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Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 11:45
Budding bands
By Chen Nan
Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 11:45 By Chen Nan

Young Chinese musicians are finding platforms to perform together. Chen Nan reports.

Shenyang-based rock band Noble Man won the second place during the contest. Most of the members graduated from Shenyang Conservatory of Music. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

For more than six hours, the grounds of the Beijing Midi Music School were filled with guitars riffing and drums rumbling.

It was no ordinary day in class - the musicians were vying for top honors at the Nov 4 finals of the annual Midi School Bands Contest.

In the evening, Beijing-based indie band Gentle Grape was crowned champion.

"It was awesome and I cried out at that moment," recalls its lead vocalist Li Xuezhen.

The 23-year-old, who is pursuing his master's degree in mineral engineering at the China University of Mining and Technology in Beijing, says the band celebrated with a barbecue and beers.

Gentle Grape stood out among the 12 finalists. Its performances during the contest attracted more than 1,000 viewers on site and more than 850,000 viewers online.

Launched in 2011 by the school, the contest caters to young Chinese bands, with each group required to have at least one member who is a college student.

According to Yin Long, CEO of Beijing Midi Music Media, a new branch company under the school aimed at promoting young Chinese bands, auditions started in May 2017. They attracted more than 300 bands from 500 colleges across China, with more than 770 original songs submitted online.

"The bands are very young and dynamic. It's exciting to find out that they don't just perform rock but also other music types, such as electronic dance, blues and punk," says Yin, adding that the number of bands applying to the contest grows every year because of the school's reputation and its popular Midi Music Festival. The champions of the contest also get the opportunity to perform on the main stage of the festival.

The company will launch music festivals at Chinese colleges this year and roll out plans to support bands on the campuses, says Yin.

Growing talent

The Beijing Midi Music School, founded in 1993, is one of the first contemporary music schools in China. It has produced many of the country's rock stars, including the bands Miserable Faith and Escape Plan. In 2000, school president Zhang Fan launched the first Midi Music Festival in Beijing, where it became the first outdoor music festival of its kind in the country. The festival has since expanded into one of China's largest outdoor music events.

"Many band members started out as teenagers. It's always cool and popular to perform as a band on campus," says Yin, who formed his band in 1997 while studying at Beijing Midi Music School.

Gentle Grape reminds Yin of The Flowers, or Hua'er, the former Beijing-based pop punk band, which was formed in 1998 and became famous as one of the first teenage bands in the country.

"Their earnest attempt to deliver the message of pursuing their dreams as a young band touched the judges," Yin says of Gentle Grape.

The band's Li, who was born and grew up in Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, learned classical guitar and piano in his childhood. He fell in love with rock music in high school.

The song, titled Mi Tu Wei Fan, ("headstrong") which the band performed during the contest, was written by Li in 2013 when he was a freshman. He set up the band with his schoolmate, drummer Chen Bohan, that year.

The song talks about the summer after Li took the national college entrance exam in 2013.

"I was full of passion after I founded the band. But my mother, a primary school teacher, was not very supportive and we had no opportunity to perform. I was very lost but didn't want to give up my dream. Then I wrote the song in two hours during an afternoon in my dormitory," says Li.

Despite the tough beginning, the band kept on producing original works. Influenced by US rock band Blink-182 and Canadian rock band Sum 41, Gentle Grape has gained a growing fan base with its pop, fastpaced melodies and upbeat lyrics.

Gentle Grape, an indie punk band, won the first prize of Midi School Bands Contest at Beijing Midi Music School on Nov 4. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Center stage

Many young Chinese bands are also engaging more fans with the growing popularity of social media platforms.

In 2015, Gentle Grape band released an EP, including six original songs, through online crowdfunding. It planned to collect about 5,000 yuan (US$800) in two or three months. More than 7,000 yuan was collected in four hours.

On May 9, 2016, the band performed in a concert commemorating the 30th anniversary of China's rock music - Chinese rock fans mark the date because rocker Cui Jian, then 24, sang Nothing to My Name at the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium in 1986.

Held at the same venue, the 2016 concert drew established Chinese rock stars and bands, including rock singer-songwriter Zheng Jun and rock band Tang Dynasty.

"My dream is to turn my passion for the band into a full-time job. If not, I'll find stable work to support my dream," says Li.

Liang Qian, 26, lead singer of Mint Green, a pop band based in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, says: "The contest is like the Olympics, with the battle of the bands. Qualifying for the final itself is a great prize."

The band won third place for its original pop song, Sheep, which Liang wrote for her ex-boyfriend.

"It promotes real music played by real bands, not just some karaoke contest," says rock singer-songwriter Wang Jiayi, based in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province.

Wang's band, Noble Man, clinched second place at the 2017 Midi School Bands Contest. All the members of the band graduated from the Shenyang Conservatory of Music.

Pursuing passion

Jazz singer-songwriter Zhang Ying, one of the judges of the 2017 contest, says she was impressed by the young bands' diversity and their wide musical influences.

Unlike traditional rock bands, which are known for pouring out their anger and sharp views on social issues through their music, the young bands embrace themes of personal emotion as a way of addressing their authenticity and musical style, says Zhang, who is teaching in the music department of the Communication University of China.

"Earning a living as a rock band used to be a challenge. But it's no longer a problem now," says Liu Yujie, lead vocalist of pop-rock band, Monkey Legion, based in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. The band won the contest in 2012.

In 2016, Monkey Legion performed on the stage of Japan's Summer Sonic music festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia. Last September, the band signed a contract with Beijing Midi Music Media and it is ready to release a debut album this year.

"We are open to various options and music is one of them," says Liu, 31, who learned martial arts as a child and graduated from Chengdu Sports Institute. His father bought him a guitar when Liu fell in love with rock music in middle school and he practiced for an hour before heading to school every morning.

The other band members, including guitarist Chang Xiangyu and drummer Yang Rui, all graduated from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and have other jobs, such as opening a music training school and practicing architecture. Liu himself owns a martial arts training school in Chengdu.

"For us, forming a band in college was about our passion. The process of writing a song and performing it onstage is still very exciting," says Liu.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn


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