Since the 1970s, Taiwan’s university campuses have been integral to the island’s music industry
Rows of sponsors and merchandise greet audiences at the door, which leads to a gloomy cavernous room filled with monochrome-clothed, bucket-hatted 20-somethings: so far, so indie music concert.
But the MCs at the annual Chengchi University Music Concert in Taipei, Taiwan, are all taking a break from writing undergraduate papers, the people in the crowd all seem to know one another, and the tickets are dirt cheap.
By day, Chengchi University is one of the most prestigious research universities on the island, but by night, the institution is famed for fostering an alternative indie music scene. The 2020 edition of the concert, put on by students, had everything from a “Healing Hip-Hop” stage featuring rapper Osean (吴献), to punk rock veterans Fire EX (灭火器) headlining the main stage. The only difference between this concert and a professionally staged one was that the audience were all the same age.
Taiwan’s music industry and its university campuses have shared a symbiotic relationship for nearly four decades. From top artists touring their way around the island’s high schools to university students putting on fully-formed music festivals, Taiwan’s campus music scene not only provides an important stage for musicians at any stage of their career, but is also an incubator for the island’s musical innovations.
Some of the biggest stars from Taiwan and the Chinese mainland tour around school halls and university grounds across the island. Back in 2009, Mandopop icon Jolin Tsai (who regularly fills out arenas with tens of thousands of fans on both sides of the strait) held a “Campus Tour” in Taiwan, performing an 18-song set list at schools and universities. Superstar singer and presenter Jam Hsiao is usually seen performing at prestigious venues like the 2022 CCTV Spring Festival Gala, but in 2019, he and his band LION played an hour-long set at the Taipei First Girls’ High School annual concert.
Taiwan’s campus music scene has its roots in the infamous “campus folk songs movement (校园民歌运动)” of the 1970s, sparked by the now legendary “Tamkang Incident,” or “Coca-Cola Incident,” when student Li Shuangtze (李双泽) allegedly smashed a Coca-Cola bottle on stage and called on the crowd to reject Western covers.
Li’s provocation, as pop music historian Eric Scheihagen writes in Taiwan Insight, came after a period in the 70s when students began turning to Western musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. This turn brought a backlash from some students who wrote and performed in Taipei’s bars and who began putting Chinese poetry to music.
On December 3, 1976, Li strutted on stage at Tamkang University’s “Western Folk Music Festival,” a popular event in Taiwanese universities at the time featuring folk songs with English lyrics. He challenged the crowd: “Young people all over the world drink Coca-Cola and listen to Western music, but let me ask you, where are our songs?” According to the legend, Li then smashed the bottle, implying the West’s hegemony over Taiwanese music must go the same way. He then began a set of Hokkien classics, but was allegedly booed into reverting to Bob Dylan.
The slogan, “Let's sing our own songs” inspired fellow students to create original Chinese-language pieces, mainly in Mandarin due to a Nationalist Party policy from the 70s through to the 90s that tried to phase out the local Hokkien dialect. It marked the beginning of a new pop music movement in Taiwan, with university campuses leading the way. “[At that time] the line between popular and campus songs becomes blurry,” writes scholar Fang-Chih Irene Yang in an article from 1994 on Taiwan’s music history, in the journal Popular Music and Society.
Fang notes the backgrounds of popular artists shifted from uneducated, working class Hokkien singers toward social elites, young students, and recent graduates. Still ironically following the jeans-toting, guitar-strumming template of Western folk music, the main focus was on relatable lyrics, with some, like Li Shuangtze’s “Meilidao (《美丽岛》),” odes to a growing sense of local identity, while others followed more politically acceptable genres of love or missing home, such as “Grandma’s Penghu Bay (《外婆的澎湖湾》)” by Pan An-Bang (潘安邦).
Record companies rushed to capitalize on the new genre’s popularity. The establishment of Xinge Records in 1976 and its short-lived but influential campus music competition, the Jinyun Awards, launched the career of many future stars of the genre. According to Taiwanese news site kknews, 70 percent of the competition’s entrants in the first year were students, including Chyi Yu (齐豫), who won in 1978 and went on to release “The Olive Tree (《橄榄树》),” still a favorite across the sinosphere, one year later.
These days, campus performances remain popular and important driving forces in Taiwanese music. A renowned agent based in Taipei, who requested anonymity, has sent artists who signed with him to over 400 campus concerts over the last four years, and tells TWOC that these performances “have been popular since at least 20 years ago when I was at university, and have been in vogue ever since.”
While “the artist is not going to make as much performing at a campus than they would for a commercial show,” says the agent, “it’s more about promotion.” According to the research institute Brookings, the college and university student population on the island has expanded exponentially, from 346,000 in 1986 to 1.2 million in 2019 (and staying at that number from 2020 to 2021, according to Taiwan’s education authority), making it a tempting audience to tap into. After their campus performance in 2019, Jam Hsiao and LION were featured in widely read Taiwanese publications like China Times and ETtoday, which included information on the release of their latest album, Beautiful, Ugly & Me.
Likewise, “for newer artists, [campus performances are] a great opportunity for them to gain experience,” according to the agent. He encourages artists in the early stages of their career to take on as many performances as they can. “You have to make the most of the opportunities that come your way, whether that be at a high school or a university.”
Chen-Yu Lin, a professor of music history at Taiwan University, tells TWOC that campus singing competitions remain important for fostering the next generation of indie bands and getting them spotted early. Events like Chengchi University’s annual Golden Melody Awards, similar to the Jinyun Awards before them, have developed since the 1980s into some of the most sought-after platforms for student musicians.
The event is wholly organized by the student body, and it is clearly angled toward young talent, as entrants must be between 18 and 25 to register. The most recent competition in May of last year saw up-and-coming jazz singer 9m88 and veteran Taiwanese singer Queen Wei (魏如昀) join the judging panel, while the awards joined forces with StreetVoice (街声)—an online music streaming service similar to Bandcamp—to create tailored playlists aimed at encouraging listeners to try out university musicians.
The competition has launched the career of several Taiwanese celebrities, like moody folk-rock group band Your Woman Sleep With Others (老王乐队). The band’s breakthrough hit “Stable Life, Suffer Exams (《稳定生活多美好三年五年高普考》)” was composed as an entry for the 2016 Golden Melody Awards, and a subsequent release “Cram Schools Killed the Children (《补习班的门口高挂我的黑白照片》)” went on to win Best Folk Single at the culture authority of Taiwan’s Golden Indie Awards in 2018.
During Fire EX’s headline set at the 2020 Chengchi University Music Concert, the student crowd roared along to every word of the songs. From an anthem about the student-led Sunflower Movement protests of 2014, to a track about getting the last bus home from Taipei, the punk-rock band captured the zeitgeist of young people’s concerns, like artists before them who got started in front of the same youthful crowds.
Forty years on from the Coca-Cola Incident, Taiwan’s campus music scene is as vibrant as ever, and full of bands still singing their own songs.
Written by Sinead O’Connor
This story is published as part of TWOC’s collaboration with Asian Pop Weekly.