A shorter, edited version of this piece appeared in The Guardian under the title ‘Online Pop Explosion’. Please treat this longer, draft version as a separate article.
When unknown Chinese singer Yang Chengang wrote and recorded the song Mice Love Rice in Wuhan, Southern China in 2000, he would have had no way to predict it’s eventual impact. While the pop ballad languished in relative anonymity on CD format for four years, it’s eventual arrival on the recently booming internet in 2004 sparked off a word-of-mouth phenomenon that would ultimately peak with 6 million legitimate ringtone sales on China Mobile in one week as well as a rumoured 200 million illegal MP3 downloads within a year.
Once exposed to the powerful Chinese internet, Mice Love Rice and it’s exemplary use of instantly recognisable melody as well as inoffensive, syrupy lyrics - in this case a chorus that includes ‘I love you, loving you, just like mice love rice’ - came to define what is now known as a ‘wang luo ge qu’ or ‘network song’, a literal reference to the exponential spread of a song through internet networks. This process of musical ‘crowd sourcing’ has proven to be the paradigm of the modern Chinese musical landscape.
Song Ke, founding CEO of one of mainland China’s leading record labels, Taihe Rye, employs a team who use software to monitor the various chart systems and music networks around the internet, looking for songs that are ‘making noise’ and stepping in and signing them up once they have proven to be a crowd pleaser. The practice has paid off: a few songs by unknown artist Dao Lang were “making a lot of noise on the internet,” says Song “We got in touch with him, signed all his digital rights, put our new media marketing team behind it and sold 30-40 million ringtones in 2005 alone.”
Unlike in the west, however, this ‘democratisation’ of music success - where the web organically decides which songs reach the top of the pile, or at least the attention of the likes of Taihe Rye - has not led to a vast broadening of musical tastes. In fact, the chat boards, blogs, instant messaging systems and peer to peer networks that organically built Dao Lang and Mice Love Rice into hits have shown the opposite to be true. Instead of a range of defined sub-genres, the network effect has crystallized music into one much larger homogenous category, based on the commercial pop song style and format exemplified by Yang Chengang’s hit. The much-feted ‘long tail’ of alternative music and niche genres has, to date, failed to emerge.