Shan Wei has a job that few could have imagined in China in the 1980s. He stages open-air rock concerts that attract tens of thousands of fans.
As CEO of Beijing Midi Productions, Shan organizes the massive Midi Festival, sometimes referred to as “China’s Woodstock”. The Midi School of Music launched the event in 2000 in a 500-seat auditorium in the nation’s capital.
The multiday festival now takes place over the May Day long weekend, filling large parks with concertgoers. In the early days, there were no ticketing fees.
“It had kind of a utopian atmosphere because everything was free,” Shan tells Pancouver in a Zoom call from Beijing. “It was open for everyone. Music lovers came from different cities and countries.”
Since 2004, music lovers have had to buy tickets, but according to Shan, they remain at an affordable price.
Midi Productions has also staged festivals in the cities of Zhenjiang, Chengdu, Dezhou, and Suzhou, which is Shan’s hometown.
“There are so many rock bands in China,” Shan says.
He’s proud that these events can offer a platform for musicians to play live for their fans. They feature everything from heavy metal to alternative music to reggae.
On December 1, Shan will participate via video in a panel discussion at the Annex in Vancouver as part of the inaugural Jade Music Festival. The 10:15 a.m. event will also feature music-festival organizers and record-label owners from India, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, as well as the deputy director of business planning at Japan Music Culture Export.
TD is presenting the Jade Music Festival, which has the goal of making Vancouver a centre for Chinese-language music production.
School kickstarts underground bands
The Midi School of Music was founded in 1993, offering instruction in music production, singing, guitar, drumming, keyboards, and other instruments. According to Shan, this led to the creation of underground bands.
“They were young musicians,” he says. “They actually had no stage to perform on. The bands had no opportunity to get people to know them and to see them live.”
Shan was a young music journalist with China Radio International when the first Midi Music Festival was held. It was a smashing success, with crowds even gathering outside the venue to hear performances over two days. Shan rode a bus for three hours to get there.
One of the acts was a band called Miserable Faith (痛仰). The frontman and songwriter, Gao Hu, met bassist Zhang Jing when they were both students at the Midi School of Music.
“Many bands have been formed at the school, but 20 years ago we didn’t have much opportunity to perform onstage, which was depressing,” Gao told China Daily in 2020. “The school offered us a chance to realize our dreams.”
China Radio International raised awareness in subsequent years by interviewing various musicians.
“In the beginning, I promoted the Midi Festival on our radio station,” Shan recalls.
The success of the Midi Festival inspired Shan and some friends to launch their own event, the Beijing Pop Festival, which ran from 2005 to 2007. The Renmin University grad says he joined the Midi Music Festival in 2009.
Music industry thrived in China
“We all love music,” Shan says. “After 2005, more and more music festivals happened in China. More and more music bands—alternative bands—formed.”
He says venues began opening in different cities, big and small, offering opportunities for rock musicians to go on tour in China.
In addition to Miserable Faith, he points to other popular Chinese bands such as New Pants (新裤子), Second Hand Roses (二手玫瑰), Escape Plan (逃跑计划), Muma (木马), and Joyside, which doesn’t spell its name in Chinese characters.
Top international stars have also performed in China, including Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Elton John, and Bob Dylan.
“A lot of foreign bands came to China in 2008 because there was the Beijing Olympics,” Shan adds.
The Midi Music School has since opened a centre in Chengdu, which is about 1,500 kilometres southeast of Beijing. There are also smaller education units in other cities.
Many acts perform their songs in Mandarin to reach a national audience, but others sing in regional languages such as Cantonese or Shanghainese.
For its 20th anniversary, the Midi Festival planned events in the provinces of Shandong, Fujian, Sichuan, Guangdong, and Hebei. Unfortunately, Shan’s company had to cancel all of them due to the pandemic.
“We met very hard times—the whole industry,” he says. “Hopefully, maybe next year, the market will re-open for the music industry and re-open to international bands.
“Actually, before the COVID-19 epidemic, the music industry in China was in quite a good situation,” Shan continues. “Every year in China, they had almost 200 festivals, normally in big cities. Even in some small cities, they have live clubs.”
Beijing Midi Productions CEO Shan Wei will be part of a Jade Music Festival panel discussion via video at the Annex in Vancouver at 10:30 a.m. on December 1. For information about Jade Music Festival events, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.