The indie rock venue opened nearly six years ago with high expectations but closed to general indifference. Mu Qian asks 'why?'
When the live music venue D-22 opened in Beijing in 2006, its founder Michael Pettis believed it would temper some talented young Chinese rock musicians to become international stars.
Last week, when the venue closed down three months prior to its sixth birthday, it seemed Pettis' vision had proven a little too optimistic.
"Today's Beijing is like San Francisco in the 1960s, when only insiders knew how good the scene was, and, in a few years, the whole world will know," he said when D-22 opened. "Maybe in five or six years, many people in New York or London will have their favorite Chinese bands."
That was before the Beijing Olympic Games, when the world's attention was turning to China. The economy was robust. Chinese artists' works were surging in the international market. Everything looked promising.
But Pettis' wish for Beijing to become a major music center in the world hasn't materialized.
A few of the bands that came out of D-22, like Carsick Cars and Joyside, have toured outside of China. But they are still far from world-famous. Even in China, they are not widely known.
Rock music began its musical journey in the 1980s in China but has never been a truly popular genre, while most of the bands who performed at D-22 belonged to an even smaller circle of the Chinese rock scene.
A typical band that frequented D-22 sang in English, played post-rock music and had a quirky name like Birdstriking or Skip Skip Benben. It was often hard to tell from the music whether it was a Chinese or Western band.
When I entered D-22 on Jan 10 it was putting on the final of "Zoomin' Night" - a series for experimental and young, noise bands, held every Tuesday.
That night's show, featuring eight groups, cost 30 yuan (20 for students). A draught beer was 15 yuan probably the cheapest among Beijing's music venues.
D-22 was generous: It gave all the ticket proceeds to the bands. Pettis, who is an associate professor of finance at Peking University, obviously did not operate D-22 under the principle of "profit maximization", and the club always lost money.
Pettis says it is "a victory of sorts" that D-22 lost less than ever before in 2011.
Shouwang, the frontman of Carsick Cars and probably the best-known musician that night, performed a song called Invisible Love, which sounded much like Lou Reed. Almost every other band of the night reminded me of some Western artist.
To me, this goes to the heart of the problem of young Chinese rock musicians. In the Internet age, the flow of information makes it too easy to be influenced, and too easy to be satisfied with a small circle of like-minded people.
It is also Pettis' problem. He created a utopia for a small circle of Chinese musicians and made them believe they were on a globalized stage, with the standards set by their Western contemporaries.
I'm not a nationalist, but I believe that art should be original and relevant to its society. If a work fails in regard to these two categories, it will be accepted in neither its own society nor a bigger context.
Rock music did originate in the West, but if it is to become a part of Chinese life, it can't abstain from Chinese circumstances. Maybe the world will be flat one day, but we are not there yet.
In the 1980s, Pettis used to run a club called Sin in New York City's East Village, where some of today's big name musicians like Sonic Youth and John Zorn performed when they just started out.
Pettis saw similar possibilities in D-22. But Beijing is not New York, and if China has a rock music scene, it should be different from that of the United States, because life in the two societies are very different.
Beijing is becoming more international, and there are enough expats and Westernized local youths to support an isolated island of music like D-22. But if the bands want to win over a bigger crowd, either at home or abroad, they have to have their own language. Unfortunately, this was missing at D-22 during the 10-plus times that I went there.
One of my better experiences at D-22 was their annual festival of avant-garde music that drew in more diverse Chinese artists, but I couldn't understand why it was named after the Lou Reed song Sally Can't Dance. Again, it sounds like a copy of something else, like the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in the UK.
Pettis says he is going to open a new space in Beijing. I hope it can be something more localized. And if he runs another festival, its name has Chinese characteristics.
UPD: По только что поступившей информации, D-22 возродится в районе 新街口 после праздников по случаю нового года по лунному календарю. Сохранится его основная задача - предоставить площадку молодым экспериментаторам от музыки. Точная дата открытия пока неизвестна.