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Interview: The Shanghai Restoration Project and Neocha on Electronic Music from China

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Expo 2010 is an enormous fair held from May to October to promote better living. That's an oblique goal, and prior to this year the words "World Expo" had entered the minds of anyone but those living in the host city of Shanghai. To change that, Shanghai is going all out for this year's event, treating it like Beijing treated the 2008 Summer Olympics. In celebration of this, Dave Liang from Shanghai Restoration Project, an electronic group with Chinese roots, and Sean Leow from Neocha, the Chinese version of MySpace Music, created the eXpo compilation. The compilation focuses on electronic music from China, in the hopes that the increased attention on the country during the World Expo will help the featured artists get some Stateside recognition. You can read more about the compilation here, and buy it here (it's out Tuesday, May 4). On May 15, there will be an event celebrating the release of the album at 92Tribeca in New York. After the jump, check our interview with Liang and Leow about the compilation and the obstacles facing Chinese musicians.


How did the eXpo compilation come about?
Dave Liang and Sean Leow: Through our own individual endeavors (Dave with The Shanghai Restoration Project, Sean with Neocha), the two of us have always strove to make Chinese art and culture more accessible to the West. Since our first meeting in 2008, we've been trying to find ways to bring more attention to independent Chinese musicians, who historically have had difficulty gaining exposure due to language limitations and an underdeveloped music market. With all eyes on Shanghai during the World Expo, we felt there would be no better time to release a compilation of these artists.

Thus far, in the American press, there has been a tendency to focus more on Chinese punk/rock and noise. Were you explicitly reacting to this in choosing electronic artists for the compilation, or did something else drive you to focus the album on electronic music?
Since The Shanghai Restoration Project is partially rooted in electronica and one of Neocha's founders is an electronic musician (B6, whose photo is above), the two of us were naturally drawn to artists in this genre. The fact that electronic music historically had not been given as much attention in Western media as other music in China definitely presented an opportunity to showcase some of these artists for the first time. And since electronic music is primarily instrumental and digital, we believed it had the potential to overcome barriers other types of international music often face (e.g. language, unfamiliar instrumentation or vocal styles).

Neocha is the co-sponsor of the compilation, but how would you position Neocha in the larger community of musicians in China, if that even exists? Were the artists on eXpo active on Neocha before being chosen for the compilation?
Neocha has deep roots in the independent Chinese music community. The online community—Neocha.com—was established in 2007 specifically to help connect and promote independent Chinese musicians and artists. Over the past three years, Neocha has been directly involved in supporting the Chinese independent music scene, not only through its online activities, but also by organizing events such as the experimental music stage at MIDI (China's largest music festival), NOTCH (largest Nordic-Chinese music festival) and through the Neocha Netlabel.

Neocha recently held an electronic music talent search to find emerging producers and musicians–one of the winners of that competition is ZLOX, who is featured on the eXpo compilation. All of the artists on the compilation either use or have been featured on Neocha.com and its sister, bilingual site NeochaEDGE before we conceived of the compilation.

Did you see any patterns emerge about how the artists discovered electronic music, got their equipment, developed their music, their references etc? Clearly you can't speak directly for the artists but looking over their bios, most of them are in their late 20s or early 30s—they aren't kids. They have to work and they don't make their money from music.
Most musicians featured on eXpo were first exposed to Western music through "dakou" (or cut) CDs that were transported through Japan or Hong Kong, originally intended for landfills, but diverted and sold illegally in China during the ’80s and ’90s. Now, the internet is the primary way budding and experienced musicians in China hear new music as well as share and promote their own work. In terms of equipment, the barrier to entry for an electronic musician is fairly low—a PC and easily available, pirated software is all one needs to get started.

Only one of the artists (B6) on the compilation makes a living from doing music. The inability to make money from music is more due to the peculiarities of the music market rather than a lack of access to outside influences and equipment.

What do you hope comes from the eXpo compilation?
Unlike artists in developed music markets such as the US, Western Europe and Japan, independent musicians in China generally don’t have a means to make money from their work. As a result, they have less time and incentive to devote to their craft and develop their talent. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (people making music simply because they love music), it would be nice for these artists to have the option to dedicate more time to their art.

In addition to bringing exposure to the artists on the eXpo compilation, we’d also like to bring more attention to the broader independent creative community in China (visual, video, etc.), which has really started flourishing over the past few years.

Posted: May 03, 2010
Interview: The Shanghai Restoration Project and Neocha on Electronic Music from China