You make your money in China out of studios. The nice smooth paint work and the upholstery of Pilot Records' studio in Chaoyangmen are proof enough that the label has money. Proof of that is that the label’s management appear to spend a big chunk of their time down here in the cool basement, away from the heat and the ugly slapped-up office towers of the surrounding Chaoyangmen district. A 12 hour stint in the studio costs RMB500 (EUR49).
It’s not easy surviving in a niche market on CD sales alone. Label founder Zeng Yu, the epitome of cool with wavy-haired goatee and brown recantangular framed glasses, chanelled a teenage passion for Metallica and Motley Crue into a guitar slot with Buffer, a college-days project that was the first band to sign onto Warner in China. The band broke up before an album was done, but Warner kept Zeng and the lead vocal "because they wanted us to do some arrangement and production."
A virtuoso rock guitarist, Zeng spent five years on pop production for cash-cow stars like Zhou Xun and Pu Xu - the only rock act at Warner in that period was Dada. The five big labels in China don’t pay much attention to rock because it’s not mainstream enough. By 2005 he'd gotten enough cash, connections and experience under his belt to set up Pilot, the achievement of a dream.
Zeng, 29, founded Pilot with Zheng Shen who founded the label in 2005. Zheng was a veteran of Sony, running the multinational’s public relations in China. “He loves rock music." The first three signings among the label’s ten artists were Reflector, Caffe-In and Honeygun. The label also has since also signed local heavy metallers Spring Autumn. new hopes are Honeygun and Wudu Kung Fu. The label’s best seller is Caffe-In’s ‘Caffee-In Land’, which sold over 50,000 CDs following its 2006 release. The latest signings are hardcore rap CMCV and glam punk rock Ziyo, which released an EP on Warner before leaving for Pilot.
Reflector came on board because Zeng had been watching the trio since his college days. The punk trio been on the road for 10 years. The band’s sound was tighter than any of the other bands on the circuit. “They’re China’s Green Day!” Zeng picked up Caffee-In at a talent competition organized by an Australian- New Zealand label. As adjudicator for the China round of the competition Zeng championed Caffe-In, drawn by the band's blend of pop-punk and cultures: the band is a mix of Chinese and Japanese personnel. Unfortunately the band has gone to Japan for the summer to avoid Beijng's Olympic clean-up of foreign students, rock bars and alternative lifestyles in general.
Reflector only had an EP to its name he signed them. “They had so many fans we wanted to give them something.” Doing his A&R Zeng is driven by the live sound. “We don’t pay much heed to someone’s demo. The performance has to be good as the music.”
Rock may be a minority market but local fans “ge mi” as he calls them, are very loyal. They’re the only music fans who’ll buy real CDs and they want t-shirts and caps too. The other Pilot strategy is its ability to get bands across the country on low-cost tours. A ‘tour performance department” does tight planning on routes and accommodation so that bands get to provincial fans while also making some money. "It’s easy nowadays to get gigs in China's cities, you can call the bars a few nights ahead. Few however make any money."
Pilot keeps its costs tight by focusing tours on particular regions. Honeygun is currently on the road in northeast China, a populous region or large cities like Changchun and Shenyang, near the North Korean border. Band management pick the dates carefully: big shows in larger venues on weekends and smaller cities during the week. Tours have been made easier by an explosion in the number of bars even in farflung provinces. “In Beijing there are too many bands but I love going to Urumqi because they don’t get bands too often out there so they treat them like superstars.” Pilot extends its RMB30 door prices in Beijing accross the country. Locals are willing to pay for the novelty of seeing a gig. A show in Qu Jing near Kunming is a stand-out because the audience’s warmth: 100 locals squeezed into a small bar held a party for the visitors.
A staff of 12 at work stations in a wood-toned office on the second floor of a nondescript office building. The name was chosen to reflect the fact that the label is pioneering. A collection of hip hop and several new albums in the first half of 2009. Zeng isn’t reliant on Pilot for cash. He moonlights as a producer for Zong Ke at Taihe Rye. Good producers make good money in China. A good melody is good enough for most Chinese listeners, not yet musically educated enough to pick up on a bad mastering job. "We producers need quality, but the listener doesn’t need quality. They want something soppy, that moves their heart." He points to Dao Lang, hugely successful crooner whose albums are however badly mastered. Pilot masters its albums in Japan and in the UK. Taiwan is the best fit however, "because the quality is good and it’s not that expensive."
Zeng also thinks Pilot is handy at PR campaigns: he smiles and hints at a thick book of contacts drawn from his Warner days. Several of the bands are invited on popular TV programmes: Kuai Le Da Benying on Hunan TV. But they’ll rarely get to perform their music: rather the musicians are invited on to chat shows as an envelope-pushing. “Our musicians image is not that weird as people used to think.” Presenters however tend to concentrate on musicians’ lifestyle. Pilot wants to see rock bands closer to the mainstream, so we’re chasing TV and radio producers. But there’s no chance Pilot band will get on a Central TV channel. "I don’t think TV is the main channel for audience growth. Performance is more important for that." A Honeygun song has gotten a lot of play in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. Corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil, which Pilot has also had recourse to: jeans maker Lee paid the label’s bands to play the brand’s Halloween Party. “Their style is closer to the rock style and they wanted to show that.”
“They all see that their performance will improve a lot with us. And they’ll get better PR. We really have a crew to back them up. “We’ll tell them that their guitars don’t sound right.” The biggest problem with local bands is that “they just don’t move on the stage. Pilot films shows and then sits the band down the next day to analyse the footage so they get better.
Rock music bands have been pursuing the label but new signings appear thin on the ground. There’s over 1,000 bands in Beijing, says Zeng, but few have what it takes.
Zeng Yu, and below, Pilot fellow-founder Zheng Shen