posted on April 09, 2008 03:27
Famously gabby, British music executives were lost for words at last year's Beijing Pop Festival. The A&R folks were watching a gig by The Crimea, members of an Association of Independent Music (AIM) trade mission of British independent musicians and labels. "When they took the stage the local fans were singing the words to their songs," recalls AIM international affairs chief Judith Govey. "It was a testament to the hard work the band has done."
The Crimea's rousing reception on that hot September Saturday - they shared a bill with Brett Anderson and Nine Inch Nails - was thanks to the band putting free-to-download songs on its website, and earlier playing China's cramped rock bars on 2006 and 2007 tours here. The band hasn't made much money yet in China but the festival turnout bodes well for independent music in China, bets Govey. "We were taken aback by the size of the festival," she says. "The audience reaction was very refreshing."
Since 2003 AIM has brought 50 music industry specialists in trade missions of typically 10 companies to China where they meet Chinese label and live venue management in seminars. Conferences are funded by the UK Trade & Investment, while delegates pay their own travel and accommodation. A September 2008 trade fair will include intellectual property rights (IPR) lawyers and event management companies as well as labels. One of the members of last year's delegation, British rock music maven Julia Jones will drive her iconic Brit Bus, a vehicle loaded with stereos and British musicians, accross China in 2008 or 2009.
Others to have gotten something off their attendace on the trade mission include London-based Taste Management, which signed Shanghai-based the Honeys for European shows. British artist management agency Big Help last year inked a deal with Beijing-based KKP for its classically trained singer/songwriter Marie Batchelder. Electronic-heavy British act Cava Cava got a top slot at last year’s Midi Festival and gigs at venues around China off its attendance on the 2006 mission.
The traffic is moving both ways. A caravan of 30 Chinese companies will travel to this year’s London Calling, an annual music industry trade expo. Collaboration is the way to get things done in China, says Govey, who points to her organisation's team-up with the state-sponsored China Audio Visual Association (CAVA) – leading the Chinese delegation to London Calling - as a door opener to the Chinese market. British production agencies Arc Angel and Big Help both working with Chinese and British artists in China. “A lot of Chinese companies seek trades: they’ll say if you license my artists I’ll license your’s.”
Foreign labels need a lot of help from the likes of CAVA to pierce a "very complex market," says Govey. "Our members say that if we had to things on our own it would take three years.” Faced with "extreme levels of piracy," distribution deals are best kept to digital format. The potential is greatest in selling downloads to mobile phones. "Physical product is not the way to go,” says Govey. Foreign CDs are "far too expensive" for China, she adds, pointing to a low-price Linkin Park CD produced for mainland China only. “It sold significantly better than other releases.”
China is part catching up effort for British labels whose music is often available free to download on Chinese websites. "China was years ahead of the UK on downloads," explains Govey. Though Govey declines details on specific deals, most partnerships forged off AIM trade missions will, she says, will be in digital and live performances. Either way China is an "extremely long term plan... There’s no fast money to be made." But China-bound Western music companies investing the time and money to build relationships will eventually reap the rewards, she predicts, "maybe five years down the road."
China differs from Western and Japanese markets for its "extreme levels" of piracy and a dominance of local artists compared to international names. Convinced of a Chinese cultural imperative of "face-to-face meetings," Martin Mills of the Beggars Banquet group says: "it’s very important to come out every year." He's been on every AIM mission to China since 2003.
British labels typically see the USA and Japan as their top markets but ignore China and India at their peril. "We’re telling them to see it as a long term investment," says Govey. A lack of funding has cut short AIM trade missions to India, which shares a lot of China’s challenges: “piracy is not as high but still very high.” Unlike China, the film industry dominates India’s music industry, with artists signing up for albums on a per-film basis without royalties. AIM however is working with a new wave of entrepreneurs “who are breaking the stranglehold of film houses by setting up artist development companies.”