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Ex-Bear Stearns banker bets on Beijing rock bands

50-year old American is spearheading revival of capital's music scence

The band Carsick Cars performs at the second anniversary of the D-22 bar in Beijing, China, on Thursday, May 1, 2008.
Ex-Bear Stearns banker bets on Beijing rock bands

The band Carsick Cars performs at the second anniversary of the D-22 bar in Beijing, China, on Thursday, May 1, 2008.

It's midnight at the Beijing bar D-22, and Michael Pettis, a 50-year-old American, is rocking to the thumping drums and screaming guitars of the band Rustic.
Pettis, a Peking University finance professor and former New York-based head of emerging markets at Bear Stearns Cos., is better known by music enthusiasts as the "Godfather of Beijing Rock." He is nurturing the genre, led by youths in their teens and 20s, which he predicts will soon take the world by storm.
To export the music, he formed the recording label Maybe Mars in September with the US$200,000 he raised from investors such as Christopher Keogh, a managing director at Beijing Gao Hua Securities Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s China joint venture partner.
"Michael's been instrumental in spearheading the revival of Beijing rock," said Tom Pattinson, editor of the Beijing edition of Time Out, an entertainment magazine. Beijing is a natural hub for China's rock music because the political setting ferments ideas that add angst and grit to composition.
Pettis, who holds an MBA and a master's in development economics from Columbia University, said he decided to move to Beijing in 2002 after a week-long vacation in the city because he was becoming restless at an increasingly predictable job. These days, he spends most of his off hours at D-22, in the college district of Haidian, that he opened in May 2006 and spent US$100,000 fitting with equipment and sound systems.
Sonic Youth
On evenings and weekends, D-22 packs students, rock enthusiasts and curious tourists drawn by the din. Pettis said he modeled D-22 after New York's S.I.N. Club, which he ran, in the early 1980s where acts such as Sonic Youth and John Zorn played when they started out.
D-22 appears to be reprising S.I.N.'s history as a hothouse for young talent. China's current rock sensation Carsick Cars gave its earliest performances there and more budding musicians such as Rustic's Li Yan are congregating at the bar, hoping to win fans and score a recording contract.
"My parents call me crazy for forming a rock band," said Li, 19, who's wearing braces and a white shirt partly secured by a safety pin. "But I would rather be dead than a failed rocker."
Beijing's rock music scene has largely stayed dormant since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protesters. The leading rocker at that time Cui Jian, whose hits such as "The Last Gunshot" and "I Have Nothing" became rallying themes at the demonstration, went into hiding after he performed at the landmark during the protest. Cui, 47, who now occasionally sings at Beijing bars, has always denied his songs have political overtones.
Culture, Politics
Pettis, who writes a financial blog that gets 5,000 hits a day, said rock groups under his record label Maybe Mars don't sing about politics either and prefer to focus on themes like "China's very materialistic, conformist, bland, middle-brow culture." Still, media speculate that a song by one of Pettis's bands Carsick Cars called "Zhongnanhai," the headquarters of the Chinese government, is a veiled reference to the Communist Party, a claim Pettis denied. Pettis said the song is about a brand of cigarettes of the same name.
"This generation of rockers grew up in prosperous times, so are more interested in self-exploration than politics," he said.
Chinese censors vet lyrics of records before their release, Pettis said. In April last year, Carsick Cars' scheduled opening act in Beijing at a Sonic Youth concert was canceled at the last minute amid media speculation Chinese censors had pulled the plug.
Four months later, Carsick Cars would play with the U.S. noise-rock group in Vienna, Prague, Berlin and London, giving it the highest international profile yet of any recent Chinese rock group.
New Generation
"Today's young bands are globally and politically aware, so we may see this new generation becoming a bit more political again," said Pattinson.
Pettis, who's born in Spain to a French mother and grew up mostly outside the U.S., said Beijing rock music is weaker on harmony, stronger on sound textures and melodic structures than its Western counterparts. Still, the sheer honesty of the music would probably help China one day break a U.S. and U.K. stranglehold on the rock scene, he said.
"If Beijing rock flies, it flies really high," said Hong Kong investment banker Henry Zhang, who bought a stake in Maybe Mars and likened his investment to venture capital.
The label's star bands Carsick Cars and Snapline have each sold 10,000 copies of their debut albums, twice as many as other independent, or indie, groups, Pettis said. Maybe Mars, which probably won't make money for three years, plans follow-up albums for Carsick Cars and Snapline, and has raised US$300,000, mainly from existing investors to make more albums, Pettis said.
What's Going on?
"The music explosion here has been really dramatic," said Pettis, in an interview. "Really hard-core music people are saying, 'Holy cow, what's going on in Beijing?' The rest of the world doesn't really get it yet. It will."'
Maybe Mars bands have toured the U.S., Europe, Asia and China. Snapline's CDs are produced by Martin Atkins, a former drummer for the band Public Image Ltd., which was punk legend John Lydon's band after his days as Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols.
"There's no way that any local Chinese record label has the capacity, the knowledge, the money or the experience to do this for local bands," said Time Out's Pattinson.
Piracy worries
To succeed in China, Pettis, who said he worked as a trader and capital markets banker for 15 years, must overcome challenges such as piracy and a young generation more attuned to what Pattinson calls "cheesy Canto-pop and Mando-pop songsters" than rock.
So serious is piracy in China that EMI Group this month withdrew from the market, selling its stake to a joint venture partner. Pettis said Maybe Mars's sales are too small yet to draw pirates.
Obstacles abound, Pettis said. He said he's not worried because he believes the rock groups he signed on might be the Rolling Stones and David Bowies of tomorrow.
"These are winners," said Pettis. "They will have a long shelf life."