Western sounds take a front-row seat in China
When the British band Wham! toured China in 1985, it was not mainland pop fans they were thinking of.
Instead, the trip by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley was primarily aimed at generating international publicity - and it succeeded.
Coming less than a decade after the death of Mao Zedong, the tour captured the imagination of a world that viewed China as exotic and impenetrable.
A quarter of a century on, western pop and rock acts are jostling to get into China and cash in on lucrative tour dates.
While Bob Dylan's shows in Beijing and Shanghai this year may have generated an international stir thanks to his reputation as a protest singer, visiting the mainland has become so common for big acts it is now usually seen as routine.
"There is a significant Chinese audience interested in western music," says Yang Hon-lun, an associate professor in the department of music at Hong Kong Baptist University.
When western pop figures visit China's big two cities, the concerts prove popular, she says. "There are certain big figures such as [the late] Michael Jackson. They carry a certain degree of impact in the Chinese popular cultural context."
Although western pop acts can draw crowds of thousands, few are truly well known in China, especially among the above-30 generations.
Xu Xiaoli, a 35-year-old housewife from Beijing, happily admits she cannot name a single western performer, although she eventually realises she has heard of The Beatles. "I listen to western music, but not very often," she says.
Unsurprisingly, younger people are keener on foreign music. While Ms Xu has never been to a concert by a western act, Guan Diyu, 18, a student, likes Secret Garden, an Irish-Norwegian instrumental duo. "It is music that makes me comfortable. It fills you with images of the environment." She describes western popular music as "very fashionable" and "becoming more popular".
Wham!'s celebrated visit in 1985 was followed by a trickle of other famous names, and by the mid-2000s the market was being taken sufficiently seriously that entertainment companies such as William Morris set up offices in the country.
The list of those who have performed in China now reads like a roll-call from pop's hall of fame: The Eagles, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Beyonce, The Backstreet Boys, Roxette, John Denver and Bjork, to name some of them.
Subway stations in Beijing are advertising forthcoming concerts by James Blunt and the British band Suede. The Canadian punk rockers Simple Planare also scheduled to perform soon.
China's new wealth means many can afford tickets costing up to US$150 (Dh550) and according to reports, the American rock band Linkin Park generated $750,000 in ticket sales when they played to 25,000 people in Shanghai.
The number of music festivals has mushroomed, with state media reports suggesting it could exceed 80 this year, up from a handful in 2009.
The popularity of western entertainment has extended into musicals, with the Chinese version of the Abba-themed Mamma Mia! having recently completed a run in Shanghai before heading up to Beijing.
For children, a theatre version of the American television programme Sesame Street has a short stint in the capital this month.
Yet reports persist about concerts that struggle to sell out even though ticket prices have been pitched slightly lower than usual. Even those Chinese who enjoy western music are often not in the habit of going to live shows.
When it comes to selling records in China, the situation is still tough.
In the late 1990s, a market developed for European and American rock and pop CDs.
They were old stock shipped to China to be recycled. These CDs typically had a portion of the box or even the CD cut away, giving them the local name dakou as they were supposed to have been destroyed. Instead, they ended up on the grey market.
Pirate CDs have now largely replaced these as the cut-price alternative to real thing. In Beijing, illicit versions of the latest albums are openly on sale for a few dollars straight after their release. Estimates have suggested that as many as 90 per cent of CDs sold in China are pirated versions.
The internet has made things worse, with rampant piracy of MP3 versions of songs.
As a result, the market for official CDs is so small that many record companies do not bother releasing albums in China.
Roxette and Michael Bolton have both issued China versions of their albums, but when fakes can be bought for about a quarter of the price, sales volumes are likely to remain modest.
"A lot of the transmission of popular music is through the piracy market. The sales of western popular music CDs is not particularly high," says Dr Yang.
The revenue generated for the music industry in China is tiny, given the size of the market. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, in 2009 the industry's revenue in China was just $75 million, less than 2 per cent of the figure for the US, at $4.6 billion.
There are merchandising and other alternative revenue streams, but it tends to be East Asian performers who secure lucrative advertising contracts in China. For example, the Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou starred alongside the American basketball player Kobe Bryant in an advertising campaign for Sprite this year.
Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese performers have all made a big impact in China, and South Korea's burgeoning music scene, known as Kpop, is also popular.
Fans of western acts appear to be mainly concentrated in the modern coastal belt, where cities have a stronger foreign influence as well as modestly sized expatriate populations. This explains why few large American or European performers have put on concerts outside Beijing or Shanghai, although some lower profile alternative bands have toured the provinces.
"If an organiser was willing to take the risk of concerts at inland cities in the industrial centres, would the concerts sell well? It's hard to say unless someone is willing to take the risk," says Dr Yang.
Yet, with an estimated 300 million Chinese learning English, the opportunities for foreign acts to become more visible across the country may grow.
"There are a lot of people who speak English and more Chinese who want to speak English," Dr Yang says.
"Popular music is very often seen as a tool to learn English. I have bought CDs and DVDs of 100 western hits packaged as a teaching tool for English. Quite a number are marketed as helping people to learn English."
Published: August 8, 2011 04:00 AM