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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 18, July 23 - 29


 
 
Rock 'n Roll Entrepreneurs
by Anna-Sophie Loewenberg and Guo Jing
Beijing's young hipoisie join the Internet revolution
 

"All is chaos and the situation is excellent" -Mao Zedong

The Great Helmsman was not referring to the state of the Internet in China in the run-up to the new millennium, but his words perfectly describe the opportunity and anarchy of Chinese cyberspace as the 21st century dawns.

Like Chang'an Avenue, the Internet is continually under construction, backed up with traffic for hours on end, and difficult to navigate. But it is exactly this chaotic state that makes the Internet and the PRC resemble a gold rush where the young and intrepid can dream of staking a claim that brings fame and fortune.

The Birth of Chinese Cool
The worldwide commercialization of youth culture is another phenomenon that has enabled hip young people to turn their cultural advantage into profit.

Elvis Presley probably started it all: since the rise and fall and rise of The King, slick marketers have known that cool equals cash. Young people who spend money on records and blue hair dye also spend money on fashionable clothes, drinks, magazines and under-arm deodorants.

While Janis Joplin's public drinking bouts were making Southern Comfort famous, and the jackbooted antics of British punks were ensuring the popularity of Doc Martens, Chinese youths were serving as the foot soldiers of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the Gang of Four's urging, the Red Guards engaged in popular countercultural pursuits such as struggling against reactionaries and going down to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Needless to say, the 1960s were not the epitome of cool in the Middle Kingdom.

The Asian financial crisis notwithstanding, the 1990s have seen the birth of Chinese cool. And the numbers of cool contenders are growing faster than was ever possible because they are propagating their cachet over the Internet.

The Digerati Are Coming
Qiu Shuang is 19 and typical of the first generation of Chinese Internet entrepreneurs. He was 15 when he saw his first computer. This was in 1995, when a huge number of Qiu's peers in America were already computer game masters with several years of experience on their parents' home computers. Now a history student at Beijing United University, Qiu was 17 when he helped start www.ihw.com.cn/rock, or RockChina, a bilingual website about Chinese rock music. Qiu's high school friend Wang Tianjing started the site and asked Qiu to help him write copy and find content for the site. Before long, Wang and Qiu were working with classmates Zhong Yuan and Zhang Jia.

The foursome got a deal with Info Highway (a local Internet service provider or ISP) for free Internet time and web hosting services in exchange for web design work.

When they started working together, only Wang knew how to construct a website, but now all four can perform the basic programming necessary to put text and images on the World Wide Web.

We Don't Need No Education
Beijing-born Qiu is from an average, working class family that had a hard time keeping him clothed in the early 1980s. All of his skills are self-taught. He cut his digital teeth playing video games on a friend's computer and when he was 17 his mother bought him a personal computer. "I was always running around outside at that time, I didn't like to hang out at home, but after my mom bought me that computer, I stayed at home more, and that is when our website really took off," he says.

"I've been listening to rock music since high school," Qiu says, "so I create most of the content for the site." Hoping to bridge a gap between foreign rockers and the local rock music scene, Qiu and his friends kept a foreign audience in mind when creating the site.

"At first we were all such idealists, we thought if foreigners have a chance to hear Chinese music on the Internet, maybe they will come to China to see concerts live, and the Chinese music scene will grow internationally," Qiu says with an ironic grin about his optimism.

RockChina's site includes rock news, band pictures, demo music and a rock forum. The forum is one of Qiu's favorite features.

"A lot of friendships are made that way," he says. "It is not a chat box, but it is a place where people exchange ideas about Chinese rock 'n roll.

We talk about music, record companies, and sometimes literature," says Qiu, who is currently reading a Chinese translation of Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road.'

"Maybe I'll write about a concert or an underground band and other people comment on the band, or maybe they were at the show too," he says. An uncensored forum for sharing ideas and disseminating underground music, web culture is a unique medium in mainland China. RockChina also helps underground bands sell their demos on line, but doesn't take any cut from the sales. "We don't want to make money off of underground bands," Qiu says.

The demo songs on the site include tracks by local Beijing bands Reflector, Anarchy Boys, Brain Failure, You Daoshi and Sensitive Flower. "When I first heard Chinese punk rock bands, I thought it was the greatest thing," Qiu says. "It really shocked me. So I wanted to put demos of underground bands on the Internet, and make it available to the world."

Bringing Home the Bacon
RockChina is not a commercial website. There are no advertisements and the website's teenage creators have no immediate plans to make any money from the site. The project is funded by freelance website design. One of their most profitable projects was an English-language website for China's National Science Foundation. The RockChina foursome took two months to design the site, a job that netted them RMB17,000 in 1999. Not bad for four high school students.

With their web design skills, English-language ability and zeitgeist savvy, Qiu and his colleagues could get good jobs long before they graduate from university, but they don't intend to go professional for a while yet.

Nonetheless, they are aware of the commercial possibilities of the Internet. "I admire other websites like Chineserock.com" Qiu says, "they have a lot of advertisements."

Turning Cool into Cash
Chineserock.com is another Beijing-based website about Chinese rock started by enthusiastic young entrepreneurs. The brainchild of 24 year-old Texan David O'Dell, who came to Beijing because "they don't speak Chinese in Texas," Chineserock.com is a commercial website. Although the site does have plenty of advertisements, very few of them are paid for and the company is a long way from being profitable. This is typical of Internet companies, new and old. Web businesses are - at present at least - valued by their potential to make money rather than their actual revenue. Judging by its negative cash flow, Chineserock.com is on track to becoming a successful Internet company. But what is the business model?

Started in 1998 by O'Dell, Chineserock.com is a bilingual, online music magazine that features local and international music news as well as an online Chinese record shop called Digital Records. O'Dell has a full-time Internet-related day job, but he has big plans for his fledgling website.

Chineserock.com has a staff of 10 including a professional webmaster, full-time marketing manager and journalists (mostly local musicians) writing up interviews and record reviews. The site aims to become the most comprehensive source of online information about contemporary Chinese rock, and thus attract page views by appealing to fans, musicians and music industry executives. A large loyal readership would give Chineserock.com access to information about a very particular group of consumers. Record companies and manufacturers of youth-oriented products like Levis jeans and Pepsi-Cola pay good money for reliable statistics about this target audience: young people with disposable income.

O'Dell's experience as a bassist playing with punk bands in Beijing has given him an insight into the way the music business works in China, knowledge which helps him precisely tailor the website's content to suit a local readership. Most of Chineserock.com's international music news is provided by arrangement with Sonicnet, a leading U.S.-based Internet music provider recently acquired by Viacom. But what interests American viewers may cause local readers eyes to glaze over with boredom.

"Joan Baez touring the United States isn't going to be relevant to a reader in China, but Metallica's new album release may be of interest to Chinese readers. You have to know the market to be able to gauge that," O'Dell explains.

The other arm of Chineserock.com's business is Chineserock.com Digital Records which plans to promote and sell music over the Internet. The business is based on a digital format for storing sounds known as MP3. The MP3 format compresses music into packets of data that are easy to send over the Internet and be replayed with CD-like quality.

Selling music over the Internet is still in its infancy even in the west, but it promises to be the next killer app, the technology that people like musicians David Bowie and Chuck D. are betting will change the entire music industry.

O'Dell is a true believer in the advantages of MP3 for both bands and fans. "We help bands record and distribute, but we do it all on line. That way we don't have the expense of cutting albums, pressing CDs and all of that. So the band gets a third to half of any sale."

Digital Records has not yet signed any bands, but O'Dell intends to start by representing bands that already have contracts with traditional record labels.

"[Beijing rocker] Dou Wei has plenty of CDs and tapes, but he has no representation on the Internet. And we plan to represent unsigned bands in Beijing," O'Dell adds.

Chineserock.com is currently leading a campaign against digital music piracy. Many Chinese music websites have MP3 sections where fans can download music. According to O'Dell the vast majority of these are illegal pirated versions. As well as notifying webmasters if their sites contain pirate MP3s, Chineserock.com ensures that all the music on their site is there by legal arrangement with the artists. "Most are samples, not full songs," says O'Dell.

"If our artists agree to a full song, so be it, they are forewarned about the risk that people can freely pirate their song. Usually signed artists and labels allow us to provide our largely Chinese audience with sample lengths of songs, plenty to let users listen and decide whether to buy the album, on or offline."

In a recent meeting with China's own King of Rock, Cui Jian, O'Dell showed the musician how anyone with an Internet connection could download pirated versions of all of his songs from every album for free. Once the songs are downloaded, cheap computing technology makes it a matter of hours to cut a CD and have it out on the streets selling for around 10.

To combat rampant piracy, Chineserock.com is engaged in compiling lists of pirate music sites on the Internet, in the hopes that at least branded Internet companies will remove links to sites offering free pirate music for download.

Go To?
O'Dell and his team are currently looking for investment to expand their site.

"No one else has the team we have to do music online in China. We have the respect of the musicians, the industry professionals and of course the fans," O'Dell emphasizes.

RockChina's Qiu may end up being part of the same team. He has already written for Chineserock.com and doesn't see O'Dell's site as competition because RockChina is a not-for-profit undertaking. Qiu himself says he is really interested in writing music journalism, but the RockChina team have put together a business plan seeking RMB4 million investment for an Internet-based broadcasting station. That may stretch the imagination, but the Internet revolution is facilitating developments in the PRC that seemed unimaginable only a few short years ago.

 

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