There is a great (and very long) interview over at Shanghai 24/7 with Brad Ferguson. Brad has been in and around Shanghai’s nascent music community since 2002 and has variously managed venues, bands and gear production. You can discover more by going and reading the interview. There is also healthy debate in the comments section.
If we were to pick out one part of the interview that hasn’t been a focus of the commentary, it was Brad’s healthy dislike of the way music is being used in the corporate context. Brands are often one of the only sources of real revenue for struggling artists in China, and it’s a huge shame (and inevitable) that a less-than-transparent industry has emerged here to take advantage of the creators. Anyway, over to Brad:
BF: Yeah, so put up your Tiger poster and your Jagermeister banner or whatever, and then there is some benefit. I don’t see any of it as ‘selling out’; all these people should be getting paid, whether they’re getting paid by door sales or by a beer sponsor, to me that doesn’t really make any difference as long as they’re not getting screwed by the sponsors.
There are a lot of sponsors out there, and bands actually take these gigs, where they’re getting paid basically nothing AND they’re selling out – that to me is even worse. I get calls all the time from various marketing agencies who say, “We have such and such a brand and they want to put on a show and they want a rock band. We can’t pay much but you’re going to get a ton of exposure, there are going to be all sorts of photographers and media there”. In the beginning I’d try and be polite to them but recently there was one where there was a fashion show at Mao livehouse and they were offering to not pay the bands! They wanted bands to play for them for free! Basically saying there was going to be a ton of exposure because there would be fashion photographers there. I said, “Are the models getting paid? Is your company getting paid? Then why aren’t the bands getting paid? Why do you think music is worth less than walking on the catwalk? You’d pay a DJ to play a CD but you won’t pay a band to actually play their instruments?” It’s bullshit.
BF: I have another point to make on that – bands selling out for no money. All of the so called ‘record labels’ in Shanghai, with the exception of Zang Nan Recordings… All of them – Soma Records, Ako Studios – they’re all scams, they rip off the bands, they rip off everybody. They are all about making money for themselves; they’re not about music at all. In the west, the standard for an agent, manager etc. is a 10% cut of profits, or maybe even a 10% cut of revenue, but all these labels are taking 80-90%, They’re giving the band 10-15%. It’s wrong; they shouldn’t do that.
And with the corporate shows, basically what happens is that a brand like Dickies, they come and they say, “We want a band for this and we’re willing to pay 50,000 RMB”. For 50,000 RMB you can a pretty good band; the fees for commercial gigs are usually higher than for a night at Yuyintang, but there are really good bands in China who would play a corporate gig for 50,000 RMB. But they tell that to the ad agency and then their ad agency takes a cut. Maybe they cut it in half. Then the ad agency goes out to these so-called labels and they say, “We’re looking for a band and our budget is around 25,000”. Then the so-called labels, who often don’t have full contracts with the bands, say to one of their bands, “Hey you got this gig, go play it”, and they pocket the money and give the band maybe 1000 RMB.
I don’t know which is worse, but there is another kind of scam that happens. This is where the agency just calls random people, people who have band contacts but aren’t actually working as a label. The agency will ring them up and say, “Hey, I’m looking for a band and my budget is 25,000 RMB”. That person rings a friend and says that his budget is 10,000, and that friend calls someone else and says, “I’ll give you 1000 RMB to play”. By the end of it, the brand have spent 50,000 RMB, the band made 1000 RMB and the show’s going to be shit because the only band that will take the gig is a band that will play for 1000 RMB! And then everyone who sees that, from the brand or the agency, they say, “What? We paid 50,000 for this? But it’s shit! We should never hire bands anymore”. It gives music in Shanghai and China a bad reputation.
Then what happens is, they find out that the band only got paid 1000 RMB because they’ll just walk up to the band and ask them, then they find out that there are bands that will play for 1000 RMB, so in the future they’ll say they have a budget of 1000 RMB
This is something that we’ve seen in our own dealings here and it’s truly tragic that such a young scene is losing so much off the top already. The partnership is an important one: brands need music, artists need brands and both seem to need intermediaries to help with fit and context. What we need is honestly and transparency on both sides of the fence: the brand needs to know how much they are paying the agency, the artist knows how much the agent is taking. In that situation it’s win win.