Rock music venues work together to beat the blues

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The air is pulsing with heavy rock inside On The Way, a popular live music club in Hefei, Anhui province.

The venue has been attracting music lovers from around the country since it was launched in 2008.

From Feb 21, owners of more than 80 live house venues across China attended a three-day forum held at On The Way, sharing their views about running such operations, the problems they are dealing with and figuring out solutions.

"I've been leading up to this moment for years," says Zhu Ning, the forum's co-initiator. "The forum gathered more than 80 percent of live house venue owners in China. It was the first time that so many owners got together and talked about the business, which seems to be booming now but apparently has issues that need to be solved."

After spending the first part of his career as a drummer of Wuhan-based punk rock band SMZB, Zhu, 50, opened a live house venue, named VOX, in Wuhan, Hubei province, in 2005. It has become the oldest and one of the most well-known live house venues in Wuhan. The city's location, at the heart of China, makes it a must stop for many rock bands planning nationwide tours.

Last year, Zhu met several live house venue owners and talked about launching a forum for the sector. He didn't foresee how long it would take or how much it would cost, but Zhu had high hopes for the forum.

"I didn't expect that the idea would be soon echoed by many owners and all of them donated money, which ensured that the forum finally happened," says Zhu, adding that all the participants came at their own expense.

One participant is Zhou Ke, 34, who owns a live house club in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region. He launched the club, named Tibet Time, on June 18, 2020. It cost him over 10,000 yuan ($1,573) to travel from Lhasa to Hefei to attend the forum, where he met many veteran indie musicians and live house owners.

"I worked as an art teacher before I traveled to Lhasa in 2020. I met my partner Wei Daifu, who is a street artist in Lhasa, and we decided to open the club," says Zhou, adding that there are about seven to eight indie bands performing in his club, which couldn't support the club financially. The main income comes from drinks and food sold in the club.

"I met lots of people in the forum who are seniors of the business. I am glad to learn about their experiences of running live house venues and most importantly, I made friends with them and they gave me lots of great advice," says Zhou. "For many indie bands, Lhasa is far but I can tell you that there are many indie music lovers who are looking forward to enjoying live music."

According to Zhu, China has about 100 live house venues, not only in bigger cities but also in third- and fourth-tier cities.

One of the best known live house venues in China is School, tucked away in a narrow hutong of downtown Beijing. It has become a must-visit site for indie music lovers from around the country.

Co-founded by Beijing native Liu Fei, a former performance organizer, School opened on April 24, 2010, the last Saturday of the month. The stage was about 8 meters wide and the venue was packed with people.

The venue is known for offering fledgling Chinese indie bands opportunities. Some of the bands which launched their careers at School have become famous today, such as Penicillin, who started playing in front of fewer than 10 people and now they have a stable fan base with about 100,000 followers on their Sina Weibo account.

Since 2013, bands formed by students at universities have been able to perform at School every Thursday. In 2017 and 2018, School released two compilation albums with songs performed by those campus bands.

China's live music scene has evolved greatly in the past decade. COVID-19 put a halt to all live music for much of 2020 and into 2021 as venues closed their doors. School is one of the survivors.

"For a city, a live house venue is very important because it is crucial for giving birth to new bands and for indie music to grow," Zhu adds. "However, not all the live house venues in China could survive due to lots of reasons, such as the lack of live shows and wrong marketing strategies. Things got worse after the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, which forced many live house venues to shut down."

"The healthy development of live house venues is crucial for the vibrancy of indie music scene," Zhu says.

Indie music has been reborn thanks to popular reality TV shows, bringing indie bands to the limelight. There are more commercial opportunities for bands and brands are more open to sponsoring indie events as well, according to Zhu.

"But we want to keep the business going and giving opportunities to more new bands. If we just had those few successful bands touring nationwide, we wouldn't have enough shows to support ourselves financially," says Zhu.

"Most of the live house owners in China are former members of indie rock bands, so we know how to work with bands. However, when it comes to running a live house venue, we have to train ourselves about marketing, about management and so on," he says. "We need to make plans about training professional staff members for live house venues, such as sound engineers, lighting engineers and marketing managers."

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