By Eric de Fontenay (Founder & Publisher)
A growing number of Western music companies are dipping their toes into the Chinese market, hoping to increase opportunities for independent artists in one of the most dynamic and treacherous music markets ever. We’ve already reported on Australian-based Cowbell Digital Music, which launched a Chinese portal earlier this year. Now, Berlin-based 88tc88, which took advantage of the global attention on SXSW 2010 to introduce its Web-based translation service, is enabling Western bands and musicians to access and sell to Chinese music consumers.
The service tackles a basic problem with going global: If people can’t search your band name or song title in a browser or search engine, you don’t truly exist in that market. Considering the fact that searching the internet is the #1 way Chinese consumers access music, having your information accessible in Mandarin is key. This is not just true for Mainland China. Citizens of Taiwan and Singapore predominantly speak Mandarin, while countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have significant Mandarin speaking populations.
I spoke with Thomas Reemer, founder and chairman of 88tc88.com about their partnership with Shanghai Synergy Culture & Entertainment Group to launch the service, and how to avoid Chinese censors and monetization in the face of piracy.
Q. How did a Berlin-based company like 88tc88 come to focus on the Chinese market?
A. I have been traveling to China since December 2006 every three months, for longer periods each time. A business colleague who has been an advocate in promoting China since 1996 took me with him. At the time, we were working on several projects together, technology based, music based, content based. I had a huge hunger for China, and was always fascinated by the unbroken history of adaptation, art, and greatness.
Q. In my experience dealing with the Chinese market, translation tools can be useful, but imperfect as they often do not convey the sense of what is being said. This can be particularly true for band names or album/song titles. How does your service address these hurdles? How important is human intervention in the process?
A. It’s very important — hence our team in Beijing who will lead and keep up the quality. Though Chinese is a very literal language, means very direct. We told our translators to go with what is common, and common is the phonetic translation of band names, not the meaningful translation. This is, however, different with the lyrics. The requirement by the authorities is that if it goes to approval, it needs to be manually translated. They want to get the sense of it. That is important. Our language students are disciplined and well educated. They love their jobs because it puts them in touch with new music.
Q. The Chinese government has long required that all information (titles, lyrics,…) be translated and approved by the government before entry into the market.
A. That is correct. An approval process can only be initiated by a Chinese publisher who wants to release the material from the West. This simply means that not everyone can try. You need that partner, and we have found a great partner, Shanghai Synergy Culture and Entertainment Group (SSCEG) who is endorsed by the Chinese government as the leading music record label and publishing house for Chinese music industry.
Q. Does your service cover government approval?
A. Yes it does. From September on, we will offer this digital release opportunity from 88tc88.com. You should have your translation done prior to that, however, to get the process in motion much quicker then. Although there is no guarantee of approval, once the process has been put in motion, it cannot be reversed. If you follow the rules, you will be approved.
Q. What are some of the ‘red flags’ musicians should be aware of in that approval process?
A. There are 4 golden rules: no sex, no violence, no religion, and nothing related to social unrest. Of course, these things are everything that an indie artist aspires to and eventually wants to stand for. But a release is worth a try, as the Chinese people understand Western music very well. Considering the massive challenges that the Chinese government faces every day, it is no surprise that they need to control the speed in which things change.
Q. You mention providing digital distribution. What platforms will you use to promote your artists and bands? How will you help Chinese consumers find western music on these platforms?
A. Our partner SSCEG will soon launch an innovative digital platform called artistgogo.com. It will introduce various types of international music with interactive software packages to encourage consumers to not only enjoy, but utilize music. The digital platform will be providing its services to their clients such as China Unicom (the second largest mobile service provider in China), Sina.com (the largest portal) and others to their vast membership.
Q. Considering the fact that overwhelming, music searches lead to pirated downloads, might translation be a double-edged sword due to the lack of legal outlets?
A. No, it is the right thing to do. First of all, 88tc88.com will help to increase the number of released Western indie artists in China. Luckily enough, SSCEG is providing the technical and promotional solution through their aLMS system, an operating system developed by a-Peer Holding Group, which is a US technology company. The whole deal is about making it right. Trumping Baidu through transparent accounting and sales, through mobile carriers like China Unicom. It is about putting ad based attempts out of work as they just clutter the offering and don’t make money for artists.
Q. In the same vein, you note that “monetization is then maintained through concerts, appearances, sponsorships and partnerships,” something I agree with totally. But how realistic is this for most independent artists?
A. Artists don’t stop making music in the first place just because of Madonna and U2 who are wildly more successful than they are. The same principle applies to China; don’t ignore it. If there are tools available to spread your music, use them. If they are packaged as well as 88tc88.com, just go for it. China is an even greater level playing field for independent artists as it is just beginning to develop a solid understanding of all sorts of Western musical culture and has a huge hunger for the world and what it has to offer. Of course, the Top Ten are the Top Ten worldwide, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. And as an independent artist, you don’t care about the Top Ten anyway, do you?
Q. In working with Shanghai Synergy Culture & Entertainment Group, the subsidiary of Shanghai Media Entertainment Group, you are taking a very different strategy from Google which took a more go-it-alone approach?
A. That’s right. China is all about partnerships and trust. Going it alone doesn’t work anywhere, so why would we be so arrogant to think we can build that skyscraper alone? We humbly realize that this is a joint effort and it will only work as a partnership. With reliable and powerful partners like SSCEG, we will be able to achieve a lot for the artists.
Q. Do you have any advice for music companies considering entering China?
A. As with anything outside your 30 mile radius of life ï¿½ be open, accept that things are handled differently in other countries. Have a thirst for knowledge for and an interest in other cultures and people. Try to learn how to communicate with them, even try to learn their language (yes that is hard, but worth it the moment you can speak with people directly). That’s my general advice. If you want special advice on media related approaches, well, contact me anytime.