Another Reason the Long Tail Doesn’t Exist in Chinese Music

Beneath Kerry Center Beijing

I love the smell of fresh paint in the evening

1625 hrs.

Beijing music promoter Ed Peto posted a superb article on OUTdustry a few days ago that dissected the way the Chinese music business develops hot new artists.

They don’t.

A&R, Chinese Style

They use homemade monitoring systems to identify the songs that are getting the most play and illegal downloads on the Internet. When they see that they already have a hit on their hands, they swoop in, sign the artist, and promote the hell out of the ringtones.

Ed believes, with some justification, that this has led to the homogenization of music in China. We don’t have a host of genres, sub-genres, and the like. What we have is millions of people all listening to the same straight-up-the-middle stuff. Ed sees a bad moon rising:

“What has resulted is a kind of echo-chamber effect, in which only the low common denominator, crowd-approved pop music is fed back into the network through these curated bottlenecks. The priority of the Chinese labels is to please the network and make it into these bottlenecks, not push musical boundaries forward, as failure to make it into these top strata of recognition brings with it a hefty price. As one of the only other major sources of industry income, brands focus the bulk of their sponsorship monies on the highly viable hit artists, compounding the relatively anonymous non-chartees to further suffering.”

Ed makes a convincing case, and no doubt this “echo-chamber” has a lot to do with the vast differences between the Chinese and foreign music industries. And the part of me that believes that a healthy diversity of acts and a great talent scout (known in the biz as an artists and repertoire, or A&R guy) is the key to success in the music business wants to believe he is right.

I’m not gonna try it…

But the not-so-hidden hand of opportunistic moguls is not the only factor at work in China. First, it is essential to step back and understand the consumer behavior on a wider stage. China is an insanely referential culture, which means that people – especially young people – make consumer choices of all types in large part because of the social implications of those choices. You pick your music, your phones, your clothes, your shoes, your hairstyle, and make dozens of other choices in an effort to be a part of a group.

Making choices outside of the set “norm” in your peer group is risky behavior. At best, you will be the recipient of some serious ribbing, and at worst you will be shunned for making an errant choice.

Not too long ago, I asked my nephew why he used a certain brand of mobile phone. He told me “sure, I hate the way it looks. The quality sucks. But everyone else in my dorm owns the same phone, and if I go and buy another brand, people will give me a hard time. Worse, if it doesn’t work, I look like an idiot in front of everyone.”

Thus it is with music. Young people – insecure beasts in any culture – are in China constrained more by fear of being wrong than by discomfort with conformity.

Too young to know

Second, some historical perspective is in order. If you have seen the movie School of Rock with Jack Black, you might remember a blackboard diagram his character drew laying out the evolution of rock music. If you don’t remember, click this for a fast look.

Done? Good. I’ll continue.

What you will notice is that the diverse, multi-genred and sub-genred American music scene was by no means always thus. In fact, if you go back as recently as the 1940s, popular American music was a pretty monotone place. Classical, jazz, ragtime, big band (swing), and country was about as diverse as it got. Any given city had maybe half a dozen radio stations, and there was a lot of sameness in the programming.

Sounds like China today, huh?

Back to the U.S. in mid-century. Pop music grew up in the 1950s, folk came to the fore, country began to diversify, and rock-and-roll hip-thrusted onto the scene. Sometime between 1955 and 1963, an explosion in diversity and variety took place, both feeding and being fed by a generational shift and political and social change. Nearly a half century later, we have as many types of music as there were popular acts when my parents were kids.

A little perspective is in order. China’s music business is young, China’s youth culture is just beginning to evolve into the socially sanctioned “rebellious period” we know of in the west.

And remember – China is but three decades removed from the largest spasm of enforced social conformity in the history of the human race, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For centuries, if not millennia, you excelled in Chinese society by being redder than red or more Confucian than Confucius. The rebellion, the urge to non-conformity, thinking in a way that deviates from the norm has not been beaten or bred out of the Chinese, but it is going to be a while before young people allow those urges to bloom enough that being different will be cool. And it is the coolness of difference that nurtures diversity of tastes and behavior.

It is against such a background that true musical diversity will bloom. And when that happens – just as it happened in the west – the suits in the music business will have no choice but to follow.

The Dragon’s Longer Tail

The change could start literally at any time. The early signs of it are there – not least of which was 25,000 young Chinese singing along with Linkin Park at the top of their lungs in Shanghai last year, plus a growing club scene, and the falling cost of composing, producing, and uploading your own music.

What China needs more of is Ed Peto. I’m not calling on the nation to clone one passionate Englishman. Rather, I think the time is quite near when a small but passionate group of young Chinese and foreigners are going to kick the Chinese music scene into serious overdrive.

China’s rich music heritage meets the world’s music meets a quarter of a billion kids who just wanna have fun.

The mind reels.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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