The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

02

Last week I followed up Mosh, an intriguing Chinese url I'd seen on some rock concert posters and met the website's operations manager Roy – Chinese name Wei Xian - who told me about Mosh in the meeting room of a modest two floor office in the hulking mass of the Soho office towers near the Dawang Lu subway stop in Beiing’s business district. Mosh is a facebook for fans of trendy music and art. Corporate hotshot Zhang Rui left his job at Morgan Stanley to run the operation. “A lot of people thought he’s crazy but he thinks people need to meet people offline.”

Members "play together, watch shows and go to eat together," says Roy. With 200,000 registered members – they add up to 300 on a good day – the site has added 20 staff in a year to reach a headcount of 30. Mosh staff and promoters post event listings on the site but the idea is that members and users do the work: posting and commenting on shows, while arranging lifts to and from gigs with similar-minded music fans. The site takes a percentage of tickets it sells for venues like Starlive. Revenue from ticket sales however remains “very little and Mosh doesn’t intend it to become a main source of revenue.

“If there’s a show and you want to go you can find out who is going and you can then add them as a friend,” explains Roy. People check out your concert photos and which concerts you’re going to and then add you as a friend. Male members are in the majority but girls use the site functions more. Two areas he’s sees growing is sports and travel: members will seek travel companions.

Since most staff and users are rock fans Mosh now seeks art and, dare say, pop fans to join up. Management is particularly keen to have more content on local art events. Perhaps because it’s free an art show gathers a lot more user buzz: 300 friends will often group up on the site to visit an exhibition whereas the biggest crowd we’ve seen go to a rock concert is 100. Over 100 Mosh fans went to see James Blunt, also at Starlive, though Roy reckons he’s unimpressed: “in the UK he’s not that popular anymore.”

Most Mosh users are 25-35 year old professionals with the money to afford a James Blunt show. Arty-type students use the site to find like-minded fans of art and music.The site went into overdrive after the Sichuan earthquake, when rock stars organized charity gigs to raise funds for victims. “Big crowds came out to see 90’s legend Dou Wei play the Starlive venue near Ditan Park.

Most puzzling perhaps is where the money comes from. There’s no venture capital but “we don’t lack for money,” says Roy. Advertising hasn’t taken off yet. Stickers to pass around and plaster on venues and youth hostels as they go. Just as people crash together when moshing we want them to crash together on the website.

there are lots of ways Mosh.cn could make money. Music fans often trade CDs and DVDs on the site. Mosh.cn showed its distribution potential in the aftermath of the quake when members teamed up on the site to deliver relief supplies: Roy overheard a man in a supermarket telling the shop assistant he was sending two big boxes of milk powder to Sichuan via mosh members. “That made me very proud.”

An environmental science graduate, Roy spent much of his university time wandering between cities, looking for music and like minded types. Whereas Beijing has the best rock scene – “definitely the most bands” – he sees a regionalization of tastes. Shanghai fans like Britpop, the northern Chinese like metal and punk. Southern Chinese are more into “art music – they want thinking music, they don’t care about riffs or solos.” Northerners are obsessed with genres and copy. “They think, ‘I have to play just like the Americans or British’.”

This Radiohead fan like local band the Sand and Sober but dislikes the most talked about band in town, Carsick Cars, “because they’re too much about noise, like Sonic Youth.”  Carsick Cars have a huge following among Beijing's university community. The large shows are out of the reach of students who spend their RMB700 college allowance on CDs and books. “In a month they can usually only afford one show.”

The Mosh crew has plenty of time to tweak the systems since most rock concerts have been cancelled (partly due to a government clamp down on outdoor events in the wake of a pro-Tibet outburst by Bjork at her Shanghai show). The thinking is if there’s nothing maybe it’s a good thing. Before the summer slumber a memorable gig was the Children’s Day concert, June 31, by Muma to launch the band’s third album.


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26

It could be a landmark in China’s protection of music copyright: the music industry is sueing Baidu, China’s leading search engine by traffic, because it claims, much of the company’s wealth is down to its illegal downloads to users by deep linking or reorganizing song data into play lists in order to draw users.

In a case taken by major labels Universal, Warner and Sony – though not EMI, which has a contract to supply music to Baidu – are seeking US$9 million in damages in the case, which was filed with the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court. Outside the courtroom smaller music firms and bodies like the Music Copyright Society of China (MCSC), the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) are seeking other ways to hurt Baidu into action. Companies like R2G the court case is simply a test run: if found guilty Baidu is likely to be fined a small amount (Chinese courts limit the awards to RMB200,000 (EUR20,000 euros). But a guilty verdict could open Baidu up to a slew of further cases, in Chinese as well as foreign courts. The company’s US investors will surely be worried.   

I’ve been talking with Matthew Daniel, vice president of R2G, a local firm selling rights to international music catalogues in China, talks about wanting the big corporations and especially advertising companies involved. A well informed veteran of the local music industry, he sees the best chance for success in a multi-pronged offensive. Aside from tackling Baidu in court the music industry will also target its advertisers. By contacting its advertisers individually as well as bringing the company to court, it presents Baidu with a nightmare scenario of losing the case and its credibility with major corporate brands whose advertising spend has helped make Baidu one of China’s most wealthy and recognizable corporate names. Baidu has portrayed itself as a Chinese David against the Goliaths of the multinational music majors. Hardly the case, but it's a tactic that has some currency in ultra-nationalistic China.

Most encouraginly though, Baidu's hand may be forced by local Chinese record firms, whom bodies like the IFPI have been busily signing up as members. In the letters sent to advertisers Qu Jingming, vice president of the Music Copyright Society of China, pointedly asks advertisers “do you want to be associated with pirated music?" Qu's organisation represents 80 percent market share in China out of its well located and appointed office in Jingfang Plaza. The willingness to invite international press (though at short notice) to a recent press conference suggests a new intent to protect local music industry among state-sponsored bodies like the MCSC.

Protecting digital content is ever more important for the music industry. Global music sales took another tumble last year according to the IFPI, which represents the recording industry. A 34% increase in music sold online did little to compensate for the 13% drop in sales of CDs and music DVDs, which account for the bulk of the market. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers forecast that spending on all forms of recorded music will continue to decline as youngsters turn to other outlets.


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24

Walking through the central streets of Laos' capital Vientiane last week I chatted with a Chinese family from  Yunnan (the southwestern province which borders Laos) running a shop to shift counterfeit music and film products. A copy of the U2 Popmart tour DVD costs 11,000 kip in the store, the same as it costs in Beijing.

Counterfeits are geting scarcer at home - there’s less pirate CD and DVD product on the streets of Chinese cities – but China’s counterfeiting problem may simply be exported to neighbouring states.  Packaging of the Chinese fakes is slicker, often indistinguishable from the real thing, whereas in Vietnam the packaging is often badly photocopied inlay cards wrapped around a pen-marked disk straight out of a stationery shop. The Vientiane store was identical to the countless others which used to proliferate in Chinese cities: shelves of recent releases and staples by favourites like U2, Eric Clapton and Westlife. It also reminded me of similar stores I've seen in Ulan Bator, capital of China's northern neighbour, Mongolia. 

Industry coalition groups have been saying that makers of fake clothes, software and CDs are increasingly aiming for export markets: EU authorities claim that 70 percent of counterfeits seized at EU ports in 2007 came from China. Given that customs check, on average, less than five percent of containers going through China's jammed-busy ports, it's not surprising that a half dozen boxes of audiovisual product goes undetected, hidden in the front end of a container of fruit or furniture.


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21

 I took the cramming school, the conveyor belt approach to learning to drive. As a passed and stamped graduate of the Oriental Fashion Driving School I’m relieved that I no longer have to get up at 5 o’clock for a 7 to 12 seat behind the wheel at Oriental’s sprawling complex near the Marco Polo bridge in Fengtai, the southwestern district of garages, cheap apartments and enough cheap land for two of China’s biggest driving schools.

Depending on my class I climbed on the school bus at six or seven in the morning, dismounted two hours later for lessons, and got back on board at 1.15 for the two hour drive home.

A late presence behind the wheel, I took up driving in China because I wanted to practise, safely, before taking my driving test back home in Europe. Why a foreigner costs more to teach than a local was never properly explained to me but I paid RMB8,000 whereas local students paid RMB2,000 for their 54 hours of driving lessons.

Depending on who you ask there are between 100 and 150 driving schools in Beijing. Oriental Fashion is a top-three player: it sponsors the weather show on Beijing TV. And by some dint of good luck and connections it’s the only school allowed to take foreigners as students.

So after a medical exam -a two minute sight test where I called in the door from the top of a queue of fellow applicants – I did what millions of Chinese are doing every day, I learned to drive. I paid my money down but it’d be another month before I could get behind the wheel of a car. I wasn’t told that you’ve first got to pass a theory exam – that comes last in European and American driving test centres. A book of theory was torturously translated, particularly on who should first pass whom on a slippery hill.

It took two visits to the marble-swathed offices of the road traffic police before I exceeded the minimum 90 percent required to pass. My Siberian fellow examinee still hasn’t mastered the rules of China’s road in Cyrillic, after three exams. Driving instructors at home are self employed with pot bellies who collect you from your house in a small red hatchback cars with an L plate on top. At Oriental Fashion I was usually number 505 –mine among the cars lined up in neat rows of silver and white Volkswagen sedans in a giant asphalted car park.

Everything at Oriental Fashion was about order and scale. The giant canteen sat 1,000 drivers and their tutors. The fleet of buses ferried them to Fengtai every morning and home again after class. The billiards room and the motel were for relaxation. It was impossible to know who’d want to stay in this part of town – and you can get digs for the RMB200 a room rate in less industrial parts of the city.

Tutors here have pot bellies too, but tucked into a uniform of blue shirts and synthetic grey blue slacks hitched up high on click-buckled belts the way Chinese men like to wear them. Truck drivers and machine operators seeking a quieter life, they wheeled off each morning from smoking circles as students arrived. The sight of a foreigner was like some spin the bottle, which car is he going to stop at. Foreigners make up five percent of the school’s student base.

A series of tutors guided me through driving, turning, parking, reversing. In our last classes we combined all of the skills. Turning the steering wheel: we did two hours of laying hands and doing half turns, full turns, then right turns.

Driving was sometimes a misnomer for the crawl of saloons around the obstacles, over the bridges and the go-slow bumps. With spring came machines that ripped the tar and downsized the course. Management had sold on to a property developer or to the neighbouring railway yard, depending on which tutor was talking.

The tutors talked through tea leaves and the odour that came from a breakfast of garlic-laced cabbage and baozi, steamed buns filled with meat. The terminology was sometimes inscrutable from teacher to teacher, and most inscrutable from the mouth of my teacher from Shanxi who giggled and scampered around the car to point out bottles and posts and grass marks which were to be lined up with window wipers and door panels. 

I was a constant source of fascination for the other students. Most drove in fours all day every day for two weeks, taking turns behind the wheel while three more sat in the back. A hair dressing salon I befriended were staff working the late shift at a down-town hair dressing salon.  Their hair styles bordered on disaster: there was the disastrous poodle job in brown dye on a 20-something barber, sat next to girl colleagues who went for a long fringe streaked with peroxide blonde and a mad-cap combination of perm and a straight fringe.  

China’s drivers were young and in a hurry to be licensed. There was the 74 year old who drove alone, a dream fulfilled by a wealthy son whose driver waited in a black Audi to take the student home. White-haired and wearing thick spectacles he seemed intent on fun, preferring to give gas on the slow-go obstacle course of raised manhole lids. He had a dangerous habit of overtaking whenever his instructor’s foot was off the brakes fixed in the passenger seat to tame dangerous learner drivers.  

I never saw another non-Asian behind the wheel while I was driving but am told there’s a good sprinkling of Russians and Indians. Whatever, business is good: students need to book a week in advance to get a car and trainer. I paid dearly in sleep and silver for my license to drive in China. But not wanting to contribute to Beijing’s pollution and congestion I’m sticking to my bike.

 


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18

There a dilemma in preserving musical heritage. On a recent trip to Laos I picked up a CD of local folk tunes in a grocery store in Vientiane. It’s a nicely packaged album but the sales point – an expat-geared Seven Eleven style shop - and 65,000 kip (EUR4.50) price tag means it’ll only ever reach the ear’s of wealthy expatriates. Several Laotians whom I asked to explain the music blinked on seeing the price tag. Understandably so perhaps, given local clerical salaries average US$50 a month.

Worse, the CD was put together by a French musicologist with help from French public money. A healthy traffic flow suggests there’s money in Vientiane but government funding for the arts crumbled in Laos: the Communist government which took over in the 1970s was never one for reminding locals of their retired royal family, or of the French-imperial days when the country and neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia were ruled by Paris.

It’s hard to find decent collections of local folk in any Vientiane music store – there’s not many of them. So the country’s musical past will remain in the hands of a few interested foreigners and world music connoisseurs like BBC’s Charlie Gillet.

Even moreso than Laos, China is a ‘socialist market economy’ where official obsessions with economic growth and development makes for an often homogenized culture. Finding original works of Chinese folk is hard, given that most have been souped up with a disco beat or Mandopop stylings.

A lonely voice in the wilderness in Beijing, where itinerant French musicologist Laurent Jeanneau has been making his collections of Chinese minority music available in local record stores like the Sugar Jar. Maybe when they’ve gotten wealthy and built enough malls these states will slow down and go in search of their distinctive culture again: that’s a hope.

 

 

 

 

 


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15

If you want to see what's hot in guitar bodies and hear what sounds good in amps or grand pianos, then be in Shanghai in the second week of October. That's when Music China hits town, a giant opportunity to source, sell or promote instruments in the work shop of the world. As I've reported here before, China is the world's number one maker of musical instruments - in quantity terms no one beats China for making and exporting pianos, guitars and drum kits. But China's middle class is growing and government here is spending ever-more money on public education programmes. Both are reasons why there'll be no less than five national pavilions at this year's Music China, set for October 9 to 12, at the Shanghai Convention Centre. Oxford University Press are joining the British Pavilion - they want to sell score books - while the Spanish Guitar Mastercraftsman's Guild will be showing off classical strings at the Spanish Pavillion. There'll also be special stalls from the Czech Republic and Taiwan. An eclectic grouping indeed. And all hosted (though the hard nuts and bolts work is done by Frankfurt Messe) by the China Music Instruments Assocation, whose chief mandarin Wang Getian was good enough to give me an interview recently. I'm now keen to talk to someone from the Music Industries Association in the UK for an insight into what the British pavillion, which it leads, wants from the show. Keep you posted.


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11

Talking with a friend doing business in Tianjin, host of several Olympics events (including soccer) this August, it's clear there's plenty of scams doing the rounds in the run up to the Games. In Tianjin foreign companies are targeted by scam Olympic-related events, says Juan Silvestre, who consults for companies like Airbus, investing in the industrial town a two hour train ride east of Beijing. He references a soccer tournament for foreign firms in Tianjin whose organizers disappeared after collecting participation fees and sponsorship. “It’s very common to be approached by people claiming special relations with government and Olympics.” Businesses, he said, are also often approached by local newspapers offering prominent coverage in reportage surrounding the Olympics in return for payment. 

Given the frequently cowboy nature of China's capitalism it's surprising there haven't been more scams. Unauthorised apparel bearing the logo of the Beijing Olympics is ubiquitous in Beijing. Enterprising businesspeople are all cashing in on the Olympic Games. A couple of foreign  businesspeople renting out apartments to Olympics visitors have been caught out by China's tightening of rules on getting Chinese visas. Beijing doesn't want anyone like pro-Tibetan or human rights advocates unfurling banners on Tienanmen Square. A Dutchman heading up the business has been left with a lot of real estate on his hands. But perhaps the hype about hotel rooms and homestay fortunes were all that hype: many visitors have been put off by China's new strict visa policies and the protests and counterprotests regarding China's policy on Tibet, earlier this year.


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03

I was talking yesterday with Bob Youill, Hong Kong policeman turned investigator at Asia Risk, the firm which chases down counterfeiters for clothes and music corporations. The Hong Kong-based company has been working for the recording industry across Asia, tracking down criminal gangs making and smuggling counterfeit CDs.

Most of it happens in China, says Bob, only because there’s the capacity here for making CDs. CDs are churned out in China and shipped to other countries that don't have such CD manufacturing capacity. Most of the CD factories are set up by Taiwanese investors, who shifted plants from Taiwan and Malaysia to cut costs. Youill told me of an Asia Risks bust in November 2007: working with the Royal Malaysian Police working operatives raided three illegal optical disc manufacturing plants.

They recovered six multi-million dollar replication lines, several hundred infringing master copies and thousands of infringing optical discs containing both popular music and Hollywood movies. "At the third plant, the owners were caught attempting to remove a replication line in a heavy goods vehicle. The illegal factories were part of the same organized crime syndicate and the illegal discs were destined for both local Malaysian and overseas markets."

With countries like Malaysia cleaning up its act the action is moving to mainland China. Still, CD piracy is down on previous years, says Youill - "only because the action has moved onto the Internet."

So forget tiny, undergroudn workshops: counterfeiting is big-factory business in China, where piracy is rarely seen by police as a major crime.


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01

Meet Mr. Zhou Xiaochuan, general manager of Guangzhou Starsing Culture Co. Ltd. That's the label whose release for soft-pop mistress Liang Jingru sold 200,000 units, making it one of the best selling albums of 2007.

Like most Chinese label bosses, he’s shifting he’s less worried about pirates than he is by downloads: “We bear more pressures form Internet downloads.” It’s in CD sales however that Zhou is really thinking outside the box: worried by what he sees as the reduction in numbers of shops selling original CDs he’s looking into distribution deals with “cafes, flower shops and many other places.”

Pop music accounts for between 20%-30 percent of Starsing’s catalogue. Zhou is "open" to music of different styles: the label has licensed classical, jazz and country music from foreign labels. Zhou’s marketing staff targets the 18-36 age bracket, “especially those with higher education backgrounds.”

Starsing started to cooperate with foreign musicians at the end of last year, pressing CDs locally for singers from France, Spain, Malaysia and Sweden. “We have cooperated a lot with Sony, from which we get a clear picture of foreign music.”

Not all of the label's money is coming in recording deals. The label signed contract for image rights and merchandising management with four artists. Starsing also took a cut from organizing concerts for Jiang Xin at Beijing club Starlive. The label is organizing a July 5 concert for Dou Wei, Zhang Chu, He Yong and Jiang Xin, also a Starlive.

Starsing can compete with the multinationals on home turf: Compared with companies like Warner and EMI we firmly rooted in the Chinese land, we know more about the local culture and we are much more flexible. Those big companies are aircraft carriers and we are just like a small boat. The air craft carrier can never navigate in China’s inner rivers as freely as a small boat.”

Frequent managerial shuffles also hobbles the majors in China. “That’s not good for continuity of their market strategy whereas we can implement our strategy more consecutively.” Zhou also thinks he beats multinationals by knowing the local Internet and retail scenes inside out. “We studied thoroughly about state of different media, the situation of the Internet’ development and data of sale terminals in cities at various levels in China... they cannot compete with us in this area.”

Government crackdowns on counterfeiters can have unintended effects on labels. “Pirate CDs are a problem, but not the biggest one. “It’s harder than ever to get a license to sell audio and video products, so that means less outlets for legitimate CDs too,” says Mr. Zhou.  Starsing battles pirates in the courts. “Anti-pirate technology will raise the cost and will eventually be broken by those pirates.”

Starsing has image and merchandising management deals with four mainland Chinese artists. The company’s concert management wing organized shows for Jiang Xin at Starlive in Beijing and is preparing for a Beijing show in July by Jiang and fellow folk singers Dou Wei, Zhang Chu, He Yong.


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27

It's hard to get solid information from Chinese music industry folks. When looking for figures they usually send me on to the "relevant government authorities." So I was happy when the other day Cluas got an interview with Wang Ju, vice president of state-affiliated China Audio Video Association (CAVA), the state-affiliated body which represents local labels. CAVA is leading a big Chinese delegation to the influential music trade fair London Calling in June, because “First, we want to make friends with our foreign counterparts and open a window for Chinese music.”

The Chinese government is giving CAVA cash to mount booths at Midem (in France) and London Calling this year, in what some China-based industry players see as a one-off effort by state trade bodies to make China appear visible in its Olympic year. But what's the payback to Chinese music? Polite-spoken Mr Wang talks like the career government official he is. "We want to examine the foreign mainstream music market to which we can show our music products and then gradually we can perfect our products and build up a all-round trading mechanism systemetically. Second, we want to know deeper from the London calling forums about what's going on in the international music market and about how has newmedia music affected the traditional music industry." In London, he says, the Chinese “would like to persue commercial cooperation in terms of copyright trading.”

Wang reckons CD piracy is on the wane in China because there’s less new music product about. “Personally i think piracy is decreasing. I think there are mainly two reasons. First, now they get less and less sources, for popular original music are decreasing in number. Because of the pressure from piracy and new media, benefits of original artists and company cannot be guaranteed. That's why we get less popular singers and popular songs. Second, the government has been keeping their attentions on piracy through relevant regulations."

The number of CD shops is falling, he says. There were 100,000 audio-visual shops across China registered with the State Association for Industry & Commerce (SAIC) in 2005 but the figure dropped to 85,000 in 2007, says Wang. "The problem lies in that not many people would like to open audio-video shop now."

He credits the drop to “pressure” from Internet and cell phone downloads. CAVA, says Wang, is encouraging shops to sell genuine CDs. The SAIC figures may not cover the shack-sized stores in China’s smaller cities which invariably sell pirated CDs and VCDs. But Wang suggests that these may be a dying breed. “There’s literally less new music around for pirates to copy. Artists are more reluctant to release CDs."

Because it's not profitable under the pressure of music from new media(Interet,cell phone,etc.) There were 100,000 or so audio-video shops in China, but now the number is decsending, but I do not get the exact figure.there are no new limitations for getting license, actually we are encouraging people to open more audio-video shops to sell genuine CDs.

 

Off to London to represent Chinese music industry, interestingly Wang doesn’t “know much” about the much heralded new system of collecting royalties from KTV bars. “You should check with China Audio video Collective Association, a new organization that is going to be formally established on May 28th. This agency is entitled by the government to deal with royalties.”

Equally, he doesn’t have figures for how much of China's CD and digital music sales are accounted for by local labels compared to international ones. Bon voyage and happy learning in London, Mr Wang. I'll look for more relevant government authorities to answer my questions.


 


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Nuggets from our archive

2002 - Interview with Rodrigo y Gabriela, by Cormac Looney. As with Damien Rice's profile, this interview was published before Rodrigo y Gabriela's career took off overseas. It too continues to attract considerable visits every month to the article from Wikipedia.