London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai. They all have glitz. They all have glamour, expensive posh bars, up-market restaurants, theatre, opera and plenty for lovers of the high arts. But what about the underground music scene? You know, those cutting-edge guys who come up with all the original ideas that the “cool hunters” from corporate land steal and repackage to the masses? Not much room for this in mainstream-obsessed Shanghai, surely. Or is there? Shanghaiist caught up with one man on a mission to put the Shanghai underground on the map. Step forth organizer and DJ for Shanghai’s Antidote — 32-year-old Michael Ohlsson — originally from San Francisco but now living in Shanghai for the past three years. Michael, aka DJ Ozone, tells Shanghaiist about the state of the city’s music scene, laowais on expense accounts, Shanghai’s new middle class, and about taking pride in people leaving his Antidote club night at C’s bar because the music is “too weird.” (Speaking of weird, check out Michael’s Weird Meat blog to see the latest crazy shit he’s eaten.)
What’s wrong with the scene here? Is it really that bad? There’s basically no DIY spirit. There’s very little alternative to the expensive clubs, so most local kids who are curious about music are unable to afford a night out. And there are not many venues local independent DJs or bands can play at. Those that do have a real unpolished promotional sense.
In terms of a genuine underground scene, why doesn’t Shanghai have a healthy “alternative” movement compared to other big international cities? Well, to be fair, it’s a really tough market. First, you’ve got the Chinese universe and the expat one, and they don’t really understand each other — some of the well established clubs know this too well and more or less exclude the crowd they’re not targeting. I suppose that’s not totally unique to Shanghai, but here you’ve got a pretty narrow mentality of how to do it, because of the copycat culture. And the kids that are into the “alternative” stuff, they are out there, but they don’t have a DIY sensibility, or an entrepreneurial spirit, in my experience.
So in terms of Asian cities with large foreigner populations, why, for example, does innovative techno music come out of Tokyo, but nothing from Shanghai or anywhere in China? There is innovative techno and new music coming out of China. Well, let me say it’s not really making it “out” of China, which I hope to help change. It’s just there’s like almost zero distribution here for alternative music. Some of the bands or musicians that do produce CDs, they don’t even sell them because there’s no place to! And there’s the pirate issue — how can an independent musician survive selling recording, when there’s pirate CDs selling for 5 RMB on the street? One of the curious things I’ve found here, especially in the electronic music that’s being produced here, since there’s not an established “alternative market,” so much of it is wild experimental stuff — “noise art” like Torturing Nurse. I think it’s because the only stuff that ever hits close to the mainstream is so utterly mainstream. For better or worse, there’s no Green Day or Marilyn Manson, that kind of pushes the edge but breaks into the mainstream.
So what about Shanghai? What needs to happen to improve things? I’d like to see the clubs and local music producers have more of a dialog, and try to work together in a way that’s smart. Like what we’ve done with Antidote — very simple — find a bar that’s a little slow on a weeknight, has very cheap drinks, we play what we want, everyone’s happy.
What about the club owners? Aren’t they just in it for the money? A club is not going to do good business pushing alternative music while selling 50 kuai beers — that’s just a fact. Can’t blame them, I think.
So why not sell beers cheaper instead of indulging in gross profiteering and excluding locals? Well, they’re not excluding locals. It’s complex. The people buying drinks at high prices are rich locals showing off, or foreigners on expense accounts — both groups couldn’t care less about checking out innovative music. What I honestly don’t get, and I’m not great at math, but a venue like ARK in Xintiandi, they have been hosting some great things like local rock bands — but 65 RMB for a beer? How does that add up to a profit? The kids who go out for that kind of music aren’t buying drinks at that price. God bless ’em, but I hope they can figure out a way to stay in business and play host to these events. Yes, well, Shanghai’s in a gold-rush boomtown moment right now, so can’t blame the clubs for focusing on the expense accounts and the nouveaux riche show-offs. But I still think there’s a place, and a profit, for some venues that can find a balance — lower prices, more interesting music choices. And I think they’d survive any economic downturns if they could grab the right niche.
What do you think of the club scene in general in Shanghai? The club scene right now in Shanghai — it’s overheated. There are too many clubs opening. It’s out of control.
Which clubs do you rate? Pegasus continues to be the one place that’s been willing to take some risks bringing in really amazing hip hop and turntablists, and drum and bass. DKD is best at bringing in the international DJs that really matter — I believe those guys are in it for the love of the music, not just money. They’re smart about it though, unlike venues like Rojam, who don’t seem to know jack, just brining in random guys from the Top 100 DJ list. DKD is smart — their aesthetic, design, their resident DJs, their promotions. They bring in DJs that are interesting to experienced clubbers, as well as exciting for newbies. And they are doing regular gigs like the “Full Moon Parties” that are just great concepts that don’t rely on naked chicks on the flyers or gender drink specials. I hate gender drink specials!
What about Mint? They seem to have made a decent stab at being a “proper” club playing house tunes, even if it’s debatable how many people actually go there for the music. Mint — they’re cool because they’ve figured out what they’re doing and doing it well. A reliable, reasonably classy, house music venue. You know you can always go there and get your house fix.
Shanghaiist likes house, but every time we go to Mint, we just wish they’d crank it up a little towards the end of the night. Yeah, it’s not really my thing, a bit sterile for my tastes, personally. Honestly, if it was a city like Tokyo or London, Mint wouldn’t be so special.
Last but not least, some questions on your Antidote night itself. Why did you start Antidote? Long story short, I’d been wanting to do this for years here, but just didn’t find anyone else who would join with me. Finally I met B6 and MHP and later AMNJK and Emcore, who — still — are the only guys I know in Shanghai who are not only eager to DJ alternative electronic music, but are also recording original music! When I met these guys I was so excited, but they didn’t seem to have much faith in playing out. It took a while to convince them we could find a place to do it, and a simple strategy to make it work.
How did you meet them? I met them through some friends. I know this indie rock band here, The Sonnet, that introduced me to a lot of kids in the local indie music scene.
How does Antidote compare with other events in Shanghai? We are really doing something no one else in Shanghai is. Antidote is not just another DJ event — we are also playing live music, and mixing it into our DJ sets. We realize most people are not appreciative or aware of this, and we hope more people catch on. I hope other local kids are inspired to get on their own and start making music. I also admit an element of pride when I meet someone threatening to leave because the music is too “weird” — I know we’re doing our job then!
Where next for Antidote? We’re still going with C’s bar for a while. We just love the atmosphere there, and the 10 RMB drinks. But the sound quality is obviously a problem, and the dance room is too small, so it’s not appropriate for bringing in visiting DJs or having a really “live” show. And also no video space. So if we can find a venue that works, we might move, but God I love C’s bar. But, if one of the galleries here was smart enough to get a sound system, we’d rock it. We have a lot of ideas, a huge list actually — new concepts, different themes, all kinds of music genres we want to cover..
Anything else in the pipeline? We are planning a tour — of China first, then other countries. These guys are really recording some work the rest of the world would be interested in. And their knowledge of the world of music — as DJs — is as impressive as anyone from Tokyo or New York or London.
Final thoughts? Antidote is more than just a party. It’s also social commentary, performance art, and a history lesson. But the primary focus is making an event for Shanghai’s local talent, and for Shanghai’s neglected music fans.
Intrigued? Check it out for yourself Thursday, January 26. Antidote VI: Build! at C’s bar, 685 Ding Xi Lu, near Fahuazhen Lu. Music: Minimal techno, Shoegazer Indie Rock, and wonderfully abstract Hip Hop.