In the five years of China Music Business News’s existence, we experienced and recorded first hand the changes in the music industry. From physical album to streaming platform, publishing music is democratized. What’s also democratized, is the media, from magazines to social media, now everyone is a self-proclaimed music critic. Are traditional media losing their voice and credibility? How should media professionals adopt the new order of the industry? We sat down with four of China’s most prominent music media professionals, Liu Shui Ji(流水纪), Lu Shiwei(卢世伟), Uncle Qiang(强叔), and Zhang Shaotie(张昭轶) to discuss these questions.
CMBN: Since the reason we all gathered here today is to celebrate the five year anniversary of China Music Business News, why don’t we go around the circle and tell everyone what we were doing two five yearss ago?
Liu Shui Ji: I don’t like how this question exposes my old age. But of course, I was also a young man ten years ago. (laugh) I just graduated college in 2009 and I became a counselor teacher in a music conservation. I was struggling at the time because staying in school was my parent’s wishes. They thought a teaching job would be nice and stable. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I actually had an offer to come to Beijing and work in the music industry that I unhappily turned down. So that winter I spent my working hours taking care of the students, arranging practice rooms, help them with their schedules, etc. I used to stalk them when they are in class to make sure they are paying attention. I was a paranoid mother hen. But outside of work, I still had my eyes on the music industry and spent a lot of time writing music reviews.
I don’t know if any of you still remember TOM music net that was very popular ten years ago? Many famous music critics like Jin Zhaojun(金兆钧) and Khorchinv(科尔沁夫) used to publish articles there. I started posting music reviews there since freshman year in college.
Lu Shiwei: I remember during that winter ten years ago, Wang Feng released a very anti-seasonal song called “In the Spring.”
It was my7 fifth year working at Music Weekly. I think we were co-hosting the China Music Award with 974 Beijing Music Radio. Jane Zhang, Chris Lee and Mao Amin collaborated on the award show. It was quite memorable. Aside from working at Music Weekly, I did some A&R work for friends. In 2007, I helped Ma Tianyu produce his transitional album Fly. In 2009, I helped Chris Lee produce Let’s Meet at the Next Crossing.
Uncle Qiang: I remember I did something I’m very proud of. In 2009, Douban.com just launched its offline event page. For that whole year, I organized gatherings in a small restaurant in a small hutong every Friday night for a full year. Every weekend, no matter how bad the weather, there’s always a group of young people drinking wine and talking about music. I got to know a lot of people that year. It was great.
Also, I already quit my old job in 2009 and became a freelance writer. I wrote a lot of things during that period, some indecent lyrics, stage plays, and things for magazines like “How to shoot sexy pictures for cover girls”, all kinds of weird things. But the warm feeling of having a bunch of people to talk music with and living however I wanted was very memorable.
Lu Shiwei: I want to add something. Uncle Qiang talked about Douban, which reminds me of my memory joining Weibo in 2009. I was one of the first users who were invited to join for testing.
Zhang Shaotie: In 2009 I founded my first company, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t a real music industry professional at that time yet. I wrote my first research paper on e-commerce.
I remember the song I sang the most in karaoke was Mayday’s “Suddenly Missing You So Bad.” I had a teaching job in Shaanxi Province for a while and wrote some songs there. That place didn’t even have cell phone service. Those songs are still demos. I only released my first solo album five years ago.
I also registered a Weibo account. I got to know a band called Caffe-In(咖啡因乐队), with whom I work with a lot now.
Liu Shui Ji: Oh I forgot one thing from ten years ago. While Mr. Lu maintained his beauty and slim figure all these years, the rest of us were also pretty thin.
CMBN: Now that we are talking about you, Mr. Lu, we wanted to ask you a question as well. I know you have a wide variety of experienes on your resume, like being a English teacher. You have a lot of experience in both traditional media and social media. In this day and age, traditional media are forced to go on social media as well. Can you tell us from your experience, what has changed for media professionals?
Lu Shiwei: Before the digital age, becoming a media professional was very hard. When I graduated from college in 1994, becoming a journalist was a hard and noble thing to do. I applied to be an English reporter at Wuhan TV. Even though according to the system at the school, I was supposed to stay and become a teacher. I tried to fight for my destiny for a bit.
However, Wuhan TV told us that they would take the top 10 students in English major in our graduating class. I took the test, I got 6th place. The 5th place was my friend on the upper bunk. He got 0.5 points more than me, and he got in. The barrier of entry was very high.
In 2004, I finally became a journalist myself. In 2005, I became the chief editor at Music Weekly. I remember firing a kid with a graduate degree in journalism from the Communication University of China. Before I became a journalist, I was only writing out my own opinions about things. But being a journalist, I had to start asking questions.
I got into Music Weekly because a friend asked me, “Hey, we’re starting a new magazine on our own, would you like to join us?” And I asked him three questions: “First, I’m not a journalism major; second, I’m already thirty-one; am I gonna make a good enough journalist?” And the friend said: as long as you can write, you can just come and try it out. It was that easy. But then, after I became the chief editor of Music Weekly, people started saying it is the West Point of the music industry. Many big shots in the industry worked there, like Yin Liang, Cui Shu, and Khorchinv.
I did spend a lot of time thinking about what the qualifications for a music media professional should be. I looked at our employees at Music Weekly, there are very few journalism majors. Most of our music journalists know music, and the music industry very well. Many are band players and songwriters themselves. You need to be a good writer and know the industry well. That’s it.
On the contrary, journalism students are not very suitable for music media. They usually know very little about music. If you don’t know enough about music, you can’t have a deep conversation with musicians on an equal footing. Besides, journalism students learned a structured approach to it, but the music industry is a very creative, dynamic industry. Rules of traditional journalism don’t apply.
Now, I think there’s no qualification to enter the industry at all. Those who have a lot of qualifications are most of the time unsuitable for the industry.
Liu Shui Ji
CMBN: Speaking of qualifications, as many music critics appear on popular variety shows like Let’s Band and I Am a Singer, many people became interested in the profession. So I want to ask Mr. Liu Shui Ji, what are the qualifications for becoming a music critic? Does a music critic have to be professional and objective? How do you view your own career?
Liu Shui Ji: First of all, right now, very few people support themselves solely by being a music critic, we mostly make money elsewhere and write reviews on the side. However, in Europe and North America, music critic is an important, professional, highly skilled job.
According to professional standards in the west, music critics are supposed to guide the public taste and recommend good quality music. These standards are valid in China as well. From the first generation of music critics in China, represented by our wonderful Mr. Jin Zhaojun, to young music critics now, everyone is still practicing these standards. However, the importance and social standing of music critics in China cannot compare with their counterparts in the west.
I think in the information age, we have to learn to distinguish professional music reviews from casual comments. For an article to qualify as a piece of music review, there has to be basic music theory backing up their claims. You don’t have to major in music theory in college, but to be a music critic, you have to be knowledge savvy. There are a great number of ways to gain a basic understanding of music theory. But you have to put in the work to learn. Knowledge in music is the basis, to be a good music critic, you need good writing skills to translate feeling into words.
A few days ago I saw an article about fans copyrighting for their idols that really struck me. They say creative, incredibly affectionate, beautiful things about their idols that made us A&R, marketer, copywriters feel inadequate. Does that mean us marketers are going out of a job? Not really. If you look closely at their copy, there’s no basis and no logic behind it. That’s where we come in, with specialized knowledge and precise words.
I really hope that music review can still be a part of Chinese audiences’ spiritual and cultural life and continue to be valued for bridging the emotional and the technical.
CMBN: Thank you Mr. Liu. Unlike the other three panalists on the stage, Uncle Qiang focuses more on electronic music equipment. We used to call people who likes music equipments “enthusiast.” But with the continuous advancement of music technology, more and more people started paying attention to sound quality and music equipment. Can you tell us about the changes in public opinions and spending habits in this area?
Uncle Qiang: I think the audiences didn’t change, what changed is the money.
It’s true. In the 80s and 90s, we used to buy physical music, cassettes, CDs. Even pirate tapes cost money. We used to joke that we have to listen to every song on the tape because they cost one yuan each.
And then technology changed everything. We got digital music. China went through a weird period of having close to no copyright protection, so audiences adopted a bad habit of obtaining music content at no cost what so ever. And then we solved the copyright problem and streaming platforms emerged. However, now people have to find new ways to spend money on music. People always want to spend money on things they love, that hasn’t changed at all.
People are spending a lot more money on speakers, headphones, iPods, etc. Production quality also has to upgrade because people’s listening devices can play higher-quality music now. That means producers spend money on better recording studio, better microphones, better mixing engineer etc.
The voice you hear on devices is not the singer’s actual voice. The better the equipment, the closer the sound is to the singer’s actual voice. So many fans are happy to spend more money to get closer to their idol.
CMBN: The next question is for Mr. Zhang Shaotie. As an A&R professional, what do you think is changing in A&R in this digital age?
Zhang Shaotie: Technology changed a lot of things. We never could have imagined ten years ago how our phone takes up so much of our time, and how little money we spend on music because of streaming services. Promoting music is easier than ever. But the less money and emotions you put in, the less the reward. Music only became a major part of our lives because of the invention of vinyl and phonograph, which enabled people to buy music. Without a nice business model, music couldn’t have become a mass-market product.
Uncle Qiang: The development of social media made our attention more fragmented. The way we listen to music is also different, which causes some confusion for music industry professionals. Every month, I rank ten best albums for an award. One of the criteria is that they have to be full albums, not singles, not EPs. But sometimes, there aren’t even ten full albums coming out, everyone just puts out EPs. Considering the marketing, production, and time cost, EP just makes more sense. Maybe I’m old school but I still hope singers now can put more effort into making full-length albums.
In June, I was surprised to see Madonna’s new album poster in a subway station in London. I haven’t seen any hardcore, on the ground publicity for any music content. It’s mostly fans celebrating their idol’s birthdays on the billboards and in subway stations.
In July, I saw that Madonna album in Tower Records, Shibuya’s largest record store. The album comes in vinyl, CD, CD Bonus, and cassette. To me, it shows great respect for music. I hope music industry professionals in China maintain respect for music as well.
Zhang Shaotie: I was talking to Mr. Shen Lihui of Modern Sky and I said I want to do more album planning work, follow each album from concept to publishing to promotion. It’s like writing a book as opposed to a tweet. The book formulates ideas more systematically. I want to deeply engage with the ideas, instead of just scratching the surface. I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote on Tik Tok or Kuai Shou. The promotional cycle of short video apps is just really short.
Pink Floyd puts out a limited edition every two years in Japan. I can’t help myself but buy it every single time. So classics still sell. Today we focus too much on “internet sensations” and “going viral.” But internet traffic nowadays doesn’t make that much money for you anymore. When I see those web traffic companies with their two thousand double card cell phones, I don’t really have a choice but to lose faith in view numbers, follower counts and clicks.
New ways to play the game comes out every day. You have to accept it. But music is an emotional language used to express feelings in life. The essence is still the same.
CMBN: Last question, if you have to sum up the last 5 years of the music industry and your own career in one word, what would that word be?
Liu Shui Ji: For me, it would be “faith.” I never had much faith in the industry. I stayed in Wuhan doing a college counselor job because I didn’t have faith. Eventually, I transitioned into the industry and worked under many industry tycoons like Song Ke, Gao Xiaosong, and Long Danni. Song Ke and Gao Xiaosong used to tell me all the time how back in the days, physical albums used to sell millions, how when Pu Shu was famous, it was the best days for the music industry. In 2005, Super Girls was so popular, everyone in my college dorm room talks about it. And I used to hate Chris Lee.
I got into the industry when physical albums weren’t selling anymore, variety show singing competitions don’t produce stars anymore. I couldn’t find anything in the industry quite like what got me interested in the first place. It felt like I was searching in the dark.
But then one day, I realized that I can take the things I learned from the glorious past and put them into practice in my daily work. That’s how I slowly gained back faith in the industry as well as my own career.
I went from a marketing person for Phoenix Legend to the leader of a company. I used to have people introduce me as rookie A&R. Now they call me an A&R veteran. I used to be an unknown music critic. Now young people tell me how they grew up reading my reviews.
Anyway, the journey has been painful but fruitful. If you keep putting your love in, the industry will reward you with the faith you need to keep going.
Lu Shiwei: I’d pick the word “self.” Since 2014, we have fully entered the era of social media. Now everyone has a chance to express themselves and be heard. Music media went from guiding the aesthetics of the public to a service industry. Music-related media products are more interactive and socially oriented than ever.
I was very confused at one point too. When I first started in the industry, we look up to singers. Now, literally everyone can be a singer. But this confusion is also a good thing. The industry is more diverse and vibrant as a result. There are no right and wrong ways to express oneself, as long as you say what you truly believe in.
Uncle Qiang: I would use the word “unsettled” because everything in the industry feels unsettling, everyone’s being very cautious.
Zhang Shaotie: I choose “romanticism.” I think the most important thing in this industry is the romance. We all love this. I hope everyone feels the joy and love and poeticness in the work they do every day.
CMBN: Thank you. I would pick the word “persistence.” A lot of people are bearish on the music industry. They say “the winter is coming,” or “it’s too tough of an industry.” Sometimes we don’t even know why we persisted in the first place. But we will be here, witnessing the evolvement of the music industry with all of you.
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