight out of Stoli bottles. This got bursts of excitement and ‘FLASH!’ ‘SNAP!’ from eager cell phone cameras. Chinese people love white people actin crazy in these settings, and people went mad for the free “Perfecto Playboys” sunglasses like a god damn food riot. One kid dove over my feet and hit the sand to secure a pair.

This was the Collective Concepts stage. These are the people behind successful commercial clubs The Geisha, Flamingo, and The Apartment. Look, I don’t hate these places. I’ve had good times there, but they’re not an acceptable choice for managing one of two real stages at a music festival. Ironically, they probably cared more about the music than anyone else working at the festival. I mean, at least they had human DJs. Much of this festival’s fucked-up-ness was way beyond their control. Furthermore, I give them props for letting us play what we wanted on the third floor of Geisha last Saturday, and for letting us bring our own subwoofers into the club, and for allowing hip hop on the main floor on Fridays. These are all positive signs. My problem is that these clubs make a lot of money but somehow can’t cough up enough cash to sound as good as an underground spot like Dada or loosen up their music policy a bit instead of catering to the lowest common denominator. I believe a lot of people want something more, and unfortunately most of the bookings on their stage reflected the music policy at their clubs – commercial, comfortable, and easily digestible. McMusic. Why should people travel 90 minutes to a festival to see this when they can hear it at dozens of clubs any night of the week?

Somehow these clubs are tied into an mysterious enigma called Perfecto Playboys. I don’t exactly understand what Perfecto Playboys is. A brand? A lifestyle? A meme? Bad electrohouse and wack pop trance shit? These guys played lowest common-denominator electro KTV fistpump jams with some 3-D screen-saver font spinning in the background  advertising the mysterious Perfecto Playboys name. This is difficult to respect. One can push a crowd while being creative and maintaining some dignity, even while working in the frame of something familiar, e.g. Conrank’s bass-heavy remixes of Chinese songs.

Does “Party Rock Anthem” signify The End of Music? Is this mankind’s natural conclusion for music – derived, four-minute dance songs that are high, fun, and easily digestible? It doesn’t have to be like this. Challenge the audience a little.

If you’re a DJ playing at a music festival, you have to push the music you believe in. It’s not like earning scrill at some shit club in a third-tier city and playing music to keep the dice-playing customers happy on some baby-needs-shoes-and-I-gotta-eat hustle. And unfortunately whoever booked this festival on Saturday got a bunch of people who either don’t believe in anything or believe in total shit, with the exception of Hip Hop Hijack. I wasn’t there on Friday or Sunday so maybe James Blake or Cam’ron played, I dunno.

Admittedly, challenging the audience was hard at this festival, because people could wander to any booth selling some product and hear something they knew. I heard fucking Celiene Dion “Because You Loved Me” at one booth. That song should never be played at a music festival anywhere.

In the dark last hour of the festival, the last human DJ at the Perfecto Playboys stage, DJ Leo Chiodaroli, a resident at a wretched club called M2, requested no MCs during his set. How does this guy have such a long DJ name. His name alone is like half of a fucking Twitter/Weibo message. Why not just DJ Leo?  Anyway, after a few songs in his set, the crowd dwindled down to about five people, for there was no more show. Everyone migrated to the Bacardi tent to hear all of 2011’s biggest hits. A song would start, play all the way through, end, and move on to the next in the library. Either no one cared or no one noticed. And who can really blame them? Dude played garden variety house that may make worked with MCs getting hype but otherwise it’s just one foreign bro playing some indistinguishable house music.

It could have been so much better. Black Rabbit is still the best music festival I’ve been to in Shanghai, and JZ Festival and Strawberry Festival are affairs worth attending. The latter two are organized by locals and come recommended by this blog, so I’m not saying “they just don’t know how to do music festivals here,” but rather complaining about a festival ruined by consumerism and poor planning. Zebra was the music festival that wasn’t. Instead, we just got a trainwreck of brands, advertisements, bad sound, and tackiness at 128 beats per minute.