MICHAEL PETTIS is a professor of economics at Peking University and the founder of Maybe Mars, an independent music label started in the summer of 2007 to promote and support talented young Chinese musicians and artists.
He has been involved in Chinese music since 2005 when He started and ran the first of his two music clubs. He is also involved in other labels and clubs and as the founder of the Sally Can’t Dance music festival, which focuses on Chinese experimental and composed music.
When did you start Maybe Mars? Where did you get the idea?
I started Maybe Mars in 2007 mainly because the music scene in Beijing was exploding in the 2005-10 period and one of the most important bands, Carsick Cars, had spoken to local indie labels about releasing their first record.
Because I felt the local labels were not taking Chinese musicians seriously enough and failed to understand just what was happening, I approached a friend, Yang Haisong, the leader of PK14, about our working together to start a new label.
He had wanted to do that for many years and immediately agreed. We always assumed that we would have a small label that would support a few bands, but so many Chinese bands wanted to join the label, and they were so good that we couldn’t say no so that within a few years we became the biggest indie label in China.
What drew you to the music industry?
Generally, because I am a music lover. When I lived in New York I funded a small indie label and ran a club in the East Village where bands like Sonic Youth and Swans started their careers.
As soon as I moved to Beijing in 2002 I began following the local music scene. When I started my club in 2005, called D22, I was very soon blown away by the sense of excitement as a group of astonishing young musicians made the club their home and unleashed what may be one of the most exciting music scenes of the early 21st Century.
How is changed the alternative music scene in China since the early 00s?
In the early 2000s except for a small group of interesting bands (with no following) the Chinese music scene was terrible, mainly, I think, because Chinese musicians had no self-confidence and were never taken seriously by other musicians and young Chinese.
Everything changed, however, and by 2010 Beijing had gone through a musical explosion and had become self-consciously one of the most exciting cities in the world for new music.
Since then Beijing and 4-5 other Chinese cities, like Chengdu, have developed very interesting music scenes with a wide range of music and with each city developing its own style.
What is a typical day for you like in the world of the Chinese independent music scene?
There is no typical day, but what the Chinese music scene has to deal with that perhaps other alternative scenes do not have to worry about is the difficult political environment that comes with such growing visibility.
What’s the biggest problem you’ve had to overcome so far?
In the beginning, probably the biggest problem was simply to get audiences, especially Chinese audiences, to take Chinese musicians seriously. Fortunately, we were helped by several foreign musicians and critics who are greatly admired here who quickly understood what was happening and became active supporters of the Chinese scene.
The support of musicians and critics from New York in the first few years was especially important — Sonic Youth, for example, fell in love with Carsick Cars and took them on tour in Europe in 2007, and next year Public Enemy’s bass player, Hardgroove, came to Beijing to produce the first Demerit album — and even today, for many Beijing musicians, New York is almost a second home. This helped us a lot, especially in the beginning when we couldn’t get young Chinese who loved indie music to take Chinese musicians seriously.
If you could change anything about the industry in China, what would it be?
It would be politically but I don’t want to discuss much more.
When you sign a band, are you involved in the process of choosing the music producer, or is the band dealing with this aspect?
We only sign bands with whom we are in love and proud to include on our label, and so we work closely with the band to help them choose the best producer, subject of course to our money limitations.
In some cases these can involve well-known producers from the US and Europe — for example this May, Chuiwan went to Lisbon with an American producer Rusty Santos to record their third album — but of course, we are always constrained by money.
Fortunately, Yang Haisong, the president of Maybe Mars, has become by far the best producer in China: if he were American or English he would be among the most famous indie producers and far too expensive for us.
What are some of the differences in how a record would be marketed for an indie band versus a pop act in China?
Until now there has been a world of difference, but we are working closely with Tai He, a major Chinese media company, to close the gap.
One thing that is very important in China is that because of the lack of earlier media forms, everything in China has migrated to smartphones, and much of our marketing is oriented in those directions.
In the early 00s Wudaokou area was turned down and it was renovated. Did this event have some consequences on the local music scene? Did these changes influence the sound of Wudaokou?
Mainly because D22 opened in Wudaokou in 2005 and hosted what later became known as “the Beijing Explosion”.
It could have happened in any neighborhood and in fact, Wudaokou turned out not to be convenient, but it didn’t really matter.
What mattered was that young Beijing musicians were given a space where they were totally in control, and they responded with an extraordinary outburst of music.
Ricky Maymi, the guitarist from Brian Jonestown Massacre who has been an active supporter and participant in the Beijing scene, explained the feeling when he told an American newspaper that “For the first time in my life I was born in time to catch a historic scene.”