CHINESE POP MUSIC INDUSTRY
The Chinese and Hong Kong music industry can draw a potential of audience of 1.5 billion Chinese in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Chinese communities in large cities around the world.
Sony Music Entertainment International, EMI Music Worldwide, BMG Entertainment International, MCA Music Entertainment Group, Polygram Holding Company and WEA International Services all want to get more involved in the Chinese market, promoting international recording artists and developing artists and markets in China.
As it stands now groups, musicians and singers on the mainland usually have to find an audience outside of China, usually in Hong Kong or Taiwan, if they want to make any money. In addition to being is infamous for pirated CDs and cassettes and China is also home to a music industry is notorious for ripping of its clients. Some artists make most of their money from endorsement deals.
According to an official report, Beijing alone saw 24,440 live performances for the year 2016, registering 1.7 billion yuan ($247.7 million) in box-office receipts and 10.7 million total viewers. Pop concerts accounted for 593 million yuan, the biggest category, followed by various dramatic arts, with 260 million yuan. [Source: Raymond Zhou, American Theatre (May/June, 2017)]
Chinese musicians that make money generally do so through Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies. One of the more flamboyant figures in the Hong Kong entertainment business is Albert Yeang. The head of the Emperor Entertainment Group, he is a friend of Jackie Chan and a tireless promoter who made millions fashioning famous pop singers out of nobodies. He drives around in a gold Rolls Royce and once paid a million dollars for a license plate with the lucky number “9.” eung survived a bold kidnaping attempt in central Hong Kong, owned part of a casino in North Korea and had several run-ins with the law. He spent nine months in jail for intimidating a famous jockey while he was recovering in the hospital and was forced to close down a magazine after he ran a semi-nude photograph of an actress taken after she was kidnaped. Once he was acquitted of charges of intimidation and false imprisonment after five witnesses who were going to testify against him said they couldn’t recall what he had done.
Websites and Sources: Inter Asia Pop interasiapop.org; Sinomania, with old postings but still online sinomania.com ; Wikipedia article on C-Pop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Cantopop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Mandopop Wikipedia ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com
Digital Music Industry in China
The Chinese music industry has been turned on its head by innovations such as digital music formats, the internet, and smartphones. In the place of LPs and CDs, several major digital streaming services now dominate. Chinese pop music expert Helen Feng told Sixth Tone that this form of music distribution is a “horrible user experience” that is “not community, not a person onstage, and not an object that you can keep on your shelf.” [Source: Kenrick Davis, Sixth Tone, September 1, 2017]
“I think the communities are also blowing up much faster, stars are created within those communities much faster, and then incidentally, the community dissolves — it becomes less relevant faster. All of these things happen at breakneck speed, where people really haven’t had the time to digest, or even to really cultivate culture.
“I think that the way everything is working now means that the discovery process is [declining] for everyone. When there’s too much information on one platform, everything gets centralized into what generates the most numbers, most clicks — algorithms start taking place, and then you have less. You actually have more resources and less discovery, less community. That’s essentially what’s happened here, what’s happening now with the digital revolution of music internationally.
I think the biggest challenge right now is that there’s a virtual hegemony in the way that music is distributed — in digital distribution. You have a couple of major players that are more or less moving with each other, except for maybe one or two on the sidelines. The way that the distribution works is just like in the West: Very, very little ends up trickling into the hands of artists — most of it stops in the hands of middlemen, the person who controls the data, the record company who gets the advance from digital streaming, etc. All of this music is being commodified in some way or another, but the community is being broken down in a way.
“And then there’s also the flood of back catalog. One thing that artists don’t understand is that all of the artists they love and [who] nurtured them as musicians are now their competition, because all the stuff that’s already out there is in the digital domain and is not really categorized. It’s all floating in the same universe of zeros and ones. And frankly, I’m not going to write a better song in my lifetime than many of my heroes. There’s already just so much good music out there on the platform — there’s too much volume. The only good thing is that because China’s music industry is relatively young, that back catalog is not very rich — not like the West.
Few People Make Any Money on Music in China
“China’s per capita spending on music is $0.15, only 0.7 percent that of Japan’s. One person posted on the Internet, “We didn’t pay for music, but we watched ads. I think it’s quite fair.” Another said: “I am appalled by those comments questioning why we should pay for the music we listen to. I know most Chinese have a low level of intellectual property consciousness, but it’s still sad to see that many people have zero respect for musicians and their works. They are not obliged to provide free music for you. Today, you enjoy pirated music and generations after us will have no good Chinese songs to listen to as a result.” [Source: Jiayun Feng, Sup China, September 14, 2017]
Jiayun Feng wrote in Sup China: Music tastes of Chinese individuals are very alike — primarily cheesy and insubstantial love songs with hook-laden melodies. Yet as the two comments above indicate, opinions are significantly divided (in Chinese) as to whether music listeners should pay for the products they consume, a poignant question raised by a recent report (in Chinese) from the Communication University of China in Beijing, which reveals the alarming status of China’s digital music industry.
“The report discloses that although the size of China’s CD market is roughly 1/26th of America’s, the list of countries with the biggest digital music market is topped by China, whose annual gross value of output reached more than 14 billion yuan ($2.1 billion) last year. Compared with the global music industry, where the number of listeners who buy physical CDs still stands at 34 percent, China’s music industry is overwhelmingly dominated by digital music, which accounts for a staggering 96 percent.
“However, the general inclination toward digital music consumption doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese listeners actually spend money on music products. One striking phenomenon mentioned in the report is that China’s per capita spending on music was only $0.15 (0.98 yuan) in 2016, which accounts for an astonishing 0.7 percent of its neighbor Japan’s. In addition, more than 52 percent of the survey’s respondents rejected the idea of paying for what they listened to on music apps.
“Due to the users’ unwillingness to pay, most music streaming apps in China rely heavily on advertisements for revenue. Meanwhile, the fierce competition among different streaming platforms and the lack of enforcement of copyright legislation caused the unchecked spread of pirated music products online, which had a remarkable negative impact on the income of Chinese musicians.
“But good signs for a healthy digital music market in China are emerging this year. This month, Tencent and Alibaba, China’s two largest tech giants, struck a music licensing deal that would enlarge the catalogs of both streaming services. Sixth Tone reports that earlier this week, a group of internet companies and record labels were gathered by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), which ordered them to “stop signing exclusive content deals, driving up prices for song rights, and using artists’ work without authorization.”
China’s Struggling Music Industry
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the The Guardian, “China's central government, concerned that progress in the country's film, music and drama sectors lag behind its economic development, has designated culture a top national priority and promised billions of pounds in subsidies for the arts. "Culture is the lifeblood of a nation," President Hu Jintao said at the start of the country's once-in-a-decade leadership transition in November. While some fields have flourished under state support – its output of films has quadrupled since 2003 – China's music industry is still fledgling, perennially constrained by rampant piracy and a stifling undercurrent of government control. While Gangnam Style cemented Korea's place on the world pop map, China is still struggling with how to keep many of its artists paid. "The industry is so small that we don't have enough writers, enough song creators, enough composers, we don't have enough bands," said Scarlett Li, the founder of music festival promoter Zebra Media.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, December 25, 2012 ////]
“Analysts say the music industry's problems are primarily economic. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has said that the country has a piracy rate of "virtually 100 percent". Yet many issues can be traced back to the heavy hand of the state. Television and radio stations are tightly regulated, giving artists little room to experiment with edgy content like the offbeat satire that propelled Gangnam Style's singer Psy to international fame. ////
“Rather than investing in talent, local governments frequently take cultural subsidies as a green light to build opera houses, performance arenas, and other high-profile property projects. "None of the money goes to the artists, it goes to middle men," Li said. "But the middle men are not at the centre of creating content. This makes no sense to me." ////
“The Chinese government has tried promoting folk heroes, with mixed results. In 2011, after a migrant worker duo achieved internet fame with a gruff cover of a Chinese pop song – think grainy mobile phone footage, empty beer bottles, cigarettes – the government invited them to perform at that year's spring festival gala, one of the world's most-viewed performances. But soon after their debut, the group caved in under the pressures of sudden fame and an unforgiving market. "People say that I shouldn't be using an iPhone because I'm a migrant worker," guitarist Liu Gang said last winter. "It drives me crazy." In September, Chinese media admonished Liu for driving an Audi and verbally abusing a pedestrian in a traffic dispute. ////
“International music labels are desperate to crack China's potentially massive market – Warner, Sony and Universal all have offices in Beijing. Yet for foreign investors in China's domestic media, the barriers to entry are sky-high. Take Beijing startup Rock the Web, an online American Idol-style talent show whose winners will record with A-list producers in Los Angeles. According to Ilya Agapkin, the company's Russian co-founder, gaining approval for the show was almost entirely dependent on his ability to navigate an intricate web of government contacts. "Of course, this area that we are working in is quite sensitive, because the media market is closed to foreign investments," he said. "The regulations are very complicated." Agapkin's team spent a year acquiring permits. "To be on the internet, you need a special licence. To be an agency you need a special licence. To be a culture company you need a special licence," said Xiong Jialin, the company's music director. Some of these licences require employees to attend classes and pass written tests at government institutions.” ////
Efforts to Improve China’s Music Industry
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the The Guardian, “Things are improving. Last year, the central government formed a committee for enforcing intellectual property rights laws headed by the vice-premier. Baidu Music and Tencent Music, two leading online free music suppliers, have agreed to begin charging for downloads at the beginning of 2013. China recorded £52 million in music sales in 2011, a rise of about 23 percent over 2010. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, December 25, 2012 ////]
“Over the past few years, there has been a boom in music festivals, multiple-day affairs rife with Converse footwear, neon-dyed hair and studded leather bracelets. Li said that despite their rough-edged aesthetic, many festivals are encouraged or even sponsored by local governments as a way to boost tourism revenue while increasing their cultural clout. The official presence at many festivals is unmistakable. Flocks of green-coated security guards stand by the stage and goose-step in formation through the audience. Many ban alcohol. ////
“Beijing officials have announced plans to spend more than 10 years and $2.3 billion turning the area into the "China Music Valley", a sprawling compound that will be home to recording studios, instrument makers, music schools, five-star hotels and an arena in the shape of a peach. The complex will be located in Pinggu village, an hour's drive from central Beijing, among Mao-era farmhouses and parched cabbage fields. Yet "Music is such an intangible kind of art," said Zhao Wei, a 30-year-old official who directed the initiative until last month. "Now with this project, we want to turn music into something that you can see, something that you can touch." ////
“Despite the odds, some artists have forged their own path. Yan Haisong, the lead singer of the veteran Beijing rock band P.K.14, said his band made a decent living performing at festivals and producing records for up-and-coming artists. Yan added that no one in his professional circle had much interest in projects such as the China Music Valley. "Combining music and politics is really strange, because the music you get out of it just won't be any good," he said. "If they really want to improve this culture, they need to open up a bit." ////
The Chinese version of “American Idol”--“Supergirl Idol” —has been enormously popular, attracting up to 400 million viewers, nearly a third of the population of China, with many of them voting for their favorites with text messages. The winner of the contest, Li Yuchan, who received 3.5 million text message votes ahead of 3.2 million for her nearest rival, became so popular she took the No. 6 spot on the Forbes list of China’s hottest and richest celebrities.
The sponsor of “Supergirl Idol”, the milk company Mengniu, saw it sales increase fivefold while the show was aired. “Supergirl Idol”, which originated on a Hunan satellite channel, was so successful that in August 2007 the Chinese government labeled the show “coarse” and shut it down. The crack down, Beijing said, was part its campaign against the declining quality of television programming but many think that it was really shut down over worries by the government that viewers being allowed to vote for favorites on a television show could lead to demands for democracy.
By that time American-Idol-style talent shows had became all the rage in China. By one count there were of 50 of them on satellite television at one time and dozens more on regular television. One of them, “Happy Boy Voice”, was criticized by the government in April 2007 for showing screaming fans and tearful losers. The show's producers was told to broadcast more “healthy” songs and “mainstream” clothes and to remove “vulgarity, weirdness and low taste.” A statement released by SARFT said, “The design of the show is coarse. The judges’ behavior lacks grace....The songs performed are vulgar.”
Russian Contestant Freed After Being 'Trapped' in Chinese Boy Band Show
In 2021, a Mandarin-speaking Russian contestant was relieved to finally be voted off a Chinese boy band reality show after lasting for almost three months. Ryan General wrote in Nextshark: “Vladislav Ivanov, 27, joined “Produce Camp 2021” by accident and repeatedly asked viewers to vote him off, according to Channel News Asia. The 11 contestants with the highest number of votes must form a boy band after the TV show concludes. The unlikely star made it to the final episode but failed to receive enough votes to become one of the winners. Ivanov, took to Weibo to express his relief. “I’m finally getting off work,” he wrote. [Source: Ryan General, Nextshark, April 28, 2021]
“Originally hired as a Chinese teacher for the show, Ivanov was urged by the directors to participate as a contestant due to his good looks, The Guardian reported. Similar to other idol-training shows that are popular in Asia, “Produce Camp 2021” isolated its contestants from the rest of the world to compete for a slot in a new boy band. Contestants were required to stay in dormitory rooms on a tropical island in Hainan province. After joining under the stage name Lelush, Ivanov reportedly wanted to quit almost immediately. However, participants who leave the show mid-season must pay a large fine, so the Russian teacher-turned-contestant decided to stay.
“Compared to the other contestants who showed more enthusiasm during their performances, Ivanov noticeably performed his singing and dancing half-heartedly. He repeatedly asked viewers to remove him from the show by voting him off. During one episode, he told viewers, "Don't love me, you'll get no results." In an ironic twist, Chinese audience members were captivated by Ivanov’s apparent disinterest. They kept voting for him up until the show’s final episode. Some fans have called him "the most miserable wage slave" and an icon of "sang culture," which refers to a defeatist outlook on life.
Pop Music and the Internet in China
Online music sites have become a major forum for new and rising talent. While radio and television are tightly controlled by the government almost anything goes online and anyone can get their songs published without censorship or restrictions. Some of China most popular song in recent years such as Mice Love Rice got their first airings online. There have been efforts to curb the industry after the national anthem was turned into a parody about stock investing.
At the end of the Communist Party Congress in 2007, an official with the Chinese Music Association denounced the “vulgur” pop music that was finding it way to China’s youth via the Internet.
In September 2012, Michael Kan of IDG News Service wrote: “Google is shutting a Chinese music search service that offered free licensed music downloads because it wasn't popular enough, the company said.The announcement came in a blog posting from senior engineering director Boon-Lock Yeo, who said the company was shutting down the service in order to focus on improving more influential Google products. [Source: Michael Kan, IDG News Service, September 21, 2012 ]
Google launched its free music service in China in 2009 as a way to compete with rival Baidu, which offers a similar service that makes it easy for users to locate free MP3 downloads. To provide the free music, the service relied on links to licensed downloads from the Google-funded Top100.cn, a Chinese online music provider that has signed licensing deals with various labels across the world. But despite the partnership, Yeo said in his blog, "the product's influence never quite reached as high as our expectations for it. Therefore, we have decided to transfer its resources to other products." "It's regrettable, and we feel sorry about the shutdown," said Gary Chen, CEO for Top100.cn.
“The company initially had high hopes for Google's music service, which when launched exceeded Top100.cn's expectations for user numbers and advertising revenue. At the same time, the service was also important in pioneering a new business model for online music, at a time when most users in China were downloading pirated songs over the Internet. "This was the first licensed music service in China," Chen said. "We were very excited that Google wanted to build a music search service that could completely change China's music piracy landscape."
“But since 2010, Top100.cn.'s site has declined in popularity, which Chen attributes to the shutdown of Google's China-based search engine. "We gave a lot of suggestions to Google," he said, noting that online music business was a politically safer option for the search giant to invest in. "There are also a lot of cases of companies using music to expand. Baidu has its MP3 search, Apple has its iPod and iTunes. They all used music to build up their services," Chen said.
“One of the suggestions Chen recommended included Google offering an Android-based music service for China. But despite the input from Top100.cn, Google never changed its strategy, Chen said, and instead has decided to focus its resources on other products. With the loss of Google's music search, Top100.cn plans on shifting gears and focusing on areas like China's mobile Internet space. But despite the company's struggles, Chen said Top100.cn and Google helped stop online music piracy in China by providing an alternative business model. Last year, Baidu also began paying record companies to offer licensed music, after years of facing criticism for hosting links to pirated songs. "More sites are providing licensed music downloads now. It's because we started this project, that this happened," Chen said.
Pirated Music and Its Impact on China
In the early 2000s, piracy accounted for nearly all of the music and CD sales in China. On the streets of Shanghai it possible to buy CDs by Western artists such Pink Floyd, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Sting, Leonard Bernstein, Bon Jovi and The Strokes for as little as 50 cents a piece. Local favorites, such as "Red Sun," a collection of popular Chinese revolutionary songs, are also available. At that time pirated music grossed $2 billion a year and accounted for 5 percent of the $40 billion global music industry. The pirated music trade is well organized and has ties with organized crime. China reportedly has 40 factories producing compacts discs, most of which are purchased domestically. The sale of CDs and DVDs, including pirated copies, increased from 63.4 million in 1994 to 80 million in 2000 to 109 million in 2001.
Jonathan Campbell wrote in China File: “Since its modern beginnings in the mid-1980s, the mainland’s music industry has been wracked by piracy. Chinese music sales are a mere sliver of the global pie. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says that ninety-nine percent of all music sold in China is pirated, and that China ranked twentieth in global sales in 2012, with $92 million. The United States ranked first, with $4.4 billion in sales. But, as with many other industries trying to reach China’s expanding consumer class, the music business is viewed as being off the charts in terms of potential, particularly because of the country’s voracious, and growing, appetite for digital gadgets and global culture. [Source: Jonathan Campbell, China File, November 1, 2013]
The effect of piracy on the music industry in China has been negative in less obvious ways. Record companies don’t even bother with traditional album style record contracts or setting up distribution networks and instead concentrate more on talent management and making money in ways other than selling recordings. New artists have to spend their own money to promote themselves because record companies can’t do it. Only 20 or so professional-quality albums were produced a year in China in the early 2000s. Star musicians make their money from appearances, live performances and endorsement deals. Concerts have become big promotions, with several artists sharing the stage so sponsors get the most bang for their money. An industry-created all-girls group called Mei Mei group had a two year contract with M&M candy before any members had even been selected.
The singer Wang Lee Ho told the International Herald Tribune, “Pirates have already killed China’s music industry dead. It frustrates my life and destroys China’s creative future.” Hohas shown up at promotional appearances of a traditional sword up to an oversized CD with the Chinese character for theft
An executive with Warner Music Asia told the International Herald Tribune, “There is no income from the royalties, so artist in China record single songs for radio play instead of albums for consumers. Stars need to look elsewhere to finance the rock-star lifestyle.”
Channel V and MTV
Channel V is an MTV-like, Hong-Kong-based all music network that beams mostly Hong Kong pop music all over Asia. Most Westerners find the music — much of it syrupy ballads — and the videos to be pretty boring. It began as a pan-Asian pay music television network owned by Fox Networks Group and was part of Fox's Stare television operation. Later Channel V was sold to Disney, who closed down in October 2021 as part of its winddown of traditional cable/satellite networks across Southeast Asia and Hong Kong in favor of Disney+
MTV Mandarin is MTV’s Chinese-language channel in China,. As of 2001, it was broadcast a maximum of six hours a day and reached 60 million homes through 40 or so Chinese cable systems. In 2000, 10,000 teens came from all over China to audition to be MTV veejays.
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin met with director of MTV. In the mid 2000s, MTV was lobbying for the right to broadcast 24 hours a day and access to the 80 million to 100 million homes with ordinary cable.
Image Sources: Fan blogs and websites
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2021