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Defying Labels

Once the gatekeepers and tastemakers of Chinese pop, record companies must redefine their roles for the short-video age

By Ni Wei Updated Jun.1

A concert to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Founding of Taiwan Rock Records is held at the Beijing National Stadium on May 1, 2011. Founded in 1986, Rock Records is the second-biggest independent record label in Asia

Of course Chinese pop is progressing. Why would you say it’s dying?” asked Shen Lihui, leaning back in a chair on his Beijing office balcony on a sunny afternoon. Below, a few musicians sneak out for a smoke between recording breaks.  

The 53-year-old founder and CEO of Modern Sky, China’s biggest indie rock label, runs a music empire that includes a music festival franchise, branded venues and operations in Europe and the US. With several hundred employees, Modern Sky runs out of what was once a factory in the city’s Chaoyang District.
The label will release more than 160 albums this year – the most since it began in 1997. Shen said Modern Sky is migrating from its staples of indie and hip-hop to guofeng, a genre that features Chinese themes and instruments, and will debut its own Vocaloid, a virtual reality pop idol.  

Like many labels in China, Modern Sky’s reshuffle reflects a fastchanging industry. As short-video apps like Douyin and Kwai become the principal platforms to promote music, record companies must adapt their strategies to thrive in emerging areas or survive in an increasingly saturated market. 

Common Denominator 
In another office in Beijing’s trendy shopping district of Sanlitun, Hu Yiyou, vice president of Taihe Music Group (TMG), wrote four words on a whiteboard: talent shows, ringback tones (music that plays while the caller waits to connect), streaming, short videos.  

“These are all the revolutionary trends Chinese pop music has experienced in the last two decades,” Hu said. He has worked in the industry just as long. “The traditional music industry has been challenged and disrupted nonstop for more than 20 years. It’s a result of the drastic changes in music distribution and promotion,” Hu said. 

These changes include the decline of physical media like CDs and cassettes, and the waning influence of music radio and TV. Today, new album releases rarely make waves, even from established artists.  

According to music critic Deng Ke, short-video platforms – with their collective user base of 888 million in China – provide the barometers for pop trends. “Audiences are always segmented. Some prefer songs rich in musicality, while many love cheesy songs. In the past, educated elites dominated the medium, leaving no votes for people who love cheesy songs,” Deng told NewsChina.  

“There are distinct markets and segmented groups of consumers that have increasingly different tastes,” Hu Yiyou told NewsChina. “The reason is that the development of technology and mediums has led to vertical marketing and consumption. But pop music should bridge these growing gaps.”  

TMG, one of China’s biggest record labels, is searching for that common denominator. Hu told our reporter that apart from scouting talent at live shows, the label combs Douyin, Bilibili and other video-sharing platforms for the latest viral stars. The company has its musicians and producers collaborate with popular online singers and influencers. One of its projects that wrapped in 2021, A18 Our Verse, includes 11 tracks by two artists from drastically different genres that aims to balance quality and popularity.  

On track “Swordsman,” alt hip-hop group MiniG collaborates with pop singer Li Yugang, who is known for his cross-dressing performances and high vocal range. R&B track “The Golden Gaze” by Dean Ting, a singer-songwriter and producer with TMG who has worked with A-list artists like David Tao, Hebe Tien, Yoga Lin and Jackson Yee, that features Vicky Xuanxuan, a 15-year-old influencer with 1.8 million followers on Bilibili, one of China’s leading videosharing platforms.  
“The audience determines what the top-10 hits are, but it’s our choices that determine what the audience hears,” Hu told NewsChina.  

According to music critic Deng Ke, most record labels have restructured to survive the era of livestreaming and short videos. Some profit off their vast copyright catalogs or focus on content creation, while others cater to the fast-changing flavors of the moment.  

But newer companies are proving much more agile.  

Tian Tian is CEO of Nouveau Entertainment, a Tianjin-based indie music label founded in 2018. Tian told NewsChina that they deliberately chose the word “entertainment” in their name instead of “music” to embrace these wider trends. Early on, Nouveau encouraged its stable of indie bands such as Penicillin, Queen Suitcase, Peace & Wave and Summer Sunshine to open accounts on Douyin and Kwai.  

“Many people think we focused on online content because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that’s not the case,” Tian said. “The thing is that the more popular you are online, the more results you see offline – this is the reality that future artists must learn to cope with.”  

Tian said that Nouveau plans to collaborate this year with multichannel network (MCN) companies, which specialize in content creation for video platforms, to reveal his artists’ more relatable sides. “Imagine a guitarist who is a cool badass on stage but a caring father at home. He can make short videos of him feeding his baby. People like to watch that sort of thing. Perhaps later he even can even get a powdered milk endorsement,” he told NewsChina. 

Twelve Girls Band, an all female Chinese musical group that features a mix of traditional Chinese music with modern pop, jazz and rock, performs among canola terraces in Huangling Village, Wuyuan County, Jiangxi Province, March 11, 2019

Produced by Lu Zhongqiang, That Night, We Did Music, China’s first rockthemed play, debuts at Beijing People’s Liberation Army Opera House, June 17, 2009. The play criticizes how the capital manipulates music charts and awards and the unspoken rules of the music industry

Concerted Efforts 
Modern Sky has taken a different tack by focusing on “scenes,” something Shen Lihui stressed when talking about his company’s core business. The label strives to explore scenes such as venues, music festivals and online concerts. “Modern Sky, no doubt, is the most radical of all record labels in China when it comes to innovating scenes,” Shen said.  

Shen, who fronted rock band Sober, founded Modern Sky in 1997 at a time when labels in Hong Kong and Taiwan dominated Chineselanguage pop. Instead, Modern Sky focused on indie rock, heavy metal and hip-hop – genres with only niche followings in China.  

A turning point came in 2007 when they held the first Modern Sky Music Festival in Beijing, a multi-stage outdoor event whose lineup featured American indie group the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Two years later, they started the Strawberry Music Festival, China’s most successful festival brand.  

Over the next decade, music festivals in China went from fringe to mainstream cultural events. According to data from cultural tourism industry analysts MeTime, China had 24 music festivals in 2007. From 2017 to 2019, there were 600. Modern Sky had a large hand in creating the festival boom.  

Shen told our reporter that in 2020, 45,000 people attended Strawberry Music Festival in Lingshui, Hainan Province from May 1 to May 2, bringing more than 400 million yuan (US$62.7m) to the local economy. Chinese who grew up on indie music have become a strong consumer demographic.  

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, a short-video platform approached Modern Sky to provide talent for online concerts and purchase some of their copyright catalog. Shen quashed the deal after learning the platform would make the online concerts free to users. It was then, Shen said, he became aware of the new dynamic at play: platforms focus on users while labels side with artists.  

“We strongly disapproved. How could they offer free online concerts? Artists put so much work into their music, and users needed to reward them for those efforts,” Shen told NewsChina.  
In May 2020, Modern Sky launched its own online concert series, Strawberry Nebula, which featured artists and bands including New Pants, Omnipotent Youth Society, Miserable Faith and Wu Tiao Ren. Tickets were 40 yuan (US$6.2).  

This year, the label renovated a 100-year-old building in Wuhan, Hubei Province into a music complex that integrates live music, art spaces and a shopping mall. 

“Our views toward music never changed. We didn’t produce 30-second songs during the days of ringback tones, and we don’t make music for 30-second videos now,” Shen said. Those values extend to physical product. Most Modern Sky artists still release CDs and some put out vinyl. The label has plans for bringing back cassettes too. 

Music fans relax at the 2021 Chengdu Strawberry Festival held at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Creative Industrial Park, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, May 30, 2021

Pop Will Repeat Itself
“Early on I realized I needed to steer clear of pop trends, otherwise you end up making crappy music and at the mercy of the medium,” said Lu Zhongxian, the 50-year-old former producer for Warner Music and founder of folk label 13-Month Culture.  

In the mid-2000s when ringback tones were most lucrative, Lu had a knack for knowing the market. He produced a series of popular internet hits, including the phenomenal hit “Mouse Loves Rice.” In 2005, Lu founded company Internet Show, a successful producer of ringback tones. Lu wrote up to eight internet songs per day during a time when a hit song could bring in more than 500,000 yuan (US$ 78,600) per month.  

But churning out internet songs left him feeling “depraved.” Seeking respite, Lu turned to the unexplored waters of Chinese folk. His label 13-Month Culture, founded in 2006, signed respected folk artists including Wan Xiaoli, Ma Tiao, Su Yang, Zhang Gasong, Shanren Band and rocker Xie Tianxiao. In 2010, the company launched the “Folk On the Road” tour, a four-year campaign where over 30 folk artists performed more than 300 live concerts across China for more than three million people. Media hailed it as the “renaissance of Chinese folk.”  

Its success boosted Lu’s confidence in niche markets. In 2014, as the folk music market saturated, Lu tuned in to world music.  

In 2015, 13-Month Culture established China Music House, a world music label whose artists blend traditional Chinese music with other genres. In 2018, the label launched its “Chinese Music Revival” campaign, which cooperated with more than 40 artists from around the globe on over 40 albums that meld traditional Chinese music with other folk traditions and genres like electronic, rock, hip-hop, jazz and reggae.  

On January 25, Xinminqi (“Neo-Folk Ambience”), a band of several young musicians who play traditional Chinese instruments, released their first album Chinese Neo Folk’s Evening on the label. “You hear bamboo flute playing trap (hip-hop subgenre), suona (doublereed instrument) playing hardcore rock and erhu (two-string bowed instrument) playing electronic music,” Lu said.  

“I hope more people play with music in such creative ways. I also hope this kind of music gets popular and even goes viral on short video platforms.”  

While Lu is content with the style he helped to craft, the producer has little hope it will improve the overall tastes of the masses. “There is zero possibility,” Lu said.  

“We may be helpless when facing that red ocean, but I’m still optimistic about the future of Chinese music,” Lu told NewsChina, adding that last year’s top-10 at the Tencent Music Entertainment Awards resemble the popular ringback tones of the past. “People have always worried whether inferior quality music would corrupt the public’s tastes and aesthetics. I think we need to maintain that kind of elitism and sense of responsibility and urgency. If you find something you really want to do, then you get down to doing it.”