On Tuesday, Radii China and censorship watchdog Greatfire.org reported that Chinese users appeared to be blocked from accessing Bandcamp, the independent music purchasing and streaming company. The development, which was confirmed by sources in mainland China who said they were unable to access the site, may be the latest manifestation of an increasingly restrictive digital landscape for Chinese citizens, whose internet access has already long been limited by the Great Firewall: a sophisticated censorship campaign that bans a variety of foreign websites, restricts content, and surveils citizens’ Internet use.
“Bandcamp was the rare “outside” (ie, not Chinese-language and not targeting Chinese users) music streaming platform accessible in China without a VPN,” said journalist Josh Feola in an email to VICE. Feola is a San Antonio-based writer who has extensively covered underground Chinese music for Bandcamp, along with other outlets, and lived in China from 2009 to 2020. He explains that since Spotify doesn’t work in China, and Soundcloud has been blocked for years, Chinese musicians looking to reach overseas audiences had for years been gravitating to Bandcamp, which existed in “parallel ecosystem from domestic music streaming platforms.”
He explained that “digital music in China is essentially an oligopoly of platforms owned by [Chinese tech giants like] Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu to a lesser extent.” While the great majority of Chinese listeners listen to music on these regionalized services—like QQ, a joint venture between Tencent and Spotify, or NetEase Music, from the TV streaming and gaming giant NetEase—Bandcamp had been a way for Chinese artists to directly upload and sell their music to fans abroad. Xiami Music, a streaming service owned by tech company Alibaba that specialized in independent music, was shuttered earlier this year, leaving options for underground music sparse.
“Over the last 5 years or so Bandcamp has become an increasingly important avenue for Chinese bands to present (and sell) their music outside of their home country, on a platform built with organic artist discovery in mind,” said Feola. “It was (and will remain to be) indispensable as a platform for listeners around the world to discover and purchase Chinese music.” While Bandcamp could not be immediately reached for comment, perusing Bandcamp’s China location tag shows thousands of releases from Chinese artists. Bandcamp’s editorial vertical, Bandcamp Daily, has dozens of in-depth pieces devoted to the country’s regional music scenes.
Though China’s Great Firewall originally only blocked a few anti-Communist Party Chinese-language websites, it’s ramped up over the past decade to include thousands of others. It’s why Chinese users can’t access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or the New York Times, or other Western media without a virtual private network (VPN) to mask their IP address and bypass government censors.
It’s unclear exactly why the Chinese government may have chosen to block Bandcamp at this point in time. While China recently blocked the rising social media app Clubhouse, which Chinese citizens used to freely discuss politics and debate contentious issues, Bandcamp is not a forum for political dissent or protest in the usual sense—at least of any overt kind. In fact, as Feola points out in a 2020 newsletter, “to legally release an album in mainland China, all lyrics must be submitted beforehand to a Department of Culture bureau for official approval.”
There are acts who have pushed the boundaries, and the Chinese Culture bureau has cracked down especially hard on hip-hop. One notable case is influential Chinese folk musician Li Zhi, a musician who, according to Radii China, was known for being a fierce defender of artist copyright and for suing companies for infringement; in 2019, after Sichuan Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism canceled his tour due unspecified “misbehavior,” Radii China reports, his social media accounts were removed from platforms like Weibo and WeChat and his music was scrubbed from streaming services. (He is now living in exile from China).
In October 2020, his label, the Taihe Music Group—a large Hong Kong-based company that owns several Chinese labels—reuploaded his 2018 album and removed two of its most political songs. Two weeks before the Bandcamp ban, Taihe Music Group announced a partnership with the company to bring its roster to a wider, global audience. Whether the partnership factored into the Chinese government’s decision to block Bandcamp is unknown. How it affects Taihe Music Group’s deal with Bandcamp is also unclear.
As Feola sees it, a ban on Bandcamp would probably be more a matter of the Chinese government wanting to make it harder for underground artists from mainland China to reach a global audience than worrying about Western media getting into the country. Big Chinese streaming services like QQ and other Tencent-owned platforms, after all, already have deals in place with companies like Sony, Warner Music, and Universal Music Group, which means that Chinese users have access to Western popular music. “If I had to wager a guess, I’d say [the ban] was more about protectionism than censorship,” Feola said.
Feola is working on a comic book called Open All The Buddha Boxes, documenting Beijing’s underground music scene from 1999 to 2019. His collaborator on the project, Beijing-based artist Krish Raghav, summed up what’s at stake with China’s ban on Twitter. “Bandcamp is now blocked in China,” he wrote. “The reason will be bureaucratic, routine. The effect will be subtle tragedy- a slow-burn drift to an insular music scene that has to rely on volunteer content smuggling and context translation. Skills this resilient scene knows all too well.”
The Chinese music community has been resilient, able to use Bandcamp to cultivate an audience from around the globe before the ban. They may be able to circumvent Bandcamp’s block through a VPN, or by partnering with an outside label that’s able to platform their music on banned channels, but not having legal access to an outlet like Bandcamp just added another obstacle for these scrappy artists to overcome.