Page last updated at 00:48 GMT, Thursday, 21 February 2008

'Chaos' of China's music industry

Agi (Long Kuan)
Agi says music is just a "tool to sell things" in China
The huge numbers of pirated CDs and high levels of illegal downloading are forcing Chinese pop stars to find alternative ways to make a living, as a Beijing-based BBC reporter finds out.

Agi knows her music carries a different price tag in the UK than in China.

The singer made about $2000 (1,000) a month from music royalties and live shows with her band Mika Bomb when she lived in London.

But in China, her band Long Kuan Jiu Duan can almost double that by singing just one song at a commercial gig.

At these gigs, artists get paid a set amount by companies or promoters regardless of how many tickets they sell.

With no royalties, pirated CDs and illegal downloading, this is one of the ways bands have learned to survive in China.

"I never thought I could perform on stage for five minutes and earn so much money," says Agi, whose real name is Long Kuan.

Lost cause

Chinese pop stars rely heavily on these types of commercial performances, which make up more than half of their income.

Chinese pirated CDs and DVDs

At the height of her popularity in China a few years ago, Agi says she would do two to three performances a week, making as much as 30,000 yuan (2,100; $4,100) each time.

"It's really hard to earn money from records because of illegal downloading from the internet and pirated CDs," says the singer.

Whereas the US and Europe are still finding ways to counter piracy, Chinese record companies have already decided it is a lost cause, finding other ways to make money which are not directly related to music sales.

This comes from necessity rather than by choice, says Shen Lihui, the head of China's largest independent label, Modern Sky, based in Beijing.

The firm's entire record collection can be downloaded for free through the country's largest search engine

You can use their money to promote your own image to market your songs
Huang Feng

Shen says he hopes to get the royalties back sometime in the future, but in the meantime he is looking at other ways to earn money from the label's music.

Chinese artists' unique reliance on commercial gigs is exacerbated by the fact that many bands find it hard to get on radio and TV.

They also find it expensive to market themselves.

Huang Feng, who used to work for Warner Music China, says artists have to turn to big brands, such as Apple, Nokia and Levi's.

The big firms get popular bands to promote their products, and the bands also benefit.

"If they choose you, you can use their money to promote your own image to market your songs," says Huang.

Chaotic industry

A Chinese singer
Chinese artists rely on sponsorship and paid gigs for an income

This kind of reliance makes artists in the US and Europe squeamish, but there are signs that international music labels are waking up to the possibilities.

Private equity firm Terra Firma, which bought music publishing group EMI, announced in January it would try more direct band sponsorship, similar to that used by football teams.

It is sending the music industry into a tailspin, with leading artists like Coldplay threatening to withhold their albums from EMI.

Chinese artists have yet to reach that level of corporate sponsorship, but it could be the next logical step.

China's music industry is considered the world's most chaotic, those involved in the business say.

People abroad definitely come to see you perform for no other reason than they are a fan of your music

But the founder of Modern Sky is optimistic that China will be at the forefront of the music industry in the future.

"It's the first place that encountered the problem (of piracy)," says Shen Lihui.

"But you can do anything in China. It's the freest place. Try another business model."

Singer Agi says she may make more money singing in China, but she prefers doing shows in Europe.

"People abroad definitely come to see you perform for no other reason than they are a fan of your music," she says.

"But on the Chinese mainland there could be a hundred other reasons. They think you're pretty, or whatever. Music is just a tool to sell things."

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