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Finding future global stars in China and India discussed at The Great Escape

By | Published on Friday 9 May 2014

Seymour Stein

When discussing new markets for music, we often focus on taking British or American talent to emerging market territories. But a CMU-presented conversation on the first day of The Great Escape yesterday turned that around, looking at talent scouting in countries like China and India with a view to bringing acts back home.

Sitting on the panel, moderated by Evening Standard journalist David Smyth, were A&R veteran Seymour Stein, Ed Peto of China-based company Outdustry, and Great Escape founder Martin Elbourne, who has worked on the NH7 festivals in India.

Stein said that extending A&R activity into new territories was vital for the survival of the wider music business. He told the audience: “I’ve always been open to anything, but in recent years finding acts from abroad has become more imperative, because the music business is shrinking and we’ve got to bring these other countries in if we’re going to build it back to where it was in the 80s and 90s, and that means working with artists from these countries, not just trying to import our existing acts”.

Finding those artists can be a hard task though. While Stein has already begun signing talent from places like South Korea and Brazil, breaking artists from India and China is still something he’s “working on”.

There are various problems that anyone will face when trying to work with artists from China, said Peto. Bands can find that they are barred from gaining visas to travel abroad, and there is little financial support on offer for indie and alternative artists. And there fewer acts of that kind to start with.

Being in a punk band in China is much less socially acceptable than it would be in the west, he noted. “In the West, indie music is often about kicking against your middle class background, but in China you have the one child policy, which creates a pyramid of people above all the young who have invested so much in them going to university and being a success”.

“It makes going to university and then ducking off to a punk venue instead of working far more rebellious. It doesn’t have that crossover cool, it’s still seen as very outside. So these artists who are doing it, we really need to get them out to other countries. And that’s still very much a work in progress”.

Another potential problem, once musicians have made that leap into alternative music, is Western perception of what Chinese artists should be. Responding to an audience question, Peto said: “Everyone is desperate for Chinese bands to make a statement with their music. While British or American bands almost get the opposite. But it’s very easy for a Chinese band to get shut down if they do anything political, so they have to be more clever about it. To say something openly critical is very short term thinking”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, India is further ahead that China in many ways, said Elbourne, but alternative musicians there are still “desperate” to play abroad. A large reason for this is that there are very few venues to perform in back home, and ticket prices at those there are tend to be very low, making it difficult to make money. So many artists end up working in the more lucrative Bollywood music industry.

However, he said that university campuses were a rapidly growing network for indie gigs, which is becoming increasingly important for developing bands in the country.

In terms of what travels both ways, Elbourne added: “Something like metal travels very well. Metal is international because normally you can’t understand what they’re saying anyway. And dance music’s totally international, it doesn’t matter where you come from”.

On the subject of genres, the panelists were keen to stress that this was not about minority ‘world music’, but about acts who have the ability to take their music to the mainstream in the West. However, Peto said that any breakthroughs might actually come from more traditional music initially.

“A number of Chinese folk artists have managed to find some success touring abroad”, he said. “For me, these are the bands that are going to creep out of China in a quiet unassuming way. Even if you don’t understand the language, you get it, and there’s a lot of charisma in the performances”.

Though Stein rejected the whole idea of world music entirely, saying: “To somebody in China, The Beatles may have seemed like world music. It’s just music, whatever you like. I always think of music being good or bad, and if it’s good how good is it?”