Local Musicians Grapple With “Made In China” Label

Screaming Kong

The world is slowly discovering that the Chinese music landscape is not limited to folk tunes and revolutionary ballads. As China’s indie rock, blues and trip-hop artists head abroad, avoiding the “Made in China” label has become a major concern.

China’s music industry doesn’t have the best reputation. In spite of the achievements of independent artists, the domestic music industry remains obsessed with fresh-faced idols cultivated in the Korean and Japanese pop model.

It’s a world where trendiness drums out any notion of musical talent.

“What we’re seeing is an aggressive commercialization of Chinese music,” says Da Meng, the bassist of Screaming Kong. Screaming Kong was founded four years ago by a group of four high school friends. Although the band’s strong grassroots following has brought it several offers from bigger labels, its members have rejected them all.

“We’re not signed because we don’t want to be,” Da Meng said.

China’s music industry has inherited some of the worst elements of the Korean model. Executives focus on building a cult of personality around singers and groups fueled by commercial appearances on variety shows and front-page placements.

It’s a schedule that leaves any signed band with little room for artistic growth.

When talking about their dream, Screaming Kong’s members say they want to sing for friends and strangers rather than appear on the big stage. “We’ve even thought about traveling overseas as street performers,” said Feng Hanbo, the drummer.

“Anyone can perform in the Golden Hall of Vienna or the Sydney Opera House if they can afford the rent. I wouldn’t want to play one of those venues unless we were invited,” he said.

But invitations are unlikely as foreign audiences remain puzzled about what “Chinese music” is.

The independent and commercial scenes are sending the world very mixed messages about Chinese music, and at the moment the commercial scene is winning. Many reviewers, composers and producers see a bright future for China’s commercial music as domestic TV idol contests win attention abroad.

“When we look at the singers who have found fame on stage, we can see the potential for Chinese music to reach a higher level,” said Shan He, a professor at the Tianjin Institute of Music.

As a reviewer on the idol TV show I Am a Singer, Shan’s experience with Chinese music is intimately tied to the commercial side of the industry. But even there he sees hope.

“I am seeing musicians more dedicated to their work and really thinking about what they are singing,” he said. “Seeking a breakthrough is the way they can improve their music.”

Hua Chenyu, the champion of 2013’s Super Boy, was praised by American Idol judge Paula Abdul for his personal interpretation of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” during the competition.

But many remain guarded about whether idol-oriented development will give China anything new to bring to the world’s stage.

“We have no idea what our future will be like, nor how the music in China will grow,” Da Meng said. “But a good or bad result depends on the audience.”

This post originally appeared in Beijing Today. (Image via)

    7 Responses to “Local Musicians Grapple With “Made In China” Label”

    1. josh

      there’s very little foreign media coverage of Chinese music, period, but where it does exist, i’d argue it much more heavily favors ‘independent’ or ‘underground’ music and not the pop industry. there’s no chinese pop artist that has the profile of K-pop or J-pop groups abroad. rather the media gloms on to ‘punk’ bands or ‘world music’ bands like hanggai or shanren.

    2. Jonathan Alpart

      Underground and independent music is never going to get support from the mainstream, especially in a country like China. We’ve seen countless examples of China’s failure to grasp soft power, and although I personally believe that government promotion of their homegrown musical artists would do wonders for their image abroad, that’s likely not going to happen anytime soon. (I have heard though that the government actually is sponsoring or considering to sponsor these types of bands going abroad for tours, which would be fantastic.)

      But staying on point, mainstream music, following the Korean model (which is really just a extreme, plasticized version of the American/British model) by definition cares nothing about actual art and only about profits. So to lament the mainstream for not caring about supporting the arts is moot. The underground/indie scenes must do it themselves, that’s the very definition of those scenes, and that is also what keeps them fresh and creative.

      • Benji

        China’s foray into idol manufacturing in the Korean vein has come and gone. The Korean model is dead.

        Five or six years ago, Chinese labels would partner with Korean entertainment companies to create boy and girl bands. Prospective members from China would be sent to Korea to train to sing and dance. The music production was Korean. The video production was Korean. Wardrobe. Choreography.
        Management was Chinese.

        Most of them flopped. The three most successful boy bands, H.I.T, Top Combine (which even had a Korean member) and M.I.C, achieved moderate success at best. Girl groups such as S.P.Y and Idol Girls never made much of an impact. The last, real attempt at this was in 2012 with the Japanese Johnny’s Entertainment creating its own Chinese boyband.

        Currently, reality television talent contests dominate the pop music industry. They had been a staple of Mainland Chinese pop music since 2005, when HunanTV’s Super Girls first became massively popular. But monotony and censorship eroded the franchise’s relevance over the years.

        That reality TV format was revived, explosively, in 2012 with The Voice of China. This was followed by copycat franchises. Some foreign, like X-Factor and Chinese Idol, some local, like Sing My Song and Let’s Sing Kids. Since then, these contests have virtually monopolised entry into the pop industry. It is now almost impossible to make it in the Chinese pop market without prior exposure. The last person to do so was probably Wanting Qu, in 2012. Chinese labels with budding singers often form agreements with reality television producers to have them compete on shows for exposure. There is almost no other way.

        For its part, I Am A Singer (also a Korean franchise), is hardly an idol show. It brings together already established, veteran singers to compete against each other. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s. Simple commercialisation does not an idol make. And that’s perhaps where this gets it all wrong: not everything that’s not independent is an idol. Promotion is not idolatry. Artist development is not idolatry. Being mainstream does not mean you’re an idol.

        The Korean influence on the Chinese music industry is still strong. And growing. Korean producers are more and more frequently producing Chinese songs. Video production is sometimes done in Korea. But the Korean idol format in China is dead. Since 2012.


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