The Impact of Online Music Streaming on Chinese Artists

By Noelle Mateer, May 21, 2016

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When I ask Fu Han how she makes money from her music, she pauses. 

“Yeah, that is a big question,” she says. 

Fortunately for Fu, that’s not her job – the label she’s signed to, Modern Sky, handles the finances for her band. Fu is busy enough as it is, writing and performing music as the frontwoman of Queen Sea Big Shark. 

But while she’d love to make the creative process her only focus – especially given the recent release of QSBS’s acclaimed new album, To Wild Heart – the woes of producing and monetizing music in 2016’s world of online streaming eat up more than their fair share of her energies. 

“Now, the money we make from the record is almost zero,” she says. 

The reason is probably already installed on your phone. QQ Music, Xiami, Wangyi – these are just a few of the free music-streaming platforms that have grown exponentially in China in recent years. But their success stories aren’t controversy-free. As recently as last year, these sites and apps hosted huge swaths of songs without artists’ or labels’ permission. 

“You’d type your song’s name in the search bar, and you would find all these websites where you could download it,” says Fu. When asked if her songs are ever used for commercial purposes without her permission, her response is swift: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course! Always.”

Fu’s story of copyright infringement and intellectual property theft is all too common, says Alex Taggart, of Beijing-based music-industry consultancy Outdustry.

“The streaming apps started out with a ‘stream first, license later’ attitude, in order to get people to use their services,” he explains. “Since there was pretty much no regulation, very little risk of being successfully sued for infringement, everyone got away with it.”

To many, this may come as no surprise. After all, China isn’t exactly known for its adherence to copyright laws. What might be more surprising, then, are recent improvements, according to Nathaniel Davis, co-founder of concert promotion agency Split Works.

“I think it is much better now than it was even two to three years ago,” he says. “You see a lot of the major companies making concerted efforts to license the material that is on their sites.” 

As Taggart explains further: “The authorities have been steadily ramping up their rhetoric regarding copyright protection, and have issued increasingly strongly worded notices and regulations requiring the streaming companies to get their houses in order.”

But the process of getting the houses in order – that’s the tricky part. It has resulted in a battle of the tech giants, who offer payouts to major labels in exchange for permission to use their music. 

Currently winning the fight for users is the Tencent-backed QQ Music, which integrates with Tencent’s best-known app: WeChat. (Ever tried searching a song on WeChat? Message qqmusic a title and it’ll shoot back with a streaming link almost instantly.)

Meanwhile Xiami, arguably the cooler of the two with its curated playlists and smart interface, has less reach. Xiami links can’t be shared to WeChat because, well, Tencent said so. But the bottom line of all this is: These companies are increasingly streaming music they actually have the right to stream. 

Still, there’s disagreement about how artists can actually get paid from this. At the moment, the reality is, really, they don’t. Artists make most of their money from gigs and sponsorship deals. (Queen Sea Big Shark, for instance, cashed in when Converse used their music for a promotional campaign.) Streaming, therefore, is a way for labels to get listeners to notice their artists. 

“As far as I'm concerned, I'm not worried about people using platforms like QQ to listen to music,” says Xiao Linfeng (otherwise known as X.L.F.), a recording artist, DJ and manager of Modernsky Lab. “I see QQ as more of a publicity platform for my music.” 

It’s perhaps fortunate Xiao feels this way. Many artists don’t have a choice, as those on smaller labels don’t have the power to fight back against the unlicensed streaming of their work. Or as Davis says of the music-rights buyouts: “A lot of these are done through big blanket deals with major labels in order to capture the ‘big artist’ catalogs, but which miss the music from other artists and smaller labels.”

Even these ‘major labels’ need to have serious clout if they wish to remove their music from online streaming services. And I mean serious clout – in 2014, Taylor Swift made headlines for refusing to put her album 1989 on popular American music player Spotify. But Swift is the rare exception. 

Queen Sea Big Shark’s Fu Han empathizes with Swift’s decision, but is unable to go against the stream. 

“Now we put the music for free online, but I feel the audience doesn’t respect musicians like before, because they don’t pay for it,” she says. “They think it’s free. It’s not valuable. I think that’s wrong.”

The earnest emotion in Fu’s eyes makes it clear that this is a topic she’s passionate about – even if it’s technically her managers’ responsibility. 

“I think that, now, as musicians, we don’t have a lot of knowledge of the law or the contract or the rights,” she says. “But I think that in the future, most musicians will.”

When I ask Fu if the complexities on the online world are changing the way she makes music, she rushes to reassure me: “No, of course not.”

“But the rules of the game are changing so fast,” she says.

Fu goes on to describe her energetic new album To Wild Heart with equal passion. “Sometimes people say to us, ‘Why do you mix so many things together in one record?’ I think there are no rules.” 

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