A Canadian in Beijing: Sonic Youth in Beijing

I took in a concert this week thanks to a friend who couldn’t use his (expensive) tickets. He gave me a great deal on them (thanks Stuart!) and I went with some friends to see the Sonic Youth concert here in Beijing. I have to admit that I don’t know Sonic Youth very well, musically that is. I went for the experience more than anything and it was quite an event.

Star Live is a big mid-sized music venue in Beijing and I think it probably holds over a couple thousand people, if not more. Based on my experience gauging a crowd size at festivals coupled with the sold-out crowd at the show, I’m guessing around 1,500 to 2,000 people were in the room but I could be wrong.

The original price of the tickets was about $350 kuai, which is far out of my league, financially. It is WAY out of most people’s league here in Beijing.

As a result, more than half of the people were non-Chinese. I heard more English being spoken than I did Mandarin and we were squashed against people on all sides in a sweaty, smoke-filled, hard-to-see-over-taller-people’s-heads, central spot in the middle of the room.

The opening act was forbidden to play by the Chinese government. That’s all I know. They’re a Chinese band called Carsick Cars and many people were excited for them to have such an opportunity. I wish I knew more about the reasons, but I don’t. If anyone does, please post a comment!

When Sonic Youth finally came on at about 9:30 (having had no opening act), the place suddenly filled with the flash of digital cameras. In fact, I found it funny how many hands were in the air holding cameras or taking video. So, I of course had to join in! I also love this picture that captured the flash of a nearby camera (see below).

Do you remember in my previous post after my gig here when I said that people had told me that a technical difficulty in a show in Beijing is just par for the course? They actually said that ‘perfect shows, tech-wise, are almost unheard of.’ Well, I watched one of the vocalists from Sonic Youth exist for nearly an entire song with no vocals before the band actually stopped playing and dealt with her microphone problem. Sarah turned to me and said: “See? It even happens to Sonic Youth.” And then she smiled. Yes, no one is immune no matter how famous.

Oh well, they got it fixed and then continued the concert.

The show was just over an hour long including the encores. It’s hard to say if there even was an encore because people were super polite and didn’t scream much and certainly didn’t pound the floors demanding the band to come back. I wondered if they even would return to the stage considering the lack-lustre occasional hooting (probably by Westerners) and the random clapping. The only thing that signalled that they’d return were the lights that remained dim and pointed to the stage.

Actually, I have to admit that I left after the first encore. I wasn’t into it.

Still, I learned a lot and the experience was really worthwhile. Most interestingly to me was the fact that I felt awkwardly part of some elite group of people who could apparently afford such expensive tickets. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be able to afford concert tickets and nor would I balk at this price back home, but it definitely highlights the divide here between those with money and those without.

North American labels and bands are rarely able to lower their ticket price to match the economy of their touring destination. After all, how would they pay for the cost of travelling if they did? I understand all this, as a businessperson in this music industry.

Still, it makes it impossible for artists like me – independent artists — who build audiences from the grassroots level. We wouldn’t be able to afford to come over unless we were already famous. Album sales would barely cover the cost of making the albums in the first place (even counting manufacturing them over here, which is much cheaper), and ticket prices for even the bigger independent shows haven’t gone above 30 kuai, as far as I’ve seen. That’s under $5 a head and airfare doesn’t get any cheaper depending on the destination. The only other option is to start here and build a following while living here and then return to what has been built.

Which is, I suppose, exactly what I’m doing.

I hopped a cab and headed back to Wudaokou after the concert. I felt thoughtful and pensive the whole ride home.

I may understand it all logically and professionally – certainly from my Western perspective – but as a new Beijing resident, I felt saddened by this chasm between the east and the west that can only (seemingly) be crossed on a bridge of cash.

I’m currently looking for other means of transport.

(She was in the middle of dancing wildly with her arms when I snapped this shot. I love how it makes her like like she has ENORMOUS biceps. I had to include the picture because it makes me smile every time I look at it!)