Sitting with a laptop in a “quieter” part of Beijing’s upcoming electronic music club Lantern, I have already been labelled as the boring girl in the corner with her computer. In fact, I am waiting to chat with Miao Wong, manager and co-founder of Acupuncture Records. At midnight, it is still early for a club that regularly closes after 7 a.m., but already the blasting house music is attracting both Lantern regulars and new converts to the dance floor. Soon it will be full, pulsating with energy—a raw and stimulating mix of movement and music.
Miao arrives at the club, but it still takes her another 30 minutes to cross the floor to reach me, making slow progress by stopping to talk with several people, including her personal assistant, recently hired to help manage the hundreds of emails Miao receives a day. Even though electronic music continues to grow in Beijing, it is obviously still an intimate scene founded on strong connections and networking. Miao is right in the center of this close-knit community.
Miao is someone who suits adjectives: fervent, knowledgeable, exuberant, savvy, energetic. She is nicknamed “energizer” after the Duracell bunny for her dancing style. She used to listen to the death metal band Cannibal Corpse, and normally dinner is her only meal of the day. Electronic music is not a hobby or job; it is her life. Even before she sits down, she is vigorously talking about one of her favourite subjects: Acupuncture Records.
Acupuncture Records is a pioneering collective-turned-business that is both changing and evolving with China’s burgeoning electronic music scene. As with electronic music in China, Acupuncture Records began organically but has been quickly growing into a powerful music force.
According to Miao, it started as a group of close friends and DJs organizing parties and playing avant-garde electronic music, not easily found elsewhere in Beijing at the time. After several warehouse parties on the outskirts of Beijing—experimental music in unlit locations—they held their first public event. The party was low-key but successful, and the next evening they decided to take a first step towards official collaboration. Appropriately, it was at Beijing’s Sanlitun Alley, the grimy heart of Sanlitun’s music scene, that this initial conversation took place. “We started saying that maybe we should do something, maybe we should start a group. We were talking about big, big stuff, but without a clue on how to do it. We didn’t have a business plan, but knew that China had a thriving young scene going on and definitely deserved a record label,” Miao said.
While the electronic music scene is now thriving in China, it is still relatively new. Festivals like the Sounding Beijing Festival in 2003 and a series of popular Great Wall raves have been important in cultivating the electronic music scene. Miao, though, sees the internet as the biggest catalyst for launching electronic music in China and attracting new Chinese electronic artists.
Before easy internet access in China, DJs were forced to import their vinyl from overseas, which was both expensive and dated. “Now what DJs play in China as fresh as anywhere in the world. It makes us feel that China is not so isolated anymore,” Miao said. Despite the developing openness of Chinese society, mainstream music is still dominated by sugary love songs and generic pop. Acupuncture Records is working to challenge the mainstream by launching electronic music from underground.
“Steady, accurate and hard,” Miao exclaims, her rushing voice layered under the sharp pulsating dance beats. Miao speaks fast, only short pauses in between quick-fire anecdotes. She blames the red wine she had with dinner, but I can tell that she always speaks as fast as the beats she dances to.
Steady, accurate and hard are the three key words behind the name of Acupuncture Records. Formed in 2007, Acupuncture Records hosts DJs Weng Weng, Gao Hu, Huang Weiwei, Xiao Linfeng, Pancake Lee, Elvis T., Xiao Feng, and Terry Tu. In just three short years, they have created a marketable and dynamic brand that is actively supporting the development of the electronic music industry.
“We were a collective when we started, but a collective can’t run a business,” Miao told me. As the business heart of Acupuncture Records, and the only non-DJ, this is obviously important to her, “People need to see us as a business.” Acupuncture Records has indeed evolved into a multi-faceted business. They hold parties, are a record label, organise festivals, own a club and are an artist agency bringing international artists to Chinese festivals. However, as a young business that is growing simultaneously alongside a developing creative industry, going from a collective to a successful company has been a long learning process for the group.
“Phase one of the group was to start holding official public parties,” Miao said. At that point Acupuncture Records certainly wasn’t a business. But even at this early stage they were tapping into a small but engaged market. In a few months they went from 200 people in a small venue to over 1,000 attendees at their SPOOKED Halloween party. They were producing records, but not getting any responses from labels, so they finally decided to start their own, releasing their first EP in 2008. This was the first time local DJs released through a Chinese label. Around this time they also launched on iTunes and on the world’s biggest DJ music download site, Beatport.com.
Even though they weren’t working solely to make a profit, they wanted to make their brand sustainable. In May 2009, Acupuncture Records organised INTRO, their first large electronic music festival, held in Beijing’s 798 art district. Eight thousand people attended. In 2010, that number increased to 11,000. Holding music festivals didn’t make Acupuncture Records a significant profit, but it brought the emerging group out into the open and helped electronic music to enter the realm of Chinese popular culture.
“We discovered how to rock. You need to try something on a big scale, but it’s so difficult to do that in China,” Miao told me. This includes navigating China’s legal system to hold full-scale music festivals. “There are no 10 steps to follow. It’s not like that. We all live in Beijing and know how things work, but we were quite lucky to successfully hold things in the first year. It was so stressful.”
After Acupuncture Records’ significant growth and publicity from INTRO, in December 2009 they decided to open an electronic music club: Lantern. The club is the most serious side of Acupuncture Records, as it brings in regular cash flow and gives the DJs a solid venue to perform at. “Compared to everything before, this is real. This is a real business,” she said. While the rent in Sanlitun is high, the club’s profits help support the other arms of the business, such as the record label, which will never make much money. “We knew from the beginning that it was not something to make you rich,” she said.
Unlike electronic music, the Beijing rock and punk scene has flourished for many years, and local live music venues such as Yugong Yishan and Mao Livehouse are perpetually showcasing China’s upcoming artists. The rock scene has created icons for millions of young Chinese people who love music. Miao wants to do the same for electronic music, for it to have stars and models, and to get more professionals involved in the electronic music scene.
“There are a lot of DJ crews who are doing their own promotions, marketing and putting on parties. You can start from there, but need to keep in mind that it’s not the right model.” Miao told me, before pointing to Europe, where there is a surplus of professional promoters, booking agencies and record labels. This is the direction she hopes Beijing is moving to, attracting more people to become producers, but also more people becoming music industry professionals. “We need to foster these professionals in China, so professionals do the professional work, and artists do the art,” she said.
As experienced electronic music practitioners, Acupuncture Records are actively reinvesting into developing Beijing’s scene by holding weekly Electronic Music and Digital Art Workshops, conferences, open decks sessions for new DJs, and film screenings. They understand the need to cultivate the electronic music scene to bring their music to the mainstream and to also make Acupuncture Records a sustainable enterprise. September was their third anniversary, and was meant to be a party at Lantern packed with electro heads, friends, DJs and Chinese youth starting to explore beyond pop music. Instead, in early September and not long after our midnight interview, Lantern was forced to close its doors to make way for Karaoke chain Kuzi. Although the club will reopen, this exemplifies the struggle of electronic music against the mainstream—underground versus generic. To Miao and Acupuncture Records, however, this is only another challenge in a long and ongoing journey to create a sustainable and successful business. As we finished the interview, I asked Miao what she thinks the next evolution of Acupuncture will be.
“You can’t see the future, but if you look back you can see how far you have come. You feel proud with what has been accomplished.”
“Electronic music is something that was not invented in China, it came from the West. We are exporting ourselves to the world,” she finishes.
- I went to a rave last weekend.
- Listening to electronic music makes me nervous.