This is a guest piece by my friend Chris Russell about the impact of international bookings in Shanghai. Before we get into it, I should mention that Chris lived in South London for a few years, he’s a huge music fan, and he’s definitely been to more “proper nights” than myself.
[Note to the reader: In this piece when I used the word international, I’m not referring to laowai – I simply mean someone who isn’t based primarily in China. This isn’t some laowai self-loathing or anything like that.]
Sometimes you or other people just aren’t very good at something. A regrettable fact of life, you are left to either writhe around in a quagmire of mediocrity or you try and move to an environment where you can learn how to do that thing better. Or you try and create that environment where you are now.
Throughout history there are numerous cases where importing talent into a country has raised standards or improved the local culture. In China, the Tang dynasty, widely considered to be the greatest of them all, had as one of its hallmarks a receptiveness to foreign influence. If people from other countries are operating at a much higher level than you it can be prudent to try and learn something from them, but this isn’t to say that all outside influence is an unalloyed good. This is where international DJs in Shanghai come in.
Once upon a time international DJs were a rare breed in this city, and a handful of local promoters made their name bringing them over when otherwise Shanghai wouldn’t figure into their Asian tour schedules. Now on any given weekend it’s usually possible to see at least one, particularly now that Arkham has emerged on the scene and relentlessly begun booking international acts. This is ostensibly a good thing – it helps drive interest in the clubs; gives punters a bit of variety or enables them to see someone they really like; and it helps local crews expand their connections and gives them a chance to learn from people who are apparently at the top of their game. There comes a point though where we have to question just how much value these DJs bring to Shanghai and whether they in fact have a malign influence on the music scene here.
Back in December of last year I was involved in the night that saw Caspa play at Arkham, probably one of the biggest nights that month and one that received a reasonable amount of press coverage, which included Caspa doing an interview with Shanghai 24/7. As I stood watching from the balcony on the side, I saw Caspa run through the kind of wobbly dubstep he made his name with while Dynamite MC phoned in his performance. Caspa and Dynamite MC had arrived in Shanghai that afternoon, but perhaps no more than an hour after finishing their set they were being ushered into a taxi by their manager in order to head to Pudong airport, presumably en route to playing at another Asian megalopolis the following night. Before departing, Caspa and Dynamite MC gave some generic answers to an interview filmed by Redscale Studios.
What did Shanghai gain from this? The crowd looked like they were having fun and taken in isolation it would be hard to say there was anything particularly wrong about this event, but in many ways it is indicative of a lot of the international bookings that happen in this city, and, when these are taken together, their effect can be insidious.
I made the point earlier that foreign talent can raise standards and drive innovation, and that is the reason why at least ostensibly most foreigners are here in China, including myself, but with Caspa et al what are they really contributing? They are here for such a short period of time that any engagement is a best fleeting and it is debatable that anyone really learns anything from them. (Although the DJ hanging around for awhile doesn’t always make a difference either.) Do we notice any increase in quality of selection and mixing from the local cohort of DJs as a result of these international DJs passing through? Perhaps in some cases these DJs are just really fucking good and prove to be a huge inspiration to locals even in the limited time that they’re here, but largely it’s doubtful if this is the case, in part because at least some of these DJs will simply be going through the motions, Shanghai but one date on a larger tour (see above), and also because the scene here is still so small and there isn’t enough grassroots involvement to increase the likelihood of there being a substantial engagement. This isn’t like a DJ from New York going to London.
What’s more, these bookings aren’t just negligible in their impact, but are also possibly detrimental to the development of the scene and Shanghai as being a place with something approaching its own identity. This is largely because they leech away attention from what people are doing on a local level. This isn’t to say that local DJs and producers don’t ever get a look in – the live sets of Acid Pony Club and SLV have received their fair number of column inches, although it does seem that the humble DJ set doesn’t get quite so much attention – but when a reasonable amount of space is being given over to conducting interviews with the likes of Josh Wink you have to wonder if something is going wrong.
Now I understand why nightlife editors might be reluctant to turn over too much space to your average local DJ, this isn’t exactly a town of EZs, but that’s not to say everyone here is a bad DJ, and in my own experience it’s often the sets from local selectors that I find to be more memorable. Nonetheless, for better or worse these are the people that will in part define people’s experience of nightlife in this city, although I’m well aware they might not be the most important factor. As things stand though, someone browsing through the myriad listings on Shanghai’s expat websites probably doesn’t have much of a reason to choose one club night over any other, given that they’re mostly full of PR bullshit and vacuous descriptions. However, if some of these nights and crews actually got a bit more in depth coverage, perhaps these things might be a bit more meaningful to people. It might also freshen up some local-only bills, with certain line-ups, particularly those connected to boats or beaches, perhaps becoming overly familiar.
Another way to look at it is this: does Shanghai have anything approaching an anthem? I’m not even talking about something produced locally; communities can often take something from outside and make it their own. Honestly, I can’t think of anything, and one reason is quite possibly that there is a dearth of sustained coverage of what people are doing here. Nevermind though, we can always find out what Tim Sweeney is into prior to his one night here. The only website I can think of that might delve into this kind of stuff is Layabozi, but, and this is no criticism of them, club music isn’t really their field of expertise.
The thing is, these international bookings are now where most of the media attention is – an article like this one on Resident Advisor of the London club night Rhythm Section probably just wouldn’t happen – and this attention is vital for club owners and promoters across the city. You may have noticed that some venues have struggled over the summer, and one of them has closed down. So the whole process starts again, and we get the next batch of international acts going through the motions before fucking off somewhere else.
However, not all international DJs are created equal, and I don’t want to slight those that have made a tangible contribution to this city and the promoters who brought them over. For me, Kode9 is one who stands out as he has close links with the Sub-Culture crew and has played an important role in Cha Cha getting to the point where she is now. To cite another example, Void’s international links helped MHP secure a release on the Detroit record label Cratesavers International. There are no doubt others. Also, those early international bookings by the likes of Phreaktion and Antidote were vital in giving an early jolt to the scene that helped it get to where it is now.
Then there is that other type of international booking: regional DJs. They’re probably not that famous, but, given that they’re local, relatively speaking, and possibly from somewhere at a similar stage to Shanghai, they’re much more likely to be engaged with what’s going on here. At the end of July, the crew Darker Than Wax from Singapore came to collaborate with SVBKVLT. It was probably one of the best nights that the Shelter had all summer, and William-J killed it with a perfectly mixed selection that took in everything from juke to grime. That night helped cement links between Shanghai and Singapore. Also early in the year Gyto from Neo Tokyo Bass gave Shelter its first proper introduction to jackin’, something that would have otherwise taken a lot longer to happen. It’s worth noting that in their respective cities these people would be the local DJs.
Now you might just think that I say all this because I run my own nights and want as much publicity as I can get. Of course I do, but the argument would be just as valid even if I wasn’t a DJ or promoter, and this is bigger than me or what I do. There are plenty of nights and DJs here that I feel deserve more coverage, and I don’t have any stake in them. It might also be said that I’m overstating the problem and that local DJs and promoters do get coverage in the media. They obviously do, but it’s often fleeting and not all that substantial. Time Out has in the past run profiles of local DJs, but these were short and not overly insightful, while Smart Shanghai’s Undercurrents series is often more retrospective than forward-looking. Perhaps local crews aren’t actually all that interesting? Sure, some aren’t, but that only makes it more important to give attention to the ones that are. There are a lot of people trying to communicate their vision through mixes and the like, but precious few of these actually get brought to people’s attention. Maybe people simply just don’t care and are simply looking for an inoffensive soundtrack to their hedonism. No doubt those people exist, but the media here clearly fancy themselves as agenda-setting entities, so why not try and push those who are genuinely making a contribution in the scene?
Really what it comes down to is this: what do you get out of booking this DJ or covering them on your website or in your magazine? Perhaps more importantly, what does the wider music scene get out of it, aside from a show? That obviously wouldn’t be a consideration if you’re just in it to make a quick buck, but a lot of promoters would at least pay lip service to the notion that they stand for something more.
I’m not saying “don’t book international DJs,” but it doesn’t hurt to consider the implications of these kinds of bookings and the disproportionate amount of media coverage they receive, especially when Shanghai doesn’t quite have its own musical identity sorted out.
– Chris Russell
Chris runs monthly nights somewhere on Xingfu Lu, but he’s asked for his DJ name and the names of the nights to be left out, lest this essay be seen as simply an attempt at self-promotion.