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Pied Pipers of Pop

Can the future of the Chinese music industry depend on the multibillion dollar fan economy?

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Songs on the current [Chinese] pop music charts are nothing but shit,” respected singer-songwriter Zheng Jun told a stunned audience during a January 3 appearance on talk show Meet at 9am.  

“Almost all the music charts now have lost credibility,” he continued. “There’s too much insincere music on the charts. Nine out of 10 songs in the top list are too awful to listen to.”  

The rock veteran’s remarks sparked fierce discussions on social media about the state of the Chinese music industry. While some called his views too subjective and inappropriate, the vast majority sided with Zheng, saying the rocker had the guts to call out what had become an “emperor’s new clothes” scenario – Chinese pop charts had been hijacked by the fan economy: groups of mobilized superfans who strategically post, click and spend to send their favorite stars to the top. 

The fan economy has not only become an essential part of the country’s entertainment industry, but also a separate multibillion-dollar industry that is estimated to reach 100 billion yuan (US$14.5b) by 2020, according to Zhongtai Securities. Market research firm iResearch predicts China’s music industry output could reach 76.2 billion yuan (US$11.3b), with pop idol music accounting for 64 percent, or 49.5 billion yuan (US$7.3b).  

As a business model, the fan economy depends on interactions between fans and celebrities to provide products and services most likely to be consumed only by fans. As this quick-to-replicate, quick-to-profit model penetrates China’s music market, many have expressed concern that China’s overly obsessed fan economy is manipulating the music industry.  

Kris Who?
In November, Chinese-Canadian artist Kris Wu seemingly came out of nowhere when he topped the iTunes US singles charts, beating out Ariana Grande’s “Thank u, Next.” Before long, Wu had a total of seven songs in the Top 10 list – occupying the four leading spots. Within just 24 hours, his single “November Rain” had 14 million downloads, 1,750 times more than “Shallow,” a new song by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from the movie A Star is Born. 

Wu’s dominance was so thorough that it raised suspicions. The pop idol-turned-rapper had almost no previous presence in the US, leading many Twitter users to ask “Kris Who?” Many, including Ariana Grande’s team, questioned the authenticity of Wu’s sales. Rumors circulated that Wu used bots to boost his numbers. After the controversy broke, Nielsen Music investigated the legitimacy of Wu’s sales, ultimately calling them “unverified.” Wu completely disappeared from the iTunes Top 200 list soon after.  

There was little evidence to accuse Kris Wu and his team of any involvement in the campaign, there was no doubt that the rapper’s brief and controversial dominance of the US iTunes charts was in large part due to the concerted efforts of his fans who spent tons of money on multiple downloads to push him to the top spot. Wu, who first rose to fame as a member of the hugely popular K-pop band EXO, has 46 million followers on Sina Weibo. His fans are called “meigeni,” which means “every you.”  

In order to push Wu to the No.1 spot, Wu’s fan clubs played the system. They took to Weibo to post step-by-step instructions for Chinese fans on how to set up a US Apple ID, buy and redeem Apple gift cards, download Wu’s songs from the US iTunes store and use different accounts or IP addresses to boost the album’s total sales. On streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Pandora, which are not officially accessible in China, fans were encouraged to play Wu’s album on repeat to rack up plays.  

This was not the first time the power of Chinese fandom reached American shores. Last August, Cai Xukun, the leading member of iQIYI-produced boy band Nine Percent, bumped Grande and her “God is a Woman” from the top spot on iTunes with his single “Wait, Wait, Wait.”  

The phenomenon is a unique part of Asian fan culture. For years, the Chinese entertainment industry has witnessed a major shift in the relationship between fans and artists. Fans have increasingly turned from mere consumers of content and concerts to active participants in the careers of the celebs they follow. There are online fan clubs, some of which are encouraged by celebrities and their handlers. Mobilized like a virtual army, they engage in a series of mass activities, ranging from crowdfunding campaigns celebrating their idols’ birthdays, to promoting their latest projects or boosting their chart positions.

One of their main strategies is called shuabang, or “flooding the charts,” which involves purchasing multiple copies of a single album or song to boost sales on a single platform. Dedicated superfans do it on a daily basis, some even buying hundreds of downloads of the same song merely to help their idols climb charts across the world. Fans see shuabang on foreign charts as a way to project their favorite stars’ “overseas influence.” 

Moreover, celebrities and their managers also work hard to make fans feel they are playing an important role in their careers, which only strengthens their loyalty and dedication. 

“Fans are motivated to foster their idols by making a strong connection with a certain thing out of their life. In fostering an idol, fans project their passion and love onto the person they are devoted to. Many fans spend hours a day on their online support efforts. They are energized and gain immense satisfaction through ceaselessly offering love and support, particularly when the idol achieves various degrees of success – be it sales or topping the charts – with their help,” said Yang Ling, an assistant professor at the Department of Chinese, Xiamen University who for years has studied China’s fan culture.  

As Yang points out, Chinese millennials generally feel lonelier than previous generations, in part due to the country’s one-child policy. Celebrity worship provides a form of belonging through online-based communities and collective activities. 

Chinese rocker Zheng Jun

Chinese-Canadian rapper Kris Wu attends the Antares album release party held by Interscope Records in New York, November 6, 2018

Tuned-in Troopers 
Modern Chinese fan culture began in 2005 with Hunan TV’s hugely popular talent show Super Girl Contest. Fans not only voted for their favorite stars via text messages, but some also voluntarily campaigned for votes in shopping malls, streets and parks.  

In 2012, EXO-M, the Chinese-singing version of the popular South Korean boy band EXO, debuted in China. The group is credited with bringing K-pop idol culture to China – and the fan support that comes with it. 

The year of 2018 has been big for China’s idol making industry thanks to two immensely popular talent reality shows, Produce 101 and Idol Producer. Both had monetized voting systems that allowed fans to buy multiple votes for a single artist. The payouts were huge: Produce 101’s winning contestant, Cai Xukun, generated more than two million yuan (US$296,500) in votes, while Meng Meiqi of Idol Producer racked up 12 million yuan (US$1.8m). The nine-member boy band NINE PERCENT and 11-member girl group Rocket Girls were formed from winners of the respective shows. 

Concerns are mounting online that China’s overtly obsessed fan economy has changed the Chinese music industry for the worse. 

Since many idols in China are young amateur singers with average – if not poor – singing ability, they’re generally stereotyped as having little musical talent and bad songs. Despite their façade of charted successes fueled by the ceaseless efforts of superfans, pop idol music has a limited reach among general audiences.  

“In many cases, idols’ songs don’t even reach their own fans, let alone other people! The unfortunate thing is, there are some idols out there who are incredibly musically talented and artistically interesting, but their fans don’t understand or care about their music,” said Alex 

Taggart, general manager of Outdustry, an international music industry consultancy based in Beijing. Taggart has been working in the Chinese music industry for six years, helping Chinese artists and music companies collaborate with international partners.Taggart agreed that China’s obsessed fan economy has negatively influenced the music industry. “There is nothing wrong with the fan economy in general, but the problems start when celebrity status becomes more important than music,” Taggart said. “When musicians focus too much on their idol status rather than on their music, it cultivates a very superficial, unengaged fanbase, who don’t understand or even care about the artist’s music. Over time, this weakens the artist’s connection to their fanbase.”  

“The rationale behind the fan economy is not the same as the rationale behind the music industry,” wrote music critic Chen Xianjiang in the article “Why the Fan Economy Won’t Save China’s Music Industry” for ReChord, an online publication he founded with a focus on the music industry. 

Chen points out that the fan economy is the business of selling people. “It builds up a person’s popularity, then leverages it for profit: singing, performing, acting, advertising, and so on.” The music industry, Chen said, sells songs, not people.  

“The fan economy is not built to produce quality content because amid all the buying and selling, the music itself becomes secondary to the personality behind it. Even at its best, the fan economy fails to drive the music industry toward the consistent production and dissemination of high-quality recorded works,” he wrote. 

Money for Nothing 
According to a report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), China was the 10th largest market in 2017, with $292.3 million in revenue compared to the US’s No.1 ranking of $17.3 billion. This figure includes physical sales, digital sales, performance rights and licensing, but not concert ticket sales. 

In 2017, the number of Chinese digital music users exceeded 550 million, Zhongxin Securities statistics show, 1.7 times the US population. Nearly 70 percent of Chinese internet users listen to music online. The world’s most populous country has the potential to become the world’s most profitable music market. But it’s far from being that. 

Compared to paying for movie tickets, the majority of Chinese consumers are not prepared to shell out cash for music. Tencent Music, China’s largest music-streaming services, owns three music services – QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo – with a total 800 million users, four times that of Spotify. However, only 3.8 percent of users pay for the services. In contrast, Spotify’s pay ratio is 45 percent.  

Spending on music per capita in the US is 109 times greater than in China, reads the “Research Report on Musicians Survival Status and Copyright Awareness” released by the School of Art, Renmin University of China in September 2018. On average, Americans spend $16.41 on music per year, whereas Chinese spend as little as $0.15.  

In stark contrast to the popular idols who enjoy instant fame and fortune, musicians in China are struggling to survive. The report also shows that the annual income of American musicians is 11 times that of Chinese musicians. Only 14.9 percent of Chinese musicians earn more than 10,000 per month (US$1,490), and 43 percent can only earn 8,000 yuan (US$1,192) to 10,000 yuan. Worse still, as many as 29 percent of Chinese musicians fail to make any income.  

“There is definitely a lot of inauthentic music being released by idols and other pop record labels at the moment. The problem is that many artists and labels fundamentally don’t believe that music is something that can make money, so they treat it as a marketing expense – something that doesn’t really need to be amazing, just ‘OK,’” Taggart told NewsChina.  

“In the West, musicians can now book nationwide tours and secure lucrative brand endorsement deals simply by being popular on Spotify,” he added. 

In China, appearances on TV talent programs have become a major way for Chinese musicians to increase their incomes and media exposure.  

But from Taggart’s perspective, musicians and music companies need to stop focusing so much on such shows. “The problem in China is that people still define success as mainstream media people realize that TV, radio and movies aren’t the be-all and end-all, the better,” Taggart said. “By now, it’s completely clear that the only people who benefit from these shows are the TV broadcasters and production companies.”