As China’s music industry grows,
Getting your music heard in front of millions through a high profile sync could be one of the most effective and direct ways of breaking artists in international markets. Take the Superbowl for example. An audience of over 100 million people listening to your song can usher in a massive windfall of new streams, fans and royalties at the very least. However, this audience nothing in comparison to over half a billion viewers watching China Central Television’s (CCTV) New Year’s Gala. As China’s music industry grows, the country’s television and film audience present intriguing challenges and opportunities for artists, publishers and record labels from the West.
I’ve been fortunate enough to learn more about TV in China from a director who has been involved in CCTV’s Spring Gala. I’ve learnt a lot about not just Chinese television, but also about some of the many cultural and institutional differences between the West and China. It’s these differences that could present the biggest obstacle for those looking to pitch music for Chinese film or television. However, before we dive in, let’s have a look at the potential that lies within the current state of the Chinese video and music market.
First of all, I’m sure we’re all aware of how massive China is, not just geographically but on a human level with a population of over 1.3 billion. Whilst just under 10% of this population could be defined as middle class, this is significantly growing alongside spending power and consumption of media and entertainment.
China is huge but a significant amount of it is rural. However, as you might expect from emerging markets like India, the biggest opportunities are likely to be found in China’s largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing. The spending potential of those living in cities and urban areas has increased dramatically. Over 75% of the urban population is expected to be defined as middle class in 2022, compared to less than 4% 20 years ago.
The growth and urban concentration of China’s emergent middle class has been fueling a very desirable growth in appetite for digital music, filling the void of the minuscule physical music market. This has helped develop the Chinese music industry from being the 14th largest market in 2015 to the 7th in 2018, growing at a rate 7 times faster than it was five years ago. Although this growth rate is unlikely to be sustained over the long term, if the market were to continue to grow at this rate then it could overtake South Korea and begin realistically looking at overtaking the European markets.
“The growth and urban concentration of China’s emergent middle class has been fueling a very desirable growth in appetite for digital music, filling the void of the minuscule physical music market. This has helped develop the Chinese music industry from being the 14th largest market in 2015 to the 7th in 2018, growing at a rate 7 times faster than it was five years ago.”
The overall media industry has also been growing and changing. Like many other major territories across the world, traditional television and advertising are being replaced by other means. Specifically, the largest growth is expected to be coming from digital advertising, OTT and video games. It’s also worth noting that alongside mobile devices, smart speakers are going to be an incredibly important part of the Chinese consumer experience with over 150 million home devices expected by the end of 2023. This could lead the way to more innovative and interactive uses of music, alongside typical forms of visual and interactive media.
However, coming back to China Central Television, we begin to see the challenges that arise in dealing with the Chinese market. The New Year’s Gala attracts a gigantic audience for the state-owned television station. In response to the influence that such a large audience brings, the state has been flexing its political muscles more and more over recent years and there are no shortages of what I’m sure many Westerners may see as overly strict rules. These rules can range from enforced lists of acceptable songs, the majority of which are traditional Chinese folk songs, strict caps on pay (even Jackie Chan would get a small fee) and exclusions for performers with what could be described as socially unfavourable backgrounds. In fact, the threshold for what is considered as indecency can even extend to dyed hair, having been shown before and after CGI of meticulously edited changes to one star’s hair colour.
There is always going to be an element of uncertainty around the political control of the state over audiovisual media in the country. Barriers to entry could arise not just for any artist, but any organisation associated with values that aren’t aligned with that of the state. The government of China also released an extensive statement last year to ensure that audiovisual and media industries were headed in the correct political direction, resisting vulgarity and promoting socialism. Methods to do this include but aren’t limited to abandoning glitz, focusing on frugality and refraining from high priced stars and extravagance.
Obviously, if these ideals are systematically enforced across the whole media industry then this could exclude many Western recording artists, as well as many Asian artists, from being involved in the Chinese media industry. Whilst this won’t eradicate opportunity for Western music, it does show a step in an undesirable direction for many Western organisations looking to promote and monetise talent in the Chinese market. This could especially be the case for possible sync opportunities and artists being seen on television. If organisations are representing artists that are the embodiment of excess and hedonism then opportunities may become increasingly hard to come by.
So it seems like China may not be the land of opportunity for artists like Tekashi 6ix9ine. In all seriousness, the influence of the state, as well as the collective Chinese culture, shouldn’t be taken for granted. As we’ve seen from the NBA’s recent debacle, a statement that may express values that resonate with a domestic Western audience could cause deep offence, not only to the government but to the people of China as well. The long term repercussions the NBA will face for speaking ‘out of line’, including censorship, cancelled sponsorship deals and reputational damage, could be an irreparable and monumental loss for the organisation’s international expansion.
The NBA incident sets a precedent that could lead to difficult decisions that many artists and labels may have to wrestle with in the near future. We have already seen plenty of artists take a stand regarding international social issues. For example, Lorde and Lana Del Rey have cancelled concerts and spoken out against Israel in support of the Palestine cause. However, the financial impact of these statements could be disastrous if it causes a whole organisation to lose opportunities and respect in China.
We can see China seems to have a somewhat stronger inclination to protect its society from media that isn’t aligned with its socialist values. This isn’t limited to its government as China and many other Asian nations exhibit a more collective cultural identity. This explains how one person’s actions, for example, a basketball manager speaking out about Hong Kong, could be perceived as an expression from the whole organisation, despite a person’s affirmation of it being their own free and individual expression. If artists take up social causes, as many of them do, and make a statement relating to Chinese politics, how will labels and publishers respond?
This brings us to quite an ethical dilemma for the music industry in regards to the value we place on free speech. Whilst seeking opportunity in what could potentially be a music market rivalling America by the end of the next decade, will we see global record companies and publishers censoring what is said by their roster? If one artist speaking out could destroy the opportunity for a whole organisation, how will companies respond in order to maintain their position in the country? How will companies even attract talent if artists become victims of situational censorship?
“Whilst seeking opportunity in what could potentially be a music market rivalling America by the end of the next decade, will we see global record companies and publishers censoring what is said by their roster?”
The reality is that these questions aren’t really anything new and are definitely not exclusive to China. You only have to look at Tyler, the Creator’s four-year ban from the UK to see that even countries that support free speech still have expectations of foreign artists to “respect shared cultural values.” It seems unlikely that organisations will actively censor their talent but that doesn’t mean DSPs operating in the region won’t. Although there was a massive backlash to Spotify’s hateful conduct policy, Chinese streaming services are unlikely to face the same kind of response in a Chinese market that is more accepting of censorship. Navigating a culture with so many differences, as well as institutions that seem to oppose expressions which many in the West would regard as ‘normal’, seem to be some of the biggest challenges and obstacles for the music and media industry. Artists will always want to express how they feel. Of course, this often applies to their political beliefs, which, in a globalised world, can encompass international politics. What organisations and the talent they represent may need to accept is that free speech can come with a cost in international markets.
“Navigating a culture with so many differences, as well as institutions that seem to oppose expressions which many in the West would regard as ‘normal’, seem to be some of the biggest challenges and obstacles for the music and media industry.?”
There may very well be more situations in the future, like the Hong Kong situation, that could challenge the moral view of artists and entertainment companies in the West. The challenge is that many consumers look for organisations to take a stand on social issues. However, there are inevitably going to have to be trade-offs for those looking for success in countries like China. The reality is that this is a challenging situation, especially when giants like Apple struggle to set out an effective social position that pleases anyone.
It seems only time will tell what the most effective way of dealing with China’s differences in culture and politics will be. However, this should be no reason to put people off exploring and understanding a culture outside of their own. If anything, it should give people more incentive to learn more and put themselves in the best position to help artists navigate international dynamics.
For any artist or organisation considering making moves in China, it’s vital to consider the political and cultural challenges. We can’t really explore the opportunity that China presents without covering these potential institutional issues, as well as others that haven’t been covered here such as the lack of broadcast rights or the general piracy rate across the nation, which Goldman Sachs placed at 90% in 2016. However, whilst it is easy to look at the struggles Western organisations may face, there are plenty of successes and opportunities in music and television.
Many Western organisations that have laid down the groundwork early have built strong partnerships and developed potentially lucrative opportunities for artists, publishers and record labels. For example, Cantara Global helps bring Western products to the Chinese markets, leveraging their partnerships with Tencent and JD as well as launching their own TV channel in 2016. The presence and influence of Cantara in China is a great gateway for those that are looking to minimise the risk of entering the Chinese market. They even help compensate for the lack of broadcast rights by ensuring artists get a broadcast fee.
Cantara is by no means the only company to partner with Chinese giant Tencent. Independent distributors Tunecore and CD Baby recently announced deals with Tencent that will allow their artists to be heard in China. Independent artists are gradually taking up more and more of the global market share of recorded music and these kinds of deals won’t do any harm to that growth. The biggest implication of this may be that independent Western artists could become a larger cultural force in Chinese media and maybe even bypass labels and publishers with direct deals. Inevitably, the most successful may even find their own sync opportunities and build partnerships with TV shows watched by millions. Remember, it only takes the likes of a Lil Nas X to upload a song through a platform like Amuse and become a viral sensation across the world.
Focusing only on breaking Western artists does a disservice to the incredible music China produces for itself. Warner Music Group’s acquisition of Gold Typhoon 5 years ago demonstrates one of the larger commitments to Western companies looking toward China’s catalogue of recorded music. As with most domestic markets, there will typically be more opportunities for Chinese artists within China than there will be for artists outside of the country. However, what acquisitions like Gold Typhoon represent is the opportunity for Chinese artists to make some noise outside of their homeland.
We only have to look at the past decade where the rapid rise of K Pop as a global cultural force shows the international potential for Chinese artists. We now have artists from South Korea, such as BTS, making a massive impact in the American and European music markets and collaborating with some of the biggest artists in the world. Western organisations, especially the major labels, arguably missed out on a huge global opportunity here. Independent record labels make up over 80% of total recorded music revenue in Korea, with Big Hit Entertainment being a great example of how independent Asian companies can become global players. Therefore, the biggest opportunities may not be to bring the world to China but to bring China to the world.
“The biggest opportunities may not be to bring the world to China but to bring China to the world.”
China presents a similar potential that South Korea did over a decade ago. However, the size of the country and projected growth of the market could even exceed this. Of course, institutional factors need to be considered. Especially since the Korean government actively sought to globalise their culture and media industries to recover from an economic crisis in the late 90s. It’s hard to see the Chinese government taking the same approach, but that doesn’t mean that cultural flow doesn’t happen.
In fact, we are already seeing great cultural partnerships from a variety of organisations within China’s entertainment industry. At an individual level, the work of Chinese music supervisor Fei Yu is a great example of cross-cultural collaboration between China and the West. Her company, Dream Studios, was founded in 2018 but has already become renowned for partnerships with the majors, Disney and also great composers such as Hans Zimmer. For example, Animal World is a Chinese film that topped the country’s box office last year. Fei Yu was the music supervisor and worked alongside American composers Neil Acree and Michael Tuller. Western actors like Michael Douglas also starred in the film and more projects like this could help take future Chinese blockbusters global alongside the involvement of Western artists and composers.
Larger organisations may find that these kinds of collaborations and partnerships are the most effective way to enter the Chinese market. DreamWorks founded Pearl Studios as a joint venture with Chinese Media Capital (CMC) and other investors to produce animated films in China. Although CMC bought out DreamWorks’ share of the company last year, the partnership still endures and Abominable, their first original with a story set in China, was released at the end of September 2019. At the time of writing, a month after release, Abonimable has taken almost $150 million at the box office. There will be more films and hopefully more successes to come, including upcoming films involving Master of None’s Alan Yang and The Greatest Showman’s Jenny Bicks.
These opportunities aren’t limited to massive studios and blockbusters. Smaller media companies are also finding their way into China. Cardiff based studio Cloth Cat Animation was commissioned by China’s Magic Mall Entertainment to make a kids TV show, Luo Bao Bei. The show has been a great success, being renewed for a second season and picking up a distribution deal from Netflix. If smaller independent studios can find success collaborating across the world with China then this could open up more opportunities for independent artists, labels and publishers. Companies may not even have to go to China to find placements if British studios continue to grow their partnerships with Chinese entertainment companies.
“As long as artists, labels and publishers are mindful and respectful of various cultural differences, hopefully, the relationship between Chinese and Western media organisations can continue to grow and flourish.”
It’s clear that the potential to explore the Chinese music and media industry is actually beginning to be realised as we speak. Though the market can certainly seem intimidating, especially the thought of navigating the various cultural differences and institutions, as with any kind of interaction with the world it’s seeing past these differences and focusing on shared values that enables great collaborations. Great works of art are already being made with teams from across the world within China’s entertainment industry. As long as artists, labels and publishers are mindful and respectful of various cultural differences, hopefully, the relationship between Chinese and Western media organisations can continue to grow and flourish.