Interview with THOMAS REEMER, chairman of 88tc88, digital distributor for the Chinese music market - Sep 5, 2011
“[The Chinese market] used to be big only in numbers, but now it’s also big in terms of money. These people have disposable income they’re rampantly spending, and as an artist you can get a chunk of that if you make a proper plan.”
As the world’s second largest economy, China has the potential to be one of the world’s largest music markets but so far the enormous promise of the “sleeping dragon” has gone largely untapped by western artists – until now.
Bands without translation and distribution are currently invisible in a vast marketplace where people search for music with Chinese signs. 88tc88, a new web-based service backed by one of the most powerful media partners in Asia, bridges the divide by offering independent artists and bands an exclusive one-click solution that includes translation, lyric approval, and digital distribution to more than one billion Chinese-speaking people hungry for new music.
Founder of 88tc88, Thomas Reemer talks to HitQuarters about why western artists should be accessing the Chinese market, the simple steps involved in selling your music there, and how to side-step the Chinese censors.
Can you explain in simple terms what 88tc88 actually is?
As an individual artist you cannot release your music in China - you need a partner. 88tc88 offers artists a one-stop solution to access the Chinese market.
Why would an artist want to access the Chinese market?
They are strongly discovering western music, and at the moment China is a level playing field. When you look at the commercial music history, this is the United States in the 50s.
China is a big market, and in the past it used to be big only in numbers - population, number of phones – but now it’s also big in terms of money. These people are starting to have disposable income that they’re rampantly spending, and as an artist you can get a good chunk of that if you make a proper plan.
If I am an artist interested in releasing my music in China can you explain what I would need to do?
It’s very simple and works like every digital distributor. You sign up, open an account, upload your music, your lyrics, your metadata, and then wait six to eight weeks until our process is completed.
And what happens on your side during that six to eight weeks?
The first step of our process includes the translation of all of your material. The second step is the approval process from the Chinese Ministry of Culture. The third step is the upload to the mobile carriers. The process is then complete, and as a result you will get back sales links that show you where your music is available.
So how do music fans then get to actually hear my music in China?
At the moment Chinese people will not be able to buy your stuff so having those sales links will enable you to promote your music in China and abroad because they can then go to their preferred mobile store or mobile network music store and download it from there, either as a download as a ringtone or ringback tone.
Why are you only working with mobile carriers?
We currently only work with mobile carriers because they pay out and account for royalties in a transparent way. Most of the websites etc offering free downloads you shouldn’t be working with - you should make a plan from the beginning that your stuff is not available there.
Increasing the legally available opportunity for Western music is one of our goals, because that’s going to directly fight piracy.
How many artists and labels have signed up so far?
Individual artists are in the hundreds, and we have about twenty labels that have signed up, among them Virtual label, Alligator Records, Absolute One, Bar/None.
You said the second stage is for the lyrics to be vetted by the Chinese authorities. What is the success rate of this and what are some of the lyrical areas best avoided?
In our experience out of 100 songs only one gets rejected, and you cannot really tell why – it can be very random.
There are some golden rules: don’t talk about Tibet and politics, or social unrest. Pornography, of course, is a no-no. The rest is wide open. But we’ve had things go through that we thought would be blocked and then had things come back that we thought, ‘that’s impossible, what’s the reason?’
They say, religion is bad, but then you have a lot of songs obviously about God and they’ve gone through because it’s non-offensive, it’s about the relationship between two entities. The song ‘Children of Darfur’ [by Tomás Doncker), which is, as everybody knows, about how China’s involvement in South Sudan is bad, and that went through, no problem. But then we had an old blues guy singing about a one night stand, and they blocked it because they found it too offensive, although there wasn’t a single swear word in there.
The approval process is the privilege of only a few entities. Four in China to be precise, and we are working with one of those. Few westerners can do that and that’s the biggest reason why we are in talks at the moment with a lot of big major labels who are seeking our support because only a fraction of their catalogue is available in China.
So how did you originally come to focus on China?
I was always very interested in China, and when I went for the first time six years ago, I was fascinated. I grew up in East Berlin, East Germany, and when I came to Beijing for the first time it felt like East Berlin – the same kind of suppressed energy. I totally related to that.
And then when I saw my first concert in China, I was hooked because any concert in China has a much bigger meaning than in the West. It’s not strictly commercial. So when the business opportunity came to do something for it, and also promote culture and individualism and music, I jumped at it.
How did the actual idea come about?
This project was born out of a situation I discovered while I was in China whereby 90% of the music available worldwide cannot be found in China because the music doesn’t have a Chinese name.
We’d been talking about piracy and how people find music and steal it, and I asked this guy to show me how this works on Baidu. I gave him a name of a band he didn’t know, and he typed something in there with Chinese letters. I was like, what did he just translate? Is it the phonetics, the meaning of the word, what is it? He said, “It’s the phonetics.” So if I’d never spoken those words he wouldn’t have been able to know about that band.
So I started to look into the possibility of building a very small tool to translate band names.
This then developed into 88 because the artists we tested the translation with asked us about the possibility of release in China. I had good connections over there already and could easily put together all the partners that you need to jump into it right away.
Your services are backed by Shanghai Media Entertainment Group, which is part of one of the most powerful Chinese-language media and entertainment companies in the world. How did that publishing deal come about?
Through discovering that publishing is done very poorly in China. It’s not in their culture – if they want to buy something, they just pay for it. Nobody cares if it has been created by a writer or an artist, or the record company. As such publishers in the West have a hard time collecting money from China. So we thought, let’s change that. Lets try to establish publishing with a strong partner, and then try to collect royalties on our terms.
This is a very delicate plan that we have been planting, but that we want to grow into a strong tree in order to firstly attract attention to the importance of publishing in China. Where is the value? Is it in production, or in IP trademarks and copyrights? The more you advance as a society the more it becomes the latter.
Secondly, we want to empower our clients to earn from China on the publishing side as well.
Your facility allows non-Chinese artists to release their music in China but there’s obviously a lot more involved in terms of actually making an impression in the Chinese music market. Does 88tc88 help facilitate this in any way?
We do help facilitate that. We don’t do it ourselves. We see our first and foremost duty in enabling you to sell your music over there and promotion is a different beast best handled by other people we work with and that we recommend when you get in touch with us. They are very good promoters (A2IM, MusicDish*China) based in New York with a strong Chinese force, and know how to work the Chinese social networks.
Once sales have been enabled and promotion started, how else can artists then start establishing their foundation in China?
Once you get traction, you should think of trying to come over and to treat this as a project.
The Chinese and the US markets are very similar if you’re a foreign artist. If you want to conquer the United States you wouldn’t do that as a chance business, you’d make a plan, find the money to do it, and invest the time and effort. You do the same in China. It’s going to be worth it because, at the moment, unlike the United States you won’t have a lot of competition.
You will see traction very quickly because people like to pick up the new stuff. For them it’s new for there to suddenly be an initiative to take them seriously as consumers and offer them new stuff – that’s never happened before. These people come out of times where nobody gave a damn if they bought anything or not. This is changing, and music is a very nice way of bringing that about.
What type of artists would your service benefit the most in terms of finding success in China?
We are always trying to research which genres work best, but I have to tell you that all the genres seem to work well. We are representing a famous Blues label (Alligator Records), which has had success in China, as well as pop music, heavy metal, rock and punk.
Because all of this is breaking out at the same time, there’s no frontrunner. There’s no preferred fashion at the moment. If you go around the country to the music festivals, you see it in the line-up - it’s always very eclectic.
For China it’s about finding your individual persona. The big breakthrough is that the youth are doing that without caring about ancient history and hierarchy in China. That’s obviously great for us because these people are good consumers.
Have you any idea in which direction the Chinese music market is heading?
It’s heading into getting bigger and bigger [laughs].
Looking at the festivals is a big indication - we now have five big music festivals throughout the year in China, and they draw crowds of 200,000 people and they pay $100 for three days. Three years ago those crowds were much smaller and only paid 30 RMB - which is like 3 US dollars. This is important news: these people are starting to spend money.
App-wise China is already the second biggest market after the United States, and games-wise it’s much ahead of the United States.
What stage is the company at at the moment and how do you see this developing in the future?
I see it as in a beta stage. The product is out there, the product is used, but at the moment we are perfecting it. We have just got more funding to roll it out properly. The roll-out will really be happening from January onwards, and it will be very interesting to see how we sail.
Then we’re going to add to the business, so games and applications would be next, and then also at one point in time we want to dive into the concert and promotion business in China so as to better enable the success that we’re hopefully creating with the artists.
Is there any potential for undertaking the reverse model of the project, as in bringing Chinese artists to the West?
It’s a natural progression of our own business but I think it’s going to be tough. Me personally, I like to watch Chinese movies, for instance, and the last one I saw, Aftershock, is an impressive movie, but when I showed it to a couple of friends in the West they couldn’t relate to it, simply because it’s such a different culture. And I think that goes for music as well. All the pop music going on in Asia is very highly produced, but still the success in the West is non-existent.
The Chinese market is opening up but what are still the biggest obstacles you face?
One of the biggest obstacles is people’s own initiative. You have to understand China and China’s tradition to know how to deal with these people. It’s a strong hierarchy - there’s always a leader, and the individual usually doesn’t count. So if you expect somebody to make a decision on their own or try to come up with a solution for a problem, you will be disappointed. You always have to talk to the leaders, and then try to push through the solutions yourselves.
Finally what does 88tc88 actually stand for?
‘88’ means luck and prosperity in Chinese. And ‘tc’ has two meanings; one is: Thomas and Christoph. Christoph [Martius] is my business partner. But it’s also ‘translated into Chinese’. It sounds funny. People find it difficult at first but then they never forget it.
*A 20% discount for the 88tc88 service is available to all HitQuarters/SongQuarters subscribers. To obtain a special discount code please send an email here.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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* Jonathan Ho on Southeast Asian music publishing