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Imperfect pitch

4 Dec 2015 By Rachel Morarjee

Chinese state planners are good at building bridges and roads. Now they have set themselves an even bigger challenge: persuading consumers to pay for home-grown music. Bureaucrats plan to expand China’s music industry to 300 billion yuan ($47 billion) by 2020, according to Xinhua. The target shows just how out of touch they are.

China’s entire music business was worth about $790 million last year, according to estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers – smaller than Australia’s $1.2 billion. Even in the United States, music purchases, concert tickets and the like brought in no more than $16 billion in 2014.

China’s lack of development owes a lot to rampant piracy. There is no culture of paying for music in the People’s Republic: customers have long downloaded tracks for free or bought pirated CDs.

The government is belatedly trying to change that. It forced internet providers to remove 2.2 million tracks after new rules on content came into force in July. Web giants like Tencent have struck deals with foreign music companies and are fast building libraries of legitimate tunes.

Even so, it will be tough to get customers to pay for anything other than funky ringtones. It’s a problem shared by many western countries, where live music events have become a bigger source of income than recorded music sales. But China’s Communist Party tends to be wary of large crowds that are not under its direct control, so rock festivals are unlikely to have a bright future in the People’s Republic.

The biggest obstacle, though, is the party’s desire for ideological control. Neighbouring South Korea has become an Asian cultural powerhouse, exporting films, soap operas and songs like the 2012 hit “Gangnam Style”. But South Korean pop acts don’t have to contend with China’s thought police.

China’s new internet content rules are as much designed to preserve social stability as to clean up piracy. U.S. rockers Bon Jovi had their first tour of the mainland cancelled earlier this year after pictures of the Dalai Lama at a previous gig surfaced. Many of China’s pop stars, including first lady Peng Liyuan, trained with the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s military machine may be fearsome, but it’s unlikely to have neighbouring countries dancing in the street.


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