Beijing’s underground music scene is often associated exclusively with rock — a simple Google search can attest to that. But the city’s musical portfolio has more to it than meets the eye. There are gentler, more electric sounds making waves in China’s capital, aided along by a distinct DIY cassette label.
nugget records comes from the minds of illustrator Jen Rao and her partner, musician Dave Carey. Both met five years ago while they were teaching, and bonded over their love of underground music. The idea for nugget came three and a half years later when they were traveling together in Europe while Dave’s band Nocturnes was on tour. Inspired by the indie labels, projects, and spaces — all rooted in local underground culture and community — they came away eager to try something of their own combining what “we both loved and knew as individuals.”
Of Cassettes & Lo-fi
In an ever increasingly digital world, the two decided instead of going digital they would make everything analog, choosing to turn out music on cassette tapes.
“Dave had always wanted to release analog formats for his music” Jen remembers. But having worked with a record label that churned out shoddy sounding tapes and who was pushing to move away from the format, they took matters into their own hands.
Other things factoring into why Jen and Dave looked to cassettes:
- Cassette tapes and vinyl records have an analogue quality that trumps CDs (in our humble opinions)
- Vinyl records are not accessible for all creators and consumers while cassette tapes are much more affordable and portable
- We want to try to encourage people to get back to listening to physical media. Streaming music and listening to playlists is undeniably convenient and a great way to discover new music (we’re guilty of it too!) however that feeling of holding a brand new album in your hand, looking at the artwork and listening from cover to cover… we want to bring that back!
Jen and Dave’s releases heavily lean on lo-fi, or low fidelity, sound production. “Music that is considered lo-fi can span many different genres… but contains elements of imperfection within the recorded sounds. Some artists will sample sounds from daily life, such as the hum from an air conditioner or rain falling on pavement, and purposely include these elements in their music.”
Breathing, outside sounds, footsteps, out of time beats, and off tune notes, can also be left in, creating a more personal connection with artist and listener.
nugget records’ sounds currently encompass the lighter end of the listening spectrum, including indie pop, dream pop, and shoegaze. Not only are these styles indicative of the duo’s musical tastes, but a deeper reason lies in mitigating the idea that Beijing’s underground is all about heavier rock, like hardcore, punk, and experimental.
When nugget records started out, Jen and Dave fit in to the DIY tape recording scene, which had been in Beijing for some time. “We have the ability to duplicate as few as 25 cassettes”, which, from a financial standpoint — and compared to other market choices which require a minimum order of 100 tapes or more — makes nugget more approachable for artists.
After investing in the equipment needed to duplicate cassettes — a trusty Nakamichi tape deck for recording a master tape from digital file, and 2 duplicators — they were able to release music by lost memory machine (one of Dave’s bands) and producer thruoutin, a long-time friend and collaborator.
Fast forward to today, and Jen says nugget records has produced 4000 cassette tapes for themselves, other labels, and artists around China, including 11 of their own tape releases, 4 zines, and a branded tape player.
Creating a Zine
Jen, who designs all of the cassette covers, has also spearheaded nugget’s zine efforts, fitting neatly into the underground culture they’re a part of.
“I began publicizing my work and started working as a freelance illustrator in 2017. At that time, I got to know many other artists and creators involved in the art scene, such as Shuilam Wong of Hole in the Wall Collective.” Seeing how the community all interpreted the city in which they all lived — often in creative and refreshingly uncensored ways — making it an integral part of the underground scene.
“When we started nugget records I knew I wanted to create printed media that provided a context to the music we were releasing.” While they mostly contain Jen’s illustrations, the writing, reviews, and recipe submissions come from as many people in the community as possible, making the publication a truly collaborative effort.
Along with the record release zine, Jen has a new publication called “reSHEng”, a color-it-yourself zine which documents the work and stories of 6 women musicians in China, focusing on their creative process, ideas, and inspiration instead of their looks, something other media, unfairly, places heavy emphasis on. It’s also a theme Jen hopes to explore more moving forward.
Creating a Space
In July 2020, nugget records was finally able to open their own space, which they christened “nugget”. Located in one of the small hutong alley lanes just southwest of Andingmen Subway Station, the location is a cafe by day, bar by night that also has a stage — dubbed the “tiny stage” — for live shows put on once a week since the lockdown ended.
Visiting artists play while bathed in soothing purple from the neon pug-shaped sign right above the stage, which is a simple nook in the right hand corner of the shop. It’s here that Jen and Dave were able to find a new home for their recording studio, designed with help from thruoutin. “There’s a secret door behind the bar that leads to a fully sound-proofed professional recording studio” exclaims Jen.
The most important thing was making a welcoming, safe space for anyone who wanted to come through their doors. “ Though the more hardcore characteristics are representative of the scene here in Beijing, it has the potential to be intimidating for those who don’t consider themselves members of the subculture.” So, nugget was to be what the duo refer to as a gateway drug for people interested in the underground scene, but also a place where, Jen writes, someone could have a real and personal experience, or someone into punk music could come for a show and a drink.
A Good 2020
In spite of less-then-advantageous circumstances, this year has been good to nugget records. It all started with their Tapes for Charity project, a 2 tape release — one electronic music, and one indie pop — of music compiled from around China. “We were in the middle of lockdown at the time and wanted to contribute to the cause in our own way.”
Having heard of the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association, which was working to help animals whose humans had been stranded outside due to the citywide lockdown, and being dog owners and small animal lovers themselves, they decided to work with the organization.
Teaming up once again with thruoutin, they turned what was to be a one tape release into a two tape one, working in their apartment to churn out 200 tapes, complete with specially designed cases that, when placed next to one another, show small cats and dogs around a bowl of Rè Gān Miàn (热干面; Hot-Dry Noodles), an Wuhan specialty. When the tapes sold out in minutes online, they geared up for round two.
Working with Guangzhou-based label Qiii Snacks to produce and distribute (along with 7 other labels around China), when all was said and done, nugget records had sold another 440 tapes and raised 27,000 RMB for the Association, all while forging a deeper connection with musicians, producers, and record stores around the country.
This connection allowed nugget records, armed with a new venue to boot, to host Cassette Store Day 2020 with Daftpop, another record company. Spanning 3 days, with 2 nights of live music, plus 1 zine and 1 indie music market, both of which brought together 19 labels and artists with their merch, music, art, and independent publications. To mark the occasion, nugget also released “Cassette China”, a compilation tape showcasing music from labels around China, like Maybe Mars, Qiii Snacks, Daftpop, Small Animal Records and more.
With 2021 right around the corner, Jen and Dave have more in store for nugget records and their quest to bring lo-fi and softer sounds to Beijing.
There are 2 upcoming releases: an EP for shoegaze band the Claptraps, and Dave’s most recent project, indie pop band Xiu Kou Xiao Xing, both of which will be their first projects produced entirely in house — including the recording of instruments, vocals, and mixing tracks. This also means more work on new zines, cassettes and merch.
“In the New Year, we hope to continue to provide a platform for artists to showcase their work, and bring interesting and meaningful gigs and events to Beijing’s underground music and arts scene!”
Be sure to check out nugget’s space and follow them on social media:
Address: 8 Huayuan Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing | 北京市东城区花园乙8号
Hours: 12pm-12am, Tues-Sun