Very Soon It Will Be Much Harder to Operate a Streaming Service in China

Beginning early next year, China's music streaming market may be a lot less interesting. The government has released a list of rules -- "Notice on Further Strengthening and Improving the Management of Online Music Content" -- for streaming services to follow, which include self-regulating catalog in accordance with the Ministry of Culture's dictates around song content. The rules take effect in January, 2016.

The government-aligned news agency Xinhua (responsible for this recent, fascinating piece of propaganda) writes that companies will be required to "increase self-examination over online music content," and "check the content before songs go online." The edict requires companies to scan any material they post online that may encourage destabilization of the country. The Ministry of Culture's guidelines around what is acceptable remain murky.

The country's leading streaming music providers include Baidu, Tencent's QQ, Xiami and Alibaba's TTPod. After a post-launch delay, Apple Music launched in the country in late September (Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new rules). "One of the top requests has been more great content and we're thrilled to bring music, movies and books to China, curated by a local team of experts," Eddy Cue said at the time of the expansion. Apple didn't release the total number of songs available on its streaming service at the time, only saying it was in the million. Google abandoned its Play Music service in the country three years ago.

Relationships with "those in high places" are a requirement for success in the country, according to Eric Zho, the founder of A2Live and the STORM dance music festival. A report earlier this month from the New York Times detailed the difficulty of operating as a foreigner in the country; indeed, many of the Chinese government's rule-setting would appear to bolster the dominance of companies like Baidu and Alibaba.

Ed Peto, managing director of Beijing-based Outdustry Group, a music industry services company, tells Billboard the requirement is a result of the Chinese government's inability to enforce its own rules. "Originally it was up to the content providers to clear their catalogues with the Ministry of Culture. When it became clear that the MoC didn't have the technological or administrational capacity to manage this process, the onus then moved downstream to the service providers." Peto says the self-censorship that these new rules created have resulted in companies doing "a good deal of the MoC's work for it."

In August, the government required the removal of 2.2 million songs from a host of online services over ostensible infringement, focusing mostly on Chinese companies like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. Shortly after that, the Ministry of Culture demanded the removal of 120 songs due to their content. At the time, the Ministry said it wanted to "purify the online music market." Those decrees, however stifling, pale in comparison to the country's frequent tactic of jailing journalists.

Peto remains unconvinced of the new rules' long-term effects, however. "This shows the MoC attempting to re-insert a layer of formal censorship into what was becoming a fairly ad hoc, discretionary system. As is often the case, this may turn out to be more symbolic than practicable in the long run though."