What kind of return should you expect on a 20-year
investment in the Chinese electronic music industry? If you ask Ni Bing – one
of very few people with that much time logged therein – it’s all about figuring
out how to make money, then choosing how to lose it.
Make no mistake: Ni Bing
is a big success. He first established himself in China’s nascent underground
club scene as a promoter and DJ through Future Mix, a radio show he started in
1996. He was living in Shenzhen at the time, and made a fortuitous connection
with the Hong Kong-based label Technasia, which would give him access to
world-class producers such as Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills.
Ni Bing relocated to
Beijing in 2000 for a marketing job, and immediately got to work investing his
savings into side businesses and passion projects. He co-founded Orange, a now
defunct club near the Workers’ Stadium popular for its rejection of mainstream
club music in favour of underground techno. Though Orange was ahead of its time
musically, Ni Bing had limited resources with which to work. ‘It was just DJ,
DJ, DJ, another DJ. No one was making their own music.’
Feeling the business
limitations of working as a promoter, Ni Bing soon launched another company,
now his most lucrative: Martial Artists Management. His business model, evolved
over two decades, hinges on getting his artists gigs ‘composing music for
Chinese films, writing for TV commercials, remixing big pop artists’ and
securing DJ bookings at commercial dance clubs. Ni Bing’s highest-profile
signee, U2 producer Howie B, has been a regular on Beijing’s commercial club
circuit since 2003.
On Sunday 3, Howie B played his first-ever live set in
China, headlining one of Ni Bing’s four events scheduled in April. At the end
of the month, Ni Bing pulls the curtain back on his biggest business pivot yet:
Drum Rider (Ji Gu Changpian, 骑鼓唱片),
a record label he’ll introduce with a two-night showcase on Friday 29 and
The idea for Drum Rider came soon after Ni Bing met Shen Lijia,
whose duo Dumb Plants (Ben Zhiwu, 笨植物) he saw perform at an industry
event in 2014. ‘We need a hero, we need someone who can jump out in front of
the local scene and go international,’ Ni Bing recalls thinking after seeing
Dumb Plants perform. He credits Shen – now a partner in the label – and Beijing
producer Howie Lee for starting a trend in this direction, and is putting his
weight behind Dumb Plants via Drum Rider.
The label has ten releases planned
for this year. The first was a 13-song sampler released quietly in February for
paid download on a third-party app called Disc Jam, and later, at a rate of one
single per week, uploaded to free streaming services like Xiami. Rather than
leaning on the more famous artists he’s rallied under the Drum Rider banner, Ni
Bing has placed emphasis on the relative unknowns he wishes to push. The first
handful of singles he released were by Dumb Plants and Beijing producer 3He,
both of which are readying full-length releases. Only weeks later did Ni Bing
release tracks by more established artists, like Shanghai techno producer MHP
and Guangzhou electronica band Yufeimen.
‘My strategy is to promote by quality
of sound’, he explains. ‘I want people to hear an international level of
production from my label. In the digital world, it’s very easy to release an
album. You can have a demo, put it online, people can hear it. I don’t want to
do that. I want people to consume the real, good-quality music.’ In mixing young
and hungry newcomers with more established artists, Ni Bing also hopes to
increase the ‘quality’ of the audience at the other end of the process. ‘I want
people to follow the label because of the quality of the music. It’s not about
who’s big or not. I want to push the young kids’ songs first, use quality to
make people realise it’s a good label. Maybe we’ll only have, let’s say, 500
fans at the beginning, but they’re quality fans.’
While he can’t offer young
artists such as Dumb Plants the reach of a label like Modern Sky, which has a
massive distribution network and festivals around the world, Ni Bing does offer
valuable, hands-on mentorship to his artists. He refers to himself as an A&R
guy, which sounds oddly anachronistic in the age of one-click-upload net-labels.
‘In China, at many major labels or independent labels, there’s no such role.
Someone who’s been experienced in the scene for many years and can give advice,
help artists to build up their sound. In the process of production, I behave
more like an A&R guy, guiding these young people on how to move their
career to the next level, how to build up their live sets, how the sound can be
As an example, Ni Bing says that after hearing an early demo of Dumb
Plants’ ‘Just For You’, the third track on Drum Rider’s inaugural compilation,
he enthusiastically shopped it around his network. It caught the ear of Nicole
Thomas, vocalist of Mute Records band The Client; she contributed a vocal hook.
Howie B liked what he heard as well, and turned in the final mix.
glad they follow me’, Ni Bing says of the artists he’s attracted to the label.
‘There are much bigger labels than me, but they believe in my taste and
experience, the way I do it. And if you have a good roster, it doesn’t matter
if you’re managing these artists exclusively or not. [If] people trust your
good taste in music, the label has a value. That’s why these artists come to
me. I’m really proud of that.’
That’s all great, but how does Ni Bing, a serial
entrepreneur, plan to make money with this? He laughs. ‘Good question!’ So far
he’s sold just over 60 digital copies of the sampler, and says he prefers a
slow release schedule to a big early push. He doesn’t expect Drum Rider to
generate significant revenue for at least five years.
Luckily, he can lean on
Martial Artists Management’s far more lucrative business. He has a massive
month lined up on that front: 25 shows across half a dozen cities. One of them
is a live performance by Japanese composer Yoshihiro Hanno, who has scored
films by such arthouse luminaries as Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Hanno’s
performance coincides with this year’s Beijing International Film Festival, the city’s biggest annual industry gathering of producers and
financiers. The day before his performance, Hanno will give a workshop at Ni
Bing’s office, which Ni Bing hopes will clue young Beijing producers into
professional opportunities to be found in the better-funded film industry.
Yoshihiro Hanno / Radiq
the meantime, he’s content to let Drum Rider grow organically. He spent a year
and a half setting up the label before launching, and the 20-year veteran has
no reason to rush his latest passion project out the gate. ‘I like to build
things up slowly, it’s good for promotion. You have to keep on making noise.’