The following China digital music market profile - featuring a cameo from Outdustry’s Ed Peto - appeared in last week’s fortnightly Music Ally Report (highly recommended reading) and is republished here with permission.
New premium digital services bring hope in one of the world’s toughest music markets.
According to IFPI, recorded music sales in China totalled $92.4m (CNY 583.3m) in trade value in 2012 – a 35% increase from the $68.2m reported the year before, positioning the country at number 20 in the global rankings.
Digital saw a 49.8% increase to $75.5m, offsetting a 5.1% decline in physical sales to $16.9m and the market is split 82%/18% in favour of digital. Ads constitute the most significant revenue stream, accounting for 27% of overall recorded music sales, followed by mobile formats with 21%.
The fact that China still brings in under $100m in annual recorded music trade revenues remains a harsh reality, particularly given all the potential that has been attributed for years to the world’s most populated country, which grew its population to 1.35bn in 2012, and at the same time expanded its GDP by 7.8% to $8.26tr, as per CIA World Factbook data.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that Chinese consumers’ annual expenditure on mobile music, dominated by ringback tones, is actually estimated at $2bn. The problem is that mobile operators are known for taking the vast majority of revenues, sharing only 2-4% of retail value with rightsholders. With over 730m subscribers, China Mobile is the leading operator in the country, followed by China Unicom (239m) and China Telecom (170m).
China is infamous for its rampant levels of piracy, which the IIPA estimates at 95% in the case of physical formats and 99% for digital ones. Indeed, one of the biggest problems for the local industry is that Chinese consumers widely expect music to be free or extremely cheap. This is particularly so in the online sector where companies such as Baidu and Tencent have grown to be the titans they are today thanks in no small part to the provision of deep-linked downloads to unlicensed MP3s.
It was welcome news when, last April, composer, producer and TV talent judge Gao Xiaosong said that, as of 1st July this year, “the Chinese online music market will step into an era of legal copies”. Yan Xiaohong, deputy director of the national Copyright Administration of China, described the launch of paid services as “inevitable”.
Details on how this will be approached are rather limited, but services including Baidu Music, Kugou and Duomi have been testing “VIP” tiers, focused on the provision of higher quality audio and increased mobility, with pricing expected to be set in the range of $1-3 per month. Of particular interest is the fact that companies seem to be exploring the possibility of adding a live element, such as bundling priority access to gigs and festivals.
The final proposition/pricing for the new services remains unclear – and so are the implications for the industry. Ed Peto, MD of Outdustry (a company which specialises in helping Western companies to enter the Chinese music market) told Music Ally, “Most services are fairly cautious about the take-up projections for these premium tiers as there is very little precedent for people paying for music in this way.”
Perhaps more importantly, Chinese online companies have a long history of periodically introducing features or cutting minor deals with a few rightsholders in order to claim legitimacy while still conducting the vast majority of their music business on a basis of unlicensed content. “Whether they will do the bare minimum to satisfy contracts with content providers or really put all their efforts into converting users into paying subscribers remains to be seen,” stressed Peto.
Also of note is the acquisition of streaming music service Xiami by e-commerce giant Alibaba, which will see the former integrated with the hugely-popular online shopping site Taobao. In a country where monetising recorded music remains as challenging as ever for rightsholders, it is interesting to see a different approach to bundling – somewhat echoing the apparent intention of the likes of Baidu for attaching a live element to their new premium services.