Gong Linna is a woman full of glamour and stories. When she speaks about the trials and tribulations of her life, she sheds tears silently, but still tries to control her emotions; when she speaks about the cheerful moments, she immediately speaks with high spirits, starts singing, and joyfully shares her understanding of singing to us.
She’s a singing nerd, stuck because of her lack of business sense. She’s often called “the godmother of ‘Divine Comedy’”. She’s been involved in a handful of disputes, but she bravely overcame these and became bolder and bolder. She believed that as long as her music became popular, she wouldn’t mind dressing in ugly or weird outfits on TV. In recent years, she’s became a popular rookie on almost every TV show.
She is Gong Linna, and she sings with eyes wide open, strange makeup, and her performances are exaggerated and often comical. After her performance, she changed from her costume into normal yoga clothes, and sat down on the sofa to speak with us. Without her makeup, she looks completely different and instead shows a tender face and smiling eyes. Only when she speaks on her grievances does she give off an angry glare with her big eyes.
Linna’s studio, owned by her and her husband, Robert Zollitsch, a well known composer, is located in a district near the Olympic Forest Park. They live quietly and peacefully on the first floor, relatively free of neighbors and noise. They furnish their home with antiques: a curved wooden bench, a Miao style long tablecloth placed on an old cabinet, a rural Southern style wooden window frame looms over another short wooden cabinet in the corner with a unique rhombus pattern. There’s also a Guzheng (a Chinese traditional instrument) standing beside the old window frame with the characters “High Mountain, Flowing Water” written on it.
“Lao Luo (Robert) collected all these things from everywhere, and he really values all this. You really have to talk to him too, he has a lot of thoughts about business.” One of their employees introduced us; Gong’s studio has a small team of staff members, with a few full-time employees. One of them told us, “Mrs. Gong doesn’t have an agent. I used to be a cosmetician, but now that I’m full-time, I help with marketing and publicity.”
From Gong’s perspective, in this era of ego and sweet-talk, it’s difficult for people who genuinely work hard to succeed. Gong has already achieved fame and success. She and Lao Luo are considered celebrities in both entertainment and music circles. However, she still worries about financial pressures. She’s been back in China for six years now, but she and Robert still haven’t found a suitable artist management company or an agent who understands both the business side and the artist’s feelings.
Gong is an artist, so she’s obsessed with singing well and making good music, but when it comes to balancing business and art, she becomes exhausted and runs out of solutions. She had planned to have an executive team that handled the commercial side, since she already achieved the fame, the resources, and the musical repertoire; she only lacked a management team.
In May of this year, she held three successive performances of her own concert, titled “Love, Five Elements”. The tickets sold out, but they still didn’t cover the gross expenses. She visited a handful of sponsors, but none of them wanted to invest in the arts. Then, she made the third performance a public benefit concert, and invited small children who couldn’t come to the first two concerts.
A while back, she met with various investors, but ran into the same set of obstacles. Since she’s an artist who doesn’t focus on the business side, she asked friends with a penchant for business to draft different business plans for her, but in the end, she became even more frustrated because she felt she wasn’t the person that the business plan required her to be.
People who’ve met Gong are always impressed by her strong spirit. Her resiliency allows her to bounce back from these setbacks and restart to find herself again. Now, she has a happy family and an ambitious attitude. She says she wants to make modern Chinese music known to the rest of the world.
Below is what Gong shared with China Music Business News:
CMBN:Between 2002 and 2010, it always seemed like your band, Five Elements, couldn’t continue, and the concert series came to an end…
Gong: We knew very little about business, and the market in 2002 wasn’t like it is today. There was no network, no financing, and no investment in the arts. We couldn’t find venues for performance or agents to work with. There weren’t any opportunities for performance, so we chose to leave China.
In July 2002, I responded to an invitation from Lao Luo and went to a music festival held in Germany. The festival only lasted three days, but it was an eye-opening experience. It made me decide to restart Five Elements. Then, we held three concerts in Germany, which were all arranged by Lao Luo. The first one was in a bar in Ingolstadt. Lao Luo invited his friends, who worked for Bavaria Broadcast and wanted to record the concert. We received some payment for both this performance and the next one in Frankfurt, but only eighty people came to the show in Frankfurt out of the five hundred we were hoping for. For the third concert, we tried selling tickets, and we ended up with about 150 people in the audience, and that ended up being the most successful out of the three. After the three concerts, we still had no income and no sponsor. In 2003, Five Elements went to the summer festival held in Nuremburg. There were only nine people in the audience, and we had to perform for an hour and a half. It was then that I realized, maybe these people really have no interest in Chinese music.
Our band needed a breakthrough the same way singers do. After the performances in Nuremburg and Slovenia, Lao Luo told me, “It’s time for us to go back to China for performances.” Oh my god! I used to always have a team set up everything for me, but now I had to contact sponsors, arrange performances, become a producer, and set the stage for myself!
That was a really difficult time for me, and I started to consider the relationship between art and business, since I wasn’t just singing anymore. I needed to think about everything clearly before restarting, or I wouldn’t restart at all. Then I spoke with Lao Luo, and he said, “We have to commercialize the music if we want to develop and succeed. Once we earn more money, we’ll have more choices.” That performance was the first time that I experienced being an agent. It also helped me to know that if I needed to negotiate a concert, I had to think things through from start to finish.
The next year saw Five Elements grow a lot, and we were selected to attend the World Music Expo (WOMEX), an international world music support and development project based in Berlin. Lao Luo pitched us to them back in 2002, but they didn’t pick us. In 2004, fortunately, we were selected, but the committee would only pay for meals and boarding, while we needed to cover the travel expenses ourselves, which were quite high, in the tens of thousands of yuan. However, coincidentally, the Propaganda Department of the Bijie Prefectural Party in Guizhou asked us to perform and paid us just enough to go to Germany.
However, I didn’t expect the WOMEX performance to be a dead end; we didn’t gain any performance opportunities from it. The audience was also incredibly small, so WOMEX didn’t really do anything for us, and our band was stuck.
After 2004, Lao Luo and I planned to start again with small concerts in Europe. In that period, I stood on countless small stages with no distance between me and the audience. In Germany, Lao Luo had his own agent who recommended me to various music festival and venues in different cities. The concert venues were quite small, usually with just 20 people. Some were a bit larger, around 50 people, and some over 80. This atmosphere fit our music.
In the beginning, Lao Luo was the only performer since he arranged the shows through his agent. Our income mostly came from his performances. He played the gun from concert to concert for at least 90 minutes each. Later, I started singing while he played, and it was just the two of us on stage without any other instruments. They weren’t very complex or luxurious stages.
Before that, I’d had no experience on small stages, since there few chances for folk singers to perform on small stages in China, even though that’s common in Western countries. In the past, Western chamber music was like this, and even though there’s not a noble class in Europe anymore, this tradition of small indoor concerts has carried on; now, every village and town often holds small concerts. Back then, our income was mostly reliant on these concerts.
However, we gradually came to realize we wanted wider and bigger places for performance that would be more suitable for the presentation of our art. At that time, the didn’t care how well you sang, they just wanted you for your Chinese characteristics. It’s the same now with quite a few Chinese folk music festivals in China, where they care more for the show and presentation than for your singing. Wherever we performed in the world, we discovered that our Chinese presentation was more important than our music.
We wanted a more elegant environment, which is to say we wanted one that emphasized the
artistry first. In Europe, that was the concert hall, but we were trapped, since we didn’t have an agent with access to higher-level venues for classical music.
Meanwhile, no management company wanted to help us, since they thought Chinese traditional music belonged to world music, and classical concert halls were only appropriate for people who played Beethoven or Mozart, or professors at music conservatories. There didn’t seem to be any opportunities for us. Furthermore, they didn’t have any respect for Chinese music, and they shut us out without even listening to our music. Thus, we collected and disseminated our material ourselves and ultimately did everything ourselves without any agents.
What I want to say is that if you’re working with a good agent, they can help you communicate to the sponsors, and these problems don’t come up because they are able to negotiate great cooperation between artists and sponsors. However, for us, it was always hard work. We found that as hard as we tried to win the respect of Europeans, the higher echelons of the European music world never spared any room for Chinese music, which is really shameful.
In 2009, we earned another opportunity from the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, which was a big deal for China. The Portuguese government invited us to cooperate with their guitar master for a performance at the World Expo. Lao Luo wrote a series of new songs for me, the Portuguese singer, and the guitar master. Afterwards, we toured at the Beijing Zhongshan Concert Hall, the Shenzhen Poly Theatre, and finally a concert hall in Macau, receiving great recognition along the way.
Ever since I started my music career in 2002, I always wanted to perform in a Chinese concert hall, so 2010 was a significant year for me and Lao Luo, since the performances we held that year had huge effects on our music career.
I noticed then that Chinese music was the root of Chinese culture. If we were going to create new Chinese music, then it first needed to be accepted by Chinese audiences. We left once, and now we were coming back to earn the recognition of Chinese audiences, as this was necessary if we wanted to go out into the world again. Since foreigners didn’t appreciate our music, Lao Luo said that this was the past, and that now Chinese people would have to love themselves in order to represent China to the world.
CMBN: After “Tante” became popular, where was your team?
Gong: In October 2010, we returned to Beijing, and were planning to start everything over again, contacting concert halls, selling tickets, and sharing income. Suddenly, “Tante” became so much more popular. In January 2010, my performance was broadcast at the Beijing Spring Music Festival. Then, the video started spreading everywhere online. It wasn’t marketing; I didn’t spend anything on it. The success was really all chance, but with the Internet, a little bit of chance can inevitably lead to success.
Even if “Tante” didn’t go viral, we could’ve come back. Our intuition was right in that it was the perfect time to return. After becoming famous, the next move for us was to find an agent who was really familiar with the Chinese market. However, we discovered that almost all the management agencies came from Hong Kong or Taiwan, or were focused on TV talent shows, which weren’t suitable for our music.
These companies weren’t aiming to move Chinese music forward, they just wanted to make money by cultivating pop stars. They wanted to sign us because we were quite popular at the time, but the terms of the contracts weren’t attractive to us. We’d hoped to put Chinese music onto the world stage and win respect from the West; we wanted to open new doors for Chinese traditional music through technology and high artistic standards. If we were just in it for the money, we wouldn’t have come back to China.
We were quite famous, but our commercial success didn’t match that, since there wasn’t
a suitable platform for us. Before I left for Germany, I’d won the greatest folk award with my philharmonic society and attended so many national festivals, and I left all of that to start again in Germany. After eight years there, I left everything again to return to my motherland and start all over again. Then, I noticed that no one could help us manage the business side of our music. This was always the biggest problem for us. From 2010 until now, we’ve been back in China for six years, but we still haven’t found an agent to help us with public relations.
In our search, we’ve met a number of so called “agents” who ask if they can become our agent, before doing next to nothing, taking our money, and leaving. Finally, we decided to develop a young man with original ideas on improving our marketing, but when more invitations came, he became rather arrogant, which had a big impact on our work. He didn’t know that he actually still had a lot to learn. Honestly, we’ve trained a few people, but when they become our agent, they all end up disappointing us. No one suits us. Our commercial value needs to be actualized; the question we’re always considering is who can see it and bring us into the process. We truly need a team, that doesn’t only consider money as their highest goal. To be our agent, a person should like our music. If they only care about money, then they won’t last long. Thus, the person we’re still looking for is someone who understands both the business and artistic side of music, because there’s such diversity in Chinese music, and we need funds to find inspiration from all these different sources, to cultivate music teachers, to have funds for research and development, and up until now, all the music research I’ve done has been self-financed.
Where is the industry? I’ve run into the same obstacles everywhere. Now that we’re famous, shouldn’t financing be simple? However, I’ve spoken with many different investors, and almost all of them asked for an official business plan. This makes sense, but how should I balance my priorities? They’re trying to analyze the situation with me, telling me how much I’ll earn this year, using the MIDI Music Festival and Modern Sky as their examples. When I hear all this, I get confused again and say, “I don’t know how to make a business plan, I only know that I have these resources, so can you help me find a professional to help me manage them”? See, you’re a journalist for China Music Business News, so you definitely understand these things, but I understand all this, then I can’t focus on music. If I write a song with the explicit purpose of making money, then that song won’t be any good, but you’re a business person, so tell me how can I broadcast my music to the general population? How can you help me market this song’s story to everyone?
So then, I asked a lot of my friends, “Can you help me create a business plan?” However, they’re not musicians, so they couldn’t see it from the perspective of my art, they could only point out market rules and big data. The business plans looked good, but they also weren’t really tailored to me, so I came to the same dead end.
Our income doesn’t support our musical output, since we rely on individual gigs to make money, and how much money does that really make? You need enough money to support your family, your band, and I also want to cultivate talent. For instance, Lao Luo said he wanted to turn Qu Yuan’s poems into large Chinese choral works. If we don’t utilize the precious value of ancient Chinese poetry and other great cultural works, then we won’t produce anything, and then aren’t we letting the Western music overtake us?
Since the West has a huge amount of works, our problem is that we don’t have enough works, which isn’t to say that our works aren’t good. Lao Luo feels that if we’re going to do this, then we need to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s why I always say we need a business plan, because if we want to educate and train musicians, then the money that comes from education can go into projects that aren’t really profitable.
Sometimes, Lao Luo is really sad about all this. He takes the Berlin Philharmonic as an example and says that they always sell our their concerts, but their income still doesn’t depend on ticket sales. Both the government and corporations like Mercedes-Benz support them. Some corporations pay huge amounts of money to support the Berlin Philharmonic in order to see their logos in the acknowledgements. Right now, many Chinese concerts halls want to pay huge sums of money to bring foreign philharmonic societies to perform for them and represent their cultures. However, even though Lao Luo is a world music composer, and occupies an incredibly respected position in German world music circles, he doesn’t get any respect in China or abroad because he writes Chinese music.
As far as profit goes, I definitely recognize that pop music will always make more money than my music, but then,do we still want to create innovative music? When we applied for the National Arts Fund, I was shocked by the clause in the contract that mandated a certain number of performances as a condition for the 50,000-100,000 RMB subsidy per performance. Each of my performances costs over 100,000 RMB, so where is the money going to come from if I want to perform forty times per year? Thus, I was stuck again.
Ma Yun also said that we truly lack in this country is cultural and artistic education. If you just want to earn money from art, then the art itself loses its integrity and becomes vulgar. Thus, art must be cultivated and grown in an elegant environment. However, for me and Lao Luo, walking this path has been really difficult.
Since we’re not business savvy, we didn’t argue or associate with business-minded people. Of course, I do think that these trials are also good training, in that they strengthen me and Lao
Luo in our passion for bringing a second wind to Chinese music.
Regardless of the industry, when we just focus on what we like, then we attract many talented musicians who want to work with us. Can we provide them more opportunities? Can we give them hope by introducing them to great singers and musicians? They can earn respect as well as an income. When you give them just a little hope, then many people will believe in themselves and continue on; otherwise, if they’re alone, then they’ll become exhausted and worn out, but when they see others persevering, then they too will persevere.
I think the future of Chinese music is very promising! We see now that foreign newspapers are reporting on Chinese music everyday, whereas ten years ago this wasn’t the case. Right now, China has the whole world’s eye, but if we don’t have our own unique culture, then we won’t truly earn any respect. First of all, I consider what the world needs and demands from Chinese culture; second, China is starting to pay serious attention to our own culture, as we can see from the inclusion of ancient poetry in the curricula of primary schools. Five years ago, you probably wouldn’t even know what a guqin is, but now, there’s a lot of people who are interested in it. Chinese tea culture is also starting to rise in popularity,which is a great advancement.
However, as we see the demand for these products increase, we also see a lot of fakers and cheaters, who think that if they put on any robe, then they’re wearing a robe from the Han dynasty; their arrival is inevitable, since common people can’t distinguish what’s actually real or high quality. Thus, the people who are skilled at sweet talk and who know how to make connections end up taking up a lot of space, but the ones who work hard don’t have time to sweet talk or build connections.
As the industry develops more opportunities, we start to see obvious problems: who stands at the top of the industry? It’s still the same old men, the ones with a lot of experience, who have connections, who know the industry, who know how to write a business plan, but don’t know good music and only trust what they see. A while back, at a music industry forum, Lao Luo bluntly pointed out that everyone was so friendly with one another but hadn’t done anything to develop Chinese music. He said they might have created something interesting to a few individuals, but were totally useless as far as moving the industry forward. What talent has been cultivated in the past few years? None, everyone just cares about money.
CMBN: Who understands the importance of composers?
Gong: The environment for folk music is in pretty bad shape, since there’s not any new work being generated. A lot of composers can’t write traditional music anymore, because they’ve only studied Western music. After they graduate, they not only don’t have respect for Chinese music, but they look down on it. The problem now is that nobody wants to write traditional music.
Take the Twelve Girls Band as an example. They wore little clothing on stage, pretended to play their instruments, and added a few jazz elements to spice up their melody a bit. Can that really be called “Chinese music?” They were quite popular in Japan, but faded away quickly since they didn’t produce any new work. If you can’t focus on the music itself, but only care about catching people’s attention with other things, then you won’t last long and won’t develop.
It’s obvious that Chinese people have no understanding of Chinese culture. Why is it that when Ang Lee said that a film’s story is just a disguise, everyone said a film’s purpose is to tell a story? Ang Lee said that a film is really about using the story as a cover to reveal your own heart, but now, we just pay attention to the surface and the disguise, and we’ve thrown all our money into making the exterior eye-catching.
Both our education and our concerts are dominated by Western music. Our pop music is learned from American pop music. Singers on the Voice all sing in English now and feel superior for it; for example, Ji Ke Jun is an Yi ethnic minority, and sings her ethnic songs so well, but she wants to become Mariah Carey or Beyonce, so what am I listening to her for?
Now, our traditional music is tailored to Western standards, and it’s not just being marginalized, but now it’s deteriorating. I don’t think it’s an issue that Chinese music is fusing with Western music, but when Lao Luo uses Western instruments to play Chinese music, he’s explicit in his belief that it’s in service.
I think that China has it completely backwards now. China uses Western music as its model. The most important thing is that it sounds foreign. We add a few Chinese elements, but they’re just embellishments; if you remove the Chinese elements, then the music is still fine. However, in the music that Lao Luo and I make, if you remove the Chinese instruments and elements from our music, then there won’t be anything left, since everything else is subsidiary to the Chinese parts.
On the surface, it seems the music industry is flourishing, but I think most people don’t see that there’s very few talented, experienced people left. If nobody cares about the quality of the music anymore, and only cares about the money, then China’s music industry has no hope. Money isn’t the problem anymore, the problem is that no one works hard on their music and no one takes responsibility.I think the most fundamental problem in China is the lack of protection and respect for composers and their works. Composers are incredibly important. Take Phoenix Legend’s top hit “Most Dazzling Folk Style” as an example. Phoenix Legend can sing this for a long time and make a lot of money, but who knows the composer? The composer, Zhang Chao from Guizhou, only got a small sum for the song, and he has to open a bar along the Xijiang River in order to get by. He wrote such a big hit, but it doesn’t pay his bills, so why does he even bother composing? As long as there are no intellectual property rights, people won’t know who Zhang Chao is an will only know the singers. So then why do people in Europe recognize the importance of Beethoven and Mozart first before acknowledging the conductor, and then the symphony orchestra?
Composers really need more respect. If you ignore the composers, and don’t give them a fair share of the profits, then who will write good music? As Lao Luo always says, I support him, and despite how popular “Tante” was, he didn’t get any copyright fees, so if it weren’t for me, he’d starve to death, but if I didn’t have his songs, I wouldn’t have a career!
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