The street outside Beijing’s 13 Club bears little trace of the revellers who once packed the building. There are no cigarette butts in the cracks of the pavement, nor any footprints left by throngs of rock music fans.
The venue in the Chinese capital’s university district was permanently closed more than two years ago as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions forced it and thousands of other independent businesses in the city to shut down.
As the government eases its zero-Covid policy, the music industry is taking stock of the damage wrought by years of rolling lockdowns and curbs on gatherings in a sector already under pressure from rising rents, censorship and police raids. In addition to the club and bar closures, the restrictions disrupted the touring calendar bands and DJs rely on to make a living.
“Covid devastated the music industry,” said He Miao, a DJ and music producer who goes by the stage name Demone. He played more than 100 gigs a year across China before the pandemic struck in 2020. “After Covid, that turned to almost zero,” he said.
Zero-Covid gutted nightlife in metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing. Entertainment venues in China have not benefited from government bailouts to help them through lockdowns, unlike their western counterparts. And although the lifting of restrictions will allow venues to fill up once again, the financial hit from the past few years has been enormous.
The brunt of the restrictions have been borne by China’s independent artists who, unlike mainstream pop stars such as Jay Chou and Wang Jing Wen, are unable to rely on streaming revenues and sponsorship deals. They instead earned a living from live performances and merchandise sales.
“Covid has destroyed the ecology that allows independent music to thrive,” said Xin Gu, an expert in Chinese independent music and senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne. “Venues have been closed, live performances cancelled and sponsors have left in droves.”
He said a sense of “hopelessness” now pervaded China’s live music industry, which generated Rmb7.4bn ($1.06bn) in revenue in 2019, according to Statista.
The mood stands in contrast to the exuberance of the mid-2010s, when funding flooded into the sector. Archie Hamilton, who runs the Shanghai-based music promotion company Split Works, said the festival scene “suddenly caught fire” in those years. “It became an arms race between well-funded players on who could book the best venues and biggest artists,” he added.
The decline of China’s live music scene has dealt a further blow to young urbanites facing high unemployment rates as the tech sector, normally a leading recruiter of graduates, was hit by a regulatory crackdown and Covid lockdowns decimated the service sector.
With many young people seen as increasingly apathetic amid the decline of economic opportunities, the cohort has been dubbed the “tang ping”, or “lying flat”, generation.
Clubs once provided an outlet for disaffected young people, as well as a space for self-expression absent from mainstream culture, according to observers.
“Chinese in their twenties and thirties grew up in a completely different China to their teachers and parents. Yet the official culture continues to be the culture of 30 years ago,” said Michael Pettis, an economics professor at Peking University and founder of the now-closed D-22 punk rock club in Beijing.
Xin said: “For a long time, there was no alternative space for creative youths to express themselves. Then live music came along and created a space for people to share radical ideas and social connections.”
The damage to the independent music industry also represented a lost opportunity for the government, warned Pettis. “If China wants cultural soft power, it must allow artists to create it,” he said.
As the club scene wanes, many artists are reinventing themselves to make a living, according to industry insiders, who warned of an “exodus of talent” from the sector.
“A lot of people in the industry have left China. People have gone overseas to study if they had the chance,” said Demone. Many that remained sought alternative employment. “I know one artist that became a dabai,” he said, referring to the country’s Covid enforcers clad in white protective gear.
Beijing’s underground scene was already in a precarious position before Covid piled on the pressure.
“Even before the pandemic, the independent music and arts industries were hurting,” said Pettis. He opened D-22 in 2006 at the start of what he called a “spectacular period of openness” for China’s arts scene.
“At the time, I thought Beijing was going to become one of the top five cities for new music and arts globally.”
But rising government censorship, increasing rents and police drug busts at venues have hit the sector.
There has always been tension between the “revolutionary spirit” of underground music and the government’s “controlled public sphere”, said Xin. During the tenure of President Xi Jinping, Beijing has issued regular diktats to the cultural industry to promote “positive energy” and reflect a flattering image of China.
Eric de Fontenay, founder of the Beijing-based digital media company MusicDish, said the closure of smaller live music venues meant “new blood in the scene” has had nowhere to perform. Chinese bands such as Beijing indie group Carsick Cars, who have completed five successful tours of the US and Europe, and Wuhan punk outfit SMZB made their names in small clubs in their home cities.
But industry insiders are cautiously optimistic that nightlife will revive once the Covid surge sparked by the scrapping of pandemic curbs subsides. Pettis plans to open an indie and alternative folk music venue in Beijing in 2023. “Everyone is excited for when things open up here,” he said.