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Video Streaming Platforms and Reality Shows are Rapidly Changing China’s Music Industry

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Over the past two years, we’ve reported extensively on how variety shows produced by major Chinese video streaming platforms have brought underground music genres and independent musicians to mainstream audiences. Though music-themed variety shows have existed since the pre-internet era, an entirely new ecosystem has been created by programs like iQIYI’s The Rap of China and The Big Band, Tencent Video’s EDM talent contest RAVE, and a slew of more traditional pop star talent searches such as Idol Producer.

While interest in these programs has been a boon for some independent artists, it’s also created a new set of problems around music copyright. Regardless of the existence of the Music Copyright Society Association of China — a government-backed professional organization overseeing copyright registration, licensing, and management — who owns the rights to music streaming on such internet programs remains a complicated issue.

China’s unsound legal system and lack of awareness of copyright protections have consistently created controversies and lawsuits for many music-oriented variety shows in China, from Hunan TV’s Singer and Zhejiang TV’s Sound of My Dream to Tencent Video’s The Coming One. A few tough artists have been brave enough to come forward and speak up, such as Li Zhi, though often at their own professional risk:

Where is Li Zhi? Outspoken Folk Musician Seemingly Scrubbed from Internet

It was smart of iQIYI’s battle-of-the-bands-style show The Big Band to partner with local Chinese record labels like Modern Sky, Taihe Music and Caotai Music, making licensing deals easier and clearing rights for the songs performed on the show in advance. It’s less clear for contestants on Rap of China, who may own the rights to their lyrics but rarely own the copyright to the beats they rap over.

For shows where writing original music is a central part of the contest — like iQIYI’s I’m CZR (I’m Singer/Songwriter) and Youku’s Chuang (This! Is Original) — the streaming platforms producing the shows often make distribution deals for the original compositions, either directly with the musicians or with third-party management companies. Another method to circumvent potential copyright troubles is for video platforms to work with music streaming platforms such as TME or NetEase, allowing original music created for these variety shows to be distributed as both streaming video and audio, all over the internet.

As a product of this emerging model of distribution, these days you can find rappers dropping the songs that they performed on Rap of China the night before via NetEase, and new arrangements that show up on The Big Band tend to feature on QQ Music’s banners the next day.

Related:

China Explained: How Tencent Came to Dominate Music Streaming in China

According to entertainment industry consulting firm Entgroup’s recently published “White Paper on the 2019 Chinese Original Music Market,” the two variety shows focused on original music creation that have aired in 2019 — I’m CZR and Chuang — together featured 88 artists, and distributed 252 songs in total, which were heard and watched by more than 160 million people. The report indicates that short video apps like TikTok and Kuaishou, social networks like Weibo and WeChat, online karaoke apps, and livestreaming apps are all involved in the online spread and promotion of original music from these shows.

Offline performance of music from these programs is also included in the overall distribution chain. Alongside long-running music festivals and various cities’ live music scenes, iQIYI is holding live concerts and national tours featuring contestants from its shows, and the company’s artist agency Hedgehog Brother Entertainment has held a number of live concerts for some of its signed artists under the name HBe.

Related:

TikTok Drops an Album, Vows to “Help Musicians Be Heard”

One interesting resource that video streaming platforms can offer to emerging artists — and that the traditional music industry might struggle to match — is a diverse new set of monetization methods. We’ve already seen contestants on shows like Rap of China immediately snag endorsement deals from the show’s sponsors. Some artists are invited to other shows produced by the same platform — for example, Rap of China mentor MC Hotdog and contestant Wang Yitai recently made a cameo on I’m CZR. Established artists like Mao Buyi and Qian Zhenghao might attract their audiences to the show in the first place, but the combined appeal of artists from across each streaming platform’s suite of programs seems to be producing a network effect, increasing each individual artist’s following through the cross-pollination of viewers.

Where the traffic is, there is always commercial opportunity.

Entgroup’s report also predicts that, accelerated by this emerging video-variety-show-centric system, original Chinese music will increase in both quantity and quality in the future, with an online-to-offline ecosystem of original music being standardized over time. As for the audience, the traditional way of enjoying music might be changing: “watching” music might be an even more popular action than “listening” to it as shows like Rap of China and The Big Band reshape the industry in their image.

Cover image: the stage for Tencent’s RAVE reality show

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van