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Video Killed the Mandopop Star

As apps Douyin and Kwai change how songs reach audiences and shape pop tastes, swathes of China’s music industry are cranking out catchy tracks fit for short video – at the cost of artistic integrity

By Xu Pengyuan Updated Jun.1

Chopsticks Brothers, the duo behind the 2010 viral video Old Boys, perform Little Apple, the most popular internet song of 2014, at the 17th Shanghai International Film Festival, June 21, 2014

Yang Chenggang performs at an event in Sanya, Hainan Province, July 15, 2018. Yang is known for the viral hit Mouse Loves Rice released in November 2004

Chinese pop is dying,” the posts read. ” 

The tirade began on December 11, 2021 after the “Top 10 Hits of the Year” were announced during the 3rd Tencent Music Entertainment Awards in Macao. All the listed songs were first released on short-video platforms Douyin (China’s TikTok) and Kwai. This irked many on social media, who were quick to lament the decline of China’s music industry.  

Among them was pop singer and former Voice of China judge Yang Kun, 49, who in response posted to Weibo: “I once said that our society was progressing, but our music has gone backwards at least a decade. Yesterday, I realized I was wrong – the reality is way bleaker than I imagined.”  

That reality is that short-video platforms are pop music’s most powerful engine. The industry’s response has been a deluge of pop tracks tailored for the medium, to be consumed in 15-second clips.  

“Watching short videos and livestreaming has become the national pastime in China,” read the 48th China Statistical Report on Internet Development released in August 2021. The report said that the country has 888 million short-video platform users as of June 2021. In contrast, the number of users on music streaming apps in China was 645 million, according to iiMedia Research.  

In many ways, pop music has become a numbers game: Production companies crank out batches of AI-enhanced songs with similar hooks and see if anything sticks. This not only poses challenges to the established music industry but also overall artistic innovation and musicians with creative goals beyond monetizing their posts. 

Pang Long holds a concert promoting his latest album The Beginning, Beijing, October 31, 2007. Pang penned several internet hits in the 2000s, including Two Butterflies and You Are My Rose

Rage Against the Algorithm 
On a January 2019 episode of variety show Meet You at 9pm, 54-year-old rock musician Zheng Jun threw down a harsh critique of Chinese pop music: “When you check the trendiest songs on any music chart, you find that nine out of 10 are completely unbearable. The credibility of all [pop] music charts is compromised. As a listener you don’t have any choice. It’s like being at a restaurant where you’re served nothing but nauseating dishes and they force your mouth open and make you swallow them all.”  

This same sentiment reverberated across social media after the TMEAs. Many argued the listed tracks were not only poorly produced but also most general listeners had never heard them. This is because the songs are rarely ever played in their entirety. They became popular on Douyin and Kwai in 2021 as free background music for users, usually in 15-second snippets.  
“Most of the time, when you hear one of these songs on short-video platforms, the system’s algorithm would serve you heaps of videos with the same song as background music. As you scroll through the clips, the song is playing on an endless loop, so you’re contributing to the song’s data. In this traffic-oriented ecosystem, music producers are churning out tons of similar songs and pour them into the trough to feed more people,” music critic Guo Xiaohan told NewsChina.  

Liu Ying, a former employee at NetEase Music, one of China’s leading music streaming platforms, told NewsChina that if a new song from a lesser-known artist gets 100,000 to 500,000 streams in a week after its release, it gets added to a larger exposure pool. If it gains more momentum, the algorithm gives it another push. This process is mostly done automatically, but sometimes involves human intervention. While editors can promote a promising track as their own picks if it fails to catch on initially, the whole system works off an algorithm, Liu said.  

In the 2020 China Digital Music Industry Report, the Shanghaibased consultants MobTech researched how users spend time on online entertainment: short videos, online games, online reading, long-form videos and digital music. The report shows that in September 2020, short-video consumers spent an average 19.9 hours, more than online games (15.5), online reading (14.7) and long-form videos (13.5). Digital music consumers spent only 8.4 hours on average. 

Compared to streaming platforms, short-video apps have far greater reach. In the first hour after the release of mandopop megastar Jay Chou’s single “Mojito” on June 12, 2020, the song sold one million digital copies on Tencent’s streaming platform QQ Music. By contrast, the song had eight million views on Kwai.  

In its 2020 Q1 financial report, Tencent Music Entertainment Group boasted the success of “Youth” and “The World is So Large and I Here Met You,” songs that garnered at least 500 million streams. However, “Youth” has 1.02 billion engagements on Douyin. More than 15 million videos on Douyin have the song as background music.  

The road ahead for music streaming platforms is clear: Short videos are key to pop music success. In July 2020, Tencent Music announced its strategic cooperation with Kwai. A month later, streaming rival NetEase Music announced its deal with Douyin to create a “music + short video” ecosystem. 

Face the Music 
Industry giants are not the only players in the new game.  

Zhang Bowen is a young songwriter-producer who puts out dozens of songs a year. He’s also had a few hits: “Cloud and Sea” made the 2022 TMEA “Top 10 Hits of the Year” list, while “Misplaced Space-time” went viral, netting 3.3 billion listens on social media in one month. Zhang started a music production company that also deals in distribution and copyright management.  

Zhang told NewsChina that short-video platforms are the most important medium to promote music. “We used to do promos on radio, websites and music apps. But we don’t do that anymore. We don’t even issue press releases for new singles. The method nowadays is quite simple: promote the song on short-video platforms. As long as your song gets popular on Douyin or Kwai, you can expect more listeners on music streaming apps,” Zhang said.  

Because music giants have a firm grip on the ecosystem, songwriters and content creators are at the bottom of the industry chain. With the exception of A-list artists, most have no choice but to dance to corporate’s tune.  

“The internet becoming the industry’s principal medium will surely lead it to the smaller town and rural markets where most Chinese live. Douyin has already become one of the most powerful forces that you can’t avoid,” said Ke Nan, publicist for 20-year-old singer-songwriter Chen Xuening who won the TMEA for Best New Female Artist of the Year in 2019. “While songwriting is very subjective, sooner or later artists must face their audience,” Ke said. 

‘Earworm Effect’ 
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). 

Tomorrow Never Knows 
Chen Xuening said she struggles to keep up with the latest hits during karaoke with friends. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter won Best New Female Artist of the Year at the 2019 TMEAs for her viral hits “Green” and “Your Tavern is Closed for Me.” 

Chen debuted as an online singer, an artist that first rose to prominence on social media. This is a double-edged sword, as online singers are often stigmatized as amateurs possessing no real musicianship.  

Unlike many online artists who make music for quick consumption, Chen insists on her own creative vision and has rejected several offers from online music mills. “It’s a shame if an artist makes music purely for profit instead of self-expression. For me, a work with no true feelings is stone cold,” the singer told NewsChina.  

After signing with label Show City Times in late 2019, Chen released 10 new singles with Taiwanese music producer Liao Wei-Chieh. Recently, Chen has found inspiration in Yu Xiuhua, a prolific poet with cerebral palsy living in rural Hubei Province, and hopes to write a song based on her collection Still Tomorrow.  

However, Chen is up-front about her musical limitations. “I’ve grown up listening to pop ballads. I know I might not be able to write something experimental,” she said. 

Music critic Li Wan blames consumers for the lackluster output of online singers. “Theoretically, all kinds of music should be out there on the internet. It’s the general audience’s preferences that determine pop trends,” Li told NewsChina.  

Li points out that many trailblazing artists struggle for exposure in a world running on algorithmic hyperdrive. “Though we are indeed undergoing a hard time, there’s still an uplifting force underneath. We have lots of artists making music as good as Jay Chou and Stefanie Sun (both Mandopop icons). But the thing is that they are far less known to the public than their predecessors,” Li told NewsChina.  

As the internet replaced the traditional record industry as the go-to for releasing and promoting music, audiences and genres splintered into increasingly smaller segments. Music critic Guo Xiaohan celebrated the trend, saying these subgroups influence one another in unexpected ways. “In recent years, more and more pop idols are showing indie elements in their music, while some indie bands, as their fanbase grows, show more willingness to embrace pop music,” Guo said.  

Chen Xuening said that made-for-internet music should not be dismissed wholesale. After all, it is the zeitgeist sound of the moment. “In the sci-fi film The Wandering Earth [set in 2075], 66-yearold character Han Zi’ang pulls out his phone and plays the song ‘Seaweed Dance’ (a 2017 hit on Douyin). It’s possible that popular online music still can preserve the feelings and memories of our generation at this particular place in time,” the singer said. 

The second annual Tencent Music Entertainment Awards, Macao, January 23, 2021