On our fifth anniversary, we sat down with Shen Lihui, the CEO of record label Modern Sky, Zhang Youdai, one of the first radio DJs in China, and indie musician Chen Hongyu, the founder of record label Zhong Le Ji (众乐纪).
CMBN: In the early 1990s, Mr. Zhang Youdai became the first DJ in China and hosted the first European and American style music radio program. In the late 90s, Mr. Shen founded “Modern Sky Magazine.” In the era of streaming platforms, Chen Hong Yu released the first solo album of Poetry Under the Smoke and launched his podcast channel on the streaming platform. The three of you witnessed the development of Chinese music media from 1990 to 2020.
So my first question is, what’s your biggest impression of the 30-year development of music media in China.
Chen Hongyu: My own impression is that maybe the media, as well as the other cultural communication industries, all went through the same thing: from business to consumer to business + consumer to consumer. Now ordinary people can be heard publicly, and professional media are more affected by the users. The development of the music industry is the same. Now that the users are also content creators, the quality of content became diverse.
Zhang Youdai: I think the media is more organic and free. The good part of it is that everyone can publish their own content and become an independent “media.” But the flip side is that people do anything to catch eyeballs. The focus of media started to deviate from the content itself. Anything for publicity.
I started my career at a traditional radio station, but I have a podcast on social media now. On the radio, I usually don’t receive a lot of feedback after the show, but on social media, I can quickly get feedback from the audience.
Shen Lihui: When Modern Sky first started, we used to be a paper magazine. Radio stations were particularly important at that time because we get all the information from the radio. Many people only began to understand what is happening in the music scene, including underground music, independent music, and music from abroad. Everyone only gets this information because of this magazine. At that time, a magazine or a radio station might be the core of a hobby or an interest.
Today, individuals play a more significant role in the exchange of information. The media market is too fragmented. Now that there’s so much information out there, it’s hard to find those that are particularly useful. So, like what Hongyu just said, the media industry has become very flat, everyone can be a news outlet. So the public would have to accept diverse viewpoints and think for themselves.
CMBN: All three of you mentioned that the media industry is getting more and more fragmented. So I want to ask Mr. Zhang Youdai, what do you think the most important thing is for professional music media in this day and age?
Zhang Youdai: To work in a regular radio station, you need to have your unique voice, individuality, and quality opinions. But you can be a copycat and be fine on social media.
CMBN: Hongyu’s first album name has “radio” in it, why did you choose that name?
Chen Hongyu: Even though I studied journalism in college, I didn’t pursue it after I graduated. But later, I went to work at Beijing Radio Station as an editor for a year by chance. At that time internet podcast platforms like Dragonfly FM, Himalayan FM, Lychee FM, etc. became very big. My work experience there had a significant impact on me.
CMBN: My next question is for Mr. Shen. Modern Sky just renamed its magazine Modern Sky ZERO this year. Why did you choose the name and the time?
Shen Lihui: We proposed the concept of Modern Sky ZERO at the 20th anniversary of Modern Sky. We are at a point where we have to go back to the beginning, to break something and rebuild something. We also hosted a party in our office building, and we hope that we will return to the state of curiosity.
I don’t particularly care about how many readers we have, because it has nothing to do with our business. So why don’t we create more exciting content, at least the ones we think are interesting?
So we changed the name, but we haven’t changed the content yet. I hope the enhanced content is about exciting things and people from a global perspective. I want us to go small, not big.
CMBN: Do you think mainland China is a suitable place for music media to grow and prosper?
Shen Lihui: No. I think CMBN is necessary because it’s business-facing. Businesses in the industry need to know what’s happening. But customer-facing media are more focused on niche markets. I don’t think customer-facing music media has found a profitable, stable business model yet.
CMBN: Do you think traditional radio stations will be replaced by podcasts?
Chen Hongyu: I think the existence of podcasts proves the charm of traditional radio stations. They are essentially the same thing. I made a recording and put it on a conventional radio station last night, but on the second day, I uploaded it onto a podcast platform. And I got different feedback from different audiences. I think these two forms are complimentary.
Zhang Youdai: The reason why Chinese radio flourished in the early 1990s was that there was a group of people passionate about broadcasting. At that time, a radio DJ can have their individualities. That’s why I still like traditional radio better.
CMBN: The next question is for Chen Hongyu. Which media do you use to communicate with fans? Which one do you think is the most effective?
Chen Hongyu: When I was working at the radio station, the station had a lot of excellent programs. The radio considers online podcast a competitor, so they only allow its employees to upload the programs online after the broadcast. These radio station programs have better quality than most online media. They get a lot of views and comments right away. Traditional radio stations are not outdated.
And as for me personally, I wouldn’t call my podcast station and my Wechat account “media.” It’s just an extension of my music. I make myself happy; I make my fans happy; that’s enough.
CMBN: What do you think the future holds for China’s music media in the next five to ten years.
Zhang Youdai: I think it’s tough to be in the media industry right now. Besides the radio, I also really love magazines. As a magazine collector, I hope China’s magazine market can stop being a mostly untread territory. And I want to say good luck to Modern Sky Magazine.
I also started an online magazine myself. But I found it hard to grow readership because there are too many social media accounts out there writing articles with false or exaggerated information and a very catchy title. I can’t bring my conscience to do that, but that’s the only way to make money. I hope the industry and the readers would pay more attention to quality content than catchy titles.
Shen Lihui: Modern Sky accidentally got into the business of radio stations, so I have a few things to say about this. For example, when we first took over a local radio station in Hunan, its revenue was about 5 million a year. But now, only four years later, Modernsky Radio in Hunan grown from 5 million to more than 30 million in revenue this year. So overall, the radio business is still profitable.
I have three things to say about music media. First, I think there’s market space for good quality music media to prosper in China. Second, whether it’s print, radio, or social media, a publication has to cater to its readers to survive. Third, music media in the digital age needs to have a multi-dimensional business model.
If we do good things and provide quality service to the industry, there will be opportunities for profit.
Chen Hongyu: This question looks a lot like the question I was thinking: how do we find more good indie musicians?
And what I can think of is that if we have a better economy, people can focus more on art and music, and not worry about survival. Also, I hope our culture can be more open to diverse sounds and messages so that people are more likely to express themselves in their unique ways.
CMBN: Thank you, everyone. As a content creator, China Music Business News also has its fair share of anxiety. But we are all here to stay because we love it. And we will continue to strive for the creation of good quality content.
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