November 7, 2023
TIANJIN – Independent acts thrive on a high level of interaction
Many aspiring girl bands lack financial backing and promotion from a major record label or entertainment company, but this fails to dent their enthusiasm for performing.
They also have low budgets — paying for their own equipment, travel arrangements, meals and venue hire charges, among other expenses.
Performing much of their own music, they dream big in the hope of making a hit on the music charts.
Many members of such bands enjoy performing, singing and dancing in their spare time, and gaining a wider audience, but they are happy waiting to find fame and fortune.
Emerging independent girl bands are part of a growing trend in China. They perform in front of new audiences for the thrill of it, relishing every moment.
In Tianjin in September, seven girl groups, including one called POKER, performed a three-hour show. Their audience comprised only about 40 fans, but they cheered wildly for their idols, just like the most-devoted groupies chasing blockbuster acts.
Self-funded girl groups in China have gained wider attention and popularity in recent years, offering their young members an opportunity to showcase their talent.
Originating in Japan, independent girl groups run and manage their careers themselves.
In 2005, Yasushi Akimoto, a Japanese record producer, lyricist and television writer, established the all-female group AKB48 by selecting 24 members from some 7,500 candidates. The band gained fame throughout Japan.
Those who failed to be selected for the group did not abandon their dreams of becoming idols. They returned to the community theater scene, organized their own performance teams, and continued to pursue success.
On stage, band members typically stand less than 2 meters from their fans. There are many interactive segments during performances for bands and their supporters. For example, idols sometimes leap from the stage, trusting fans below to catch them. Such high-level interaction is not commonplace among mainstream groups.
In addition, due to the shows’ smaller scale, fans have a greater influence on the performers.
Fan votes, CD sales and handshake tickets determine the ranking of idols from independent groups. By buying handshake tickets after each performance, fans can meet, interact with and take photos of girl groups. Such exchanges are crucial to strengthening the emotional connection between fans and their idols.
Fans make every effort to support their favorite idols in order to secure more resources for them.
In China, the emergence of these groups has social and psychological underpinnings. In 2020, research by China Youth Daily and the dating app Tantan found that just over 40 percent of those questioned said they had experienced social phobia, and nearly 53 percent believed they lacked interpersonal skills. Social phobia is a mental health condition that causes intense and persistent fear and anxiety in specific or all social situations.
The research findings partly explain the emergence of an independent girl group culture in China, in which group members realize their dreams as fans support them, and fans feel inspired and needed by their idols.
A 22-year-old woman wishing to be identified only as Zhao, who works in audiobook management in Beijing, is POKER’s producer. The group made its debut in November.
“I had long dreamed of becoming an idol, but my family wanted me to find a suitable job like other people. Now, I believe I have made a better choice,” Zhao said.
“When I was about to graduate from college, I stumbled upon the world of independent idols. With most of my academic responsibilities completed, and having a stable job, I made the decision to join the independent idol community.”
The work was initially hard. Members of POKER — college students and office workers — had laid solid artistic foundations. Most of them were amateur dancers, but their vocals were weak, and when they started their music careers, they were anxious about doing well.
Staging performances also posed a challenge. Zhao said that due to COVID-19 control and prevention measures, shows were canceled several times at the last minute.
“Our first performance was staged in Tianjin in February. We were busy preparing new songs, and we had to scramble for tickets with other people. The event organizer was inexperienced, and the microphone was not working well, but fortunately the performance was a success,” she said.
POKER used to practice in Zhongguancun, where an office market in Beijing, and members of the band made friends with their peers. The group subsequently staged a performance with other girl bands, one of which came from South China. This group had a professional management team and better resources.
Zhao said POKER overcame many difficulties to perfect its performances. “We hope our positivity and courage will influence our fans, so that when they face challenges, they will think of us and be brave,” she said.
A 23-year-old audience member at the Tianjin concert said: “The first time I saw POKER, I felt their love for the stage. I saw the effort the band members made and their enthusiasm to perform. I was completely immersed in the show, as I could interact with the group.”
Compared with mainstream girl groups, independent bands such as POKER tend to attract more interaction. Zhao said members of these bands often clap hands with fans at specific moments.
Independent girl groups generally do not get a share of ticket sales. They profit from selling handshake tickets and performing for businesses. To lower the risk of a big drain on their finances, and to share costs, several girl groups often perform together.
“Performance organizers help us with some resources, but they are not enough to cover our daily expenses,” Zhao said.
To stay in business, POKER rents a dance studio, buys costumes regularly, and pays for its own travel. In the future, the band may have to bear the cost of music arrangement and making a music video.
Hime, a member of the group, said: “During my time with POKER, I have made more friends and gained a life beyond school. In the process, I have also discovered my hidden talents. These experiences have been truly marvelous.”
Changmiao, another member of the group, said: “I remember the first time I took part in a full performance. We rehearsed countless times until early morning. I made a number of mistakes and was extremely nervous, but when the spotlight focused on me on stage, I relaxed.”
At a meeting with fans, one supporter took group photos with Changmiao, who felt she had gained recognition and that all the efforts she made were worthwhile.
Zhao said POKER does not have many grand ambitions like other groups. “For now, all I want to do is sing and dance happily with my bandmates on the stage. We want to bring strength and joy to those fans who already love us, and to those who will watch us perform in the future.”
In May, a music video titled Little Idols in China’s Northeast Region went viral on the popular video-sharing and streaming platform Bilibili, attracting 5 million views.
The footage includes shots of cheering audience members and regional cultural features such as ginseng, a Siberian tiger, barbecues and tourist sites.
One netizen said in the video: “Independent Japanese girl groups make people who mainly stay indoors yearn for an energetic life, while Chinese groups bring a sense of freshness. People feel as though they are watching their own daughters perform on stage.”
Such comments pose a key question for independent girl groups about their operating philosophy. To avoid appearing the same, these bands must innovate to succeed.
Ying Tao, a dancer, supervises Heartbeat, a girl group in Shenyang, Liaoning province. The band features cultural elements from northeastern China, including costumes with cotton-padded jackets. The group is also considering introducing more regional characteristics to its original songs and choreography.
Independent girl groups are making progress in producing original works. In July, a group in Changchun, Jilin province, released its first original song, the eponymously titled Blossom.
Watermelon, the band’s leader, loves errenzhuan, a type of folk singing and dancing popular in Northeast China.
“As a resident of the northeast, I want to promote the culture of my region,” she said on her Bilibili account.
Independent girl bands are also turning to professionals to create original work.
Last year, Transparent Classroom & Parallel Girl, a girl group in Hunan province, released its first nine-song album in collaboration with Liang Jiaman, a member of the band HappyWheel, and Japanese singer Omori Seiko.