Though Sijie Liu, like many Chinese kids, learned piano as a child, she didn’t really become interested in music until she left her tiny hometown of Zitong — about a three-hour drive from Chengdu in Sichuan Province — for the comparatively worldly atmosphere of Bloomington, Indiana. As an undergraduate there, she got switched on to classic rock via a class that taught about the Western world’s shifting social environment of the ’70s and ’80s via the music of the era, and ended up majoring in the subject, eager to learn more.
Not long thereafter, she found a rich vein of indie rock closer to home, initially discovering bands like Carsick Cars and The Gar (early standard bearers for Beijing indie label Maybe Mars), and later gravitating to the output of label and festival brand Modern Sky, her current employer.
Ma Di performs a Modern Sky festival in the US
Though she ended up getting a Master’s degree in data analysis, Sijie has made an early career choice to stick with her passion, and for the last two years has been posted up in Modern Sky’s New York office (the company was originally founded in Beijing in 1997) working on artist development: introducing Chinese bands like Re-TROS to North American audiences, and Western acts such as Lenka and Liars into China.
At the moment, Sijie is busy booking Modern Sky’s three upcoming North America festivals (NYC on 9/22, Toronto on 9/23, and LA on 11/10-11), but she took a minute to talk about her path toward a career facilitating cross-cultural exchange via music and the challenges of promoting Chinese artists in the US, where the increasing purchasing power of Chinese students makes for good business but the process of breaking through the language and culture barrier for non-Chinese audiences remains a challenge.
Sijie grabbing tour hotpot with Liars
RADII: How did you initially become interested in music when you were younger?
Sijie Liu: It started with… every Chinese kid learns how to play piano, so I started that way. I didn’t always have that interest, but when I went to school in Indiana for my undergrad, I minored in music. Indiana University Bloomington has a good music school, so I wondered, “Why not have a different experience?” So I took that. They had a lot of classes about rock’n’roll in the ’60 and ’70s, and also jazz and blues, live music classes, a range of that. So I took classes in all those, different categories, and they made me really want to get into this world. That’s the starting point for what I’m doing right now.
So your first exposure to underground or rock music was Western bands, and more in a historical context?
Yeah, exactly. The first class I took was rock’n’roll in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the first band we listened to was The Beatles. What we’d do in class is listen to a bunch of bands, and then the teacher would talk about the background of each song, and the time period.
You got your undergraduate degree — as well as a Master’s degree in data analysis — at Indiana, but you also spent a few summers in China, interning at Shanghai nightclub Arkham and, the following year, with concert promoters Split Works. Why did you choose this rather circuitous career path early on?
I think that was when I was in the data analysis program, it just made me feel like I really don’t want to do that. Because that program was leading me to the consulting world. I really wanted to do something with music, because I’d started growing more and more passionate about it. I also started listening to a lot of Chinese music by that time, I’d started doing internet searches for cool bands in China. And I had a friend who was in Shanghai at that time, so I was just talking with him and he said he knew someone at Arkham. I told him I wanted some experience, just an internship or whatever, and that was my first internship in the music world.
Later you moved to New York to learn more about the music business, and interned for a while at a major label, RCA Records. How’d that go?
Our [music business] program [at NYU] required us to do internships every semester for three semesters. That position [at RCA] was looking for someone with a data analysis background, and a background in music. So I applied for that and got the internship. At first I learned a lot, for the first month, because big companies have a great process, and they are very on-schedule with everything. But after a while I felt I was doing the same thing again and again, maybe because it was an internship. But I still got a lot from there. Their main thing was to try to find the sound between pop and indie, something in between. So that’s what we were working on, helping the A&R director, doing research on the bands they were interested in. It was quite interesting.
Watch: Chinese Electronic/Post-Punk Act Re-TROS’s European Tour Documentary
After graduating in 2016 you started working full time at Modern Sky’s New York office, where you’d previously interned. What is your job there? What are you doing day to day?
Right now, I’m doing lots of booking. Not just for Modern Sky artists, but also some artists outside of Modern Sky, like Korean artists or Taiwanese artists to tour in North America. And also to book the lineup for our Modern Sky festivals. I also help manage Lenka in China, and I help the band Liars in China, help manage them. We call it artist development as a title, so that’s basically what we want to do: develop a range of artists, and find a range of artists to develop either in North America or in China. It depends on the artist — I also help manage Re-TROS in North America.
Let’s take Re-TROS as an example. They’ve hit a certain level of success at this point, touring with Depeche Mode in Europe last year and playing quite a bit in Europe and North America over the last few years. What is your strategy for promoting a band like Re-TROS, where some of their influences are probably familiar to someone who’s already a fan of punk or post-punk in the West?
I think for Re-TROS, first of all, their music is good. Their music is more accessible for a Western audience. That’s very important, because sometimes we try so hard to promote lots of music from China to the local audience here, but it’s hard to break the gap at the beginning. It has to happen gradually. But for Re-TROS, their music, people can just get that when they listen to it, and when you see them perform, you will get why they get lots of exposure in the Western world. First it’s because of the music, and also I think it’s really important for Re-TROS that we set up a good system for the band to have the proper releasing channels, and distribution, and booking agent. In the Western world, it’s really important for bands to have a booking agent who knows the band, who gets the band and can promote the band well. I think that’s really important — that’s how Re-TROS gets on a tour with Depeche Mode, and we also booked them a US tour with Xiu Xiu. Basically, mainly because of their music, but you also have to have those channels set up as well.
So a band like Re-TROS is an easier sell because their music might be familiar, a rock audience isn’t going to be so hung up on the fact that there’s a culture or language barrier. Is it harder for a folk singer or a rapper?
For a few [folk artists] like A Sa, and singer-songwriters like Dongye and Ma Di — it’s really hard for the media here to get the full story. They don’t think the local audience will get that. So it’s really hard to bridge the gap. I remember when I was in school at NYU for the music business program, I had a chance to talk with a lady who was the international A&R director at Warner Music. She said they also tried so hard to break pop musicians from Warner China and Warner Asia [in the West], but it’s really hard for them to bridge the gap here. She was asking me, “What do you think could be the reason?” That’s a question I’m still trying to figure out: How can we advertise those acts properly here, not only for the Chinese audience, but also for the local audience?
Sijie greets Ma Di at LAX
Maybe we should just do a good job of advertising them to the Chinese audience here. Because it’s huge right now — it’s a growing population of Chinese students here [in North America], with a growing purchasing power. It’s a market that makes up 80-90% of [the audience at] our Modern Sky festivals here, Chinese students or young kids who study here. We always love to use this example: In 2015, we booked Yoko Ono as our headliner in New York, but still, the total audience was 80% young Chinese kids, not local Western kids. Yoko Ono performed [at Modern Sky’s festival] in Central Park, a historic place for her, and she can sell out MoMA in one second, but somehow that gap is still there. We should work to break that, I think.
It seems to me that even in terms of the selection of locations for your festival you’re targeting a Chinese audience. For example, this year you’re doing your second festival in Arcadia, near LA, which has a huge Chinese population, and one as well in Toronto.
I think that’s because, based on the experience of the past decade, it’s becoming a fact of our demographic audience. I have to say that for Arcadia, it’s not a factor for our location choice — Santa Anita is a beautiful place for the festival. But for lineup choices, and especially the marketing side, we do promote heavily to the local Chinese communities.
Speaking of LA, you helped to curate a recent showcase of Chinese music at The Broad museum in LA, right?
Yeah. It started when they wanted to book Re-TROS for the event. I met up with them and had a conversation, and [they said] the idea for the event is [to feature] Chinese-themed arts and music. They were asking me a lot of stuff about what’s the current contemporary music scene, and [we] recommended lots of artists to them. Not the full lineup, I just helped them a little bit for that part. After the lineup was done, because they didn’t have experience working with Chinese artists or musicians, they hired us as their artist liaison, and also just to help them out along with the process and on the day of the event.
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Which artists did you recommend?
I told them about Modern Sky bands, but I told them about Maybe Mars bands as well, so I think maybe that’s how they found [Xi’an post-punk band] Fazi. They were really interested in booking some female rappers, and I recommended a few to them, but it didn’t work out. I guess they saw that the hip hop scene has been booming in China, so they were really interested in that part. But yeah… sadly it didn’t work out.
Let’s stay with hip hop for a second. Modern Sky’s sub-label MDSK launched fairly recently, around the time the first season of Rap of China was blowing up. What have your experiences been operating that in the US so far? I know last year you did a big US tour for Xi’an rap crew HHH, but there were evidently some culture clashes… What are the challenges there?
I personally thought that was a great tour, because every show was basically sold out, and we did it with such a short preparation time. I think they’d just finished the show [Rap of China] in the process of when we were booking them, I forget the exact timeline, but we really had such short time for putting that together.
I remember seeing photos from that tour and they really did look packed. Were those audiences also 80-90% Chinese, like your festivals?
I have to say 99% or even 100%. I was actually impressed by [singer-songwriter] Dongye’s tour this year, because I also was on tour with them, I helped set up everything. Actually, on that tour I saw a few Americans in the audience. Maybe those people all speak Chinese or have some experience with China, but I saw a few of them were actually singing along to the lyrics, which was quite impressive. But yeah, mostly still Chinese.
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Besides Modern Sky, is there any other company dealing with Chinese music that has a significant US presence? Maybe 88rising is the only one I can think of…
Yeah, 88rising I think actually has a different audience. Funny, the first time I heard of Higher Brothers was when one of my American friends shared a video of them with me, and told me they are also from Chengdu. And he said 88rising is so cool. My friend was into lots of hip hop music.
There are a few Chinese promoters in the US who are promoting Chinese shows and tours, which have a similar fan base as Modern Sky. But I think the number of promoters is decreasing now, because it’s not an easy business to do. The costs are very high, and it’s risky to bring artists over. You never know who can sell tickets until the show is on sale.
What do you want to be doing in the future with Modern Sky to try and break away from its predominantly Chinese audience in the States? How would you go about reaching people with little knowledge of Chinese or China?
I think that’s a really hard question. For sure I definitely want to do this, that’s something I want to either learn more or discuss with other people more, just to know how to break this gap. Lots of Chinese people, we listen to Western bands all the time. Even though when we were young we didn’t really know much English, we still listened to the music. So I want this to be balanced.
It has to do with the business side as well. I don’t set the direction of the company, but I totally understand that there are some business-related [issues]. What I said before, the purchasing power of the Chinese students, or Asian students here — they are willing to pay more to see a show. You know, $30 is a high price for a rock show [in the US]. But for the tours we’re doing, it’s different. $30 is average. But I don’t want to separate the audience, I don’t want it to be all Chinese. I want lots of Americans to learn about and listen to music from China.
If you’re in North America and want to tune in yourself, find a Modern Sky festival near you: 9/22 @ Rumsey Playfield, Central Park, NYC; 9/23 @ RBC Echo Beach, Toronto; 11/10-11 @ Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA
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