“I’m from China, but I see myself as an international musician,” says ChaCha Yehaiyahan, a Shanghai-based singer and music producer who is set to play at South by Southwest in March.
Out of more than 800 artists lined up for the annual music festival in Austin, Texas, 13 are from China and Taiwan. The vast majority are making indie dream-pop, punk rock, and hip-hop music. Only two—ChaCha and Chiu Pi of Taiwan—are electronic artists.
ChaCha will be performing at SXSW under two aliases: Yehaiyahan, a melodic electronic project with frequent crossovers into hip-hop, pop, and soul; and Faded Ghost, a darker, more experimental persona.
An independent artist familiar with the touring life, ChaCha previously performed in Europe as part of the duo AM444 (alongside Dutch producer Jay.Soul) in 2015 and was the first Chinese artist to take part in the Red Bull Music Academy in 2011.
“I want to introduce my music to people all over the world.”
“I don’t want to be stuck just in my own market,” she says. “I want to introduce my music to people all over the world. The roots of a lot of the music I like are from the U.S., but I’ve never played a proper show there.”
ChaCha’s global ambitions increasingly mirror those of her peers in the local electronic scene, who are strengthening China’s creative influence and gaining global fanbases thanks to the internet and platforms like Soundcloud.
From Shanghai’s underground to SXSW
China is one of the most promising markets for electronic music. In particular, electronic dance music, or EDM, ranked as the fifth-most popular music genre in China and Taiwan in 2017, according to a Nielsen study. That same year, the mainland became a top-10 music market for the first time, with revenue increasing 35 percent year on year.
Shanghai, where ChaCha has been based since 2005, currently hosts some of the most cutting-edge underground electronic labels and collectives in China today, including Genome 6.66MBP and SVBKVLT.
“The city is much more open and a great place to experiment without feeling as much pressure to change your sound to fit someone else’s,” says ChaCha. “It’s just the right place for me.”
Other independent labels have popped up across China in the past decade, including Beijing’s Do Hits and Hong Kong’s Absurd TRAX.
Bigger players are taking notice. A growing number of American companies are signing Chinese electronic acts, and tech giant Tencent, which reportedly controls 70 percent of the Chinese music industry, started an EDM label last year.
Creating a distinctly Chinese sound
Embedded in the story of Chinese electronic music is the country’s rapid development, the push-pull between nostalgia for the past and cautious embrace of the future, and the growing itch for innovation and experimentation among its population of 1.4 billion.
Many artists have adopted aesthetics inspired by science fiction genres like cyberpunk and futurism in response to the swift technological and social changes around them, to paint a “post-human” vision of their country through sound.
ChaCha’s Faded Ghost persona is an exemplar of this, melding field recordings captured from her natural environment with distortions of her own voice to create eerie soundscapes.
But while independent artists are pushing the envelope sonically, mainstream EDM still dominates in China, where most of the money is made from live events.
Several Western EDM franchises, including Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra, and Sónar, have expanded into China and Hong Kong in recent years, joining a slate of local events like Storm and Douban’s Wetware Festival. The number of electronic music festivals in China was estimated to surpass 150 in 2018, nearly five times the number in 2016, according to an IMS Business report.
Yet many of these festivals have also faced sudden cancellations, often because of run-ins with government regulators, who are suspicious of any subcultures that become popular.
Last summer, Ultra China canceled both of its festivals in Beijing and Shanghai at the last minute, and Storm has not held an event in China since September 2017.
A still very young scene
Besides government censors, electronic music in China faces the same growing pains of any burgeoning scene: upscale clubs playing big acts from abroad still dominate nightlife, overshadowing underground venues that foster local talent.
“Across Asia, people are still stuck in this mentality of bringing over a big celebrity from Berlin, Melbourne, or Paris as a headliner with really big performing fees, while asking local acts to play for free,” says Saphy Vong, founder of the collective Chinabot who also performs under the stage name Lafidki. “The local scene is really rich with young talent. We just need to give them a chance.”
Many of these local artists are bedroom producers who taught themselves how to make music using pirated copies of Ableton Live and other production software. They say a solid support network for DIY artists like themselves will create a more diverse scene and prevent an EDM bubble like one in the United States, where demand for big-name acts led to skyrocketing ticket prices, overpaid DJs, and, ultimately, a decline in audience.
But ChaCha sees hope in the progress that her adoptive hometown has made.
“Even just a few years ago, there was only one underground club in Shanghai,” ChaCha says. “People only had one place to go to experience that kind of music. Now, whether you’re looking for something trendier and more fashionable or edgier and more pioneering, everyone has their place to go and enjoy the music they like.”
Want to hear more from China’s vibrant electronic scene? Cherie Hu has compiled a Spotify playlist of recommended tracks.