128 BPM: Electronic Music in East and Southeast Asia

Western music forms such as Electronic Dance Music (EDM) have become increasingly popular outside of the west, spreading rapidly into other countries throughout the last decade. However, while EDM’s popularity in China has lagged since its entry into the global mainstream in 2010, as of late, this music form has begun to gain traction with the millennial generation. China’s lag can be attributed to government suppression of club and drug culture, and regulation of internet diffusion methods; its recent spread is attributable to the easing of regulations as well as an emerging capitalist and individualist culture.

According to Mark Butler’s book, Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music, EDM is defined as “a broad range of percussive electronic music genres produced largely for nightclubs, raves, and festivals” (Butler 12). The development of EDM initially began with the advent of computers and electronic music production, which gave composers the ability to easily craft their own instruments as well as cut and loop other tracks to create a unique sound. Many early composers found that music featuring percussive bass sounds, at around 128 beats per minute, created music that was conducive to dancing.

DJ/Producers such as Skrillex commonly use a computer as the primary tool to create music

“It’s hard to pinpoint a date and location to the beginnings of EDM. Some say it began in Germany and London, others make a case that it started in Detroit” (Alvarado). Drawing heavily from disco, techno, house, and trance music, EDM began to spread “via regional nightclub scenes in the 1980s” (edmmusicjunkies), using the disco sound to create music that people could dance to. However, its appeal for much of the early 21st century was limited to Europe and underground circles in the United States, but, in the late 2000s, many European DJs such as David Guetta and Tiesto began to produce hit pop music, allowing the electronic sound to spread to the masses in America. In 2009, Guetta produced the year’s best-selling single, ‘I Gotta Feeling’, with the Black Eyed Peas, and it was off to the races. “Today it has become common for established Top 40 artists and produces to infuse elements of popular EDM styles in their music. According to Time Out Chicago, EDM has ‘become the driving beat behind pop music and product sales, the soundtrack of choice for a new generation’” (edmmusicjunkies).

“For EDM, collaborations” like ‘I Gotta Feeling’ “may have attracted listeners, but the Internet and its subsequent components (i.e. social media, apps and music sharing programs) have played essential roles in getting more. Nowadays, in the digital era, success is measured in followers, video hits, downloads, hashtags, tweets, retweets, and likes” (Alvarado). However, like many cultural movements, EDM’s appeal extends beyond the music, as it can also be seen as a visual performance. Due to its origins in the club scene, lighting, lasers, pyrotechnics, and theatrics are all critical components of EDM. As a result, electronic music festivals are the lifeblood of the movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to join together and dance to music from globally famous artists blasted on the most technologically advanced sound systems available today. One of the world’s largest festivals, Tomorrowland, occurs each year in Belgium, with tickets regularly selling for thousands of dollars.

Despite the dispute about EDM’s origins, it is generally considered a global movement, with enormous festivals around the world and popular artists originating from numerous different countries. However, it is now apparent that this international spread has not proceeded at the same rate in all countries, and has especially struggled in the world’s largest country, China. While nearby countries like India have played a large part in the EDM revolution, the popularity of the music in China has lagged far behind, and is now only just beginning to spread. Today, according to Shazaam, 22 out of the top 100 songs in India can be classified as EDM, also occupying the top 3 spots, and 5 out of the top 10. On the other hand, in China, only 12 out of the top 100 songs are EDM, and only 2 of the top 10.

The majority of EDM’s struggles can be directly attributed to policies of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) Government, especially in regards to foreign performers, drugs, and club culture. As aforementioned, the large, festival type shows that accompany electronic music are integral part of not only the development of a nation’s EDM production and scene, but also are crucial in attracting new listeners and followers. As can be seen from the experience of Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou, this is not easily accomplished in China:

“There are many local rules that foreign [production] companies could not possible handle, especially the custom of giving tickets away to state, police, and stadium officials. For Jay Chou’s concert in Shanghai, for example, out of the 80,000 seats in the Shanghai Stadium only 43,000 bona fide tickets were sold. In addition to space allocated for the complete stage that takes 200 people to assemble, the promoter had to relinquish 10 percent of tickets to sponsors and to the Security Guard, the Fire Department, and related departments. In essence, this practice allowed the government indirect control over the foreign production.” (Fung 77)

As can be seen, this is an environment that is not conducive to the large performances that have allowed EDM to spread in other countries like India. For example, in 2015, despite hosting some of the world’s most famous DJs, the largest festival in China, STORM Festival, only generated attendance of 50,000 attendees (wikifestivals.com). The same year, in India, 350,000 people attended Sunburn Festival (youredm.com). Furthermore, EDM’s relation to millennial, consumerist culture is hindered by the state’s control of marketing, as “Jay Chou’s and other foreign pop stars’ success in marketing in China is possible only after the PRC evaluates the potential impact of popular music and a star’s image on its people, considering the revolutionary power and possibility of popular culture being used to westernize, globalize, and pervert China in some way” (Fung 71). Due to the culture of hedonism and individual freedom associated with EDM, Chinese state likely believes that it should be heavily controlled, if not actively suppressed.

2015 Sunburn Festival in Goa (350,000)

2015 Sunburn Festival in Goa (350,000)

Similarly, the government’s regulation of Chinese clubs formed a major barrier to the proliferation of EDM during the early 2000s. During the 1990s, the increasing affluence of urban millennials and capitalist tendencies created a boom in the dance club industry. These clubs mainly featured “techno and Cantopop” (Chew 24), which potentially could have precipitated a rise of EDM in China – like in other countries – if not for an about-face in policy at the turn of the century. “The unfettered growth of this clubculture lasted until the end of 1999, when the central government finally began to pay serious attention to the new clubculture and devised ways to squash it. Many dance clubs were closed down at this time” (Chew 25).

This was equally reflected by the state’s harsh drug policies in the early 21st century, which certainly hindered much of the growth of EDM. While the link between dance music and club drugs is certainly not ideal, substances such as MDMA have long been associated with the free-spirited hedonism and dance associated with both the club and festival culture surrounding the scene. Ecstasy, in particular, “is an integral part of rave culture…[it] works symbiotically with electronic dance music to generate music-somatic bodily reactions, facilitates and Oceanic and religious feeling, and encourages the collective values of PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect)” (Chew 24) that have come to define EDM culture to partiers and club-goers worldwide.

“PLUR” beads are commonly found on EDM fans at clubs and festivals worldwide

In fact, “drugs tend to play an even more important role in Chinese clubland than [in the] West” (Chew 24). In Europe, the somewhat lax government policies towards club drugs helped catalyze the spread of electronic music in clubs across the continent, leaving China’s club scene behind due to its harsh draconian policies. The disco and dance clubs that had emerged in the late 20th century were targeted by the state’s the anti-drug campaign of 2000, where “police targeted the clubs that attracted ecstasy users and most of these belonged to the local club circuit” (Chew 25). Often times, “police [would] tend to indiscriminately treat all clubber as illegal drug users” (Chew 27), which, as a result, made clubbing a very high risk endeavor for both users and non-users alike. Without an audience to consume the dance music product in Chinese clubs, its popularity waned and was unable to fully develop into what is called EDM today.

Pills like Ecstasy commonly contain a multitude of substances, such as MDMA, Cocaine, and even LSD

Beyond the PRC government’s direct attacks on club culture, many other policies have indirectly impeded the spread of electronic music. For most developed nations, “advances in communication technologies and the global flow of people as tourists, workers, and permanent or temporary migrants have facilitated the spread of music beyond their originating communities and across national borders” (Kruger and Trandafoiu 134). As the rise of EDM has coincided with the rise of consumer electronics and social media, this particular music form has become inexplicably linked to technology and the internet – things that have been heavily regulated modern China. Common online music platforms, like YouTube and Soundcloud, have been blocked by government firewalls since their creation, leaving many Chinese citizens unable to hear new and globally popular tracks. Even the world’s largest music platform, iTunes, did not launch in China until September of 2015 (apple.com) despite the backing of behemoth Apple. Furthermore, the state’s restriction of social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have constrained millennials’ ability to share music via internet platforms, effectively choking off EDM’s ability to spread virally online.

At the same time iTunes launched in China, 9 of the top 100 songs in India were already of the EDM genre. Most Chinese policies can be sharply contrasted with its neighbor, where EDM festivals and culture have spread rapidly due to tolerant government policy as well as ties to the western world. Living in a capitalist democracy, Indian citizens have not had any problems accessing social media or music sites in order to find and consume new music. Consequently, the consumerist aspect of EDM has taken root in India as the electronic sound is featured by Bollywood and other content producers, especially those online on sites such as YouTube. In a similar manner, the somewhat laissez faire attitude of the Indian government towards drug and club culture has assisted in the music’s diffusion throughout the country through major shows and festivals. This attitude has likely been grandfathered in from the Goa Psytrance movement of the 1980s and 1990s that implemented rave culture among the large expat hippie community.

“The development of the Indian club scene, can be traced back (partly) to the early Goa Trance raves that took place in the late eighties. Undoubtedly, the movement that began in Goa almost 20 years ago helped plant the electronic music seeds and perpetuated the growth and popularity of the music with India’s younger generation. This in tandem with the spread of the internet and western pop influences, nurtured an undercurrent of electronic music loving people.” (djbroadcast.net)

The movement had an equal effect on the use of drugs in the area, which likely helps explain Sunburn Festival’s choice of location in Goa. As aforementioned, Ecstasy and other club drugs are indubitably facilitators of spreading EDM, and the city of Goa developed a reputation for tolerance at the end of the 20th century.

“Golden Goa of the 1990s is stereotypically depicted in idyllic retrospect – the drugs were pure and abundant and intended for mind expansion, the parties bastions of free love, raw creativity and cosmic union. The novelty of digitally tempered bass lines running at the speed of 145 BPM meant that psytrance commanded a kind of devotional aura among its listeners, particularly when consumer in cozy post-colonial locales and enhanced with chemically induced altered states of consciousness.” (Rom and Querner 130)

While the popularity of EDM in Goa is not a direct continuation of the Goa Psytrance movement, it most definitely played a role in allowing this new musical culture to find a safe and promotable place to take hold India.

A Goa Trance Party

A Goa Trance Party

However, despite EDM’s lag in China during the first decade of the 21st century, in the past few years, the ease of regulations and shift towards a consumerism have allowed the movement to take hold. As a result of the the state’s shift away from its founding communist principles towards western-style capitalism, club culture has once again begun to emerge as millennials pull the music scene to resemble the blend of east and west found in India. This newfound economic approach has seen the Chinese state “embrace the night-time economy as a means of culture-led urban renewal, a cultural industry infrastructure, a tourist attraction and a source of local tax revenue” (Chew 33). Along with promoting more traditional Chinese music performances as a part of this culture renewal, the state is now beginning to support some electronic acts as well. In an interview with popular EDM site youredm.com, Chinese DJ Mickey Zhang believes “the Chinese government is slowly realizing that for people to pursue their individual ways of living is very important…[and] I think the government is starting to do that” (youredm.com). This demand and desire for personal expression is a crucial part of the adoption of less-than-traditional musical styles in China. As is described by Jay Chou, the current generation “needs a space of their own to escape parental control” (Fung 72) and express themselves, a fact that is applicable to young people’s opinions of EDM as well as pop music. Now that the government has begun to accept a departure from the collective, communist ideologies of the past, it is likely that EDM and other western cultural movements will continue to be espoused by China’s youth.

Also important is the recent emergence of video sharing and social media platforms in China. While YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter remain blocked, other natively-Chinese alternatives have begun to emerge. Youku.com, a video hosting site, has become increasingly popular in the last few years as a means of sharing videos and music. Similarly, Facebook alternative Renren is used by millennials across the country, and messaging app WeChat has expanded into group messaging and a Twitter-like feed, allowing users to share music unlike ever before. Furthermore, many young people in China now have the skills to circumvent government firewalls after growing up as a part of the technological revolution.

Yoku, or "Chinese YouTube"

Yoku, or “Chinese YouTube”

Renren, or "Chinese Facebook"

Renren, or “Chinese Facebook”

These factors have led to much more optimistic projections of the future of EDM in China both from a macro and micro scale. The IMS Business Report 2015: China Edition showed that major indicators showed “an increase in event capacity, a 6% increase in dance music sales, and multiple re-assertions that China’s population is so massive” (vice.com) that the music will grow on its own accord. This is reflected by the growth of STORM Festival in China which, while still far smaller than Sunburn Festival in India, has grown from only 24,000 attendees at the 2013 festival (edmdroid.com) to more than 50,000 in 2015 (wikifestivals.com).

2014 STORM Festival in Shanghai (24,000)

2014 STORM Festival in Shanghai (24,000)

2015 STORM Festival in Shanghai (50,000)

2015 STORM Festival in Shanghai (50,000)

This apparent spread is echoed by local DJ acts who are helping to revive the club scene and blend both eastern and western styles of music. In a YouTube interview with The Creators Project, Dead J, an electronic musician from Beijing, describes how he and other musicians of his generation found electronic music online even in the early 2000s during the suppression of clubland by the Chinese state. Now that these artists have had the time to absorb and consume EDM from around the world, they are beginning to create their own sound, coinciding with the easing of regulations and promotion of electronic acts. His attitude is also reflective of many in his generation, where individualism and personal expression are seen as attractive and attainable – matching the views held by Indian youth. He states: “one of the most charming things about electronic music is its individualism…When an electronic musician makes music, they can create whatever they want to express” (Dead J).

While the majority of the music that is becoming popular in China is the globalized, western-style EDM, there are some artists and collaborations who are blending traditional EDM with a more inherently Chinese sound. Dead J claims ancient Chinese architecture as the inspiration to his album, and world renowned DJ and producer Tiësto recently “released a track with Chinese starlet Jane Zhang” (vice.com). Ultimately, it seems that there are many indicators pointing towards the proliferation of EDM in China, especially if state policies continue on their current trajectory.

 

 

 

Works Cited

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Schmidt, Joshua. “Goa: 20 Years of Psychedelic Trance (Tom Rom and Pascal Querner).” Dancecult DC 7.1 (2015): 129-31. Web.

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