A promotional still for a “Big Band” episode featuring Beijing rock band New Pants.

China wants to make indie music mainstream

Aug 15, 2019

First, it was hip-hop. Then, it was breakdancing. Now, China wants to bring indie rock to the masses.

After the music competition show The Rap of China brought the country’s hip-hop scene from underground to mainstream and made celebrities out of its contestants, the production company behind the show, iQiyi—which also happens to be one of China’s biggest streaming companies—hopes to do the same with indie music.

In May, iQiyi launched The Big Band on its streaming platform, featuring 31 indie bands competing to be in the top five. The company hopes it can replicate the success it saw with The Rap of China, which became a cultural phenomenon and spawned a street dance competition spinoff called Hot Blood Dance Crew.

A promotional still for iQiyi’s “The Big Band.”
A promotional still for iQiyi’s “The Big Band.” / Photo: iQiyi

Indie music does not have nearly the same following as hip-hop in China, where the music industry is fiercely competitive and dominated by younger pop stars. As a result, many of the bands on iQiyi’s show are stalwarts of the genre, having been around since the 1980s and ’90s.

There’s Beijing rock band New Pants, founded in 1996; heavy metal band The Face, who have been around since the 1980s; and alternative rock band Hedgehog from the mid-2000s, all of whom have mostly performed in small venues.

But iQiyi is giving them their biggest stage yet. A spokesman for the company says indie music is undergoing a revival, spurred by growing attendance of live concerts. Revenue from concerts exceeded $700 million in 2017, according to the 2018 China Live Music Industry Report.

“The report shows big growth in the revenue from live indie concerts, with millennials born in the 1990s and early 2000s making up the bulk of the audience,” the spokesman says. “Against this backdrop, iQiyi saw an opportunity to revisit the rich history of China’s indie music scene and bring indie and rock music to the mainstream.”

(Read more: Chinese DJs are making some of today’s most exciting electronic music)

Indeed, many of the viewers tuning into The Big Band are older fans who are nostalgic about the music. When New Pants sang an adaptation of Wang Feng’s 2000 rock ballad Fireworks during an episode in June, the live audience went into a frenzy, and the performance became the talk of Weibo, China’s Twitter.

“This is real rock music,” one person wrote. “Their performance brought tears to my eyes,” wrote another.

For bands that have struggled to break into the mainstream—New Pants’ members all hold down side jobs to make ends meet—the sudden fame has been gratifying. In one episode, New Pants’ 43-year-old lead singer, Peng Lei, spoke candidly about how their struggles led to a midlife crisis.

(Read more: The Chinese kids who are risking it all for K-pop stardom)

With over 100 million paid subscribers, iQiyi is betting on the commercial viability of indie music. Still, The Rap of China remains its biggest success, and the company continues to invest in it.

David Fung of The Fung Brothers is interviewed for the third season of “The Rap of China” in April.
David Fung of The Fung Brothers is interviewed for the third season of “The Rap of China” in April. / Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS

The third season began in June and saw more than 10,000 applicants, a jump from 700 during the first season, says Chen Wei, senior vice president of iQiyi and executive producer of both The Rap of China and Hot Blood Dance Crew.

“After every season, we’ve launched several hundred spinoff products including jewelry, lighters, skateboards, and even glasses,” says Chen, who is known in China as the “king of reality TV” for producing other hugely popular shows, including The Voice of China.

It’s still too early to tell whether The Big Band will match up to the success of The Rap of China, but early numbers are promising.

Since the show’s launch in May, the hashtag #TheBigBand has seen more than four million posts and three billion views on Weibo.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.