posted on March 27, 2008 07:20
Yongmei Liang has 20 years experience in China’s music business. Yet she rarely goes to gigs. Yongmei came to Beijing-based Jingwen Records in 1993 from state-owned Changping. A spartan office on the 11th floor of an anonymous skyscraper on the outskirts of Beijing doesn’t suggest the big time but Jingwen has licensed some of music’s biggest names for distribution in China.
has 100 acts on its books, from folk and traditional to rock and pop. In the last decade the label, run by a staff of 20, distributed low cost Chinese editions of albums by the Eagles, Linkin Park, Clapton and Whitney Houston as well as pyscheldic rockers Pink Floyd. “We have lots of experience,” says Yongmei, a school teacher type with a neat perm cropped short of the collars of her red cardigan.
Yongmei signed four artists in 2007: Decide, ex-Blue singer Anthony
and dancing/singing starlet Lisa. Jingwen also signed to do mainland China distribution for rising British indie group The Crimea
“We are looking for foreign acts with awards,” says Yongmei, who expresses a fondness for melodramatic British balladeer James Blunt. She’s planning on seeing him at his Beijing date this spring “if we can get tickets.” Jingwen’s sub-label Scream
named the Cardigan’s as its latest foreign licensee.
A clutch of gold plastic trophies squashed into a cabinet which stands below a poster of contemporary British rockers The Crimea gives the otherwise grey-toned and cramped office a touch of credibility to the label’s claims to international standing.
Most of the trophies were awareded to the label’s top selling local acts: Han Hong, Cui Jian and Guo Feng. New signing is Beijing rocker Xie Ting Xiao whose new album Lao Ji Shi Kong Jingwen will shortly release.
It’s hard to predict sales. For each legal CD sold Jingwen loses the earnings to 10 counterfeit copies. “It’s very serious.” Clearly distressed, Yongmei won’t divulge details. “If I say our best selling album sold 300,000 you think that’s a small number.” Local law is not yet ready to take on the counterfeiters, says a clearly embarassed Yongmei.
But pirates are becoming more predictable: “Before they copied all the albums, now they only copy the best sellers.” Cash also comes through the courts. The company has been taking on pirates, “both the CD factory and the distributor…You have to sue them both.” Company starlet Han Hong
has been targeted most by pirates, largely southern based factories churning out near perfect copies of Jingwen CDs.
The company is a greenhorn in international business: it got into foreign acts out of a conviction that China would buy to learn English. “We choose music that sounds good, that fits the market.” Jingwen’s best selling CD was a compilation of Grammy winning tunes released each year after the awards for five years to 2001. “We co-operated with different record companies.” Best selling individual artist was Norah Jones, whose debut album sold 200,000 copies for Jingwen in 2005. The copyright has since passed to EMI.
Foreign bands are coming to the label in droves, says Yongmei. “Our 14 year history in the business gives us a respected brand.” Results haven’t always been promising however. The Crimea were taken on because the label wanted to expand its range. But earnings from the band’s albums are “not well.” Chinese people didn’t know them. Jingwen offered Crimea a distribution network covering 80 cities, largely through 120 distributors, including state-owned giant Xinhua and FAB, a privately owned high-street retailer.
Jingwen CD sales in 2007 were “flat,” while traditional music sales have dropped because “old people don’t buy CDs.” The traditional market is collapsing to Internet downloads. Yet the firm doesn’t plan to ramp up download sales or exit the CD market. “We will diversify, and do more Internet, but we still have people buying CDs.” Jingwen currently sells copyrights to local portal Sina, known among labels for driving a hard bargain for songs.
Best markets include Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Northern China likes rock, while southwesterly Kunming. Southern cities like Guangzhou goes for pop. Shanghai music fans like Taiwanese and Hong Kong singers.
Sponsors are persuaded too: Jingwen coaxed the China Construction Bank into sponsoring Han Hong’s 2004 concerts. “Without sponsorship you’ll lose money on a concert,” says Yongmei. Jingwen targets consumer brands and banks seeking young Chinese with disposable income. “But sometimes sponsors don’t sponsor you for every night... it’s complicated.”