There is an argument that people can be defined by the music they listen to. Whether this principle can be applied generally to a nation of people is up for debate. Nonetheless there is no doubt music plays an important role in society today through its ability to reflect or even create social conditions. So what does the music scene in China look like?
To answer this question and more, we caught up with an individual working in the heart of the Chinese music industry. His name is Jonathan Smith and he runs a consultancy/agency called China Music View, a record label called No Go Die records, and a music events company called The Syndicate.
chinaSMACK: Hi Jonathan, where are you from originally and how did you end up in China?
Jonathan Smith: I’m originally from Chester in the United Kingdom. I came to China for the first time briefly as a language student in 1999 and felt a very strong urge to come back, returning for good in 2003. I worked in marketing but also arrived with a hefty box of vinyl and plans to get stuck into the music scene.
You are currently the Managing Director at China Music View, No Go Die Records, and The Syndicate. A busy man. Can you me a bit more about each company?
JS: The Syndicate and No Go Die are two promotion outfits focused on bringing western DJs, bands and musicians to China, as well as working with the cream of home-grown Chinese talent. We’ve been running hugely successful events all over the country for the best part of a decade.
The Syndicate is focused on electronic music and is Beijing’s longest running nightlife promoter. No Go Die is a younger offshoot with a different musical focus, but both brands have sought to widen musical boundaries in China by bringing a diverse array of artists over.
China Music View was a natural extension of these two. CMV is an agency oriented towards Western record labels looking to make waves in China. Globally, there’s a huge amount of interest in China as a music hub, but very little knowledge of how to access the market or capitalise on the potential it offers.
China Music View was set up to support market entry for these labels, including marketing and brand strategy, music distribution and licensing, as well as production of concerts and tours via our existing network of venues. We’ve had a fantastic amount of interest, particularly in the UK. Using our existing brands as a platform for other Western labels to get a head start has proved extremely effective.
I also see you once worked in advertising, why the change to a more music-based career?
JS: After a range of in-house marketing roles I worked at a creative agency and discovered a real affiliation with the creative industry. As I think most people in that field would agree, combining commercial insight with creative passion on a daily basis is a really exciting prospect and I’m hugely grateful for the time I spent in that field.
Allied to that, music has always been an obsession for me. I started DJing at 14 and I’ve always dedicated a lot of time to discovering, promoting and working with innovative artists. Launching China Music View only really represented a minimal shift of focus, as I’m now applying the strategic and creative skills acquired in previous marketing and advertising roles to music labels rather than consumer products.
Interfacing with artists and executing China tours as one strand of a wider market entry strategy is incredibly exciting. It puts me in daily contact with exceptional musicians, eager audiences and brands that place quality music as part of their marketing initiatives. It’s a great position to be in.
In what way would you describe China’s music scene at present?
JS: In a word, promising. We’ve moved on from the days when the best domestic bands were simply regurgitated forms of big Western acts and Chinese bands are really finding their own voice. I think there’s a certain confidence in all areas of the arts here that wasn’t there a couple of years ago, as Chinese artists realise that they can lead instead of follow. The volume of quality acts is increasing and I’m more excited than ever when I read look at the major listings mags and websites.
There’s also a real hunger for Western acts. After bringing over a major act you can really feel the buzz, which filters down to local scenes in cities around China. In turn that widens the overall audience for live music here, which bodes very well for the future of the domestic scene.
How does it compare to that of Japan’s and South Korea?
JS: South Korea is certainly active but Japan has long been a major force. It’s the second largest music market worldwide and has been permanently open to artists from all over. If you compare that to China opening up in the 80s then Japan obviously houses a much larger scene that has had more access to a wider range of music.
Japan’s domestic talent constantly amazes me as the scene turns out top-notch artists across multiple genres: pop, reggae, rock, metal, soul, and so on.
China is heading much in the same direction and is doing so at a quicker rate than ever before. In the late 90s, punk and metal were pretty much your only options for locally-produced alternative music in China. Now you’ve got hip-hop, big-band funk, rockabilly, dubstep and a whole host of excellent home-grown DJs. I’m looking forward to the day that China and Japan are on equal footing in terms of musical diversity and proliferation of live gigs. It’s on its way!
To what extent do the other SE Asian countries’ music industries influence that of China’s?
JS: In pop circles, hugely. MTV China plus other major domestic TV and radio stations have long championed imports, from South Korea especially. Among the Chinese youth there’s a bit of a penchant for cutesy Korean products. That can be anything from clothing and makeup through to actors and bands. The squeaky clean boy band that can both croon and rap is hot property right now in China and I think that can be largely attributed to influence from Korea.
Wonder Girls is a recent example of a South Korean band going global (see above, or watch on Youku).
Also, everybody loves a good song here, so it really doesn’t matter if the lyrics are in Korean, Japanese or Thai. That’s a big difference from back home where you’ll only very rarely have a hit song that’s not in English.
Many would say that Lang Lang has succeeded in going global, but how hard is it for Chinese pop artists to take on the global stage?
JS: Cross-border success in the music industry these days is almost exclusively based on having an established marketing machine behind you, and one with deep pockets. This is as true in Europe and the US as it is in China. Given such a gigantic potential domestic market I think that there are relatively few organisations here that have focused their marketing channels on an international market, and perhaps understandably so. This could be one barrier to local artists making it big internationally.
Having said that, as China is the centre of sustained focus from the world’s media, it seems natural that major international labels would look to seek out Chinese artists for marketing internationally and perhaps we’ll see a global Chinese pop icon plucked from obscurity in the near future.
I don’t think there’s any other barrier than having a unique offering and grabbing the attention of the right people.
How big a problem is illegal downloading and even knock-off music CDs being sold on the streets in China?
JS: A few years ago it was bad enough for most of the major labels to give up altogether on making any revenue from recorded music. As for physical-format releases, I’d have a hard time telling you where the nearest legitimate CD store is, hence most people here are only able to access the artists they like through pirated CDs and illegal downloads.
Baidu has to shoulder a lot of responsibility for this problem as their mp3 search essentially allowed users to find almost any track they liked and download straight from their regular search engine. Due to lobbying from major international labels they’ve reined that in recently and offered a legitimate storefront. It’s hard to say just yet if that’s a brief PR stunt or a valid attempt combat the piracy that they did so much to foster.
However, there are many true music lovers that want music with proper metadata and decent sound quality, something that a Baidu search is very unlikely to offer. Storefronts like Wawawa, top100 and xiami are offering well-catalogued paid downloads and usage is on the up. Also, Spotify and other major streaming services have started to focus on China, indicating that measures used to combat piracy in the West might also be effective here. Access to music via mobile will be central to that movement.
What kind of music does the typical Chinese person love?
JS: In the clubs and on the radio there’s a lot of house-based pop, plus a fair amount of hip hop, which mainly targets the 18-30 urban demographic. Across the board there’s also a real soft spot for a good old-fashioned ballad and I’ve even found my club DJ friends belting out xingfu meiyou name rongyi (“happiness isn’t that easy”) on more than one occasion.
In CMV’s blog we post a monthly insight into what’s playing on the radio in China to help give a wider audience a feel for what’s being played here.
Who is more successful in China, domestic or foreign artists?
JS: 98% of music sold in China is by domestic artists. This leaves a lot of room for growth by international acts. On the live side, people obviously have more direct access to domestic artists, but whenever we bring over and promote a foreign act or DJ the hype is incredible, the gigs are packed, and the atmosphere is electric. We definitely count that as successful and it lays the groundwork for that artist to sell more effectively in China.
Who are the Chinese artists to watch out for in 2012?
JS: My personal pick would be Long Shen Dao (龙神道), an innovative Beijing-based reggae band. They’ve moved on from being an enthusiastic Bob Marley covers outfit a few years back to develop a unique sound of their own. I caught them at a couple of festivals over the summer. They have immense presence, weaving traditional Chinese instruments like the guzheng into their sets to great effect. They also really know how to write a song and are getting an increasing amount of airplay here.
In the same vein, keep an eye out for ChaCha. She’s a hugely versatile Shanghai-based MC that has been collaborating with a range of western electronic artists in recent times. She’ll turn her hand to anything, is superb on stage and exudes attitude.
What are your aspirations for the music industry in China?
JS: I think most people involved in the industry here realise the need to collaborate to some extent in order to stimulate and widen the market. Earlier I said that there are more and more people willing to pay for access to the music they love and that’s something we all have a responsibility to foster and make possible, whether in the form of paid downloads or gig tickets for less well-known artists.
I also have aspirations to tour the UK and Europe with a crop of my favourite Chinese bands and DJs in order to focus attention on the creative potential here. We’ll be doing the groundwork for that at the end of this year and then looking to roll out the first gigs in the first quarter of 2012.
What would you say to any young musicians living in China wanting to get into the big time?
JS: To be honest, it would be the same advice for any location worldwide. Being a talented musician is an exceptional gift, but you have to know how to market yourself if your goal is to continually reach a bigger audience. You need to own and develop your unique sound and network like crazy at every opportunity. It’s also vital to be extremely conscientious about establishing and maintaining a social media presence. Jia you!
Thank you Jonathan!