Sonic Flux: Signalling and Connection with the Cross-Border Underground
The pandemic has redefined the music experience, but the spirit of community continues to transcend subcultures and geographical borders.
On 9th August 2020, over one thousand people across the world tuned in to watch ‘Magic Legacy Ceremony’ hosted by Eastern Margins and Shanghai Community Radio. The dual livestream broadcast on Twitch and Bilibili featured an array of talent in front and behind the camera across the UK, China and Japan clambering firewalls together to create a shared space for music, art, entertainment and gaming.
From QQBBG’s ASMR set to Jiafeng’s Dance Dance Revolution, Billionhappy’s performance to Ryoko2000’s Super Smash Bros Rave, this was a virtual festival of epic proportions coordinated by two collectives from both sides of the globe; one made all the more impressive by the fact that at any point the plug could easily have been pulled.
To mark the first of TONG’s Creators in Focus series, we sat down (virtually) with members from both groups. Beginning with a discussion on the adversity facing creatives globally right now, our conversation touched on a range of issues from the return of nightlife, to music and emerging talent both in - and outside of China.
Our Creators In Focus are Lumi, co-founder of Eastern Margins and Katy Roseland, Difan and Sam Lu, the core members of Shanghai Community Radio.
What’s the story behind Shanghai Community Radio and what was the original ambition?
Difan: During the beginning of SHCR, we recognised that there wasn’t an online archive of Shanghai's more underground music, art and culture. Community radio isn’t something new; there is Berlin Community Radio, Seoul Community Radio, Hong Kong Community Radio... and similarly it’s about bringing people together and to create an online archive.
Katy: At that time and still now, there’re a lot of things that happen in the city that were undocumented at least from our standpoint. A lot of the magazines and publications I had access to were really expat centric, and even locally, it wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, so it became a space where people could contribute something. At the time we were working in a community space, very DIY, and made sense with the function of the space. The space had a lot of importance and just being able to be mobile as well is important, with little overheads. Now I feel like it’s really reacting to the aesthetic of Shanghai, in that there’s a lot of effort in the visual production and also the stream engineering. The live stream aspect is more inherent to Chinese stream style.
What’s the story of Eastern Margins?
Lumi: Eastern Margins was born pretty organically and chaotically. Basically Adanko (EM Creative Director) and myself back in 2018 wanted to do something for CNY and the options in London were pretty limited or tokenistic to say the least so we thought let’s do this ourselves and invite some of our friends down to a cheap basement and see what happens. The feedback and feeling from that was so enthusiastic we took it further one thing at a time and organically built out the platform. It started out from a position of wanting greater representation in the UK but it’s really evolved beyond that. The dialogue has moved well past representation and it’s more about exposition and bringing context, which is a sick development here in the UK.
How did Magic Ceremony Legacy come about and what were you all hoping to achieve?
Katy: JD X (EM crew) hit me up about a release party and then invited Lumi into the group chat and we started talking about the project and dual streaming to reach different audiences
Lumi: The main starting point for us was to do something centred around QQBBG. A lot of the artists that we had in mind to program were based in mainland China and it was PD X's idea to work with SHCR, given that we’re going to work with Chinese talent to showcase to a Chinese audience. We respect SHCR and it felt natural for us to reach out and do something in collaboration. Although Eastern Margins is focused on music and culture from East Asia (for this project a lot of it is in China) it’s still quite hard for us to access the Chinese audience for language and technical reasons so it made a lot of sense to have a partner.
Difan: The main problem was the technical stuff. We have to find a workaround for streaming to outside of China on Chinese streaming platforms.
Sam: It’s both ways. You can’t get a Bilibili account if you don’t have a Chinese Shenfenzheng (Chinese identity card).
Difan: We started trying dual streaming at the beginning of the Covid outbreak around Chinese New Year. We had some people from outside of China who wanted to stream in, then we realised it’s quite a bit of a hassle.
Sam: There’s multiple different barriers depending on if you’re trying to stream into China, if you’re trying to stream out of China. When we first started, we tried streaming on Facebook but it was not very stable and we basically gave up.
Katy: For this project, I don’t want to say the word ‘hack’, but I think it was a lot of engineering, platform engineering maybe, because of how it actually worked. It’s interesting giving global timestamps to something happening live in the UK and China that’s an unifying experience. But in terms of engineering I was a satellite in Asia in Bali, I was not from a Chinese IP but in the same timezone as Shanghai, so I could access things Sam and Difan couldn't access and could still get an idea of something that Lumi couldn't get to. Difan found a way to generate an IP for Bilbili but she couldn’t test it inside China whereas I could, it was an offshore IP login so the EM side could rebroadcast SHCR’s broadcast at the same time. It was also that day the internet went out in the studio coincidentally…
Difan: Also you can not get access to the software either on iPhone, only Android.
Katy: There were sanctions with Apple in China, there was a lot of tension with the US President trying to cancel a lot of Chinese apps, Ant Group were experiencing a lot of issues as well, talk of banning TikTok. That’s the zoom out shot, the zoom in shot was us manic inside a Wechat group trying to test things.
What about the concept and the curated audience experience?
Lumi: A core part of why we do these livestreams is to try and provide tonic, a sense of community at a time when we were all very isolated geographically, physically, and spiritually. We wanted to do something that had the feeling of bringing people together, that’s why all of the ceremonies we’ve done had a heavy emphasis on participation. This one we had a Super Smash Bros tournament anyone could sign up to and play in. We had a simple goal of getting the community together but because our community is geographically displaced in China, Asia and the West, and across time zones and technologies. In practice implementing this, we were buffeted by forces from a lot of very unforeseeable places so It was interesting to see how such a simple concept ended up being influenced by the macro level of geopolitical tensions between some of the biggest companies in the world. You don’t come across that too much when you’re acting in quite a local environment even if it’s locally digitally. Just doing something for an European audience we wouldn't have to worry about a lot of these things because the platforms we use would be the ones our audience would use, but as soon as you try to make things global, as you try to involve China, all of a sudden these super high level considerations start impacting at a micro level as well.
Katy: Should we talk about censorship in Chinese internet? It’s a little annoying everyone raises this topic but it causes a lot of these things we’re fighting through. We’re literally just trying to let this 25 year old guy sing a song on the internet, and we have to go through all these hoops just for this guy to sing this song. Afterwards, you’re just exhausted and it’s not a physical event but it’s just so much chaos and testing and we’re really just trying to have fun.
How did you approach the programming?
Lumi: On programming, we had a good idea of who we wanted to invite to this. After a close conversation with QQBBG, the three artists we invited were Ryoko2000, a Japanese Gabba polymath, Jiafeng who is stylistically and spiritually a brother to QQBBG in some ways sharing a lot of the similar aesthetic cues and principles and Billionhappy, someone we always wanted to work with after meeting him in London before he went back to Shanghai. There are common nodes we share together in terms of geography and mutual connections - even though we have a community that’s very global, it’s still about connecting on a personal level.
Sam: Yeah, Jiafeng used to be our neighbour!
The livestream had different interactive elements, was it intentional to create something multidimensional with gaming in mind?
Katy: We’ve done gaming before in quarantine streaming, this time it was interesting because there was live hosting on EM’s side which is something we’ve not explored before, a nice touch as it was personable. The festival element made it more thematic as opposed to everyday streaming without a theme like the radio you turn on. As this was curated and had all these interesting elements, it was easier to join as an audience member.
Lumi: I’ve always had the impression that SHCR was really innovative in how participatory and welcoming it is, partly because of the technology and partly because of the ethos. In terms of technology, even something like Bilbili having the bullet comments 弹幕 that is not something that really exists in any other Western streaming platform, with functionality that really breaks down the traditional idea between what the performer is doing and what the audience is doing, blends them together so the audience is contributing to what is on the stream and what is on the screen. On the ethos part, I think it’s sick you guys are platforming anybody who wants to try something new, like the talk shows from Jaya where it’s her inviting her friends to talk for 3 hours. It’s fun, it’s brave, it’s braver than saying ‘we’re just going to do another DJ set’.
Knowing the highlights and particular challenges of this project, frustrations aside, is there an advantage to this environment in pushing you to trial new things?
Sam: We’ve been planning to build a website for awhile and the reason we want to do this is because of challenges like this. We want to be able to connect audiences across within China and outside of China in the same place. On Bilbili, if you’re not in China you can’t participate, if you’re on Twitch you’re going to be excluding a large proportion of the Chinese audience too who don't have access to VPNs
Katy: There’re a lot of considerations. I honestly feel bad for the website developer because I don’t think anybody can prepare for this kind of task. We want to create a radio, but it needs to not have a VPN, it needs to be accessible also within China, it needs to consider IP laws and broadcast permissions which means you have to think about where the server is based, and we want it to be streaming content, not like Mixcloud (hosting).
Difan: For broadcast permissions for most companies it’s physically impossible to get, you need to have big capital. Even companies much bigger than us like Momo 陌陌, have servers in the US.
Taking a step back and examining the project in this unique time in history, what are the nuances between different places?
Sam: When I got back to China in March I missed every quarantine, having come from Vancouver, then New York, which locked down when I returned, so I don’t have much of a quarantine experience. When I got back to China, everything was back to normal and I didn’t even have to quarantine myself when I got out of the airport which I found really odd. April hits, you go to the club and it’s packed.
Lumi: We were discussing whether we should do the livestream on Saturday or Sunday. From a UK perspective, it didn't make a difference because all the days are the same but in Shanghai people were going out on Fridays and Saturdays. How much appetite did you see people have for doing livestream stuff when it was now possible to go to physical events?
Difan: Our views definitely dipped a bit after the club reopened, but it’s not worse than pre-Covid, it’s a bit better than pre-Covid. People who stay at home will always stay at home, and some people will always go to the club I guess, so there’s not that much lasting change in terms of audience interaction with us. Quite interesting, before Covid, the headliners at the weekend are European DJs or from the US but with the current situation, DJs and producers from abroad can not really come through so it’s definitely a big change in the local scene,but the local scene is not that big.
Sam: There still is appetite for international acts streaming in just because there is no access to that right now in terms of real life interactions.
Does that give way for platforming more local artists?
Sam: Before, when it was an all local lineup in a weekend, you wouldn't have a super packed crowd but when the lockdown lifted it was really obvious every single weekend was packed out
Difan: After the clubs reopened, and people have been staying in for such a long time, it’s a way for them to get out.
Sam: It’s back to normal in terms of attendance rates. It’s difficult to tell when international acts come back in if it’s going to be significantly different, but at least right now it’s booming locally.
What about those outside of China for those in lockdown, will Covid push audiences to embrace digital in a different way?
Lumi: Difan put it the most eloquently. The club kids will always be club kids and the internet kids will always be internet kids. This year has seen a lot of cross pollination but the more we go through the year the more that I start to think yes people will experiment with doing stuff online but if and when things do open physically, a lot of those people won’t stick around digitally at all, they won't be that interested in pursuing it. A lot of people are minded to try and recreate the physical experience online, they want to do the equivalent of a party online and it’s actually a different mindset to what a lot of the internet kids have in mind. The internet kids are more thinking what kind of mad shit can we do or what’s the weirdest way we can make ourselves avatars. This year’s been interesting seeing those two different mindsets intersect but i think in the future the real exciting stuff in the online sphere will come from people who are focused on that.
Would you say it is a generational or a mindset difference between those who want to go to the club and those who enjoy exploring the internet?
Difan: I think it’s definitely mindset over generational, but when you grow older you do detach yourself more from the club scene. A lot of young people just love staying at home and being on the internet all day.
Lumi: Mindset first, but there is definitely a link between mindset and generation. A lot comes from the new generation who’ve grown up who don’t have very easy access to physical clubbing spaces and locations, either because (in the UK) the scarcity of spaces and the zoning out from cities, or economic reasons that clubbing is more expensive now than it has been. You can see it in the artists we work with, the younger generation are less minded and attracted to club club music...club club as in functional club music, stuff that has in its core, dancing. They either like the weirder mutations of it that aren’t really rooted in the physical act of dancing, or they’re interested in stuff that makes as much sense in the bedroom as it does in a club. Someone like Billionhappy, he ostensibly is a club kid in the sense that he goes to a lot of clubs in Shanghai and London but the stuff he makes is still introverted and makes sense in both contexts.
Katy: If we’re talking about Covid and its impact on nightlife and these virtual events, we will have something that’s essentially a fold in time that will definitely affect generations. There will definitely be people who remember this sever, maybe not in China because it’s having a more active moment than the rest of the world, but in terms of the impact on nightlife. It will be felt for at least 10 more years, I think future generations will have a much different experience than us. On club kids versus internet kids, it’s kind of a venn diagram. There is a middle point where some overlap and this is what I think is growing (the overlap), because if you tell internet kids they're restricted to their bedrooms, they’re going to laugh because they can still be ‘plugged in’ and be out all the time. When you have things like livestreaming from the club, that is what people did during the lockdown, or people who are taking videos very aggressively for their IG DJ sets, it’s another way of being online but in the club. That overlap to me is what really grows and that is really hard to define because it shows its face in a lot of different ways. Internet kids are looking for the club energy and vice versa, it is people's mindsets, what they’re after and what they’re looking for. This is probably the moment people can be swayed a lot easier as we’re presented with unprecedented situations globally.
What is the future for emerging talent, and for yourselves?
Katy: I just want to get back into China.
Difan: For me, in China, music that has club elements will become more popular. The media is emphasising on Bengdi 蹦迪音乐. A lot but it’s not club club music. When that becomes oversaturated people will be going back to bands. It’s always going in turns, forever.
Sam: I feel the lockdown’s effect on music in terms of sound is not too much, what’s more important is the shifting technologies in how we listen to music. Ten or twenty years back, we were downloading music from Limewire, now we’re streaming. Music is made more for streaming, and producing that impacts the type of music you make and the way that music is consumed. A lot of people get their music from Spotify and I get a lot of shit from algorithms like on YouTube. These changes feel more substantial to me personally.
Difan: Clubbing in China, at least in Shanghai has more Alternative Electronic music, that’s not just Techno or Club music in the conventional sense, so I think that will keep developing.
Sam: As long as there is a physical space for stuff like this. It’s probably easier to maintain a digital space than a physical space and that’s a bigger concern. If the rents get too high for these clubs for music that’s not as profitable, you’re going to start seeing less of that in real life and you're going to have a smaller audience online because of that. For me, I might see this person dressed a certain way and they listen to this type of music, I’m then inclined to check it out, if i don't see these people I’m probably never going to hear about them.
Lumi: This year has taught me how precious our community and scene is in the sense of how easily it can be taken away from us. Just losing the ability to congregate in physical spaces has meant that a lot of people that I would have been seeing in clubs frequently and chat withI haven’t spoken to them in a year. It’s eroded the community right down to its core. In a lot of ways the rhythm of going clubbing, the rhythm of going to events, the rhythm of music is just a vessel, a common vocab for people to form community with. If we lose physical spaces it’s very hard to find community. In 2021, how do we try to build a digital structure that can replicate that same experiences in a more permanent way? What happens if we can’t get back to the club in 2021? How do we create that commonality in a digital way that is more protected from the forces going around it as the preciousness of the community is attacked by lots of different forces IRL and online.
Katy: The modes in which we listen to music really impact the signalling in which we find community. You go to the club, you meet somebody, you have a chat, you’re in proximity, you can signal each other aesthetically or by how you dance (that’s how I met Sam by the way). Hyperpop was essentially created by Spotify (an entire genre) in which people fit themselves in so they can be played on Spotify for 3 dollars a year. We really hope for more backlash against Spotify. Even today I saw a group clipping: ‘we got enough money from Spotify to pay for our Spotify subscription just based on our listens. All we can get is to go back and listen to Spotify’, so thank you very much Spotify for your yearly wrap up. If we’re able to eradicate these online corporate spaces that completely disregard the artist, have no community feeling and are totally exploitative, to create spaces we’re able to signal in different senses, we’re able to have that back. Like the blog era, those times shaped me, where people can go back to talking the same way you do in a club not filled with Instagram shopping updates. That would be a nice touch, a consolation prize.
Lumi: Signalling is a really good way of thinking about it. Some of the ways we had of signalling in the past both in the offline (physical events and venues) and online (blogs and ICQ chatrooms), alot of those DIY ways of signalling have been eroded. In the physical space they have been eroded by Covid and in the online space by bigger corporate forces like Spotify who are able to shape what the vocabulary around what signalling is. 2021, maybe the DIY can wrestle back the power of signalling to one another.
Sam: Also on the accessibility of spaces, you’re talking about accessibility online as well. How can you actually access these online spaces? Blogs for example, how did you know about these blogs? In physical spaces you pass by and see a line outside a club, whereas a digital space you have to be clued in by someone who knows via social media. Creating more access points for more of these DIY spaces is also important to build up.