The rise of indie music in China, and how China’s musical talent navigates piracy and red tape.
It’s around 11:00pm on Friday night at Yuyintang, one of Shanghai’s main live music scenes, and an appreciative crowd of a few dozen Chinese and foreigners cheer as Duck Fight Goose finishes its last act, a compelling blend of exotic synthesized harmonies and driving beats. After the show, the four members of the experimental rock group, one of Shanghai’s top bands, gather in a room on the second floor of the bar. “We all have to work nine-to-five,” says half shaven front man and guitarist Han Han, whose day job entails project management at an events planning company. Just as with most local bands in the universe, Han Han and his compatriots aren’t banking on making money from doing what they love. Their songs can be downloaded for a price, or streamed for free on Xiami.com, a popular Chinese music site. CDs are sold at the club entrance for RMB 30 a pop. Corporate sponsorship pays more, though still not enough to get by. “You cannot sell a lot in China,” says Han.
It’s a story familiar to most music producers in China—not just indie bands. At first glance, the industry’s revenue figures appear to paint a dismal picture. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) reports that in 2012, recorded music sales in the world’s most populous country, including both domestically and internationally produced music, totaled $92.4 million—far behind the US, Japan, South Korea, and even tiny Norway. The reason, in a word, is piracy: nearly 100% of all physical and digital music products in China are illegally copied, according to the IFPI.
China’s music business got off to a late start; pop and rock only began to take off on the mainland in the 1980s. As a result, the infrastructure that supports artists in the West never had time to develop here. “There was never a system in place to truly bust people for misbehaving [illegally downloading or copying music]. And they misbehaved in all sorts of ways, oftentimes in ways that didn’t seem, to consumers or others, like misbehaving,” says Jon Campbell, veteran of China’s music scene and author of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll According to a Sina.com survey, 83% of Chinese netizens aren’t willing to pay to download music.
Where’s the Money?
Chinese artists currently rely on other sources of income: live shows, touring, TV appearances and corporate sponsorship. According to Nathaniel Davis, Director of Operations at music promotion and consulting company Split Works in Beijing, state-owned telecom firm China Mobile “has been a strong source of revenue for a lot of artists through their numerous brand events across China, to the extent that a low-level pop singer told me once that China Mobile were his “parents” in the industry—they had raised him, fed him and given him a house over his head and wheels beneath his feet.” These brand events, Davis explains, consist of hundreds of small “fan” performances the company holds across the country each year, where artists perform for a local audience of China Mobile subscribers or VIP customers, as well as similar larger-scale concerts.
But state-sponsored music ventures are a mixed bag of infrastructure and events, a good portion unsuccessful by all accounts. Beijing, looking to boost China’s standing as a global cultural power, is planning a “China Music Valley” with a RMB 14 billion price tag in the city of Pinggu, the product of a joint venture with US-based concert-planning powerhouse LiveNation. The valley will supposedly be an oasis of recording studios, instrument retailers and music schools. Concert halls, opera houses, and theaters are sprouting up around the country, built by provincial and local governments trying to out-do each other as cultural centers. To that end, last year also saw a proliferation of music festivals, mostly paid for by local governments aiming to draw tourist dollars and burnish their image, with mixed results: Shanghai’s JZ Festival and Hangzhou’s West Lake Festival, as in years past, were lively hits, while Chengdu’s mismanaged Big Love drew bigger jeers than crowds.
With government-boosted events being hit or miss, Chinese artists rely on the internet for a more assured shot at exposure. Davis points out that China largely skipped the phase of selling music as a physical product. As a result, Chinese artists have long accepted the internet, more so than their American counterparts, many of whom have railed against the disruptions that the web has wrought. “Chinese artists embrace what is available. I would say most domestic acts and bands are extremely practical when it comes to finding ways to fund their music and their hopeful careers.” Among those ways are innovative apps and websites that offer new avenues for expression, as well as profit.
“Aspiring bands, rappers, singer-songwriters, electronic artists and so on have embraced online platforms like Douban where users can create their own artist pages and upload audio and video content,” says Davis. “Artists of every level are active on platforms like Weibo and WeChat where they can connect directly with their fans and build their fan base.” Vehicles like Xiami.com, a music streaming and subscription site, are helping funkier, more independent artists gain traction with audiences. The innovative platform YY.com, which offers a combination of social networking and amateur karaoke performance, may create new possibilities for artists like Echo Brother, a singer from Chengdu who wears a mask to conceal his identity. Echo Brother became a sensation on the website, which has 60 million monthly active users, and put on a concert in Beijing last year.
The rapid growth of digital platforms in China may be stimulating consumers’ willingness to pay for music, to which China’s large internet conglomerates are enthusiastically responding. Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, for example, are investing to gain exclusive rights to distribute music, through legal and fully licensed music streaming and downloads. At the same time, serious efforts to curb music piracy online by companies like R2G, a music distributor that purports to base its services entirely on fully licensed music where rights are secured, may be seeing results: “I think we will continue to see increased respect and compliance in this area,” says Davis.
In the realm of legal music, China Mobile looms large. The world’s largest telecom operator by subscriber volume offers an online service called Wireless Music Base (WMB) which partners directly with music labels and contains a vast library of licensed songs on its website, which users pay to download. Zhu Hong, General Manager of WMB, told local media in 2012 that the service generates billions of dollars of revenue per year and claims an 83% share of China’s wireless music market. But artists aren’t reaping the big rewards. Music producers earn RMB 2 in royalties for every RMB 100 in revenue generated by a song.
The mainland has yet to produce any globally famous names, except in the classical world with piano superstar Lang Lang and famed cellist Yoyo Ma. Cici Ye, a 27-year-old business analyst at a foreign company in Shanghai, who listens mostly to Western music, offers a straightforward explanation for this: because English is the global language. Davis meanwhile remains hopeful:
“Someone could take us by surprise,” says Davis. “There are certainly star-quality artists out [here].”
But star-quality Chinese artists have to clear government checks before ascending into the stratosphere. Davis describes how a bureaucratic approval system creates huge headaches for both domestic and foreign promoters of live gigs. “Red tape does indeed make it challenging for timeframes in getting shows on sale in a timely fashion,” he notes.
Then there’s the whole semi-freedom of expression issue. “Government regulation and censorship certainly play a role in hindering creativity and art and expression,” says Davis.
But according to Jon Campbell, it’s not worrisome to would-be pop artists “The pop stars that are selling big aren’t interested in anything remotely controversial, and so it’s not a concern,” he says. “And fewer rock artists are interested in controversy.” Authorities may not be too interested either: “Censorship is only as intense as the people doing the censoring, and most of the time, it’s not in their interest to care too much.”
Care or no, there’s a potential chicken-egg conundrum. Do artists veer away from edgy material due to censorship? Or do censors not care because there’s originally a lack of provocative music out there? If illegal downloads tell us anything, it’s that consumers are utterly unimpeded by “red tape”. Artists just have to find a way to meet the consumers where they are while putting food on the table.