Music Ally has written several times about China in recent months, from how western labels and artists are trying to get a foothold in the country, to the digital-music efforts of homegrown tech corporations like Tencent and Alibaba.
Another way in to understanding the dynamics of the Chinese music market is to focus on a particular genre: electronic music, where social media and a rapidly-expanding middle class are helping club culture to be truly embraced.
This is the bet that Pyro Music and Groove Dynasty are making, establishing themselves in the market to both help local DJs develop, and to give international DJs and dance artists a way in to the country.
Pyro describes itself as the SoundCloud of China – primarily because SoundCloud is blocked in the country – but it is not simply a promotional platform with user-uploaded content: it also links through to ticket sales for events.
Pyro was founded by British DJ Spencer Tarring, who came to Shanghai to play in the city’s clubs and realised that aspiring DJs had no outlet to put their music online – especially since the dominant labels had negligible interest in electronic music. He built a platform to fill that gap.
Groove Dynasty sprang out of Pyro in part to run the latter company’s social media activities. It has grown to become a commercial entity in its own right, handling the social media activities of western DJs and dance brands keen to establish a presence in China. It is also the arm of the company that supports the free-to-use Pyro.
“Our main thing is running social media for foreigners in China,” says Kyle Bagley, the director of Groove Dynasty. “That is our specialty and where most of our businesses comes from.”
Unsurprisingly, the company feels there are considerable opportunities for foreign DJs and artists to make a name for themselves in China, particularly through social media. However, as Warner Music execs also made clear in a recent Midem keynote, this involves getting to grips with the very-specific world of Chinese social-media apps and platforms.
“There are only really a few local DJs who are really making it happen for themselves in China – in terms of very professionally running their social media and putting out releases – and those guys tend to handle their own social media themselves,” explains Bagley.
“Our specialty is in helping foreign acts who are now starting to make money in China by playing over here but don’t know how to get into the scene. They don’t know how to reach their fans that are here. That is where we step in and help them run what they do on local channels.”
The dominance and Swiss army knife-like nature of messaging app giant WeChat is something outsiders initially struggle with, says Bagley, who suggests it has largely replaced phone numbers as the main means of contacting friends in China.
“There are enormous number of features that are added into the WeChat platform,” he says. “They started building these things on the side of it where there are mini-apps which run inside WeChat. You can use them to order a taxi or pay your electricity bill. You can order food through them. There are a shocking number of things that are all done within the WeChat app.”
On official (aka “subscription”) WeChat accounts, followers can receive long-form texts that are sent daily or weekly depending on the account. “You can embed videos into the messages, you can embed photos into them and you can also embed songs into them,” says Bagley. “They don’t let you link to outside sources, but you can get around that with QR codes. In the chat groups [within the app] you can also directly send photos and videos.”
There is no limit on the number of people who can be messaged this way, something that western marketers trying to crack dark social apps like WhatApp would no doubt dearly love to have at their disposal.
“For one of our artists, we would mostly use WeChat when they have some dates in the country,” says Bagley about where he sees the biggest benefit of the platform, treating it as a driver for ticket sales. For larger acts and celebrities, however, the Twitter-like Weibo is proving a key social channel too.
While China is the most populous nation in the world and streaming music services are in front of an estimated 600m people there, recorded music is not the way to really make money in China – especially not for those in the DJ scene. Rather it is playing live and working with brands that offer the most immediate and visible financial returns.
“The number of artists coming over here with bookings has absolutely exploded over the last few years,” says Bagley. “A few years ago, someone might have come in for one or two dates in Shanghai and Beijing but they are now doing seven-city tours. As the second- and third-tier cities get a bit more money and with the rise of the middle class [there are more opportunities here].”
He adds: “People are setting up clubs in areas where they just weren’t clubs before. Right now the bookings can make a lot of money for DJs. The labels are also making some money.”
Foreign alcohol brands– notably Budweiser – have moved in too, and are helping expand the live scene by sponsoring events and festivals. Western dance brands such as Boiler Room have already tested the water in China, and there is huge excitement in the dance scene with the news that the Ultra Festival is coming to the country for the first time in September.
For those foreign dance acts hoping to steal a march, Bagley feels (as he would, given it’s his job) that adapting to local social media rules and mores is the only way to get ahead.
“The people who are set up and doing well with social media channels here, they have to focus only on China, and the fans respond to that. The people who are doing well over here have taken an interest in China on its own. They’re doing things specifically for Chinese fans and doing things specifically on Chinese social media networks,” he says.
“What I would like to see is people taking the Chinese music industry seriously on its own terms – saying that it is a market they want to be in and these are platforms they want to work with.”
Rather than just being about opening the door for international acts to come into China, the company is also looking to boost the profile of Chinese DJs – not just in their home market but also abroad.
At IMS Asia-Pacific in October, Pyro will reveal its chart of the top 100 local DJs on its platform, partly to show it is serious about developing the market.
“There are a lot of up-and-coming DJs in China, and a lot of people doing really awesome stuff over here,” says Bagley. “This top 100 list is an effort from us to legitimise the budding electronic music industry and legitimise the DJ scene over here.”