The State of Taiwan Pop Music in China

The following is a translation of a blog post by Massage Milk.  This post may be misunderstood as another exhibition of nationalistic chauvinism, so let me stipulate what the circumstances are: The Massage Milk blogger is a music critic by profession at Lifeweek Magazine in China.  The blog post represents his personal opinion after many years of covering the mainland Chinese music scene and talking to numerous persons in the music industry.  To repeat, the blog post represents his personal opinion and not any official position of the Chinese government.  So it is important not to conflate this blog post to the level of national policy or public opinion.

Yet, it is recognized that there will be the inevitable temptation to extrapolate from one person's reading of the music industry to a more general interpretation of cross-strait relationships between mainland China and Taiwan.  You can do that -- while Massage Milk has supplied ample material, you will do so at your own peril.

(Massage Milk)  The people are dumb.  There is lots of money.  Come quickly.  April 1, 2006.

This headline reportedly came from a telegraph from a prostitute sent to her hometown folks, in which she called for her hometown girls to rush over immediately.  This is classic, because these six Chinese words (人傻、钱多、速来) explained everything succinctly.  We can imagine that the hometown girls received this frontline report and charged over immediately in waves of large numbers.  If money is so easy to make, who is going to farm the land?  So I will list this phenomenon as the "migrant worker wave" too.

In recent years, there is another wave of migrant workers.  I have observed that this migrant worker has many similar characteristics as the prostitutes that I spoke about first, because "the people are dumb, there is lots of money and therefore they came quickly."  The difference is that they do something else.  Unlike the prostitutes, what they do can be allowed to see the light of day.  Actually, it is very respectable, and they are famous and admired people within a certain circle.  They did not come from rural farming villages.  They came from the other side of the Taiwan strait -- they are the Taiwan music people.

This is not because I hold any prejudice against the people of Taiwan.  After dealing with them for so many years, I cannot help but use the prostitute's telegraph message to describe the reason why they are in mainland China -- the people there are stupid, there is lots of money to be made and therefore they came quickly.

Actually, in the early 1990's, when the Taiwan musicians first began to "counter-invade the mainland," they did not come under the premise "the people are dumb, there is lots of money and so they had to come quickly."  At the time, popular music had just taken off in the mainland and the mainland economy was very much behind Taiwan.  Popular music in Taiwan was like the noonday sun in Taiwan  -- anyone who puts out any lousy album will make money, so there was no need to come to make money in mainland China.  In particular, the mainland music industry was unruly and there were business risks.  Therefore, Taiwan musicians came to do business in mainland not for money.

Hou Dejian came to mainland China for political reasons, although he made some money later.  That was because he knew popular music better than any mainland Chinese musician, he taught many people how to use the keyboard and he taught many people how to arrange songs.  Going into the 1990's, a musician named Fang Longxiang (方龙骧) came to mainland China.  He was not looking to make money either, but he really could not stand the dullness of Taiwan popular music.  When he heard Cui Jian (崔健)'s rock music, he seemed to hear a voice calling out to him: "Come back!  Come back!"  To his mind, there could be a dozen people like Cui Jian.  If all these rock 'n roll singers got together, the concert would be something else.  At a minimum, it would purge the rubbish Taiwan popular music from the body.  Therefore, he came.  Through his efforts, seven or eight mainland Chinese rock music collection albums were produced (including the Beijing rock music series, the Faces and Feng Jiangzhou series).  Actually, these collections did not make Fang a lot of money.  If he really wanted to make money, he would not be trying to develop rock 'n roll in mainland China.

Even earlier than Fang Longxiang was Zhang Puiyan (张培仁), the owner of the Taiwan Devil Rock (魔岩) Record Company.  When he arrived in mainland China, he signed up many rock 'n roll bands.  It can be said that Zhang brought together all the outstanding rock 'n roll singers from the late 1980's to the early 1990's in Beijing.  This idealist definitely thought about making some money.  But when he heard the rousing music, I guess that he totally put the idea of making money behind his head.  He genuinely liked this bunch of rock 'n roll singers.  But did he make money?  Obviously not.  If he made money, the Demon Rock brand would not have disappeared.

When Comrade Deng Xiaoping began his southern tour, he opened a new page in Chinese history.  Regardless of whether this is socialism or capitalism, the first thing is to launch a market economy.  The mainland economy developed rapidly in the 1990's and the market economy began to transform various industries.  In the case of the recording industry, it used to cost about 40,000 RMB to manufacture a record in 1994.  When a musician recorded a song, the income may just be 100 or 200 RMB; a producer may get only 30,000 or 40,000 RMB to produce a special album; it costs less than 2,000 to write a song.  The whole recording would cost less than 80,000 RMB if one was frugal, or at most 100,000 RMB.  In that era, even if you invested 500,000 RMB, the effect would be about the same as investing 50,000 RMB.

But in Taiwan, it basically cost around 600,000 to 800,000 RMB to produce an album.  So there was no way to compare mainland versus Taiwan investments.  The mainland Chinese recording industry people knew that they must learn from Hong Kong and Taiwan in order to improve themselves.  So they began to hire Hong Kong and Taiwan producers to produce recordings in mainland China.  Of course, these people demanded fees which cannot be less than what they made in Hong Kong and Taiwan, because they were not going to be like Lei Feng.  Eventually, the costs for mainland Chinese products went up, but the mainland Chinese musicians raised their own standards through learning and exploring.  This meant that the costs for various other aspects of the business went up as well.  In the late 1990's, the investment for a music production is basically no different between mainland China and Taiwan.  In other words, a musician, producer, recording engineer or MV director will make about the same money in mainland China or Taiwan.

But during this period, the fairy tale of Taiwan popular music was destroyed.  An icon of Chinese-language popular music -- Rolling Stone Record Company -- collapsed after struggling for several years due to poor business management.  Taiwan popular music entered the dark ages.  At the same time, even though mainland Chinese popular music was still listless, its market and space was still there and anyone can still get lucky and make a bundle of money (like a blind cat ramming a mouse to death).  So, under the double whammy from piracy and illegal downloading, Taiwan popular music was in ruins while mainland Chinese popular music was like a dead corpse which has not gone into rigor mortis yet.  Eventually, there was going to a rainbow somewhere after the storm.

So after year 2000, Taiwan musicians went for the great escape to China.  Taiwan is such a small place.  A huge amount of investment is required to produce a record, and even the most popular records will have a limited base.  This was a shaky business.  If there were any business downturn, many people would lose their jobs.  Also, the Taiwan recording industry tends to be conservative and they tend to stick to the market that they are familiar with.  In 2002, I interviewed several Taiwan musicians, and they all believed that their recording industry destroyed the Taiwan market.  Therefore, they had no choice but to leave home and go west, go west, and then go west into the arms of the motherland.  Actually, we get the message from the escape of the Taiwan musicians that if mainland China wants to liberate Taiwan, they don't have to send soldiers -- they can bring the Taiwan economy to ruins, and there will be automatic surrender.

So these Taiwan musicians, from famous people like Luo Dayou (罗大佑) and Li Zongsheng (李宗盛) to nameless others, all came to settle down in mainland China.  Previously, we used to look for them across the Taiwan strait; now we can see them anytime on the streets of Beijing.

Here, an explanation is necessary.  In 1987, mainland China opened up the policy of importing audio-visual products, and Hong Kong and Taiwan popular music could formally enter mainland China.  From that moment on, the generations of mainland young people were baptized by Hong Kong and Taiwan culture.  After twenty years of baptism, Hong Kong and Taiwan music is now an inalienable part of music aesthetics for mainlanders.  Although European, American, Japanese and Korean music have impacted mainlanders, they cannot compare with Hong Kong and Taiwan popular music.  After all, these are all sung in Chinese, they are all Chinese people and there are many common points.  Therefore, mainlanders who have been influenced by Hong Kong and Taiwan popular music firmly believe that Hong Kong and Taiwan music is good, it is good and it is good.  The Hong Kong and Taiwan music was in fact better than mainland music, not just on the basis of aesthetic judgment but also in lifestyle and interests.  Taiwan popular music not only had a cultural flavor, they also had a humanistic flavor.  From Liu Wenzeng (刘文正), Qingshan (青山) and Teresa Teng (邓丽君) through the popular music of the late 1990's, they influenced the musical tastes of mainland listeners.

Therefore, we believed, we fervently believed and we superstitiously believed that Taiwan popular music will be better than mainland's no matter what.

When the mainland recording industry wanted to save itself, it pinned its hope on using Taiwan popular music as the model.  In truth, by the time that we began to learn from Taiwan musicians on a large-scale, they had already fallen down and they were escaping to mainland.  But these people brought with them what the mainlanders regarded as legends and fairy tales.  This allowed our mainland colleagues to believe that these people can save mainland popular music.  But the mainland colleagues ignored one point: these Taiwan people came to the mainland because they had ruined Taiwan popular music and can no longer make a living there.  How can they save mainland popular music?  But superstition and fairy tales say that they can.  In the face of superstition and fairy tales, who will believe in science?  The camel that died from starvation is still bigger than a horse, even though the camel is dead.

Fine, let us now make an accounting of what the Taiwan music people have done in mainland China?

The Taiwan music people were concentrated mainly among the senior management of the five major recording companies in mainland China.  What have these five recording companies done over the years?  How many newcomers have they introduced?  How many of their products were top-selling albums?  Look at the artists that they have signed -- they are basically singers or movie/television actors/actresses who are already quite popular.  The news faces that have emerged in recent years basically have nothing to do with the five big companies, and the genuinely popular recordings in recent years have nothing to do with the big five companies either.  Actually, these five big companies have a global strategy -- they try not to nurture newcomers and they just pick the fruit tree for the best available.  It is impossible to expect these five big companies to come up with anything new.

But the problem is whether these established singers and artists can really move the five big companies up another step?  We know that even someone like Lian Luyi (连陆毅) dared to scold Sony, so what about Sony then?  Universal is operated by Hong Kong people and the singers that they promoted last year were all failures.  EMI should not even be mentioned, because they used 'advanced' concepts to produce two plagiarized albums.  Warner is right now using up the family assets left behind by Xu Xiaofeng (许晓峰) and Song Ke (宋柯); if the Taiwan people took charge from the beginning, one wonders where they would be.

The Taiwanese idea seemed to be suited only for the small piece of turf in Taiwan.  That market was easy to grasp.  They do certain safe, formulaic things; if they come across into a talented singer, then they got lucky; if they have untalented singers instead, they have no idea what to do.  How many dead-on-arrival singers were there in Taiwan in recent years?  It is innumerable.  Sometimes, we only see people like Jay Chou.  But how many people fell down before Jay Chou?  Nobody pays any attention.  The success of one Jay Chou and the failure of innumerable others cannot prove that Taiwan popular music is still in its heyday.

Right now, our mainland colleagues are still blindly believing in the set of theoretical concepts about the Taiwan recording industry.  Ten years ago, these conceptual games may have intimidated the mainlanders.  Today, they are useless.  The mainland market is different from the Taiwan market.  The people in the east, south, west and north sections of the country have different aesthetics and tastes.  The self-deceiving recording industry games from Taiwan are less and less effective, because they would not be producing so much lousy stuff over the years.  For those young people who liked popular music and who just entered the entertainment circle, they have no speech rights and judgment abouth these Taiwanese concepts, so these young people who grew up listening to Hong Kong and Taiwan popular music were quickly captured by these Taiwan people.  These young people accepted their incorrect and failing concepts, and it will take time for them to correct the erroneous information that they receive now when they have to independently confront the failures.

People in the Taiwan recording industry still do not understand why the Taiwan people can produce that kind of music but we cannot.  Actually, this was due to a difference in environment.  In the 1980's, the mainland was imitating Teresa Teng.  All the lyric writers wanted to write songs like those sung by Teresa Teng, but they could not because they did not have the environment and atmosphere.  Similarly, many people today wanted to write songs like those by Chen Qizhen (陈绮贞), but this was just as impossible.  The reason was that the environment did not exist.  For than two decades, the mainland musicians could not find themselves, largely because they believed in Taiwan popular music and lost their own judgment in the process.

Faye Wong (王菲) is at the top of Chinese-language music.  From the album "Sky (天空)," Faye Wong found her own true style.  That album was produced by several talented music people from Taiwan.  Previously, Faye Wong was already quite famous.  That exceptional team never appeared together for another singer.  But this was an exception.  Afterwards, Faye Wong became more and more her own person musically speaking.  She basically did not rely on those Taiwan music people anymore, and she continued to be popular.

Over these years, the space of development of mainland popular music has grown and it is easier to make money.  Therefore, Taiwan musicians have to come here to make a living.  But the odd thing is that they have never done anything noteworthy on the mainland over these years.  Why?  This is an issue that is worthwhile for mainlanders to reflect upon.

Apart from the banality of Taiwan musicians, they were contemptuous of mainland people.  In their eyes, mainlanders were all peasants who just came out of the Cultural Revolution.  The mainlanders were behind on everything.  The deep admiration from the mainlanders for the Taiwan musicians make the latter even more contemptuous of mainlanders.  In my personal experience, when they come to the mainland, they are quite polite when you deal with them, but they always think that they are the most correct and proper.  The proud and arrogant attitude exhibits itself frequently.

For example, in the case of the Hua Er (花儿) plagiarism, we can imagine what would happen to artists who worked under Song Ke and Wang Zhongjun?  Obviously, EMI's senior officials treated mainlanders like idiots.  As another example, there were scandals each year about those award shows in which companies demand awards.  Which companies were making those demands?  It was mainly those five big companies, who threatened to boycott at every step.  Although most mainland awards are bullshit, there ought to be some minimal respect.  Because they hold you in contempt deep down inside, they are actually respecting you when they demand awards for themselves.  If the mainlanders had any backbone, they would not be abused like this and there would be no market for the big five companies.

Although the mainland recording industry is somewhat depressed, this is still the best place for Taiwan music people to make money.  Therefore, one can say, "There is a lot of money here."

The superstitious admiration of the mainlanders for Taiwan pop music gave many employment opportunities to these mediocre Taiwan musicians.  Therefore, one can say, "People are stupid."

The collapse of the Taiwan music scene and the renaissance of the mainland music scene will attract more and more Taiwan musicians here.  Therefore, one can say, "Come quickly."

When I wrote the above, I did not do so from the perspective of narrow regionalism.  It was based upon personally hearing and seeing far too many stupid and idiotic things over the years.  Perhaps idealistic Taiwan music people like Fang Longxiang and Zhang Puiyan still exist today and they can do something meaningful for mainland Chinese popular music, but it is indisputable that most Taiwan people come here bearing the flag of music for the purpose of cheating money.  This irresponsible attitude will affect the rules of the game in the recording industry here to some degree, with negative consequences.  But when they leave with their money, what is left for us?