Is Beijing About to Become an “International Music Capital”?

The South China Morning Post seems to think so, parroting a government talking point

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2:32 AM HKT, Sat January 4, 2020 2 mins read

The SCMP reported yesterday that Beijing is on track to become an “international music capital” following an announcement from the municipal government about a planned budget expansion that would value the city’s “music and creative industries” at 17.2 billion USD by 2025. “[Beijing’s] proposal released on Tuesday also called for the city to speed up development of its digital music industry, offer artists better copyright protections, and build more small-scale venues for live music,” the report continues.

The article quotes Wang Yezhen, “an official with the Beijing Municipal Committee’s propaganda department,” as saying: “Creative forces are strong but resources are relatively scattered so [there isn’t] an effective system for producing high-quality music.” SCMP‘s reporter spoke with one additional source — an American living in Shanghai — who affirms that the Beijing city government’s proposal “could not come at a better time.”

Details about the planned investment are scarce, but the proposal mentions “musical emotion recognition” and “AI composition” as potential areas of development, and the end goal as being the transformation of Beijing into an “international music capital.” A brief report from official government newswire Xinhua states, “Beijing will set up a number of music industrial parks and encourage original music with subsidies. It will also build a big data platform for online music and protect music copyrights.”


This proposal comes at a time when Beijing authorities have systematically cracked down on small, independent music and arts venues within the city, an irony noted by Peking University economics professor Michael Pettis.

As the founder of independent record label Maybe Mars and the (now defunct) music venues D-22 and XP, Pettis has had a front-row seat to the city’s burgeoning music scene for the last 15 years. As he wrote on Twitter yesterday in response to the SCMP report:

“The irony is that a decade ago Beijing developed one of the best indie music scenes in the world at a time when there was no government interest in Beijing’s becoming an ‘international music capital’, and many Beijing musicians will say that it was precisely because no one was paying attention that the music scene exploded. The government now says that it is interested in Beijing’s becoming a major music center, but local officials have forced the closing of most of the small clubs, performance spaces and art spaces out of which all the extraordinary young Beijing musicians emerged, and is making life for young artists increasingly difficult.”

beijing d-22 illustration excerpted from open all the buddha boxes by krish raghav and josh feola

Illustration by Krish Raghav

Beijing’s sudden interest in investing heavily in music is only the latest incidence of a high-level actor taking an interest in the space. As we’ve reported recently, several major Chinese tech corporations, like Tencent and Bytedance (the parent company of TikTok), have aggressively entered the digital music copyright and streaming arenas:

Despite its apparent political will — and willingness to spend — it seems unlikely that Beijing can achieve top-down success in any creative industry while also actively stifling the kinds of grassroots, independent creative networks that had flourished in a state of benign neglect over the last 15-20 years. Labels like Maybe Mars, and other, bigger Beijing indie labels like Modern Sky and Taihe, have steadfastly created a scene out of nothing, already establishing the Chinese capital as a global music powerhouse in the eyes of many fans and observers.

Whether these preexisting Beijing music standard bearers can maintain their existence and integrity in the face of increased government and corporate activity remains to be seen — as does what exactly tunes written by Beijing government-funded AI networks will sound like. Until we find that out, here’s some of our favorite music from Beijing and elsewhere in China from the last decade:

Cover photo: Li Yang on Unsplash

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