Thoughts on the Focus on China in the Music Industry

With countries like China and India attracting more attention for Western business it was encouraging to see the music industry also showing more interest with the Music Matters conference.

Although I’m not part of the music business, I’ve lived in China, Taiwan and South Korea and thought I’d throw my two pence in, because the culture and mindset is so different to the West and I think there are certain things to consider. For bands and artists seeking to make an impact and gather a Chinese following, there are some obvious positives:

<> Over a billion people. There’s gotta be some fans in there somewhere!

<> They’re getting richer. Hopefully, an emerging middle class means more spare cash for entertainment.

But it’s important not to be duped by companies or people painting it as some kind of ‘salvation market’ or fast track to success -especially when there’s money to be made in it for them. It may be a big market but my impression is it’s still a very difficult market -especially for Western style rock music. Here are some reasons why:

1. Selling music isn’t like selling beef, or French Fries or trendy clothing. In each culture potential music fans/consumers will have certain sensibilities (for want of a better word) that are open to some artists/genres and not others.

For example, it’s not hard to see that domestic pop music and pop stars dominate the music scene in Asia. Then some mainstream pop from Japan and the West is also popular -and particular bands have an impact like Air Supply and Bon Jovi, and of course stars like Michael Jackson.

But local indie rock and ‘underground’ rock has never taken off in China on a big scale despite Westerners testifying to a culturally rich and interesting scene in places like Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei. When I was there 5 years ago indie music was pretty much ignored by the mainstream media.

You can follow China Radar for info on the indie scene in China (as well as the high end promoters’ circuit –www.chinamusicradar.com)

So, if it isn’t a breeze for local indie bands who represent the grassroots culture, how much harder will it be for foreign bands who don’t fit in to the Chinese music industry’s ‘mould’ for a ‘hot act’?

2. Obviously there’s the language barrier.

Now that social networking is such an important part of how artists connect with fans, gather a following and market to them, how will you overcome the language barrier? Will that constrict you to only English speaking Chinese people? There are still plenty of those, and many students (which for indie bands, are the main supporters). But most of them don’t have much money.

And don’t forget, some social networks you may rely on for daily communication/blogging can’t be accessed in China.

The language issue may be a reason to work with a major label that has had branches in Asia for years.

3. Business wise, there’s also the cultural barrier.

Have you been reading the news? If you’re doing the business side of music, business in China is a whole different ballgame than in the West in general -possibly more so in music. You’ve probably heard it’s about connections -‘guanxi’… They have to be good connections, based on trust, and the only way to develop those is to do your homework, understand how the business culture works and go in for the long haul.

So those are my impressions. I’ve never made money from music in Asia, I’ve only played the local pub and bar scenes in bands or in open mic nights -I’ve seen some of the top local indie acts of the last generation (The Chairman, Wubai, Miserable Faith, bit of Tizzy Bac etc…) The only one that I get the impression makes any decent money from the music is Wubai and Chinablue but I could be wrong.

On an end note -Taiwan might be a good testing ground… Some Western indie acts seem to get a connection with that ‘sensibility’ that clicks with students, for example. I became a fan of Australian band Dirty Three because they toured Taipei. Cat Power have a following there.

Also, Taiwan could be more reliable for touring seeing it’s been developed longer than China. You might build good connections there to help you for tackling China later on.


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