The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

20

There's been a wave of vitriol from China's state media in the midst of the ongoing trouble in Tibet and among ethnic Tibetans accross China. State media dispenses of its considerable army of foreign editors  ("polishers" in state speak) in cases like this and lets loose with a bunch of nasty phrases culled from Charles Dickens era novels which hints at the age of the scribes - usually the old guard is trusted for the hatchet job. My favourite line comes from Xinhua news agency: the Dalai Lama's description of China's cultural genocide in Tibet were a "tale of a tub," reported the agency, using Johnathan Swift-era English in reports carried accross the state controlled press. China's media ignored the Lhasa riots for a few days, then came out with a wave of TV and print reports which focused on the damage done to Han Chinese properties in Lhasa.

"We can say Tibetan culture has never been so flourish (sic) as today," the reports quoted a local official as saying, more proofs that the polishers weren't trusted on this dispatch.  


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20
I've been lucky to meet with Wang Xiao Mei, the chatty and forthcoming marketing manager of KKP, one of China's more successful labels. Proof that you can make money in probably the most difficult (but full-of-potential) music market in the world. Photos will follow, but read on: 

 

Chinese labels operate on lean margins. But one big star is sometimes enough to keep a label going. Beijing-based Kirin Kid Productions (KKP) has done that with pop balladeer Han Hong, who joined KKP in 1997 before moving to rival label Jingwen for her third album. Jingwen lured Han by promising the Han-Tibetan mixed race singer a concert in Lhasa. “It didn’t happen,” says the label’s marketing manager Wang Xue Mei.

An open mind at KKP, where denim and tattoos seem de rigeur for staff, got Han a deal following years of refusals at more staid state-owned labels. Swarthy and short-haired, Han has been the exception to a Mandopop A-list dominated by skinny, smiling stars. “Noone wanted to sign her then,” explains Wang, a chain-smoking tatooed graduate of the Central Art Academy in Beijing. “There are expectations of what a star must look like.”
 
KKP boss Cheng Jin however was convinced enough to write and produce songs for Han. Today the company’s cash cows are Han Hong’s first and second albums to which it owns the copyright. Cheng Jin honed his production skills on acts in Taiwan and Hong Kong before setting up KKP in 1997.
 
An eye for quirky talent landed the label another success, Li Xiao Long, a rapper from Tianjin. “Cheng Jin heard him and taught him drums.” Li released two albums on KKP’s sub label Dragon Tongue from 1998 before leaving “on creative differences” to self-release his third album. Sales of Li Xiao Long’s second album I Am Not A Hip Hop MC DJ were good because the company timed release around Han Hong’s second album which shifted one million legal copies.
 
Another KKP earner is faded soft rock behemoth Black Panther: a fifth album by the early-90’s sensations titled Return of the Kings shifted 600,000 units since its 2006 release. The band’s sixth album is currently in production but slowed by “differences in opinion” between label and artist. “Music quality is very important to our boss, he doesn’t care how long the recording takes.”
 
Money doesn’t come out of CD sales, says Wang, who in a previous job handled the mainland China campaign of Korean pop pin-up Rain. His Method to Hide Against Sunshine album sold “a maximum” 60,000 copies here. “That’s regarded as a success in China.” The K-pop star sold five million albums in Japan and Korea.
 
 “A CD is a business card to get into China. Artists here make money off concerts and sponsorship.” The business of record labels is changing in China. KKP has eight artists on its books but not all are producing CDs. The main money spinner at KPP is in booking concerts. “We represent them, and organize their concerts.”
 
Foreign Acts
KKP prefers to run a tight ship of eight signed artists, preferring quality over quantity. Yet its foreign A&R work seems eclectic at best. KKP wants to be the China representative for more foreign acts and has been looking at DJ Ja Ja and Hong Kong pop lightweight Kelly Chan, who’s rock album is “under discussion.” Pianist Marie Batchelder’s Beijing and Shanghai shows in 2006 were handled by KKP after it was approached by the pianist’s label, Big Help, at a meeting of independent British and Chinese labels hosted in Beijing. “We plan to distribute her CDs,” says Wang.
 
Sue-well
Chinese record companies are only getting a tiny taste of the potential earnings from digital. But some, like Wang are going after pirates as an unexploited source of revenue. “We sue them,” she says nonchalantly. For each CD released by the company there are nine pirate copies. The companies are reachable in court because “they’re legally registered companies.” KKP gets a sentence from the court and uses a national network of lawyers to lean on local government agencies to enforce it. Most cases are settled outside of court. “KKP is the best in China at this!”
 
Wang has also gone after firms overstaying their licensing deals – distributors who continue to press best-selling CDs. Labels typically outsource manufacturing and distribution to a single company which in turn has a government-issued ISBN or barcode allowing it to distribute. “By the third year will know how many CDs they should reproduce.”
 
The same goes for digital content providers licensed to sell label songs online: “In most cases they go over time… If the licensing deal goes to first January 2008 and I see you selling my records on January 2 I will sue.” Irked by its own calculation that Chinese labels earn only 0.5 percent of a potential 200 billion downloads to mobile phones, KKP wants to sell more of its content digitally but is still studying a “good marketing concept.”
 
Sound A&R work means KKP rarely gets stuck with a dud. “All our product is still in the stores because it’s still selling, it’s wanted.” The label records only original work. “It’s a very difficult path.”
 
Good distributors are hard to find: KKP demands “detailed marketing and distribution plans,” but rewards by allowing better per-CD margins to the right company. Online retailer Jindian Jiahui is emerging as a fast mover of CDs whereas massive state-owned book retailer Xinhua is “very complicated and it’s very hard to get money back.”
 

Retailers trying to emulate HMV or Tower Records in China have had a difficult time, says Wang, who points to retailer Hao Wang Jiao. “They’re going broke.” National reach is a compromise between counterfeiters and moving units in small-town China, where sales invariably happen through in tin shack shops selling CDs alongside VCDs and DVDs. “It’s very important not to turn down people who want to sell,” says Wang. 

 

 
 


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18

See what happened when US art-metal band Dreamtheatre didn't hand out bundles of free tickets, as is common practise for any concert organiser in Beijing  - at their recent gig in the Chinese capital. The band kept the invite list tight for its show at the Haidian Exhibition Theatre. But security guards at the state-owned venue let fans in for RMB50 a head. Front rowckets for the gig were priced as RMB300.

Police and numerous local and national government bureaucrats - like the city and national ministries of culture and public security -demand tickets. "They'll say 'my son wants to go and he'll bring his friends," explains plain-talking Yang Yu, who organises tours in China for foreign rock bands. "You need them onside, so what can you do?" Many freebies end up in the hands of ticket scalps. I've seen scalpers hawk VIP tickets with a face value of EUR120 for gigs by Deep Purple and Maximo Park  for less than EUR10.

Organisers of corporate-sponsored concerts - common in stadium-sized Mandopop concerts in China - often sell several thousand tickets below face value to scalps to bump up attendances. "Organisers often sell 3,000 tickets at a low price... in China you are not counting only on ticket sales."

Local officials have taken their slice from the still-nascent rock scene. Bureacrats even succeeded in cashing in on the Midi Festival, an annual experimental festival in Haidian Park. "It's a festival for poor students but visiting bands had to stay at the hotel owned by the wife of the local district governor."

A wave of concerts between 2000 and 2005 over-fed China with a glut of corporate-paid-up pop: "you could get a ticket for free just by calling up. But then there was a flood of boring shows and no one went."

Western bands struggled to persuade paying fans to come to their shows. Britpop originators Suede suffered a bad turnout at their February 2003 show because of high ticket prices, bad marketing and "because they were stupid enough to have the show really close to the Spring Festival holidays. Students were at home on holidays," says Yang.

 

 

 

 


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14
 
Kif, house band at the Quays pub in Galway, are flying out to Beijing this week to play the annual St Patrick's Day Irish Ball here. The band have replaced Jerry Fish & The Mudbug Club for the gig at the Kerry Centre Hotel, after some heated debate about artistic merit among members of the Irish Network China, which organizes the EUR100-a-head Ball off ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. It costs about EUR10,000 to bring a band out – the flights and the fee are heftiest, since the hotel gives a few days free board. Three Irish dancers are being flown out too, along with Carlow-based trad group the Geantrai Players.

Well done to the Irish Embassy flew twelve members of a traditional Irish music and dance group, Ceolta Si, to perform at the 2008 Beijing Chaoyang International Spring carnival in February. Ireland has been trying to get noticed among middle class Chinese spenders. It's hard to compete this year given "unlimited" budgets available to the cultural departments at larger embassies in Beijing, says an Irish diplomat here.

Much of the fuss is to help Tourism Ireland, which has struggled to bring Chinese tourists to the Emerald Isle - locals are put off by Ireland not being in the one-fits-all Schengen visa system. An office in Shanghai opened in 2004 has been bringing Chinese travel agents and journalists around the Ring of Kerry and showing off the country’s golf links, horse racing and castles. Guinness, Kerrygold and Bailey's have been doing well here - Kerrygold's sales rose 50 percent last year, the company's top China salesman Karl Long told me last week.

 


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14

A phone-around of a half dozen of the hundreds of companies making musical instruments here yesterday suggests that while China may be the world's top maker of guitars and pianos it hasn't managed to come up with any decent brands of its own. Companies doing guitars here lack the tradition of the likes of Gibson and Steinway struggle going above cheapo entry level instruments for OEM clients like Wallmart. They sound awful.

Korean companies (subcontracting for Japanese clients like Yamaha) tend to dominate China's mass market musical instruments manufacturing - they make a Yamaha acoustic for US$50, compared to US$300 at a Japanese workshop. Some Chinese owned companies are getting out and going into boat making because there's not much of a domestic market and rising RMB and materials costs make exports dearer.

The domestic market is almost negligible. I did a walk-around recently of musical instrument shops in Beijing. “Guitars made in Japan, Europe and U.S have a much more pedigree temperament,” gushes Wu Ligen, a technician at the maintenance department at GAid, a guitar maintenance store sandwiched between a clothes shop and a tea vendor in Beijing’s grey-stone Gulou district.
 
Nine G-Aid employees brandish pliars, screw drivers and bottles of wood varnish as they labour over foreign and locally-made guitars. Two trainees cram around worktops to hear Wu’s expert explanation of the circuit boards on a cherry-coloured Gibson Les Paul model, cut open for the purposes of explanation.
 
“Materials and sound quality are both better in foreign-made guitars than in Chinese guitars,” professes Wu. “They’re more exquisite… and the timbre is much better, you can tell that easily by listening to a Chinese and then a Western or Japanese made guitar.” Wu learned most of his trade from foreign guitar magazines he bought online.
 
The image of cheap entry level guitars is proving hard to shift for China, which has fast become the workshop of the world’s guitar makers. Many guitar makers here have drifted into the business – unlike Western brands such as Gibson which developed guitars for and by particular accomplished musicians such as 1960s blues star Les Paul.

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09
Spare a thought for a recent recruit to China’s underground rock magazine SoRock. Hired from far away Gansu province - the equivalent of a south Carolinan going to work for a New Jersey magazine the journalist (his editor Xiao Zhu won't give me his name) was arrested on his way to SoRock’s office in Shijiazhuang, two hours drive south of Beijing. “The police gave me a very vague reason for the arrestment,” says editor Xiao Zhu. “It's called illegal publishing.”
 
Though popular SoRock is illegal because it doesn’t have the government-assigned barcode which all publications require for distribution in mainland China. SoRock has however dodged the law by strapping CDs onto the cover and passing the magazine off as an audio-visual product - see my earlier blog on SoRock's circulation.
 
Readers are drawn by the magazine broaching taboos: “Our best selling editions dealt with issues readers can not read in state-owned media. We revealed the darkness of our society instead of advocating the prosperities and achievements.”
 
Success is a double-edged sword. “That is the reason why we face a lot of trouble, however, that is also the reason why we can thrive and develop.” National distribution gets SoRock into “some cities you've never heard of before,” says Zhu, who refuses to divulge circulation figures. Most sales happen on the newsstands: because the magazine lacks a bar code mail subscription through state-run China Post is not an option.
 
“So many people often get on our backs,” moans Xiao Zhu, one of four rock music fans who founded the magazine in 1999. “We are not only the writers or editors of the magazines but also the investors and bosses.” The magazine was launched “just for fun… we never thought at that time that it would grow so big.”
 
SoRock today employs 15. It’s hard to find good writers. “What the writers and editors in the magazine really lack is ideas and creativities.” Xiao & co keep the operation in ShiJiazhuang rather than more culturally vibrant Beijing “because we are Shi Jiangzhuang Ren (people). The best rock bands and shows are in the capital, but after 10 years in the business Xiao Zhu says his “passion for particular bands or rockers gradually faded away.” He recommends however a band in Hangzhou called Yu Ren. “They play great music.”

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27

Jesus loves you but i think you are a cunt

Getting Chinese businesspeople to be specific in an interview is hard. Yet it's even harder to get the country's rock impressarios to say anything worth recording. I've been talking to Xiao Zhu, the chief editor of So Rock! magazine, ten years coming off the presses down in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, a few hours drive out of Beijing.

Xiao is a smart, funny editor who like many Chinese interviewees likes to talk by msn rather than phone. To grab attention he once ran a cover featuring a smiling Jesus and the headline in English 'Jesus Loves You But I Think You're A Cunt, as reported on the ever-observant Danwei.org.

Anyway, here's a nugget from our chat:

What's the circulation of your magazine? "The circulation of a magazine is like the age of a woman. Sometimes you can get a straightforward answer from the woman. But you should be cautious that she may lie to you. Every time when I am interviewed by media, I will neither tell the truth nor lie to them."

That was the highlight of an otherwise banal chat. But Xiao did make one salient, and sad, point about the rock scene: "China's famous painters can sell one of their paintings at a price that equals the sum of the copyright royalties of all the rock bands and singers in China."

The rest of the chat was mostly unusable - full of nothing.

Who reads So Rock!? "Students take a high percentage of the magazine’s readership. But our readers become more and more diversified. They work in very different areas."

Where does a rock fan or band in a small town in the provinces find out about you? 

Our contact information is on the magazine. Any bands or singers who would like to be known among rock music fans can contact with us. We have been bridging the gap between the industry, the music fans and the musicians. 

Xiao is ambitious. The magazine’s sales volume has “much potential.” But he's also an artist: "the core value of a magazine is not only in its commercial success. Personally, I hope the magazine can maintain its soul and mission and then grow to a music giant by improving slowly and constantly."

Fed up with such innanity, I've called him and we've got a proper face-to-face interview set for next week. Wait for it.


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20

There's been ample coverage, even in the state-run Chinese media, of Steven Spielberg's decision to excuse himself from an advisory role on the Olympic Games opening ceremony. But other artists are less queasy about playing Beijing before the Games in August. In fact there seems to be a queue of acts selling tickets on local Piao agency's website. Foreign governments are "pulling out all the stops, bringing over the big guns," a European diplomat told me last week. That means "huge culture budgets" at foreign embassies in Beijing.

The big classical names are already arriving: New York Philharmonic is here this week, at the new National Centre for the Performing Arts at Tienanmen Square. In the more edgy world of rock meanwhile America's Incubus and British emotion-maker James Blunt will play the Star Live, on March 12 and April 18 respectively. 

So there will be plenty of money, if little political point scoring, by western artists in Beijing this year. Both acts are charging plenty at the 1,000-capacity venue's door: Incubus ticket range from RMB400 to 600 (EUR40-60) while Blunt wants to pay a minimum RMB380 for his show (the most expensive tickets cost RMB780). We'll be keen to see the attendance on the night. Celine Dion meanwhile landed the newly renovated Worker's Stadium, once the prototypical Chinese socialist sports grounds, for her April 13 RMB300-3,000 per-head one night in Beijing.


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16

A mural worthy of Belfast’s Falls Road was the backdrop to the whispy Liu Cai Xing last night at the Traveller Bar in Hangzhou, the wealthy lake city just south of Shanghai. A 20-something seeking greener pastures beyond Beijing’s increasingly competitive music scene, Liu and her guitar sounded good but her contemplative kind of music may not be what Chinese audiences want.

There was no shortage of local punters but they didn’t actually pay much attention to the music. Their focus was rather on the large jug-mugs of Carlsberg and dice on the table: Women played men at beer drinking. It was loud and bawdy. Less people were focused on the music at the You To bar up the road. A promised guitar man Xiao Tong didn’t show so the bar was playing a live Bee Gees DVD on a pull down screen.

The place was jammed but there were few eyes on the Gibb brothers. Staff squeezed between tables to serve beer and food. More of the latter, lots of noise and sunflower seeds being cracked and sucked. We found both bars thanks to the colourful and comprehensive More Hangzhou, a listings magazine in English that’s more breezy and engaging than the increasing proliferation of government-produced English language magazines sold in guesthouses in this and other Chinese cities.


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16

St Patrick’s Day means it must be Irish Ball time again. Since St Patrick’s Day falls on a Monday the annual party will this year happen on Saturday March 15, at the Kerry Centre Hotel. Festivities begin with cocktails at 6pm. To ensure punters get full value for their RMB1,000 tickets there’ll be free flow of Guinness and Jameson whiskey all night. 

 
Organisers of the Ball (a sell-out affair for the past five years) the Irish Network China is flying pub-rocking quintet Kif to ensure the crowd gets its fair share of U2, Van Morrison, the Pogues and other danceable Irish gems. From Galway city on the west coast of Ireland, Kif will play a lengthy set once the dinner, speeches and auction are over.
 
A menu of Gaelic cuisine for the night has been created by Beijing-based Irishwoman Catherine Toolan, who in her day job heads up the operations of Aramark, the international catering group which will be particularly busy feeding athletes and VIPs at the Beijing Olympics.
 
Cash from the Ball goes to Jinde charities, a Hebei-based community charity which, among other things, helps poor families pay tuition fees. Last year a battle of bids yielded RMB50,000 for a landscape oil painting by Irish artist Paul Christopher Flynn. "That’s a lot of school fees," says Joe Loftus, Irish Network China committee member and Jinde volunteer. 

There will be other jolly green frolics in China's capital to mark Ireland's national day. St Patrick’s Day also means parades – Dublin and New York have the world’s biggest and best known - of leprauchauns, ceili dancers, Gaelic footballers and anything remotely Irish. This year Beijing will get one too. A March 16 parade of (Chinese and) Paddies down Wangfujing will mark the beginning of an Irish cultural festival running from 16 March to 6 April. The Irish Embassy and Tourism Ireland are the main organisers.

 

 


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2006 - Review of Neosupervital's debut album, written by Doctor Binokular. The famously compelling review, complete with pie charts that compare the angst of Neosupervital with the angst of the reviewer. As you do.