NOTE : This article originally appeared as ‘Music In China : The Inside Story’ on The Register
How To Do Business In China, China CEO, The New Chinese Consumer… my shelves here in Beijing are stacked full of such books, all trying to throw some light on a country and market of seemingly endless allure to the west. A population of 1.3 billion people has marketeers around the world girding up their loins to do business here, each with a How To Do Business In China book tucked under their arm.
Unfortunately for the western music entrepreneur or artist, these books are helpful in only the most general terms. While there is a slew of practical, detailed advice on how to deal with rubber-ball factories and sales chains, the fledgling music industry here is such a bewildering state of affairs that fully-rounded advice simply isn’t available yet.
As in most other Asian markets, pop music has a real stranglehold over the mainstream - Mando-Pop, Canto-Pop, J-Pop, K-Pop - glossy, inoffensive music that satisfies the censors as well as the ‘bland criteria’ necessary for across-the-board media coverage. Despite the diverse musical heritage of China, mainstream pop is almost entirely informed by western music, from the basic pop song format through to instrumentation and lyrical content, although general production quality is still fairly poor. The Chinese audience, therefore, are already well familiar with all of the stock traits of western music: Guitar solos, crap raps in the middle-eight of pop songs, warbly diva vocals, key changes at the end of ballads, pseudo-rock bands, pseudo-hip-hop bands etc.
Your average western band, therefore, does not sound totally alien, it’s just that no one is willing to spend money promoting an international (and therefore niche) act when 90 per cent of CDs are counterfeit and an even higher percent of online music is pinched. It’s all about hitting the mass market straight out of the box and selling big, if you want a chance of making money.