When I met Michael Pettis, he had just finished taking a bath and was dressed casually with black glasses and a bottle of Tsingtao in his hand that he sipped from as he answered my questions.
“My office is so messy! I apologize, usually I don’t let people come in. Let’s talk downstairs.” I looked in his direction and saw his personal office behind him, located on the second floor of this building situated in a classical pavilion; his indie music label Maybe Mars is also located in Xi Lou Xiang Hu Tong, a Chinese style courtyard.
Time has passed quickly since Maybe Mars was founded ten years ago. Michael has also been in China for almost fourteen years. Michael came to China because he felt working fourteen hours a day was too exhausting and too boring. “Going to an unfamiliar country wasn’t anything new for me. By the time I was ten years old, I had lived in four different countries and I visited maybe twelve different countries.”
After graduating from Columbia University in 1987, Michael found success working at a Wall Street investment bank. After over ten years of jumping from international branch to international branch – Latin America, Philippines, Macedonia– Michael became exhausted and bored with his work and sought meaning elsewhere. Fortunately, while he was at the investment bank, one of his friends – a physics undergraduate from Tsinghua University and an MBA colleague from University of Chicago – recommended him to his colleagues and friends at Tsinghua, and that was the end of his fourteen year career on Wall Street. He came to China and initially became a professor at Tsinghua before later becoming a professor at the Peking University Guanghua School of Management.
The Peking University Guanghua School of Management, often referred to as China’s Harvard Business School, on average accepts 25% of those who take the college entrance exam. At Guanghua, Michael founded two courses on central shadow banks and investment banking. In addition to their admiration of his knowledge of the profession, Guanghua students gradually discovered that this American economics professor would also often exchange opinions on music. “At Peking University, I always lectured my students about how, yes, you can listen to foreign music, but when it comes to Chinese music, you have to listen, support, and respect it, because Chinese has great music. If Chinese people don’t support Chinese bands, then China won’t produce good bands.”
Michael discovered an unfortunate phenomenon with regard to Chinese music. Both foreign and Chinese audiences approached Chinese music with the wrong attitude, pointing out what is and is not authentic Chinese music. In the United States, nobody argues about what is and is not authentic American music; they only care about what is and is not good music.
“I also discovered that all foreign bands, even if they’re not any good, receive major attention simply becaus they’re foreign.” Michael said that when he discovered this widespread, incorrect disposition, he decided to open a club that would change the environment of Chinese music. Thus, D-22 was born.
In fact, as early as 1983 when Michael was obtaining his masters degree, he already owned a club. That was when he and his friends founded SIN Club, a venue where famous American musicians like Sonic Youth and John Zorn later performed. With all this experience, Michael not only opened his two clubs D-22 and XP, but he also founded his independent record label, Maybe Mars.
However, fans became displeased as D-22 became more famous. Feeling that many fans were “dissatisfied”, Michael closed the club in 2012 after six years of steady growth and accumulating countless fans. Afterwards, D-22 moved to the Dianmen southwestern intersection and became XP; in July 2015, XP also officially closed.
China is so big that 20% of the world’s population is concentrated here; therefore, 20% of the world’s best musicians should also come from China, so our goal is to find and develop them.” As Maybe Mars grew, it didn’t simply focus on Beijing, but it also cultivated artists in Wuhan (AV Okubo and SMZB), Chengdu (Proximity Butterfly), Nanjing (Eight Eye Spy), and Xi’an (24 Hours). Maybe Mars has brought and developed talent from all around the country.
At the same time, Maybe Mars hasn’t focused on the profitability of their artists, but rather on whether or not the artists deliver good music. Their artists have won global recognition, and have toured the biggest stages and festivals across Europe and the United States, like SXSW. In a number of rankings, Maybe Mars falls as the number one or number two Chinese independent music label.
“We ask the best foreign music producers to make records for us, and we also fund overseas performances and tours for our musicians, so clearly our goal is not just the Chinese market.” Michael said that most of the company’s main revenue stream still comes from touring; since they pour so much capital into record production, their finances are in dire straits.
From an outside perspective, Maybe Mars is like a charity for Chinese music, and Michael has been called China’s underground music philanthropist; his generous spirit, evident in the amount of his personal income that goes towards Chinese music, has touched many people.
As far as commercial endeavors go, Michael doesn’t necessarily exclude them, but so far he hasn’t found a better way to run his company financially, and his personal energy is quite limited. He says, “I know many people say that I’m a philanthropist, that Maybe Mars is a charitable organization, but in reality, it’s not that we don’t want to make money, but rather that we simply don’t know how to.”
Michael then explained that spendin your personal income on something you’re passionate about and devoted to improving is normal. He believes that one day the Chinese people will all know about Maybe Mars; he even bet publicly in an interview with an economic journal that if within thirty years, Carsick Cars did not become the next Sonic Youth, or Liu Kun did not become China’s Leonard Cohen, then he would sell all of the company’s copyrights.
With regard to record investment, Maybe Mars never considers profit or return on investment. In 2012, they made vinyl records for all their artists, starting with P.K. 14’s “1984”.
Yang Haisong, Maybe Mars CEO an well known indie music producer, believes that music and record production should always be a record company’s focus. “At this point, we’ve already released almost 70 records, and in twenty or thirty years, the bands will look at how they’ve grown because of the album, and say ‘this is history’.”
Currently, Maybe Mars has a total of forty groups of musicians, with eighteen active bands, and 66 albums issued.
Michael then took me into a room on the other side of the courtyard. “This is the Maybe Mars museum. Here, we preserve everything from musician’s books to performance posters, to ticket stubs, to lyrics.”
From 1930 up to now, Chinese music culture and history has been poorly preserved, so Michael looks for opportunities to preserve old things. When he meets up with other musicians at a venue, he asks the managers of the musicians and the venue if they have items of past performances like stubs, posters, or clothing, that they can give him.
“This might not seem so important now, but it’ll be very important after a hundred years. Culture and economy are different; the economy, whether it’s China’s economy or the world economy, fluctuates up and down, but no matter what time period it is, culture stays.”
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