Marketers, Musicians Could Make Beautiful Music Together

P.T. Black From Shanghai

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Luo Qi, the chisel-jawed bassist of Shanghai metal band Underground 2.0, asked me a tough question last week. "How many foreigners listen to Chinese music? Name me one Chinese musician with credibility in the West. And Lang Lang [the classical pianist] doesn't count."
P.T. Black is a partner in Jigsaw International, a Shanghai boutique lifestle-research agency that looks at the direction of change in China.
P.T. Black is a partner in Jigsaw International, a Shanghai boutique lifestle-research agency that looks at the direction of change in China.

Luo's aggrieved question stopped me in my tracks. He himself cites a variety of music as inspiration, ranging from Faith No More to China's own Subs. Like rockers everywhere, he is ignored by a pop-based system. In the frantic growth of China, though, Luo's frustration is an underdeveloped opportunity.

To understand Luo's situation, it helps to start with a bit of perspective. The basics: Can you name any Chinese band?

My guess is that you probably can't think of a single one. Don't be embarrassed; it's not your fault, as the average Western music store (if such a thing exists anymore) has more music from tiny Ecuador than from continent-size China. Modern pop music as we know it only started trickling in during the late 1980s. Today, stars such as Will Pan and Leehom Wang incorporate R & B, hip-hop and even traditional Beijing opera into chart-topping tracks.

Pop stars have tremendous appeal, but few young people will pay money for their music. Stacks of pirated CDs have evolved into gigabytes of downloaded MP3s. China's most popular search engine, Baidu, includes a convenient MP3 locator button, facilitating no-questions-asked music downloading. ITunes isn't available in China. Even downloaded mobile-phone ringtones, the supposed savior of the industry, are unappealing to an audience already shifting their catalogs of digital music directly onto their phones. The result of this glamorous but unprofitable situation is that advertisers are bankrolling the entire industry. Stars make their money through sponsorships.

So far the system has worked pretty well. The downside is there is little support for non-mainstream music. Social-networking technologies are slowly compensating for that, reducing the cost of promotion and connecting bands' fan bases. But there is another opportunity -- advertisers stepping beyond pop and working with non-mainstream young artists. It's not easy, but someone will answer Luo Qi's challenge -- the question is, who will do it first?
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