In another office in Beijing’s trendy shopping district of Sanlitun, Hu Yiyou, vice president of Taihe Music Group (TMG), wrote four words on a whiteboard: talent shows, ringback tones (music that plays while the caller waits to connect), streaming, short videos.
“These are all the revolutionary trends Chinese pop music has experienced in the last two decades,” Hu said. He has worked in the industry just as long. “The traditional music industry has been challenged and disrupted nonstop for more than 20 years. It’s a result of the drastic changes in music distribution and promotion,” Hu said.
These changes include the decline of physical media like CDs and cassettes, and the waning influence of music radio and TV. Today, new album releases rarely make waves, even from established artists.
According to music critic Deng Ke, short-video platforms – with their collective user base of 888 million in China – provide the barometers for pop trends. “Audiences are always segmented. Some prefer songs rich in musicality, while many love cheesy songs. In the past, educated elites dominated the medium, leaving no votes for people who love cheesy songs,” Deng told NewsChina.
“There are distinct markets and segmented groups of consumers that have increasingly different tastes,” Hu Yiyou told NewsChina. “The reason is that the development of technology and mediums has led to vertical marketing and consumption. But pop music should bridge these growing gaps.”
TMG, one of China’s biggest record labels, is searching for that common denominator. Hu told our reporter that apart from scouting talent at live shows, the label combs Douyin, Bilibili and other video-sharing platforms for the latest viral stars. The company has its musicians and producers collaborate with popular online singers and influencers. One of its projects that wrapped in 2021, A18 Our Verse, includes 11 tracks by two artists from drastically different genres that aims to balance quality and popularity.
On track “Swordsman,” alt hip-hop group MiniG collaborates with pop singer Li Yugang, who is known for his cross-dressing performances and high vocal range. R&B track “The Golden Gaze” by Dean Ting, a singer-songwriter and producer with TMG who has worked with A-list artists like David Tao, Hebe Tien, Yoga Lin and Jackson Yee, that features Vicky Xuanxuan, a 15-year-old influencer with 1.8 million followers on Bilibili, one of China’s leading videosharing platforms.
“The audience determines what the top-10 hits are, but it’s our choices that determine what the audience hears,” Hu told NewsChina.
According to music critic Deng Ke, most record labels have restructured to survive the era of livestreaming and short videos. Some profit off their vast copyright catalogs or focus on content creation, while others cater to the fast-changing flavors of the moment.
But newer companies are proving much more agile.
Tian Tian is CEO of Nouveau Entertainment, a Tianjin-based indie music label founded in 2018. Tian told NewsChina that they deliberately chose the word “entertainment” in their name instead of “music” to embrace these wider trends. Early on, Nouveau encouraged its stable of indie bands such as Penicillin, Queen Suitcase, Peace & Wave and Summer Sunshine to open accounts on Douyin and Kwai.
“Many people think we focused on online content because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that’s not the case,” Tian said. “The thing is that the more popular you are online, the more results you see offline – this is the reality that future artists must learn to cope with.”
Tian said that Nouveau plans to collaborate this year with multichannel network (MCN) companies, which specialize in content creation for video platforms, to reveal his artists’ more relatable sides. “Imagine a guitarist who is a cool badass on stage but a caring father at home. He can make short videos of him feeding his baby. People like to watch that sort of thing. Perhaps later he even can even get a powdered milk endorsement,” he told NewsChina.