The vinyl revolution: Beijing's record industry

Beijing is turning back to vinyl as musicians nod to the needle

It’s the night before he’s set to leave on a gruelling three-week tour with his band, Fanzui Xiangfa. But instead of packing or resting up for the early-morning train ride, Genjing label owner Nevin Domer (pictured, below) is sitting on his living room floor, listening to an old Ventures record and slicing up maps of Chengdu with a paper cutter.

‘Look at this,’ he says, holding up the product of his labours: a vinyl single enfolded within glossy sections of map and wrapped in a clear plastic sleeve. ‘The songs are all about Chengdu,’ he says, ‘so I got the idea to order a bunch of maps and use them for the sleeve.’ Domer places it reverently on top of a pile of already-wrapped records that will, in a few weeks, follow their creator, experimental artist Li Daiguo, to Hong Kong for his first-ever vinyl release show.

For a one-man operation, Genjing – a vinyl label that Domer started in 2010 – has been steadily prolific. But this month it kicks into overdrive: on Saturday 6, it will release a record by experimental duo Dear Eloise; on Saturday 20, it’ll host a shindig for the internationally celebrated Record Store Day (see below); and on Friday 26, the same day as the Li Daiguo release in Hong Kong, it’ll also be putting out a limited edition release by The Dyne in Shanghai. The string of festivities, which are being jointly held with record stores White Noise in Hong Kong, Uptown Records in Shanghai and Indie Music in Beijing, are part of an ongoing campaign to spread the word of vinyl culture in China.

‘In the US and Europe vinyl never really died, and now it’s actually stronger than it has been in the past 20 years,’ Domer says. ‘These days, people in the underground community will buy vinyl instead of CDs, and part of that is just for the beauty of the physical product.’ But, as he discovered during his years working at Beijing indie label Maybe Mars, this was not the case in China: ‘When I first started, there was hardly any interest in making records. I mean you could count the number of vinyl releases for underground artists on one hand, almost. So nobody was doing vinyl in China.’

Part of the reason for this is that, prior to China’s opening up, a lack of demand had left vinyl almost completely dead – in the ’80s, all of its pressing plants were shut down and the machinery sold off. By the time popular music returned to the country in the ’90s, the world had moved into the era of tapes and CDs. Finally came the boundless realm of digital music, which, thanks to the lack of copyright enforcement, has largely wiped out the market for physical releases. ‘Lots of record stores are closing down around the country, and there are just a few diehards that keep holding on and keep putting stuff out for the love of the music, and the love of the physical release,’ says Domer.

While record stores as a whole may be dwindling, the market has given birth to a new, more specialised species: boutique shops like Beijing’s Indie Music and Shanghai’s Uptown Records, the latter of which, in addition to CDs, specialises in both used vinyl and newer Chinese releases. ‘Even though digital music is the main format of choice now, there will always be a certain population of music lovers who want to hold the music in their hands,’ says Uptown’s owner, Sacco. And in addition to carrying their records, Uptown has collaborated with Genjing to put out several co-releases.

Even some of the bigger Chinese labels have begun releasing vinyl. ‘It’s just a lot more interesting than other media,’ says Modern Sky boss Shen Lihui (pictured, left). ‘I really appreciate the look of the albums – the fact that the cover is so big, and you can really see the design. I think they sound better as well; it just has a really good feeling. We’ll definitely try to release some more vinyl this year.’

So why the comeback? Part of it has to do with the same collectors’ appeal that has allowed vinyl to thrive in other parts of the world. Importantly for artists, this means a return to music as a physical commodity – one that people are willing to buy rather than listen to for free online. And it offers intriguing options for international community-building, with splits (records that feature one band on either side) between Chinese and foreign artists giving both bands a chance to promote themselves abroad.

But there are simpler reasons to celebrate the success of vinyl too, from the pleasure of sifting through albums at a hole-in-the-wall record store, to the hiss and pop of a needle on vinyl. ‘That was one of the things that made me want to do it in the first place,’ Domer says. ‘I just really wanted to help bring back that interest and mystery – the beauty that comes with physical releases.’

Genjing will release its third Dear Eloise seven-inch at XP on Saturday 6, and hosts a Record Store Day celebration at the same venue on Saturday 20.