In late 2017, singer-songwriter Jessie J flew to Changsha, China, with her then-tour manager Andrew Spalter to compete on the local reality TV competition Singer. Spalter soon realized that the show wouldn’t be Jessie J’s only challenge: The social media platforms he was used to, including Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, are blocked by the Chinese government.
Spalter spent the next four months learning about Chinese social media and streaming services, which ultimately helped Jessie J earn viewers’ votes -- and become the first international artist to win Singer. "We dove into it to build her presence from the ground up," recalls Spalter. "That was the first time that I was like, "There is an opportunity in this market.'"
A decade ago, China’s recorded-music business was dominated by piracy. Since then, technology conglomerates like Tencent Music Entertainment and NetEase Cloud Music, along with a nationwide piracy crackdown that began in 2015, have helped expand the industry, which grew by 16% to $591 million in 2019, according to IFPI, and from the 12th-biggest global market to the seventh in the past four years. Now international artists "can’t ignore" it, says Cindy Gu, head of Astralwerks Asia. And while that means navigating different social media platforms, Gu says that "if you put in time and resources, you’ll get results."
Several agencies are already helping artists do that. In 2018, Spalter launched East Goes Global, which works with artists like Shawn Mendes and Imagine Dragons to build a presence on Chinese online platforms in order to sell merchandise, score local endorsement deals and tour China. The company offers a variety of services, from localizing and translating artists’ content to Mandarin for Chinese platforms to setting up and translating live online events. A big part of the job is "activating" Chinese fans who already exist: Just 48 hours after East Goes Global launched a Chinese social media campaign for Mendes’ October single "Wonder," he had scored 3 million followers on streaming services QQ Music and NetEase and social platforms Weibo and Douyin.
Outdustry, a music services company founded in 2006, combines social media campaigns in China with local A&R and rights management. Social media alone "is not going to be what moves the needle," says Alex Taggart, the company’s head of international, "because it’s such a locally dominated market." Breaking through can require extra effort. Last spring, Taggart helped Dua Lipa promote her performance at a Shanghai Chanel event with a Vogue China cover she shared with Chinese singer-actor William Chan, showing fans "Dua is taking China seriously," he says. In May, he arranged for singer-songwriter Lauv to meet Chinese pop star Bibi Zhou for a livestream on China’s Bilibili, where they chatted in English with Chinese subtitles. Now Outdustry is running a competition for Chinese fans to remix "Oh My Gawd," Major Lazer’s collaboration with Nicki Minaj and Mr Eazi.
Even aside from the language barrier, understanding China’s social media requires some app translation. China’s answer to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is Weibo, which has 229 million daily active users, or DAUs; the closest thing to YouTube is Bilibili, with 53 million DAUs; and the Chinese version of TikTok -- both are owned by parent company ByteDance -- is Douyin, with a staggering 600 million DAUs. Tencent’s messaging, social media and mobile payment app, WeChat, is also essential for business in mainland China, with 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide. (Chinese artists have a presence on all of these platforms, and often more.) And that’s not to mention other fast-growing apps like fashion review platform XiaoHongShu (“Little Red Book”) and Douyin competitor Kuaishou. "The adoption of new platforms happens way quicker here than it does anywhere else," says Taggart.
China’s leading streaming services also offer their own form of social media: Platforms like NetEase allow verified artists to post photos and videos to their profiles for users to "like" and comment on. "It’s a social platform built into a music platform," says Spalter. Fans can also "tip" with real money performers who livestream concerts on platforms like Tencent’s Kugou Live, and those "social entertainment services" make up roughly 70% of Tencent’s total revenue.
Doing business in China also means navigating cultural differences. The government is quick to shut down content it considers inappropriate, and Gu says lyrics must be "100% clean." When Spalter worked with American pop artist Fletcher to promote her September EP, The S(ex) Tapes, they had to be "very cautious," he says. "We make sure it’s localized enough that if someone is prancing around in their underwear, we either don’t post it or edit it."
Artists’ political views can also get them blacklisted from touring in China. Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga, among others, reportedly have angered the Chinese government by posing for photos with the Dalai Lama, and Katy Perry is rumored to have been denied a visa to perform at the 2017 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai because of her support for Taiwan, which has been governed independently from China since 1949. The protests in Hong Kong are similarly divisive.
Even so, Gu points out that Western music and culture still influence China’s younger generations, many of whom are bilingual. Chinese students studying abroad will often -- albeit against copyright law -- upload music videos and artist interviews directly to their Chinese socials, she says. And attitudes are slowly changing: While the Chinese government temporarily “banned” hip-hop in 2018, The Rap of China, a hip-hop talent show, has helped bring the genre to a mainstream Chinese audience.
Among China’s younger listeners, songs go viral just as often on apps like Douyin as they do on TikTok, so active social media accounts help artists capitalize on that momentum. After singer-songwriter Absofacto asked Spalter to look up his single "Dissolve" on a whim, Spalter discovered that it had been used in 700,000 videos on Douyin, but the song’s moment had already passed. Now Spalter is helping Absofacto promote newer releases on the platform.
"Every once in a while I get a text like, 'Hey, can you look into this [song]?'" says Spalter. "I go, 'Looks like you have a million streams in the market, and no one has told you.' And they would’ve probably never known."