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Chinese Pop Finds Its Voice
2004/10/27
Beijing has seen a rare flowering of pop music in its favourite season, the golden autumn.

A dozen popular singers from the eternally young Alan Tam, Beyond and Emil Wakin Chou to today's international superstars Jay Chou, Nicholas Tse and CoCo Lee, have held or are going to stage gigs in the capital.

Long-time stars such as Mao A'min and newcomers such as Zhou Xun have also released hit albums in Beijing.

At the same time, several pop music awards, including the MTV awards, Channel V awards and China National Radio awards, have all been presented in lavish ceremonies.

So what's the state of Chinese pop music beyond the seasonal boom?

During the 2003 Chinese Pop Music Forum in Beijing early last week, more than 150 pop music composers, songwriters and arrangers from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore met to discuss the issue.

They outlined the problems they faced and tried to explore solutions for a pop music industry that still suffers from backward technology and copyright piracy.

"It's the first time I've seen so many of my colleagues together since I entered this profession 12 years ago," said Yuan Wei-jen, 36, from Taiwan during the forum. Yuan is a singer, songwriter and producer.

The meeting was organized by Warner/Chappell Music Hong Kong Ltd and Beijing Century Huaxing Art Co Ltd.

International presence

In the international arena, the development of the pop music industry has relied on the solid growth of audio-video businesses.

Over the past decade, the big five labels in the audio-video industry - Universal, EMI, BMG, Warner and Sony - have established representative offices in China.

But even with China's entry into the World Trade Organization, it will still take some years before they can make and sell their products in the Chinese mainland market.

Song Ke, vice-general manager and producing director of Warner Music China, has nearly 10 years' experience in the industry.

According to Song, who received his bachelor's degree from Tsinghua University and master's from Texas A&M University, Warner China's business is split into three parts.

The first consists of importing albums through China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation.

The second is acting as an agent for record companies overseas, repackaging and producing their albums.

Finally, the company also works with Chinese audio-video companies to sign contracts with local singers and produce their albums.

Song acknowledged that Sony Music is the industry leader in China as it has already set up the first Chinese-foreign joint record company with its own publishing house in China.

Rampant piracy

But all record companies, from home and abroad, have to fight copyright piracy.

According to Song, very few albums sell 500,000 legal copies, because of the impact of pirated discs. If an album sells 10,000 copies, it is considered a sound return. Even 3,000 sales is deemed acceptable.

Yuan Wei-jen recalled that Taiwan singer Chen Shuhua (Sarah Chen) sold millions of copies of her album, "Mengxing Shifen (Time for Waking Up from the Dream)," in the early 1990s. Zhang Yu's 1992 album, "Yongxin Liangku (Meticulous Considerations)," sold 400,000 copies and one of Cheung A-mei's albums sold nearly 1 million copies in 1997.

"Only six years after that, even 50,000 sales would be enough for a company to hold a victory banquet," Yuan said.

The rampant piracy results from several factors.

A legal CD costs from 50 to 150 yuan (US$6 to 18) - a price considered too expensive by most Chinese pop fans.

Most local CD shop owners, especially those in remote rural counties, are unable to distinguish between legal and pirated copies. The cheaper, pirated copies easily find their way into local markets.

Some also claim State-owned publishers and distributors who could dominate the market are too lazy or lacking in ideas and experience to properly promote a new album.

Song said he often went to CD stores selling legal copies. "It is frustrating to see most salespeople know little about the new albums, let alone pop music trend," he said. "They cannot offer you useful information to help you make choices. Compared with those who sell cosmetics, electrical household appliances or shoes, CD salespeople usually do a much poorer job."

Zhang Chijun, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, pointed out the copyright law of China needs improvement to help check the piracy.

"The copyright law in China is far from perfect," Zhang said. "It's difficult to enforce certain rules on some specific cases."

Zhang said the media should educate music fans, who often know little about the industry beyond the music they listen to, about copyright.

Online invasion

But piracy is not the only problem that plagues the Chinese pop music industry, the participants acknowledged.

MP3 downloads are challenging the traditional concept of an album. If people can freely download the music they want and create their own "albums," why would they buy CDs?

And the system of royalty payments also needs revamping. The incredibly low royalties paid badly hurts the record companies as well as the songwriters.

According to Song, if a 10-song album sells 100,000 legal copies, the record company is likely to earn 40,000 yuan (US$4,831), so every song is worth only 4,000 yuan (US$483).

"The poor returns do not encourage us producers to work on an average album," said Song.

Composer and arranger Zhang Yadong said:"Many of my friends and I have written dozens of hit songs in the past decade, but the payment is discouraging." Zhang has produced hit songs for Faye Wong and Chen Lin, among others.

And, finally, the music itself poses the biggest challenge.

"We are not short of talented songwriters and the potential market is large, but we have no really good songs and singers," said Song.

Chinese pop music is narrowly defined. Love seems to be the only theme and fans judge singers by their appearance and love lives rather than their music, Song said.

The mass media may be responsible for focusing too much on the sensational. "I think it's their responsibility to guide the average fan and recommend good music, but they fail to do that," Song said.

To some degree, the media, especially the Internet, are failing music fans. According to Song Ke, 80 per cent of most reports or TV and radio music programmes have nothing to do with music, but the singers' personal lives.

Hong Kong producer Patrick Tsung said he entered the industry an idealist 20 years ago. But now he is disillusioned because of how good-looking "idols" have been turned into "superstars."

Tsung also pointed out: "The market and the trends change so rapidly. Pressed by time and sales figure, the songwriters cannot produce a song to their hearts' content."

Yuan said the best days for Chinese pop music were in the 1980s and 1990s.

Every year, people could discover a few songs that gave "voice" to their hearts.

Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the pop music industry in Asia. Yuan said he was inspired by Lo Ta-yu and Jonathan Lee when he started singing folk songs in Taiwan's pubs at the age of 15 or 16.

Although the pop music scene is not as encouraging now, Yuan said he is still confident about the musical talent in China.

He said newcomers such as Jack Chou and David Tao are leading the way, combining R&B and other Western styles with Chinese pop music.

The pop music industry needs people with passion, talent and innovative ideas. And most of the forum participants considered prospects for pop Chinese music bright, even though they acknowledged the road ahead would be tortuous.

Jonathan Lee, a 45-year-old veteran producer, said: "Pop is a serious thing related to culture. As we learn of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and other styles from the West, why not create something familiar to our own ears?"

Lee said he once dreamed of making the Taiwan-based Rolling Stone Record label he signed onto for 17 years into the sixth biggest in the world.

Though he did not achieve this goal, he has never given up his pursuit for excellence in the industry.

"I would no longer be satisfied with making a best-selling album of my own or writing some songs to help an outdated singer get hot again," said Lee, who has moved to Shanghai with his family from Canada.

"Instead, I want to produce some pop music different from the Western standard and featuring Chinese characteristics. I need to know about traditional Chinese culture as well as getting more resources from my counterparts on the mainland.

"That's also my hope for all Chinese musicians. Otherwise, what pop culture can we show foreigners in 2008 when the world focuses on China during the Olympic Games?" Lee said.

Zhang Yadong shared Lee's views. "Jazz and R&B are not something in my blood, though I could use them in my music," he said.

"Growing up with traditional Chinese music, I prefer to write music with our own flavour."

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