Article by Dave Wright / Photos by Ting Ting Viva
Aspiring musicians are all over this city. They are sitting in cramped apartments practicing a single riff over and again with blistered fingers. They are loading up second hand equipment and crossing the city on crowded buses to get an hour or two of band practice in dusty basements. They are all preparing for their chance, that perfect moment when they will finally get to share the music inside them with the world. But they need a stage.
“The foundation of a healthy music scene is the livehouse.”
– Zhang Liang (Guangyin 16)
Rockie Long is a self-described audio junkie whose first love may be indie music but he’s interested in pretty much everything sonic. Not six months ago, his club, Aperture, was the premiere alternative livehouse in Xi’an, catering to musical styles from folk to trip-hop to death metal. Today it is shuttered, the stage gathering dust, the equipment gone. “Any livehouse that is open for more than two years is extremely fortunate,” he says. “There are so many challenges to navigate that it is almost impossible to remain in one location.”
The evidence supports his claim. For someone who’s been here a few years, names like Vice Versa, Moonkey and Guangyin may conjure memories of an energy so intoxicating that you wonder how it was ever lost. Yet every single one of them has been ripped out, shuttered or radically transformed. Given its reputation as a rock city, Xi’an has a difficult time keeping livehouses open.
“Attendance is down. People just don’t go to shows anymore.”
– Liu Kai (Moonkey)
“Ten years ago, there was amazing talent in this city; today’s bands just don’t give people a good enough reason to come,” Yang Liang is managing the new Vice Versa, a place with far better acoustics that somehow lacks the raw vitality of the original he founded with two friends in 2011. He contends that it’s too easy for novices today. Access to better equipment means that people often don’t master their sound, while new software has removed the need to learn songs by ear. As a consequence, fewer of today’s aspiring musicians develop the requisite skills to create their own material. Without compelling music, the audience stays home and satisfies themselves by streaming their favorite artists on Xiami.
Technology may be impacting the scene in more ways than one. “People feel uninhibited at a good rock show; it’s just a great place to meet people. But now that we have apps…casual fans just stay home,” Zhang Liang says. When only die-hard fans attend, livehouses cannot consistently attract the kinds of crowds they need to remain viable. He says that Guangyin 16, where he works, currently struggles to turn a profit despite hosting fantastic bands from all over the country. Declining attendance also spawns a host of additional difficulties for promoters.
Finding a suitable place for a livehouse is not easy. Size, location, acoustics, and surrounding environment must all enter into the equation. Whiff on just one of these and the run can be extremely short-lived, as when Moonkey resurfaced near the East Wall only to disappear again less than two years later after repeated noise complaints. Promoters must also pay close attention to the books; with declining revenue the line between financial solvency and insolvency is finer than ever. This has pushed some to open in locations that violate one or more city codes in ill-advised efforts to cut costs.
Obtaining permits for cultural events requires promoters to navigate a labyrinth of regulations. For example, every artist’s lyrics must be submitted to the government for pre-screening. For foreign bands, these lyrics must be translated first. This adds still more overhead to the operating costs, and corners are sometimes cut due to insufficient staff. This leaves the livehouse vulnerable to fines they may be unable to pay, or even closure.
“There is a future in this. I believe that. Things are going to get better.”
-Rockie Long (Aperture)
Moonkey Livehouse has been closed for years now and Liu Kai says he currently has no intention of reopening it. He has shifted his focus to a practice room, which he indicates may soon also function as a recording studio wherebands cancreate their demos. He continues to believe in the transformative power of music, but his strategy has changed. “What we need is to foster an appreciation of live music in university students,” he says. To that end, he is now working to promote shows on campuses around the city, events that can reach far larger audiences than the shows that once took place on Moonkey’s stage.
Rockie is now working with Da Hua 1935, Xi’an’s nascent art district. Remarkably, he is promoting more shows than ever this summer, including an impressive slate of foreign bands. This speaks to the resilience of these committed few, who continue working day in and day out to bring us the bands and performers we want to see. All of these veteran promoters share an abiding belief that somehow, despite the multitude of difficulties, a new golden age of music is about to dawn in Xi’an. And they will be the ones to bring it to us.
Dave is a lover of all things musical and a total bass head, meaning that he loves to play the bass, not that he has a bass for a head