Article by Timothy Driesen
The current state of China’s music scene is not that different from other countries. Music charts are dominated by sappy love songs and upbeat pop songs. But, whereas Western countries still have well-established, vibrant underground music scenes, China’s underground – extreme music in particular – is struggling to capture the hearts and minds of young adults. However, on top of the rubble of the Chinese underground stands black metal label Pest Productions.
The Nanchang/Xi’an-based underground metal label celebrated its 10-year anniversary a few months ago with Pest Fest in Beijing and Shanghai. Reminiscent of early eighties DIY punk labels, Pest Productions started out as a college dorm distro in Nanchang. Deng, the founder, bought black metal CDs from overseas to sell them in China. At the time Deng played in a suicidal black metal band called Be Persecuted. When they recorded their demo, it was released through Pest–the label’s first release.
After Be Persecuted released their first EP, they were picked up by a German label, and the rest is history. “When Be Persecuted got discovered by the German label, Pest Productions gained a lot of recognition and was approached by bands from all over the world that wanted us to release their records,” explains Liu Qi.
Approached by bands spanning a myriad of genres, the label founded no less than three sub-labels so as to put out music that did not fit Pest Productions’s profile: Midnight Records (dark atmospheric music), Self Destruction (noise/industrial) and Weary Bird Records (post-rock). With the rising popularity of post-rock music in China, Weary Bird Records is currently the only sub-label that is still active and financially viable.
Truly, Pest Productions is a label that does not discriminate; its extensive catalogue sports releases from bands from countries that would receive little to no attention from European or North American metal labels. That being said, the label is not only known for nurturing unknown bands, but also for putting out some of black metal’s most promising acts, such as Ghostbath, whom are now signed to Nuclear Blast; Zuuriake, arguably China’s most famous black metal band; and German blackgaze sensation Trautonist.
Liu Qi, perhaps the nicest guy in metal, joined the label’s management in 2010 after his band split up. Up until then, Pest had been a one-man operation. With the addition of Liu Qi, a concert promoter, the label was able to help bands organize tours in China, and later also in Japan and Taiwan.
“In the beginning it was difficult to keep the label afloat. We both had our daytime jobs and during our free time we ran the label. Now we release a lot of records – one or two per month – and we earn some money from ticket sales. We’re making enough money now so we can do this full time.”
However, most of Pest’s livelihood doesn’t come from Chinese fans, as one would expect. The bulk of Pest’s releases are sent to all corners of the world, if the records arrive at all. “Chinese customs can be a real pain,” Liu Qi clarifies. “It takes a while for packages to get through customs, sometimes they deliberately lose them, and then there’s tax!”
The label also makes a pretty good buck from the sale of digital music, mainly through Bandcamp; however, they have had some problems with Chinese music streaming sites Xiami and Wangyi Music. Both companies regularly disregard Pest’s copyright and sell their music unlicensed. “There’s nothing we can do,” sighs Liu Qi, “not without spending loads of money on lawyers.”
When asked why Chinese fans don’t buy their records, Liu Qi smiles wryly, “We mainly focus on the EU, Japan and the Americas. Although we have some very loyal fans in China, a lot of people don’t bother to try to discover new music, unless someone tells them to check out a certain band. Then, when they do come to a gig and actually hear the band, they might buy a CD or some merch.”
Nevertheless, Liu Qi and Pest Productions are hoping to change this with their efforts to try to engage the Chinese listener both online and offline. One of their works in progress is a magazine that fans would receive with an order, or get for free at a show.
In his own effort to bring about a change, Liu Qu started Spirit Fest. Tired of the current scene and its mentality, Liu Qi set out to give the people of Xi’an something new. Spirit Fest managed to book a slew of bands both from home and abroad to give Xi’an a taste of high-quality underground music, but failed to draw sizeable crowds. Liu Qi reveals that he deliberately set low ticket prices to try to get people to come and discover new bands, but still turnout was very low.
Liu Qi claims that neither he nor Deng are in it for the money. Nonetheless, ambitions are high at Pest. Their dream is to become Asia’s most famous underground metal label. Of course they want to continue releasing more albums and organizing more tours and gigs, but most of all, the label seeks to invest in human capital, to be a vehicle for bands to develop themselves. Yet, it appears to me that the black metal label also strives to invest, or rather to nurture, a whole new generation of avid, loyal, and adventurous Chinese metal fans.
Timothy is a Belgian and a music lover, not necessarily in that order.