The DJ Laughing Ears playing a set for Shanghai Community Radio’s live-streamed festival. (Screenshot by Josh Feola, reposted with permission.)

HONG KONG — There hasn’t been a live music show in China since late January. 

Venues across the country have shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 “coronavirus” outbreak, from large rock halls like Shanghai’s Modern Sky Lab to underground nightclubs like Beijing’s Zhaodai. With businesses indefinitely extending the spring festival holidays, and local governments enforcing strict “stay at home” rules⁠, the normally lively music scene in China is temporarily dead and silent.   

Enter live-streaming. Bored, anxious, isolated. and stuck at home under what feels like a nationwide quarantine, China’s musicians and musicheads are making the best of an unexpected situation by organizing “bedroom music festivals” and live-streamed club nights

“As someone who likes to stay at home and do nothing,” writes one online meme, “It’s finally my time to shine.” These events allow China’s so-called “anti-social generation” to redefine  sociality their way. 

Initially an idea hatched by VOX Livehouse, the legendary punk rock dive located in Wuhan, the city at the heart of the COVID-19 outbreak, the “live-streamed music festival” is now a nationwide craze, with record labels, city-specific venues, clubs, and music festival organizers all diving in. Genre, too, is no barrier.   Options range from pop and hardcore punk to techno and experimental improvisation, such as musician Zhao Cong’s “at home” series below: 

YouTube video

Shanghai clubs ALL and Elevator both organized “stay at home” club nights, featuring made-to-order DJ sets from their regular artists such as Kilo Vee of the Genome 6.66Mbp collective and Michael Cignarale of Elevator’s queer night “Medusa.” Posted online on the code repository Github, the clubs are encouraging those at home to mix their own parties, re-ordering and re-arranging over 12 hours of beats.  

A poster for Bilibili’s “Bedroom Pogo” live-stream festival, used with permission.

Prominent indie record labels like Ruby Eyes and Modern Sky are streaming “showcases” for artists on their roster, and venues like Shanghai’s Yuyintang are even considering ticketed online performances. Many of these are hosted on the live-streaming site BiliBili, which contains a crucial social feature, Bullet Comments or 弹幕 (“danmu”), that make these events an active expression of community and social bonding, rather than just passive experiences. Bullet Comments are a mix of discussion forum threads, live chat, and participatory art that conjure a powerful online approximation of real-life conviviality, and a raucous vibe akin to a successful party. Comments made on a video fly across the video screen like heckles or encouragement from a virtual audience. 

A funny or surprising moment can generate so much commentary that a screen of text can overwhelm the video at particular timestamps, while inside jokes and memes can create a “parallel track” of commentary be followed along with, creating an engaged, attentive audience.  “It’s like going to a karaoke parlor or being in a mosh pit without leaving your house,” said singer He Fan of Beijing band Birdstriking, which streamed an acoustic set for label Modern Sky’s “Strawberry Z” live-stream, named after Strawberry, China’s most prominent annual outdoor music festival.  

Bullet Comments fly across the screen during a “Strawberry Z” live-stream. (Screenshot provided by Modern Sky.)

“Strawberry Z,” titled “I’m at Home Too” in Chinese, is a representative encapsulation of this trend. It featured over 70 acts across five days, with a mix of pre-recorded videos from previous editions of the Strawberry Festival and special messages, videos, and sets recorded for the event by bands across the country. There’s an online schedule for people to follow, and a raucous Bullet comments section with links to Wechat groups for further deep-dive conversations. 

Bands are bringing much-needed levity and humor into the streams. Punk trio The Fallacy wore masks and a hazmat suit for their live-streamed set. Others, like rappers NJ and Brag Liang, riff and chat with fans, taking requests and responding to questions. It all feels like a goofy, DIY house partythe music is what’s bringing everyone online, but the music itself is just a sideshow to the conversations and community these events are fostering. 

The Fallacy, dressed for the occasion. (Screenshot via Jake Newby, reposted with permission.)

Live-streamed festivals might just be a temporary fix, a jolt of sociality in the midst of unexpected isolation, but the connections they’re enabling are deep-rooted. They’re not a replacement for a real dive bar gig but rather the continuation of conversations started in real life. Tour cancellations and venue shutdowns are now expected to last through the end of April 2020, at the very least. These online events are both keeping the scene alive, and turning isolated apartments and quarantine zones into places for play, talk, and music.

Krish Raghav is a Beijing-based writer and comic book artist. With the writer Josh Feola, he’s currently working on his debut full-length comic book — a history of Beijing's underground music scene...