Right now, China boasts one of the most promising and compelling rock scenes in the world today — with renowned bands making special stops there to perform — but there was a time not long ago in the country's history when the import of music from the outside world was even more restrictive.
In the 90s, it was fairly difficult for eager Chinese citizens to get hold of alternative music from the West, even as figures like Cui Jian, He Yong and band Thin Man embraced the heavier, more electrifying side to rock music. In this period, music consumption was ruled by physical formats — CDs and cassette tapes were printed by the tens of thousands, with excess stock periodically returned back to labels.
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They needed to get rid of the oversupply, but instead of dropping them in a high-intensity furnace themselves, they were shipped to China to be either recycled or completely disposed of. These unsold albums were generally marked by a cut on the edge of the packaging, or even the disc itself in order to prevent other retailers from selling them at market price. Despite their efforts to get rid of them, these albums instead opened a whole new group of Chinese people to international rock music.
A majority of these albums were rescued by Chinese traders, who resold them to the public at bargain prices. Instead of a true-blue black market, Chinese citizens were able to acquire new albums by Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and greatest hits collections by The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain and more for next to nothing.
While several CD copies were rendered unplayable by the damage, cassettes had the fortunate luck of having its packaging clipped, with its tape completely intact. People still tried their best to play through CD copies, missing out one or two tracks at most, but still eagerly participating in the alternative rock explosion of the 90s. This method also helped budding Chinese musicians to gain access to music from outside the country, and allowed music journalists to keep tabs on newer bands.
Titled Nirvana and Pulp: A Story of Scrapped CDs, filmmaker Kunlu Li interviews several listeners in China who were active in scouring for scrapped CDs and tapes to acquire new music from the new world.
Read more about the history of scrapped CDs here.
Watch the full 16-minute documentary here: