The Media Needs to Get Smarter When Talking About Chinese Music

Fans at the Echo Park Music Festival in Shanghai.

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Fans at the Echo Park Music Festival in Shanghai.
Fans at the Echo Park Music Festival in Shanghai.


Let’s play a drinking game.

Take a look at this article.  Or any of a recent rash of articles complaining about the size or vagaries of the Chinese music market.

Take a shot every time you come across:

  • The phrase “rampant piracy”, used as a magic wand to explain all the problems in the Chinese market, without going into digital distributors and in-house content farms or licensing deals as bargaining chips – part of a complex series of trends informing the music landscape today.
  • The phrase “untapped potential”, used without qualifiers to express the hopes of music executives everywhere, without going into the role of government oversight, shifting models of royalty reporting and accounting, and in this truly bizarre article, awareness of the concept of purchasing power.
  • The words “bleak” or “police state” or shoutouts to dissidents even when they have nothing to do with the industry issue at hand.

The western media needs to smarten up when talking about Chinese music. Recent coverage of the industry specifically, or even articles that reference the music business tangentially, have taken to recycling the same clichés, images and names.

So we’ve come up with a simple four-point checklist. This is the bare minimum western media articles can do to cut through some of the noise when talking about Chinese music:

  • ONE – Talk to at least one local expert.
    Whatever insight new information may offer, such as the flawed Nielsen survey earlier this year, is often taken at face value with no input sought from local experts or those in the know. Both the Quartz and BBC articles have no Chinese experts quoted, choosing instead to paraphrase Mick Jagger and Elton John on political repression.
  • TWO – Try to mention some of the many positive trends in the market, or the many instance of actual “potential” being tapped.
    There are massive success stories here – The Voice of China (and other similar shows) becoming a bona-fide phenomenon (providing a huge boost to indie songwriters like Song Dongye, or bands like Hanggai and The Hormones), music festivals booming (with over 50 summer festivals counted last year). Live streaming becoming commonplace (you’ll see a man with a funny sling camera at every gig these days), and witnessing tons of innovation. Pop star MIKA’s recent China tour (put together by our sister company Split Works) was streamed online by Tencent , and has racked up over 3m views since then. There are massive investments being made in VR, which could lead to some exciting places.
  • THREE – Piracy is not a “barrier” or cultural characteristic. It is an entrenched structural flaw.
    It’s the same rule as anywhere in the world – if pirating a piece of music is easier than jumping through the logistical hoops to acquire it legally, the choice is a no-brainer for most people. China is far from an advanced economy in terms of purchasing power and income per capita – music cannot be a significant chunk of people’s incomes. That said, the music distribution market in China is in constant flux, and there are interesting moves afoot that both inhibit and encourage piracy. Read up on licensing deals and alternate modes of distribution.
  • FOUR – Economic factors are not the only judge of “value”.
    When complaining about the “size” of the market here, don’t jump the gun and say music has no value in China. It has very little economic value, yes. But music is valuable in many other ways – as the reflection of a disenchanted generation, as a magnet for creative and independent types all over the country, and as the vanguard of emergent culture from what, by some measures, is the world’s largest economy.

Music in China, when you move beyond economic value, has a deep and exciting presence. But when talking about Chinese indie and alternative music, don’t dismiss them as mere imitations or facsimiles of western bands and categories. Remember that the music evolved out of uniquely Chinese conditions, and is produced in response to, and in defiance of, Chinese stereotypes.

This is a complex space, one we’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to decipher. A single story will barely scratch the surface, but looking even just a little bit deeper will make your story more interesting, not less.

There’s a million stories still waiting to be told about this place. The recycling of the same clichés isn’t just a disservice – it’s downright disappointing.

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