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The China Music Market: Rewind and Fast Forward

By Hans Ebert

As usual, when everything else fails in the music industry, those in the business of trying to prop it up and seeing where the money might be, look to the China market.

It reminds me of the early 2000s when some of us at EMI Music’s Regional Office perpetuated the mantra that China was POTENTIALLY the largest music market in the world. Say it long enough and passionately enough at worldwide music conferences and everyone starts believing in it and want a slice of the abalone.

Trotted out would be the number of bicycles in Beijing- Katie Melua even recorded a song about this- and how many people in the country had switched from land lines to mobile phones and, therefore, the potential to sell music.

These were probably the first signs of the numbers game and played for very big stakes. It was a fun and exciting game to play as it just could be true and being next door to the motherland and knowing how it worked, it put you in the driver’s seat.

From once being taken for rides in rickshaws, we were now driving Lamborghinis.

Bamboozled by the numbers and What If? scenarios painted, head office, artists management and others seeing dollar signs in being part of this POTENTIALLY biggest music market in the world bought into the dream that was concocted.

Of course, this dream was created through smoke and mirrors, then adding extra value to shaky wavy gravy music companies by bringing in artists management, content providers, the movie business and executives with “brand names”. Some published, some perished rather quickly.

All this was packaged and sold at the right time for huge profits to those who were queuing up to be part of the burgeoning new entertainment industry in China.

They also cashed out before the bottom fell out.

Timing was everything. Still is though time is tight, and though some might disagree, the bowl of char siu fan is almost empty.

Was there ever really any future in the music industry in China?

If focusing on the Chinese audience on the mainland with the right artists- Chinese artists with marketability and smart A&R people behind them- yes. And good A&R is hard to define. One either has it or doesn’t. It cannot be learned.

For those international players who believed that their successes in the West would automatically open doors for them in China were in for a rude shock.

Those controlling television stations in Shanghai, Hainan and the powerful CCTV, didn’t care about what they had done somewhere else. It wasn’t China. They hadn’t even heard of many of these “gweilos” who would waltz into China expecting the red carpet to be rolled out. They were met with great inscrutability, Grasshopper.

Still, these foreigners wanting so much to enter the Middle Kingdom offered some an opportunity to sell themselves as “China experts”.

Many sold themselves as having the right connections in China with radio, television and sponsors. But when it came to deliverables, these were always thin on the ground.

There were, gawd knows, many embarrassing meetings I attended and plenty of expensive dinners. The Martel Cordon Bleu flowed and female company was never in short supply. Despite all this show and tell, nothing came out of any of these projects other than many hangovers and seeing very similar ideas discussed, especially when it came to television programming, quickly produced and screened with no respect for copyright laws. Same when it came to selling music.

While having meetings with “the China team” about the release of a new international release, a pirated CD of the same product would already be on sale in the streets of Beijing- with added discs.

Despite staged attempts at stamping out piracy, it was just showbiz and fodder for the international media.

It was no surprise to see 4-5 Beatles and Elvis pirated compilations sold for around US$2. Us? We couldn’t even get internal approval to get us to Old Kent Road with an official release like this.

In a nutshell, there was plenty of stupidity mixed with dollops of corporate arrogance going around.

Ironically, while the above went on openly in China, there was strict censorship- like taking around three months for an international record release to be approved or rejected.

Before we released the 40 Licks greatest hits package by the Rolling Stones, four tracks had to be removed. We never told the band nor management as there was no reason given for the bans. Today, this China Only release of what is actually 36 Licks is a collector’s item.

For the Stones’ first ever concert in China which was in Shanghai in 2006 at the 8000 seat Grand Stage Theatre- the band later played Shanghai in 2014- their set list had to be submitted months in advance for approval by the Ministry Of Culture.

Five songs were cut- “Beast Of Burden”, “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Brown Sugar” and “Rough Justice”. “Street Fighting Man” got through.

It was a minor miracle that a special guest at the Stones concert was Cui Jian, the “dissident” singer-songwriter who was banned from performing after recording what became the anthem for the students revolution that ended at Tiananmen.

His reappearance at the Stones concert was probably a public relations exercise by the government to perhaps show “tolerance”. Who knows?

Bob Dylan performed in Beijing in 2011 and that performance and what he sang and if he towed the Party line is still being debated. It’s 2021, and who really gives a flying f**k?

It’s like today and all the talk about what’s happening in Hong Kong. Who knows? And if it’s become unbearable and one can leave, exit, stage right.

The fact is that the future of Hong Kong is in the hands of China. This is a given.

Who knows anything about what those in Beijing are really thinking about the role of this city?

As for the entertainment industry on the mainland, other than a thin veiled announcement recently about the government wanting to see less “sissy” artists- something aimed at the K-Pop-inspired industry that’s caught on in China- there really doesn’t seem to be a helluva lot happening or being discussed.

There’s apparently a booming EDM scene in Shenzhen. Who knows whether this is true, and if it is, for how long it would be permitted to continue before falling foul of the law?

Of course, The Curse of Covid has put most of the world on hold and this includes China. Planning tour dates can always take place, but...

Simon Napier Bell was the first person I know who put Mainland China on the international music map and consciousness.

This was when he drummed up a helluva amount of publicity by taking an unknown duo called WHAM to the Middle Kingdom.

I interviewed SNP when having an entertainment column in the Sunday Post and found him to be a savvy manager and marketing man.

He was in Hong Kong on a holiday and talked about WHAM, his other band Japan, and book, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. This was autobiographical and with the title based on the English lyrics he had written for the Dusty Springfield hit song of the same name.

Touring China was never easy and seldom profitable for international acts.

Like Simon Napier Bell did, it was more of a public relations exercise than anything else and a business write off somewhere down the line.

Think the Stones and Dylan made money through their concerts in China? It was good to have on their portfolios.

Truth be told, little known Danish band with the unlikely name of Michael Learns To Rock and Croatian crossover classical pianist Maksim were far more financially successful in China.

Why? The music, the overall package and constantly touring the country. One can only guess that this touring showed the government a certain commitment to the motherland.

Kelly Rowland, formerly with Destiny’s Child, was always touring China and a far more popular name there than Beyoncé. Smart management. She could go up and sing the hits of Beyoncé and no one would know the difference.

It reminds me of a Filipino friend mentioning performing at a club gig somewhere in China as a former member of Westlife.

Today, it’s still about television singing competitions, but the interest levels in these karaoke shows for the masses have waned rather badly. Just as in the UK and the States, scams and little lies have been revealed.

Remember Jessie J appearing on one of these shows some years ago?

Open to established artists, she won the competition named “Singer” with a bombastic version of a Whitney Houston hit.

The plan was to tour China on the back of that television success. According to some in the British Pop press, the finale alone which she won was watched by over a billion people. Maybe...

As for the tour of China, did it happen? No idea except for a couple of shows in Shenzhen where many perform just to have China on their portfolios.

Did any of this lead to anything? No. Jessie J’s journey into The Middle Kingdom ended abruptly. It was a quick fade.

At least with Maksim, promoters and artists management know what they’re getting and exactly where they stand.

With pretty much everything everywhere at a standstill, perhaps now is the perfect time to take stock.

All the deal making looks to have run its course. It could be time to take a breather. Hurtling headfirst into where everyone else is and what everyone else is doing leads nowhere.

Staying with where this started, is there a role for entertainment in China?

With its population, only a fool would say there isn’t.

The big question is when normal transmission resumes, how “normal” this will be and how ready we are for the new abnormal.

China will always huff and puff. Often, it’s false bravado to do with trade talks and show whose wang dang doo is bigger.

Entertainment will always be here. Audiences will demand it.

Talking with friends in the entertainment business over dinner, the discussion turned to the recently released film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings” that stars pretty much an all Asian cast led by Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Leung.

To describe this film as being “groundbreaking” is easy.

What “Shang-Chi” does is point the way forward. It shows a commonality amongst audiences and also the need for entertainment that brings together music with film, storytelling, history, gaming and fantasy.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s now time to strengthen this chain.

Without trying to second guess or kowtow to China, it’s about offering entertainment that acknowledges the Middle Kingdom and introducing Chinese Super heroes.

It’s working with people like the Marvel Comics brand, but giving it something it doesn’t have. Bruce Lee should have been a Marvel Comics Super Hero decades ago. It’s still not too late to bring him back, but one very much doubts that his Estate would approve this.

Around a decade ago, James Cameron captured the imagination of audiences in China with “Avatar”.

Much was anticipated, but little happened despite the backing of the Chinese government. The 3-D technology became the idea- and the idea got lost in the clutter.

Moving forward, using “Shang-Chi” was a blueprint for the future makes business sense. There are plenty of different business streams.

Worked effectively, it could achieve something badly needed: elevate the image and add extra value to music.

Another thing: the word “potentially” might finally be dropped and China could very easily become the new Hollywood. Or at least, Hollywood’s greatest asset and most important partner.

If not a gamechanger, it’s time to change the game.

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