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Can China Produce a K-Pop Success Story?

Companies like BMG are organizing songwriting camps to turn Chinese talent into superstars.

BEIJING — In the foothills of the Great Wall, in a hotel room outfitted with recording studio equipment, musicians from the United States, the United Kingdom, Panama and the Netherlands, among other countries, are trying to create China’s next pop hit. Nine international producers and songwriters, including Ivor Novello Award-winning Wayne Hector from the United Kingdom and Erika Ender, who co-wrote “Despacito,” have been working all week to create demos they hope China’s pop stars will record for the country’s growing pop music market. With so many potential listeners — there are already 33 million paid music streaming subscribers in China, according to IFPI, in a country with 1.4 billion people — the stakes for the artists and songwriters, many of whom have never visited China before, are high.

BMG put together the weeklong hotel session, called a SoundLab. It’s the German company’s third such writing camp in China. Among the visitors on its final day is the manager of singer-actor Kris Wu. Landing a song with Wu could be worth up to six figures in U.S. dollars for the songwriters; a previous SoundLab song that Wu recorded, “Juice,” featured in his 2017 movie xXx: Return of Xander Cage. It’s no surprise then that the manager gets first dibs on listening to the week’s demos, before lesser-known artists such as J.Zen, and an as-yet unnamed girl band trio, can browse the remaining songs.

With music labels vying to get into the Chinese market, gone are the days when fans had to choose between Mandopop ballads and foreign artists. An entire industry has emerged to build pop idols on Chinese soil, and the world’s top songwriters are flocking to write for them in songwriting camps organized by a variety of companies.

BMG’s SoundLabs are part of the company’s concerted effort to replicate the success of K-pop acts like BTS for a market that is seen as having massive potential. In 2018, BTS were the second-best selling artists worldwide and the only non-English speaking band to feature in the IFPI’s global top 10 ranking. Music labels are betting a Chinese act could be the next to break into the international scene.


But it’s not just trying to imitate a South Korean sensation. The project is “part of creating that distinct sound for China,” says Marian Wolf, BMG’s vp for global writer services. “The artists have a clear idea of what they want, and it’s different from K-Pop or U.S. pop, but it is influenced by those genres.”

Zhu Xingjie, aka J.Zen, is a case in point. With his artfully mismatched Louis Vuitton earrings and paper-white complexion, the 25-year-old Zhu is every inch the xiao xian rou, or “little fresh meat” — the slang name for the androgynous, coiffed male idols popular in China today. The term sprang from the androgyny of K-pop stars, but Zhu isn’t hung up on the dominance of the Korean export. “K-pop is not so important [in China] anymore,” says Zhu, who recorded songs from the SoundLab last year. “Chinese artists are starting to make their own sounds, but the [Chinese] audience still needs to be educated.”

The theme of this year’s SoundLab is China Beat. In keeping with the government-backed patriotic bent in pop culture, producers have been encouraged to incorporate traditional Chinese instruments such as pipa (similar to a lute) and guzheng (a plucked string instrument known as a Chinese zither) into their tracks.

Every day, BMG teams the songwriters in different groups of three and tasks them with creating China-friendly demos to shop around to the artists who visit at the end of the week. If an artist is interested in the demo, the producers will work with them after the camp to tailor the track to their needs.

The label already runs five SoundLabs a year in China and has plans to expand into cities such as Chengdu, the home of Chinese hip-hop. “We’re trying to be ahead of the game,” says Wolf.


The strategy is a timely one. While K-pop has been a huge global success, its honeymoon in China is waning. Some of the genre’s biggest stars — such as Wu, Lu Han and Tao — were drawn from China by the mega-industry machine in South Korea. But they have all since quit the boy band EXO, citing unfair profit distribution, and have gone on to be major celebrities in China.

Politics also have been a factor. In 2017, the government of South Korea allowed the United States to build a missile defense system in its territory. China viewed this as a security threat and responded by slapping a two-year ban on Korean cultural imports into China right at the peak of K-pop’s global explosion, which has slowed the genre’s infiltration of the mainland market.

But developing the Chinese music market isn’t straightforward. For starters, there is a lack of world-class songwriters. “Especially in the time of the one-child policy, families did not want their children to become music producers,” says Wolf, noting that parents preferred that their children pursue more stable careers.

There is also a lack of resources for those who do decide to enter the music industry. “When I was 12, I could look at videos on YouTube and start learning how to create music,” but video streaming services in China don’t have the same wealth of materials, says Kyle Buckley, aka Pink Slip, a Los Angeles-based producer.

Other labels are working as hard as BMG to bridge the gap between Chinese artists and Western songwriters. In 2017, Warner Chappell Music China ran a songwriters camp in collaboration with Chinese label EE-Media. One of the songwriters involved was the British producer HARIKIRI, who is based in Chengdu and has worked with major hip hop acts such as Higher Brothers. “In Asia, the way we write music is very different from international writers,” says Monica Lee, president of Warner Chappell Music Asia Pacific. International songwriters who parachute into China “need more patience” to deal with the vagaries of Chinese culture, she says.


But convincing foreigners to work creatively in China can be a challenge. Piracy used to dominate music in the country — until 2015, when China’s National Copyright Administration launched a campaign to regulate online music copyrights. Tencent and NetEase threw their weight behind the effort, effectively legitimizing the market, says Guy Henderson, president of Sony/ATV’s international division. Still, Alex Taggart, head of international at Outdustry, a boutique music-services firm in Beijing, says “it is still too cheap to infringe copyright in China.” In one recent case, online celebrity Papi Jiang‘s media network, PapiTube, was sued for infringement; the damages are unlikely to cover the claimant’s legal costs.

Lyrics are one of the challenges that Western songwriters often find when working in China. Lyrics are one of the challenges that western songwriters often find when working in China. “I had to avoid sensitive subjects such as sex, profanity, politics and anything that could be looked at as offensive,” says Salem Davern, who attended a Sony/ATV song camp in China last year. Ender navigated the linguistic dilemma in her demo “Jetlagged,” which she produced with Buckley and Hector, by focusing on locations that are similar in English and Mandarin. “From Beijing to New York/Barcelona to Hong Kong/From Shanghai to Dubai/You got it going on,” she sang to J.Zen.

Sony/ATV’s song camps have similar mass-market ambitions. TF Boys recorded a track from a previous song camp called “Our Friend” that was streamed over 10 million times, hitting No. 1 on streaming service QQ Music. Universal is setting up a “songwriters lounge” in Beijing later this year to facilitate collaborations between Chinese and non-Chinese writers.

Despite recent improvements, Chinese streaming services still don’t have a reliable system for handling data about songwriters, says Taggart. Securing performance-linked income for songwriters can be a challenge. BMG says that the guaranteed mechanical income for their songwriters surpasses the $5,000 per song industry average.

By the end of the week, the writers are excited, exhausted, and a tad hungover as they emerge from their rooms at lunchtime. Everyone agrees they have learned a lot about Chinese music, which will stay with them beyond the week in Beijing. BMG estimates that between 70% and 80% of the songs created at the SoundLab will end up in the China market. The result, Ender says, is that they are “taking China all over the world.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Billboard.