Jonathan Levitt Routes American Independent and Alternative Music to The People's Republic of China.
By Lisa Weeks
AS SALES CONTINUE to slump and record labels major and minor scramble to determine for us what will be the Next Big Thing, audiences here in the states seem to be increasingly uncertain and jaded about the direction of alternative music. Our faith in the "Made In America" tag may be flagging, but alternative American music, not to mention the accompanying popular culture, is a hot commodity on foreign markets--markets which provide potentially lucrative opportunities for emergent independent bands starved out by the skepticism of stateside audiences.
The largest emerging market for American music, the People's Republic Of China, is also the most uniformly under-served by major record labels. Uncertainties--political, commercial, and otherwise--have until recently kept most labels from marketing any but the most popular and accessible American music to Chinese consumers.
Enter Jonathan Levitt, originator and director of Radio Shanghai International. Levitt has made it his personal mission to expand the exposure of Chinese audiences beyond saccharine mainstream American exports like Maria Carey and Whitney Houston, introducing alternative music oft overlooked by U.S. radio programmers, and in the process creating the potential opportunity for struggling, under-appreciated indie bands to access markets of millions of listeners.
About four years ago, Levitt--a Tucsonan by way of El Paso and other more exotic places--masterminded Radio Shanghai International, a radio show researched and taped by Levitt here in Tucson and sent abroad for daily play at stations in Gansu and Quinghai provinces. Fluent in Chinese, Levitt first visited the People's Republic as a foreign exchange student studying Chinese language and culture, and during that time was inspired to his present task by the insipid selection of Western music available to ravenous Chinese fans.
Dedicated to making alternative and independent music increasingly accessible to the Chinese, Levitt compiles as much new material as he can get his hands on, with some extra emphasis on Tucson bands. His playlist runs around 30 songs per program and features a diversity that includes the likes of Flamin' Groovies, Miles Davis, Giant Sand, Suede, Tranquillity Bass, M.A.C. and Bevis Frond. If only we had access to such diversity on stations here in Tucson.
Radio Shanghai International grew out of Levitt's experience co-hosting a bilingual show that featured American pop music on Radio Shanghai, one of two stations broadcasting a variety of programming at 100,000 watts AM, FM and shortwave, to Shanghai's estimated 12 million people. Shanghai, more open to the West and westerners, embraced the bilingual format; but Levitt, who recounts being escorted to work at the government facility by armed guards, experienced a less-than-winning enthusiasm for his ideas from his Chinese co-host.
Seeking more freedom and programming control, Levitt made connections in Western China with DJs who shared his more eclectic musical interests. Prevailing anti-western sentiment on the part of the more staunchly Communist western provinces' governments forbids westerners to host radio programs, so Levitt supplies DJs with master tapes and descriptive and promotional materials. The DJs then splice in their voice overs, running the shows under the moniker of Radio Shanghai International.
Levitt employed experience he gained as a college programming director and while working promotion for international labels Rykodisc and Hong Kong-based Rock Records to build inroads to a tight-fisted and suspicious industry, an industry that is only lately starting to appreciate the potential of his work. It's been an uphill struggle. Although Levitt is now serviced by labels from all over the world, his initial attempts to solicit promotional materials and product were met with skepticism and disdain. One label representative, after a series of verbal volleys that required some name-dropping to procure results, told Levitt, "I think what you're doing is complete BS, but I'll send you records anyway."
If Levitt were one to be daunted by such sentiments he would have given up long ago. After four years of harried groundwork courting labels and A&R representatives, sending reams of letters and making endless phone calls, he's finally achieving a reputation of legitimacy for his efforts, but not without some help from friends.
Establishing and maintaining contact with radio stations throughout China requires fairly frequent and extensive travel, which in the past created enormous logistical problems. With the assistance of two friends/assistants, Jessie Bhangoo and Jason Bergman, who together designed the official Radio Shanghai International webstite (http://www.earthlink.net/~shanghaii), Levitt is able to travel with the security that all of his efforts will not go to waste in his absence. Bhangoo maintains contact with record company reps during Levitt's trips abroad, and Bergman provides technical support.
Although, according to Levitt, the Chinese tend to favor the more "mellow pop" side of alternative music, opting for The Drakes and OP8 over, say, anything more towards the hardcore and punk end of the spectrum, that does not preclude such music from his show. Pointing out that Chinese ears are listening from a point of reference that starts with only the most obvious American pop stars, Levitt remarks that the Chinese are surprisingly receptive to a wide range of alternative music, with one notable exception--rap, which seems to hold no interest. "The more melodic stuff is what they go for, not more abrasive, rhythmically-based music."
"There is a serious demand for American music," Levitt says. "There is no real basis for comparison," so everything, at least initially, gets equal treatment by Chinese audiences. "They love America. They love everything American."
Radio still enjoys a significance in China long lost to television here in America, making the impact of Levitt's work that much more pronounced. Rock clubs, really nothing more than spaces where youth gather to listen to bootlegs and obscure alternative recordings and watch pirated tapes of MTV's 120 Minutes, are springing up all over the Shanghai underground music scene. As yet, Radio Shanghai International is the only conduit between massive exposure to Chinese markets and artists who desire such exposure, and may soon provide many alternative rock bands the ticket to ride the Orient Express straight to the top. Artists who've recently toured China include Bjork, The Bare Naked Ladies, Roxette and No Doubt--this is just the beginning.
What does Jonathan Levitt, shortly bound for yet another trip to the People's Republic, hope to achieve with Radio Shanghai International--fame and recognition as a visionary? Eschewing an inflated view of his own importance, Jonathan asks, "What could be beyond the success I've already achieved? I love what I do--the worst case scenario is that I have to continue to work a day job."
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