At the time of our scheduled interview with legendary producer Y.Z.TAN (谭伊哲), he just finished working as musical director on the show The Coming One season 3 and immediately started working on TFBoys member Roy’s (王源) concert as well as The Untamed (《陈情令》) concert.
Before interviewing Mr. Tan, we searched for his appearance in the media and we found very fragmented information. He’s always some celebrity’s album producer or some musical director of a singing competition show. Behind all these temporary identities, who is Mr. Tan as a person?
We met him in his office at his record label T.Y.Z music. His colleagues told us the room was originally a storage room for instruments and occasional conference room. Mr. Tan’s daily routine consists of waking up at noon every day, eat a small meal, and then stay in his office until midnight. He does everything in this office, he makes music, attends meetings and receives guests all in this room. In 2014, he started collecting instruments. He swore that he would collect every piece of instrument that inspires him. When he’s not working, he disappears to look for interesting instruments and he comes back with interesting stories of his new collections. Now every room in TYZ’s office space has instruments in it. He has already spent tens of millions of RMB on his instrument collection and he loves showing them off to his visitors.
Mr. Tan likes being alone. He hasn’t been to karaoke (which is basically golf for Chinese people) nor attended after parties of concerts he oversees for around 10 years now. With the accumulation of goodwill in the industry, his time becomes more and more valuable. There are so many people to meet, so many things he needs to deal with and alone time become luxury. He installed intelligent lighting and sound system that can be remotely controlled on his phone but he soon realized you have to spend at least 1 second picking up your phone, another 9 seconds unlocking your phone and open the app to turn on the light. So he ditched the system and reverted back to a physical switch, which only takes 1 second. He believes this obsession with efficiency is a product of becoming a middle-aged man.
Below is our edited version of Mr. Tan in his own words.
About His Upbringing
My pop music inspiration was Michael Jackson. To 12-year-old me, Michael Jackson opened up a whole new world to me. The craziest thing about my adolescence was being a Michael Jackson fan. I know all of his dances. I even know where every breath is. I also won a break dancing competition using Michael Jackson’s song.
My second idol was John Towner Williams. I became a fan of his when I was studying composition at Sichuan Conservatory of Music. I was so perplexed by his music. I can learn Michael Jackson’s songs but I have no idea how John Towner Williams makes his music. So I got very curious. In my opinion, Williams’s talent in orchestration is the greatest in modern history. His composition prowess even surpassed that of many classical geniuses. I’m still studying his music until today. Williams was my last idol in music.
I wanted to study abroad after college, but 911 happened, the United States rejected my visa. So I went to Canada and studied music production at a private music school in Toronto.
In 2004, I came back to China from Canada. I started my career as a band player and arrangement artist. At that time, I made a couple thousand a month playing in bars, and a thousand or two per arrangement. As a band player in a band in a regular bar, you make about three to five grand. Arrangement is riskier. It’s possible to go months without an arrangement job. Or sometimes you arrange a song your client doesn’t like and won’t pay you for it, you might waste two months of your time without any income. The best music producers honed their craft as an arranger and a band player. And the best of the best do both studio work and live music. I’m one of the first producers who jump-started their careers in the music talent show era. Music talent shows on television started the career of 95% of all producers.
∧A younger YZ Tan with friend
I have to give a big shout out to Zhang Yadong for giving me the greatest help in my career. I worked for him in his label as an arranger. He’s the one who gave me the opportunities to work with stars like Chris Lee, Li Jian, Karen Mok, Na Ying, etc. I’m also lucky to be one of the first who came back to China after studying abroad and a lot of people wanted to hear what I make because of that. I came back to China just in time for viral music talent show Super Girls that started in 2004. I started making music for Chris Lee when I first came back to China. Our careers started at the same time and we became big in our respective fields at the same time. At that time these TV production teams have no instructions for the music directors but not anymore. Now they would tell you very specific things such as how many choruses do you need to fit into a 4-minute song. The market is changing and I’m glad I can be a part of it. After Super Girls, a string of music talent shows went viral, like Super Boy, Voice of China, I am a Singer, The Coming One, Rap of China, etc. I am a Singer and Voice of China contributed greatly to the income level of the good band players. Now you can make 1.5 million RMB a year easily, as a top player. But there’s only around 20 of those. Arranging is the same. You can make anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple million arranging music for a living.
∧Contestants on The Coming One
About the Music Arrangement Industry
A lot of people ask why music arrangement is considered a career choice in China. Internationally, composers are usually arrangers as well. They can write their melody, compose the instrumental and perform them. But in China, the composer is just the melody writer.
Arrangement as an industry started to develop very rapidly as music talent shows became big in 2005 because more than 90% of the songs performed in music talent shows need to be rearranged to fit the show. That’s how arrangement became a big part of the industry. Since 2012, music arranger’s income and quality of life, in general, has increased 10 times because of these shows.
Copyright protection only applies to the melody and the lyrics, not the arrangement of a song. As an arranger, we hope the arrangement can be copyright protected so that the good works we produce can continuously generate income for us. Now we are paid on a project to project bases.
Last year I released a single called “Producer”. Two things make the name for a musician: a popular song and musical capabilities. Popular songs are hard to come by. In this day and age, what I think is a good song and what the general public likes are completely different things. So I had to do something that showcases my musical capabilities. I know the general public would have no interest in my song but I also know this song will bring me the honor and enhance my reputation in the industry. Every singer, every tv production company will know what I can do and think of me when they look for a producer. It’s a marketing tactic.
I have collaborated with every big celebrity singer in China and I realized they do have something very special. TFBoys Roy is very professional. He gave me no instructions and trusted my judgment. In this industry, we don’t like artists who don’t understand music very well but have a lot of ideas because most of the time they don’t know what they want. I think good collaborations are all very extreme, either you listen to one person or the other. Musical products of compromises do not turn out very well most of the time.
Roy reminds me of Chris Lee. When she first debuted, there was as much criticism as people have now with Roy. Every generation is different. Maybe the older generations don’t like them because they can’t catch up, not because they are wrong. Both Roy and Chris were heavily influenced by music from a very young age. But to be a star, you have to have luck. There are many great musicians abroad, but they didn’t have the luck. Money doesn’t even matter as much. However, for us backstage musician, luck does play a part, but skill is more important. People will recognize you for your professional skills.
About NOT Being Xomplacent
In 2014, I went to Los Angelos to look for opportunities. I met with many producers who have Grammys under their belt. I planned on learning from them and finding some career opportunities in the States but in the end, I bought them back to China with me to make money.
Competition is too fierce in the US. No one can succeed on talent alone. In two or three years you can go from being a hotshot to fading into obscurity. That is just brutal. But in China, people value seniority. As long as you have ok work to show for, you can make a decent living with the same chord progression your whole career.
I think the Chinese music market is the best in the world. Even if you only have one hit song, you can go on making tens of millions going on variety shows. Going on tour and music festivals singing this one song can make you a lot of money for many many years.
However, our musical capacity and skills are still decades behind Japan, Korea, and the US. In the 90s, even Michael Jackson was impressed by our Jacky Cheung. Now, no one abroad recognizes any Chinese pop singers. Because in China, people who only know one chord progression can make a decent living in music. When you’re wearing nice clothes and eating nice food, you won’t improve if you don’t deliberately keep yourself from becoming too complacent. But most musicians in China are, unfortunately, which prevents us from moving forward.
There is merit in doing things yourself but there’s a limit to how much you can do. I personally wrote every note in my production work from 2004 to 2013. The commercial arrangement is mostly engineering and not art. A large amount of repetitive work was not helpful for my creativity. That’s why I founded my company, TYZ. I communicate with the artists, translate what they want into the technical language (the structure, the speed, what instruments to use, etc) and communicate that to my team. Now my team has around 10 people, and there are 40-50 people managing the support functions. Last year, our team arranged 600 songs. The fastest single arranger cannot possibly arrange 100 songs in a year. Our record speed is arranging 150 songs in a month. No single person can do that amount of work. Teamwork made it possible. I am not a full-time entrepreneur yet. As a businessman, you would have to deal with people for full time. You also have to know the law. That is way more difficult than making music. That’s why many investors wanted to give us money, but I turned them all down.
In recent years, many people are starting companies in music education but they keep failing either because of legal issues or overworking. I’ve always wanted to get into this field. It is a contribution to society. We are 30 years behind the US in music education and 20 years behind Japan and Korea. Music education in China is not very applicable to working in the industry. We lack pragmatism and we need to learn that from the west.
Right now I have to give myself an hour to learn new things every day. Because learning things for one more hour adds more incremental value to my life than making music for another hour. I have to know what the future holds and what to do next. I’m very happy with where my career is. I still play instruments and arrange a lot but I also take on many album producers and musical director roles. I also have to reserve 1/3 of my time for my family. I used to be a total workaholic, but now I need time to be with my two-year-old daughter.
I always had high hopes for life. Before I studied abroad, I rented an old house in a Hutong. There’s no bathroom in my room, so the only option for most people living there was to go to a smelly public bathroom in the Hutong. I just had to walk 10 mins to a five-star hotel to use the bathroom. I believe in making the best out of a situation.
I never said I persevered in making music. Persistence can only coexist with pain. I never persevered or worked hard. I just loved music. And I just practiced instruments for more hours than other people without even noticing. I don’t force myself to do things I don’t want to do. I never attend after parties. People assume I’m incredibly busy but I might just be going home to listen to some new releases.
I was occasionally lonely as a kid. When I got lonely I used to dream about my future. But nothing turned out as I dreamed. I was unhappy about it at first, but then I realized it’s all destiny, so I just forgot all of my ideas about how things are supposed to be and accepted things as is. Now I’m never lonely. I have so much to do every day. I think now I actively seek loneliness. When you have so many people to see and so many things to do, loneliness becomes a luxury.
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