In 2001, the Chinese internet created its first viral hit. “Northeastern People are Living Lei Fengs” by singer-songwriter Xue Cun spread like wildfire via email forwards, forum posts and websites.
Qianqian Music was launched the following year to become China’s first online music portal. Kugou Music, China’s first P2P online music website, popped up in 2004, and soon downloads were challenging physical media like CDs. Songs such as “Lilacs” by Tang Lei, Pang Long’s “Two Butterflies” and “Mouse Loves Rice” from Yang Chengang were among the first wave of internet hits.
Around 2010 as smartphones took over the mobile phone market, the internet economy permeated every corner of the music industry. Soon, online music entered mass production.
Zhang Bowen previously worked for New Run Entertainment, one of China’s earliest and most important online music production firms. The company produced a string of popular online hits, including early sensation “Two Butterflies.”
Zhang told NewsChina that online music has three characteristics: “First, most songs are extremely simple and have catchy hooks that give that earworm effect. Second, they lack musicality and are written with simple and repetitive chords and cliché lyrics. Third, all online songs are almost identical pop ballads. Though some mix elements of hip-hop and electronic, the general style is still the pop ballad.”
Music critic Guo Xiaohan told our reporter that hit factories use algorithms to analyze successful songs for patterns in melody, chords, lyrics and themes. “These firms may put out a batch of 100 songs and as long as one or two catch, their efforts have paid off. Many of the hits that you know today were produced by algorithm,” Guo told NewsChina.
In this way, online music producers can easily churn out tsunamis of online songs. For instance, three of the 2021 TMEA “Top-10 Hits of the Year” – “White Moon and Scarlet Mole,” “Falling” and “Obsession” – were produced by Beijing-based Hikoon Music. The three songs have more than 10 billion views on social media. The firm has more than 560,000 songs in cue for release and nearly 10,000 demos.
Zhang Bowen told our reporter that his firm also has a huge catalog of unreleased songs. “In fact, our recently released songs were often finished two or three years ago. We cue up a lot of unpolished songs and wait for the right time to rework and release them,” Zhang said.
Cheerful Music is a Shenzhen-based online music production company founded in 2018. Zhu He, a songwriter in Cheerful’s stable, has two 2021 TMEA-winning tracks: “Fly Over the Mountains and Rivers” and “Thousands and Millions.”
“Nowadays, most new production companies won’t employ professional producers for A&R work. Their only goal is profit, not making quality music,” Zhu told NewsChina. “These companies use AI that grades unreleased songs on their potential popularity. If a song doesn’t score high enough, it won’t be released at all,” Zhu said.
“In the current Chinese music scene, most online hits were mass produced on the cheap. When given a sample of a certain style, you can crank out dozens of similar songs in a short period of time. Then it’s like playing the lottery – leave it to chance which one will hit,” Zhu added.
This explains why so many popular songs sound so similar. Last year, 163.com Datablog, a web portal owned by NetEase, analyzed over 50 Chinese pop hits on Douyin. The songs share similar lyrics, with repetition rates reaching as high as 85 percent. Also, 73.3 percent used three common chord progressions: the “universal progression” (think “Let it Be” by The Beatles), the “Heart and Soul” progression and the “Canon progression” (named after Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major).