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Artist, Entrepreneur, and Vinyl Visionary Cookie Zhang Wants to Change China’s Taste in Music

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Cookie Zhang is at the center of Shanghai’s vinyl community. Over her diverse career in the music industry, she’s brought international artists to China, held workshops for obscure beatmaking equipment, and hand-mixed live vinyl sets of lofty, classic funk. Today, she’s perhaps best known as one half of the duo behind Daily Vinyl, an online-store-turned-culture-zine-turned-real-store. And the most recent development in this amorphous, constantly evolving music culture project is Eating Music, a label with a roster of its own artists, run by Cookie.

We were fortunate enough to attend Eating Music’s intimate summer showcase a couple of months back, and later caught up with Cookie in her store to talk about the growth of the project, her work in the music industry, and what it means to create your own art through others.

Before we talk about Eating Music, can you tell us a little about how Daily Vinyl got started?

In the beginning, Daily Vinyl wasn’t the store you see now. The co-founder Endy [Chen] and I have been friends for a long time, and when we met we were both really into collecting CDs and vinyl records. Back then he was still working in a company and I was working in events, throwing parties, promoting, things like that. I took a year off after a surgery, and during that time the two of us talked a lot online. One day he just asked me, hey, do you want to sell some records together? Each of us had our own page on Discogs where we would sell old records we didn’t want anymore. He suggested we sell together on Taobao, so we decided we needed some kind of project or theme to help move that along.

We landed on the idea to put a new record online every day. At the same time, we started publishing record lists on Taobao, and sharing music on our Weibo page. So people would follow our Weibo, and maybe they decide they want a record we shared there, they could just click over to Taobao and buy it. So at the beginning it was really simple — we just wanted to sell secondhand records from our collections, but later we started doing pop-up record markets, then other projects, and it just became more and more formal. We just kept pushing to help it grow and circulate more good records, and now here we are.

Three Eating Music artists perform an SP-404 jam session at the label’s showcase in July

It sounds like it was a really organic process for you guys. You said you were talking online — did you meet on Douban?

Yes, we first met on Douban, but we didn’t talk a lot since our tastes in music were pretty different. I think the first time we met in person was in Shelter [editors’ note: Shelter, now closed, was a legendary hub for electronic and hip hop music in Shanghai housed in an old bomb shelter]. For our generation, if you listen to a lot of music, you spend a lot of time on Douban. Because you can catalogue all the stuff you like on Douban, and connect with people based on what they watch or listen to.

So you guys started your Taobao store — what happened next? I mean, Daily Vinyl is much more than a Taobao store now. What were the different stages of expansion you went through to get from Taobao shop to vinyl empire?

Well after we opened up the store online, we started throwing pop-up record markets. And the first market really inspired me, because so many people came out, all looking for good records. They were really craving this kind of thing, so I felt like I needed to keep doing markets. I liked all the people, and it felt good to have them all there for our event. There weren’t any other events like ours, so I felt we should keep going. But we can’t just keep selling the same things, same records for every event — we needed to change our stock and give people something new. So we started importing more records and cooperating with labels and distributors. So that was the second step.

After two or three of those events, I wanted to give people something to take away, not just records. I thought we should have something for promotion. Around the same time, Sacco from Uptown Records asked me if I wanted to put out a zine together. He used to do an underground zine about rock music in the US, and I also wanted to do something like that, to make something physical that people could hold. I think that was the third step. People really liked it, plus it was free, so it was easy to take away and share with people. So that became a symbol of our brand — another store might have some of the same stuff we have, but they don’t have a zine. We kept doing it, self-publishing.

So what led to the launch of the Eating Music label?

After a while, I felt like I couldn’t keep doing bigger and bigger events. We’re a small group, and we’d kind of hit a ceiling on the kinds of events we were doing. But I still wanted to do more to keep the scene fresh, and to give people some new ideas. That was around Christmas last year that I was thinking over those things, and around then I took a trip to LA. While I was there I visited Low End Theory.

I didn’t see too many exciting names on the lineup. Daedlus was on there, but I’ve seen him in Shanghai and I’ve played with him here. But I still made the trip out, and it was a really good experience — it was a Wednesday night, but people were actually watching the show. Not like in Shanghai or other cities, where if there’s a DJ or a live set people are just focused on dancing. But at Low End Theory, people were just watching the stage, and the artists’ sets were really short, like forty minutes or an hour. Between sets there’s a short break where the host will introduce the next artist, their name, style, etc.

Last year the club Elevator [in Shanghai] asked me to do a monthly party. At first I didn’t put much thought into it, I just did it, and invited people to play together. But I changed my approach after the Low End Theory show. I also started introducing each artist and their work. It became a tradition of the event, and I started to think about the idea of a label. I want to create things, but I don’t produce music. But I know what styles I like, and I know the people who are doing them. So I felt like my role should be to bring them together and guide them, and create our own music. I started the label from January of this year.

What’s your goal with Eating Music?

I want Eating Music to be a label like Stones Throw — they’re very successful, but their taste is really wide-reaching. They get lots of people involved, and they’re just excelling on both the business end and the music end. That balance is really important for me. I want Eating Music to be a label like that in China — I want to do hip hop, and also electronic, maybe some indie stuff, bands, singers, producers. I want to do it all. Not just producers, not just bands, rappers. I want people in my label to have the same feeling or vibe, but not necessarily do the same things.

Eating Music artist Cruel Buddhist’s live set in Daily Vinyl’s Shanghai record store

I want artists with passion, musical talent, and who can consistently create something new. Not just, “I do this genre, I’ll keep doing it, I don’t want any change, and I don’t want to collaborate with others.” Some artists can be very limited like that, but others are really open to a regular scene, where there can be lots of collaboration and guest features. I love seeing that, and I want my artists to work together a lot, not just be individual superstars.

As you’ve seen at our showcase, some of our producers are very young, just over 20, and aren’t widely known yet. I think that’s a good time for me to work with them because I can help them shape their style. We basically have five producers and they all have different styles, and different personalities. I want it to be like, “hey everyone, what can you do on this, what can you add to that”.

You saw our artist from Hong Kong there, M.Du. He plays a lot of instruments, so he’s a little bit different from the others. He’s also learning architecture right now, and he’s got a good mind for putting projects together like that. With that kind of mind and all his experience in instruments, I think he could develop his skills and play an engineering role, bringing collaborations together across the whole label. It’s really important for a label to have someone like that, so that’s my plan for him. But I’m not just thinking straight out of my imagination like, “oh, I want to have this kind of person”. I get to know them first, and I learn who they are as individuals and as musicians. We have to be friends first.

M.Du

You’re not a music producer, but you have a huge amount of music experience and music industry knowledge from all the other work you’ve done. You understand how to connect people and connect the dots to bring the full idea into existence.

So even though you’re not a music producer, you almost are a producer of music, in the same way a movie producer would produce a film. A movie producer sees the whole picture, and they’re the one who says, “you do the special effects, you write the script, and we need her to play the lead character.” It seems like that’s kind of the role you play in Eating Music. How do you feel about playing a role like that?

It feels great. I think if I were to spend time on it, I could also be a music producer. But the things I’m doing now are so complicated, and there’s lots of work that needs to be done there, so I don’t really have the space to build a skill like that right now. But I can share my ideas with other producers and artists.

I think my taste in music is very wide, so I want more people, especially in China, to open their minds, listen to more music, and enjoy more styles. I think it’s a good way for me to share my taste with other people. The artists have what I want, but they need someone to arrange everything and bring it all together into something concrete. I think I’m really suited for that, and I’m happy to play that kind of role to help them achieve their potential. So yes, I’m really glad to be that person.

Before all of this, even before the Daily Vinyl Taobao store, did you expect to be doing this kind of thing?

Definitely not. When I first started to do some work in the music industry, it was just parties and events. But I knew I wanted to be in the music industry and not some other kind of job, because this was really my hobby. All my friendships, too, the people I know — they’re all based on the music we like. I couldn’t live without it, so I thought, I’ll just keep working in music. I had no idea what I would be doing later. At the start it was really just events.

What should our readers be looking out for next from Eating Music?

We have a lot of releases we’re preparing at the moment, maybe one each month. That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the rest of the year, and most of our artists will have their own albums, EPs, and maybe some singles and collabs. We just finished our Eating Music summer camp, so we have a compilation for that as well. And we have a website coming in September, where you’ll be able to see all the projects we’ve done and our upcoming events.

The last thing I’ll say is that I want to get more people involved in what we’re doing. If anyone’s interested they can contact me on WeChat or Email.

WeChat: funkeecookee

Email: [email protected]

You can find Eating Music on Bandcamp here.

Cookie will perform under her DJ name Ollo-Mam at Shanghai’s Concrete & Grass Festival on Sunday 16 September. For a chance to win tickets to the festival, follow RADII on WeChat.

 

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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