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“The Big Band” Effect: Underground Chinese Rock Stars Catapult to Mainstream Influencer Status

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Thinking about talented musicians like funk band Click#15 frontman Ricky Sixx saying “I’ve never made money from music” still hurts. But now it looks like Ricky’s personal life and his band’s income have dramatically improved, following the success of iQIYI’s rock-centric variety show The Big Band, which aired over the summer.

In an interview with CGTN in September, Ricky claimed: “We’ve gotten more money, so we can spend a lot of time just on music, and we don’t have to do extra jobs to make a living.” Besides a national tour that sold out in minutes, and many additional festival gigs, Click#15 has recently been seen in a commercial for Bose’s Frames Alto earphone sunglasses; a promotional video of major dairy brand Yili with award-winning actress and fashion icon Zhou Dongyu; a video sponsored by Adidas Originals; and the latest music video for Lynk & Co, a high-end domestic car brand by Volvo and domestic Chinese auto manufacturer Geely. Oh — and they arranged the Chinese theme song “Ye Wang” for superstar director Ang Lee’s latest film, Gemini Man, featuring vocals by idol Chris Lee.

click#15 big band china music

For an underground rock band to become a hot item within the fashion industry in China is a sign of achieving a new level of fame. The official music video for Click#15’s hit R&B song “Confessions” was recently debuted by Vogue Me, a sub-brand of Vogue China that focuses on the generations born in and after the 1990s. Elsewhere in the world of fashion magazines, another break-out act from The Big Band, Hakka-dialect rock trio Jiu Lian Zhen Ren, was invited onto GQ’s podcast to talk about their music, before their performances at different music festivals during almost every weekend of September and October.

Hedgehog — also a Big Band contestant, and Click#15’s label-mates on Taihe Music indie imprint Ruby Eyes — have been doing well since appearing on the show too. The longtime underground-famous band has found themselves newly mainstream, now boasting 1.2 million Weibo followers. Though they’ve said that they almost disbanded before the show, Hedgehog recently got to shoot a music video for their hit song “Requiem for a Train of Life” (watch below) as a collaboration with Xiaomi sub-brand Redmi, and were also seen in a promotional video for Vans shoes.

At one point on the show, Hedgehog guitarist/vocalist Zijian said that he doesn’t like showering — so he’s now gotten two boxes of shower gel and a sponsorship deal from Safeguard. “To be honest, I never thought I could make money from showering,” Zijian said in a comment under the Weibo post announcing the collaboration.

Hedgehog’s drummer “Atom” Shi Lu — “the best female drummer in China,” as she’s been called in many interviews since the show aired — not only filmed a Cadillac-sponsored video for Vogue Me with cellist and pop star Ouyang Nana, but also landed a L’Oreal endorsement deal, link-ups that would’ve been unthinkable just a few short months ago.

Beijing mainstays New Pants have proven the most successful band from the show, attracting over one million followers on Weibo before the first season had even ended. And since The Big Band wrapped, they’ve gone on to earn more than just a larger social media following. They’ve done promotional performances for e-commerce platform JD and Robam Home Appliances, and promoted a “rock fat-burning course” on Keep, China’s most popular fitness and training app.

On top of New Pants’ physical appearance in a wide range of commercial collaborations, their music has also spread into the mainstream. One of their songs, “Do You Wanna Dance?”, was used in a short film by Lexus. Comedic film Two Tigers, which features household-name actor Ge You and hits theaters this month, invited New Pants to write and sing the theme song, “If Life Lies to You”, which dropped on October 30.

Elsewhere in the film world, reggae rock band Mr. Sea Turtle was invited to perform at the opening ceremony of the Pingyao International Film Festival in October, joining famed director Jia Zhangke for the festival’s third annual edition.

Though we’re already well into autumn, it seems that “the summer of the bands” continues — at least money-wise.

And not everyone is happy about it. On Weibo, outspoken folk musician Zhou Yunpeng has been skeptical about the show, and the bands who have blown up because of it. He questioned Hedgehog’s lyrical expression on “Requiem for a Train of Life” while the show was airing — the latter’s music went viral on the internet to some extent because of their poetic and abstract lyrics.

Last month, Zhou complained that some bands from the show are now asking for ten times more money for performances compared to their asking price before the show aired. “They got onto a TV show, so now they’re 10 times better?,” he asked on Weibo. “The silently growing and struggling bands that don’t join the show are fools then,” he added.

Zhou also expressed doubt that some of these bands are doing authentic rock music, commenting:

“They say they do rock music, but is there a single track talking about the problems of this society? Is any single one of them taking a risk? If rock music is just entertainment, we are done talking. We just shouldn’t say anything more about rock music.”

As an influential musician himself, Zhou’s commentary triggered a wave of discussion on the internet. Some industry insiders, like music critic and former Li Zhi manager Chi Bin, defended the bands who joined the show, saying that the commercialization of this kind of music would lead to a greater benefit for rock musicians overall.

We can only leave the “better or worse” debate to time — as we’ve seen with iQIYI’s other hit music variety show, The Rap of China, the long-term effects can be both good and bad. What we care more about now is whether the artists from The Big Band continue to make music. Hedgehog, for one, has announced that after a Big Band national tour, they will step into the recording studio for their next album after the Spring Festival, writing on Weibo: “Love you all, including the one who criticized us, for real.”

Cover photo: Muhe Chen

More Chinese bands to check out:

Yin: “Buckle Up” for South Acid Mimi’s Electrifying Dance-Punk Debut

City Mix: Heady Brew from Chengdu

“Stay Ugly”: An Interview With Beijing Post-Punks Lonely Leary

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van