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<nettime> network effects in the chinese rave scene
John von Seggern on Thu, 5 Jun 2003 21:18:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> network effects in the chinese rave scene

I am posting the full text of this research paper to nettime because I 
believe it addresses some of the recent cynicism expressed here 
regarding the potential power of new vs old media:



John von Seggern

I have spent the past two years as a graduate student at the University 
of Hong Kong, where my work has focused on the emerging Internet music 
scene. The international music world has been going through a period of 
extraordinary change and restructuring during this time because of the 
accelerating use of the Internet at every stage in the processes of 
musical production, distribution and reception. In this paper, I will 
focus on the developing electronic dance music scene in China, a 
particular area of interest for me, and examine some of the ways it has 
been affected by the advent of the Net; I also want to look at what some 
of the larger social implications of these phenomena might be. The 
significance of Net access for musicians in a country where the flow of 
information is heavily restricted and censored can hardly be 
underestimated, as I hope to show.

My material here is based in part on my own experiences as a DJ and 
musician working in China during the period 1995-2001. I have prepared 
this paper in consultation with STAFFER3, a pseudonymous American techno 
producer who lives and works in Beijing, and his involvement has been 
crucial to the development of the ideas I am presenting here.


Since the first raves were held in Beijing in 1995, a sizable electronic 
dance music scene has grown up in the People’s Republic of China. Going 
clubbing has become a popular activity among a significant segment of 
the country’s growing urban middle class, and an indigenous ecology of 
Chinese DJs, MCs, producers and promoters has emerged. This is a 
phenomenon limited not only to the country’s largest cities; dance clubs 
playing various techno-derived musics can be found in many smaller 
cities as well, at least in China’s wealthier regions.
I relocated to Hong Kong in 1995 to work in the city’s popular music 
industry and I have witnessed the rapid growth of this new Chinese club 
culture firsthand on my frequent trips into mainland China. I first 
became interested in dance music culture in 1997 as I became aware of 
the rapidly growing club scene in Hong Kong at that time, and events on 
the other side of the Chinese border seemed to be following a similar 
course. Large modern clubs attracting hundreds or even thousands of 
clubbers every weekend appeared to be springing up everywhere I went in 
China, perhaps filling a void for a growing middle class with increasing 
amounts of disposable income but relatively few entertainment options to 
spend it on.

During this same period in the late 1990s, Internet usage has also 
become widespread among members of this same middle class, and according 
to the China Internet Network Information Center, the Internet continues 
to experience phenomenal growth in China. A CNNIC survey released in 
January 2002 reports that there are now over 33 million Internet users 
in China, a nearly 50% year-on-year increase. Internet use has been 
increasing most rapidly among the group most attracted to the dance club 
scene, young urban dwellers in their 20s and 30s.
I became interested in possible connections between this increase in 
Internet and the rapid growth of the Chinese club scene as I observed a 
number of interesting Net-related phenomena within the dance music 
scene. Hearing Chinese DJs spin a variety of imported and domestic 
trance, techno, and house music at clubs in Beijing, Shanghai and 
elsewhere, I wondered where they were learning about and obtaining all 
the music they were using. On a February 2001 visit to Club Focus, one 
of the largest clubs in Guangzhou, I learned that some of the DJs there 
were playing MP3s downloaded from the Web and burned on recorded CDs in 
their live sets. This seemed to explain the uncanny musical erudition of 
DJ Andrew and others whom I met in Guangzhou as well -- how were they 
able to keep up so well with developments in the international music 
scene, I wondered? One of the DJs from Focus later told me that some of 
them used the Internet to search for information about dance music 
around the world.

Discussing this topic with more DJs and clubbers in China, I began to 
see a number of distinct effects of the rapid increase in Net usage on 
the nascent Chinese club scene: local DJs and producers were using the 
Internet to obtain new tools for producing and distributing their own 
music; websites were springing up to inform users about new developments 
in the Chinese scene and provide new opportunities for participants to 
communicate with one another; and music makers and clubbers alike were 
using the Net to learn about and obtain new music from both domestic and 
international artists. I will now look at each of these "network 
effects" in more detail.


Chinese DJs and dance music producers are now using many of the same 
software tools used by other electronic music producers around the 
world, and they are obtaining them from the same source: the Internet. 
Most Chinese producers depend completely on the Net for information 
about new developments in music software, either downloading new 
programs directly onto their computers or copying them from friends who 
have already done so. The online availability of such powerful software 
tools, as well as a wealth of information about how to use them, now 
makes it possible for musicians in China to keep up with new 
developments in electronic music production and obtain at least some of 
the latest technologies at the same time as their colleagues overseas. 
This is a very significant change when we consider that it has always 
been very difficult for independent musicians in China to get access to 
the technologies of contemporary music; import restrictions and other 
barriers have meant that contemporary music equipment typically costs 
twice as much in China as it does in the United States, when it is 
available at all. Computer hardware is relatively inexpensive now, 
however, even for some mainland Chinese, and there are powerful software 
tools on the Internet that can be had cheaply or for free. Increasing 
numbers of young Chinese are using computers to create their own dance 
music and upload it to the Internet, where it can be shared with a 
community of other producers and club music fans.


As an example of how participants in the Chinese dance scene are 
connecting and forming communities on the Internet, I would like to look 
at Yesdj.com <http://www.yesdj.com>; this is one of the more extensive 
websites used by Chinese DJs and producers to exchange information on 
how to produce their favorite styles of music and where to find music 
software. This heavily-trafficked site also provides users with 
frequently updated lists of the most popular dance tracks and CDs in 
China, with links to downloadable MP3 samples; when I last checked, the 
most popular CD on the site was by well-known south China techno-rap 
group MP4, and tracks from the CD had been downloaded over 65,000 times 
according to the site statistics. Yesdj.com also provides forums for 
clubbers to discuss the latest developments in Chinese dance music and 
for DJs, MCs, producers, promoters and others actively involved in the 
scene to make contact with their counterparts across China.

Although it is impossible to gauge the precise extent to which 
Internet-based communications have contributed to the rapid growth of 
the Chinese dance music scene, I believe that websites such as Yesdj.com 
and mailing lists of event schedules such as those operated by Beijing 
clubs Vogue and Orange have played a very significant role. It is 
important to note that besides the Internet, there are virtually no 
other forms of mass communication available to the Chinese dance 
community. Access to print media is strictly controlled in China, and 
information on non-government sponsored cultural activities is extremely 
difficult to come by. It is impossible, for example, for Chinese dance 
promoters to simply take out advertisements for their events in local 
magazines. In the recent past, information about dance events could be 
communicated only by word of mouth or by the distribution of party 
fliers, but Chinese clubs are now increasingly making use of the 
Internet for this purpose.


In addition to bringing new tools for producing music to electronic 
musicians in China and tremendously facilitating the circulation of 
information within their scene, the Internet is also having a massive 
impact in terms of the vastly increased access to music from outside 
China which it has brought to its users. The Chinese government strictly 
controls all cultural imports, including music, and most imported dance 
music recordings are completely unavailable through legal channels. As 
Internet usage has increased in China over the past few years, the Net 
has started to become the main source of information about music for 
more and more young urban Chinese. DJs and producers, many of whom have 
their own computers with Net access, rely increasingly on the Web to 
learn about the latest trends in dance music styles around the globe. 
Virtually all of the major DJs in Beijing, for example, use the Internet 
extensively to keep up with international music trends, learning about 
new styles at the same time as their counterparts in other countries.

As I noted earlier, some Chinese DJs even use music downloaded from the 
Net in their live sets, making their own compilations of MP3 files of 
music from China and abroad and recording them on CDRs; I have observed 
DJs at some of the largest clubs in Shanghai and Guangzhou using these 
CDRs in the DJ booth. Among some in the Chinese underground hiphop 
scene, only tracks which have been downloaded are considered truly 
"underground" and thus valuable, while any music which is available for 
purchase in physical form is seen as being tainted by commerciality to 
some degree.


In considering the long-term effects of these developments in the 
context of modern Chinese society, we might recall the oft-quoted ideas 
of Jacques Attali about music as a predictor of social change:

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the 
rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality 
can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible 
the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose 
itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of 
things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future 
(Attali, p. 11).

It is easy to be critical of Attali for his vagueness and sweeping 
generalizations. Yet the ideas he first presented in his book Noise in 
1977 seem to be resonating more strongly than ever at present, with many 
writers on digital music culture both in academia and in the popular 
media citing Attali’s ideas to help explain the phenomena they observe 
on the Internet. If we are willing to grant some degree of truth to what 
Attali is saying, that music may indeed be a "herald of the future" in 
some sense, we can only be led to consider some startling possibilities 
about the future of modern China. The rapidly evolving Internet-based 
music scene on the mainland may have radical implications for a society 
based on the principle of monolithic state control of information.

The Chinese government has been very active in efforts to combat the 
spread of dissident activity and "harmful opinions" on the Internet, 
even going so far as to construct a security firewall around the entire 
country which ensures that CNN.com (for example) cannot be freely 
accessed by Chinese Web surfers. Nonetheless, the government’s control 
over the flow of information into and out of China has already been 
seriously weakened by the Web. A report prepared in January 2000 by the 
United States Embassy in Beijing explains this situation in more detail 
and raises questions for the future:

The Chinese government filters the flow of information into China. 
Dissident groups mail thousands of electronic periodicals into China. 
They constantly switch originating addresses to evade filtering. Some 
foreign websites are blocked but Chinese surfers often use proxy servers 
to evade the Great Red Firewall. Email from China cannot reach certain 
foreign addresses but using a foreign email account (such as Hotmail) 
can solve that problem. The old Chinese saying "For every measure taken 
on high there is a counter measure down below" is illustrated by the 
wide use of anti-filtering countermeasures (US Embassy report, 2000).

Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas of the Carnegie Endowment for 
International Peace have studied the political impact of the Internet in 
China in greater detail, noting that while many observers continue to 
believe that rising use of the Internet poses an insurmountable threat 
to authoritarian regimes, the reality in China is that the government 
has managed to control the impact of the Net to some degree and in the 
short term via both reactive and proactive strategies (Kalathil and 
Boas, 2000). However, other commentators look to the future and question 
how long any kind of effective control can be maintained. Kalathil and 
Boas themselves outline some of the specific mechanisms by which 
authoritarian regimes can be gradually undermined by the Internet:

ONE Exposure to outside ideas and lifestyles may spur a revolution of 
"rising expectations" as citizens begin to wonder why they are denied 
rights and freedoms enjoyed by the people of other nations. (It is 
believed that this was an important factor in the revolutions in Eastern 
Europe which overthrew the Communist regimes there, although television 
rather the Internet was the crucial media technology there.)

TWO The widespread use of email, Internet chat rooms and the Web by 
ordinary citizens may contribute to a greater degree of "ideational 
pluralism" as more and more information which contradicts the official 
party line becomes available to users.

THREE Civil organizations may use the Internet for the dissemination of 
information among members and for large-scale organization. (The most 
striking example of this in China thus far has been the Falun Gong, a 
banned religious organization.) Kalathil and Boas note that these civil 
organizations have often played a crucial role in undermining 
authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

FOUR The Internet creates new opportunities for entrepreneurship and 
wealth creation.

FIVE Finally, Net usage provides increased scope for foreign influence 
within countries hitherto isolated from the world community by 
censorship and control over the free flow of information.

Looking again at the Chinese dance music scene, we can clearly observe 
the operation of many of the mechanisms identified here. The Internet 
has contributed significantly to the spread of new musical ideas in 
China, encouraging a greater degree of musical pluralism; websites and 
mailing lists are routinely used by participants in the scene to 
communicate with each other and to organize and promote dance events; 
the rapidly growing dance music scene is creating new economic 
opportunities for some young Chinese in the underground economy; and 
there is an increasing degree of foreign musical influence due to the 
access to music and information from overseas provided by the Internet. 
If Attali is right and developments in music do foreshadow changes in 
other social practices, then the long-term success of China’s efforts to 
control public discourse on the Internet must be placed in doubt, with 
potentially profound consequences for the future of the country’s 
political system.

Although the dance scene is not overtly political for the most part, it 
should be noted here that there are already signs of a developing 
"ideational pluralism" among its participants which may have significant 
political overtones. An article in Asiaweek magazine in May 2001 noted 
early signs of politicization within the Chinese dance scene, such as 
the popularity of a locally-produced dance track called "No Communist 
Party." Taking its melody from a song associated with the Cultural 
Revolution, the lyrics ridicule Communist Party icon Lei Feng, the 
selfless PLA soldier who has been held up as a model of good character 
to generations of Chinese students.


Some observers of the Internet music scene even follow Attali’s 
trajectory one step farther and argue that the drive to distribute music 
on the Internet has itself become a cause of future change in other 
areas and not just a predictor of it. They point especially to software 
tools developed for the purpose of distributing music that may 
ultimately have a far greater impact when applied in other areas. 
Freenet, a decentralized and anonymous music file trading system, 
provides us with an interesting example here. Freenet makes it possible 
for users to trade any kinds of digital data files among themselves 
completely anonymously, without fear of being identified by government 
authorities or copyright holders. Ian Clarke, the founder of Freenet, 
has reportedly been contacted by someone who is already using his 
software in a totalitarian, Middle Eastern country to share information 
banned by the government (van Buskirk, 2000). Technologies developed to 
share music such as Freenet, which enable users to communicate on a mass 
scale with no possibility of governmental censorship, may ultimately 
play a key role in evading the mechanisms of online control identified 
by Kalathil and Boas.


As I have tried to show here, increasing Internet usage among 
participants in the Chinese dance scene seems to be contributing 
significantly to the rapid growth of that scene. Participants are 
exposed to a wide variety of new ideas and lifestyles through the 
widespread use of email, chat rooms and the Web, members of the 
community are using the Net to organize and promote their activities, 
and new opportunities for entrepreneurship and wealth creation are 
emerging within the scene: these characteristics of the new dance 
subculture illustrate specific ways in which I believe the Internet is 
acting to significantly reduce the Communist government’s control over 
the Chinese population as the government loses control of the flow of 
information. Bearing in mind again Attali’s idea of music as prophecy, I 
wonder about what kind of messages we might read from the chaotic 
freedom of the main dancefloor at Club Rojam in Shanghai, where on any 
given weekend more than a thousand clubbers might typically be found 
dancing to a mix of electronic beats from all over the world...


Attali, Jacques. Bruits; essai sur l'economie politique de la musique. 
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977. Published in English as 
Noise: the political economy of music, tr. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: 
University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

China Internet Network Information Center. January 2002. 17 Feb 2002 

DJ Tadi. Homepage. 18 Feb 2002 

Freenet. 6 Dec 2001 <http://freenet.sourceforge.net>.

Kalathil, Shanthi and Taylor C. Boas. "The Internet and State Control in 
Authoritarian Regimes: China, Cuba, and the Counterrevolution." Carnegie 
Endowment for International Peace, Information Revolution and World 
Politics Project, Working Paper #21, July 2000. 18 Feb 2002 

Oster, Shai. "It’s My Party." Asiaweek 18 May 2001. 20 Feb 2002 

US Embassy Beijing. "China’s Internet Information Skirmish." Jan 2000. 5 
Dec 2001 <http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/webwar.htm>.

van Buskirk, Eliot. "How Music Is Changing the Internet." 26 Nov 2000. 5 
Dec 2001 


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John von Seggern

producer - DJ - researcher

email  <johnvon at digitalcutuplounge dot com>
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