Today, a long post addressed titled “To Liu Jia (CEO of Cast Planet): Pay what you owe me and stop pretending it never happened” went viral after being reposted thousands of times on Weibo and Wechat. The post was written by mixing engineers and producer Zhao Jing, describing Liu Jia’s non-payment for his mixing services despite having explicitly invited Zhao Jing for the job.
As of the publishing of this post, Zhao has received support from all sides on social media; Liu has yet to comment on the matter. Reportedly, aside from being exposed for his failure to pay, Liu has also been accused of plagiarism for multiple compositions. Caotai Music’s CEO Ge Fei, Deng Ke, and singer Li Ronghao have all decided to take a stance in favor of Zhao.
While condemning Liu’s complete disregard of the artist’s work, many have also used this chance to vent about similar cases that they or their friends have experienced in the past. Therefore, the post being blown up is not merely coincidental; many have decided that changes needed to be made with regard to the industry’s attitude towards those who work behind the scenes.
A Weibo user commented, “this is like going to a restaurant, eating the food you ordered, then complaining about how bad the food tasted and refusing to pay for it. How is that okay?”
Of course, it’s not okay. However, from our observation within the industry and on social media, these types “dine-and-dash” is far from unusual.
For instance, an experienced producer who we’ll call Mr.Z, for the time being, has told CMBN that even though he has never experienced a case of non-payment like Zhao has, he’s been met with delayed and/or reduced payments many times in the past. Even young producers like Yoken, who has just entered the industry no long ago, has experienced similar problems. Many other producers and mixing engineers also took to social media to vent about similar experiences, with some concluding “this might just be the way it is,” a sad but true statement.
Zhao Jing later added to his post, saying “this long post is also meant to raise awareness for the newcomers to the industry. Monetarily, this wasn’t too much of a loss for me, but it may be a huge one for people who are just starting out. A lot of young producers and composers have told me about their personal experiences that are more or less similar to what I have just been through. I just hope that people will actually start following the rules!”
The sacrifice that Zhao made, in a way, reflects the disadvantageous position that behind-the-scenes workers are in, a problem that stems from a vast global misunderstanding of the creation and distribution process of music.
A video game composer, as well as members of a famous Chinese classical music composition group, has told us that, compared to exposure-heavy stage performers, those working behind the scenes usually have little leverage when it comes to negotiating deals. The contractors/employers themselves usually have a very limited concept regarding the creative process of music, therefore ignorant of the value of work done by producers. The truth is, these kinds of work are usually as important, if not more important than any other parts of the creative process.
Aside from the common misconception regarding the producers’ role, there are also other factors that jeopardize their rights to getting paid fairly.
1. Lack of awareness of a formal contract. According to Mr. Z and Yoken, most of those that work behind the scenes don’t have the habit of signing any form of contracts or agreements–the main reason why Zhao wasn’t able to get his pay, yet. Furthermore, usually the more experience one has in the industry, the less likely that he/she will sign a formal contract due to the fact that most of the projects are usually introduced to them by “friends” or people who have a decent reputation within their circles. “There’s not even a bookkeeping system. Everything is purely reliant on the basis of good faith,” said Mr. Z.
Evidently, this system isn’t working so well under the current fast-paced and somewhat saturated music industry. Without a proper binding contract, producers will find it extremely difficult to get their money through legal procedures, and the public’s pressure on the offender can only work to a very limited extent. Of course, Zhao’s case is an exception, with many praising how professionally he handled the situation and that he brought attention to this phenomenon that will hopefully raise awareness within the industry.
In his comments, Zhao claimed that “I’m not expecting to get my money back; I’m merely describing my experience so that my colleagues and others that are in the industry can be alert. Not signing the contract was out of my trust (for Liu) and it’s my negligence, one that I’ll be paying for.” However, looking at the amount of attention that has been put on the matter, it is fairly likely that Zhao will eventually get paid what he’s owed.
2. Producers are often non-confrontational and shy away when it comes to pricing. China’s music production pipeline is largely unstructured and unregulated, with most getting paid much lower than the international standard. Not only is it due to the general environment in China, but it’s also largely because of the introverted personality that many behind-the-scenes workers have. In a reply to a comment under his post, Zhao said that the reason why he accepted the job without signing a contract was because “most of us (producers) are pretty introverted, and as a result, it may be very difficult for us to even bring up the topic of contracts and payment, so we’re just accepting this as what we have to deal with.”
That, combined with the lower-than-standard pay for production work, most have learned to put up with this problem and just get as many projects done as humanly possible. “I’d rather work on some other project than chase after my money.”
This is not just limited to the music industry either; tons of video editors, producers, designers that rely on content creation as their livelihood all face this issue as well.
When we look at the structure of the entire music industry, anything that involves composition and production is considered a driving force that ties deep into the vitality of the industry. However, the not-so-glorious nature meant that only a few realize the significance of this type of work. This is a dangerous misconception that will ultimately cause a disastrous chain effect through the entire music production chain.
Now, as a creator that lies at the core of the industry, especially young ones, what should you do to protect your rights?
First, always describe your pricing and payment requirements as clearly as possible, and always draft a legally binding contract. Without a contract, little can be done further down the road for you to exercise your rights. Fortunately, many newcomers to the industry have already started to pay attention to these problems. Take Yoken as an example. He uses a “Step Deal” for his work, meaning that he asks for 50% of the total fees at the beginning of the project, 25% at the delivery of the first demo, and the remaining 25% at the delivery of the final product. “No money no work. I’m not trying to waste my time not getting paid here.”
Secondly, be proactive in communicating with others within the circle. Some have suggested that China should form a workers’ union, just like many western countries, so that creators can use it as a platform to discuss things such as pricing, rights protection and “blacklists” for those that don’t pay fairly. The first workers’ union for musicians is yet to be founded, but they are more than encouraged to do so under today’s circumstances to facilitate the communication and information updates within the industry.
Aside from the musicians’ lack of awareness, at its root, the reason why these things still happen regularly in the music industry is the absence of well-enforced regulations and the poorly protected intellectual property rights in China, allowing those with bad intentions to take advantage of hard-working musicians.
Luckily, we are starting to see creators like Zhao Jing taking a very firm stance to voice their concerns. We at CMBN have also seen a rise of new-generation musicians who are paying much more attention to what they’re being paid for their work. Yoken said, “Those people are asking us to make stuff for them, not the other way around.”
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