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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Chinese pop idol thrives online
By Nick Mackie
BBC China business reporter, Chongqing

Xiang Xiang
Xiang Xiang uses just a laptop, headphones and a lip-mike
Budding popstars are trying to make a name for themselves in China with just a laptop, headphones and a lip-mike. And it has worked for Xiang Xiang, China's number one internet pop star.

Singing along to a backing track on the editing software, her quirky lyrics muse on a pig, its snorting nose and its curly tail, hardly the stuff to win global awards.

Yet, according to the website that flags up the 21-year-old, her Song of Pig has notched up a billion downloads from admirers in China, Singapore and Malaysia.

China's internet, however, is purely a way to build up a fan base. There are 102 million people online today. But there is little in the way of e-commerce.

Xiang Xiang offers her music for free to download over the internet.

"It's unprofitable to publish a song on the internet, " says Xiang Xiang. "There's no money.

"It's purely a kind of communication. I get feedback and suggestions or comments on my work and then I can make changes," she told the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

Online audience

Xiang Xiang's life changed when she chose 163888.net, a free-to-use Chongqing-based online enterprise, soon after it set up 12 months ago.

Photo of pig
Pig, you have two holes on your nose
When you catch cold, you are snorting
Pig, you have black eyes which we cannot see beyond
Pig, you have two big ears
And you cannot hear that I'm cursing you silly
Pig, you have a curling tail which you cannot run without
Pig head, pig brain, pig body and pig tail
You are a good baby who eats everything
Everyday you won't wake up till noon
And you never brush your teeth and you never fight

Song of Pig lyrics
Like other hopefuls, she wanted to become known and land a recording deal.

The site, with 40 staff and a boss in his mid-20s, receives five million clicks per day.

Revenue come purely from advertising.

Staff sift through the huge number of uploads daily. The best go on the front page.

"Anyone who has a computer and who likes singing can use our platform," enthuses Zheng Li, the company's boss.

"And so, we have developed fast. By mid-June of this year, we had roughly 1.7 million members who upload their songs."

However, only a few make the grade. Xiang Xiang was signed up by a Beijing-based promoter and producer.

Her first CD has sold 800,000 copies, each retailing for US$5. As for the estimated three million pirated versions, at just over a dollar each, she earns nothing.

The international music trade body which tracks music copyright infringements globally estimates that 95% of music sales in China are illegal copies.

Mobile market

Piracy is so entrenched in China that artists cannot fight it. Whereas the public consider taking solid items like watches, cars and shoes as theft , pilfering ideas, words or sounds is not regarded as a serious violation.

"The copyright issue, intellectual property rights, cultural products including music, articles and dissertations etc - in China, these are not considered to be property," explains Zhang Youngang, Professor of Music at South West University, near Chongqing.

Music store in China
Music piracy is widespread in China
However, piracy is synonymous with popularity. Even fakes can help artists command more from TV advertisers and boost other, new, tech-based revenues.

Among a total population of 1.3 billion, 300 million Chinese have mobile phones. Walk down any street and they are going off all around you - with the owners screaming into them with vigour.

Text messaging is a hit, as are any, inexpensive add-on services that make a phone more distinctive.

Call someone in China and instead of hearing the usual electronic "beep beep" tone, you will often get the other person's favourite pop song, from Mariah Carey to Xiang Xiang's Song of Pig.

Pay up

More than 20 million Chinese have signed-up for ringtones, a market generating 25 million dollars every month. This is becoming a hot way for pop stars to earn royalties, if the service providers respect copyright.

Xiang Xiang
Xiang Xiang offers her music for free to download
The next phase, arguably, is when the Chinese have a secure and trusted way of paying for music downloads.

"There will be a firm foundation established by 2010 for the development of e-commerce in China," believes Cheng Daijie, Professor of Computer Sciences at Chongqing University.

"We cannot estimate too much, but we are not pessimistic."

Today, credit card use is small. One way forward could be to promote purchases using mobile phones via electronic wallets.

If online music stores catch on, the internet, could be a key revenue stream for tomorrow's stars.

Once the Chinese have a way to make small online payments, Xiang Xiang could be earning cash, while she dreams up her next quirky offering.

This week:
How China's budding pop idols are giving away their music for free over the web, controlling the human body through ear implants and slowing down crazy-talking mobile phone users, plus exclusive podcast content
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