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Prepare for fireworks – the Asian music scene is exploding

The Asian music scene is one to watch with digital revenue leaping over 20% in 2018 and British institutions and artists finding new ways to plug in.

The Asian music scene is one to watch with digital revenue leaping more than 20% in the last year and esteemed British institutions and artists finding new and innovative ways to plug in. Karen Stretch finds out what all the fuss is about

There’s a real buzz about music-making in Asia. Once distant – both literally and figuratively – the continent’s vibe is now within our reach at the touch of a button.

Figures from the recording industry’s IFPI Global Music Report 2018 lay it out clearly: Asia’s digital revenues were up 22.4% in 2017, with Chinese revenues soaring by 35.3%; streaming revenues across Asia rose by 38.2%, with China’s increasing by 26.5%, South Korea by 47% and India scoring a 60.8% rise.

Opening up unexplored markets

While digital technology is enabling local musicians to gain global reach, the magic of live performance and instrumental training is also still very much centre stage. Linked to its New York foundation and due to open in 2019, the Juilliard School Tianjin will be the only performing arts institution in China to offer US-accredited masters degrees in orchestral performance and chamber music performance. Festivals such as the Modern Sky brand, held right across China, attract musicians and audiences from around the world and the enormous potential of markets which are still unexplored is exciting artists and promoters alike.

Then there is Andrew Lloyd Webber, who quit the House of Lords last October citing work pressures just months before announcing a new partnership between his Really Useful Group and the Shanghai Media Group Live, China’s largest live entertainment group. The joint venture aims to develop China’s musical theatre industry, with technical theatre staff receiving overseas training and the first Chinese production of Tell Me On A Sunday opening on 8 June 2018 at Shanghai’s Majestic Theatre. The show will launch a series of culturally sensitive translations of hit shows in addition to new productions.

A magic quality attracting an audience of millions

So what exactly is the magic quality attracting all this interest in the Asian music scene? Artistic Director of The Leeds International Piano Competition, Adam Gatehouse, has recently returned from Singapore, where the competition held one of three first round sessions – taking the UK competition on tour for the first time in its 52-year history.

Adam Gatehouse, Co-Artistic Director of The Leeds International Piano Competition © Simon Jay Price
Adam Gatehouse, Co-Artistic Director of The Leeds International Piano Competition © Simon Jay Price

‘At least half the applicants for The Leeds came from Asia – either from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong,’ he explains. ‘I think just under half the number who have been selected to come to Leeds [for the second round in September] are in fact from Asia.’

The decision to hold the first round in Singapore was, he explains, partly practical. Geographically, Singapore is well positioned and politically neutral and The Leeds also has a partnership with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, which allowed use of their concert hall and as many practice rooms as were needed.

‘It’s very interesting why so many pianists come from a culture which is so radically different from the classical music culture,’ muses Gatehouse. ‘I think that China has played an enormous part as, indeed, in the less recent past has Japan and South Korea. In China, there are between 40 to 60 million people learning the piano so that is virtually the population of the UK. That in itself is quite an indication.

‘Quite a large number of those from China and Korea and Japan are studying either in Europe or the USA but, on the other hand, the conservatoires there are on the up and I expect in the next 10 to 20 years for the proportion of those studying in Korea and China to noticeably rise.’

Chao Wang, one of the successful competitors from the Singapore round of The Leeds International Piano Competition
Chao Wang, one of the successful competitors from the Singapore round of The Leeds International Piano Competition

There are already plans to return to Singapore for the next competition in 2021, with global reach also being extended by streaming. Films of the 24 competitors to come to Leeds will appear on medici.tv in August 2018 with live streaming of the second round taking place from 6-15 September 2018. ‘We expect to have an audience of millions.’

Over 10 million hits in 170 countries

There’s good reason for such confidence. During 2015’s International Tchaikovsky Competition, medici.tv had over 10 million hits, going to 170 countries. ‘Crucially, there is a very strong presence in Asia: in China, in Korea, in Japan,’ says Gatehouse, ‘and particularly if a Chinese or Korean competitor gets through to the final, interest will rise. Who knows what this will open up?’

Another successful competitor from The Leeds International Piano Competition
Another successful competitor from The Leeds International Piano Competition’s Singapore round, We-Ting Hsieh

A consultant to the music section of the UK’s Department for International Trade, Phil Patterson is familiar with the rise of the fortunes of the Asian music scene. Offering assistance to the British music industry, after a career with major and independent record companies, he last visited China in April 2018, investigating new markets and advising UK companies where to develop and export.

‘We’re looking at the market from every aspect in the current climate,’ explains Patterson. ‘I’ve always respected the market – because if you just go in and bang them on the head and try to persuade them to ‘buy British’, that’s not the name of the game.’ Networking at April’s annual Sounds of the Xity event, which showcased Chinese international artists with the aim of the joint development of the Chinese and Western music industries, the aim of such trade missions is to educate British companies, opening up options and opportunities.

‘I first went to China in 2001 and over the years, there were a lot of Chinese and international musicians in Beijing,’ he explains. ‘Covers, reggae and dancehall were fairly big at the time and are still well received. The Western influences are there but over the years, they’ve tried to develop their own styles. If you go back 20 years in Japan, the same thing was happening there, then J-pop took over and they made it their own.’

The transformation of the Asian music scene

Patterson can best explain the transformation of the Asian music scene with an analogy from the motor industry. ‘If you think about when Japanese cars first came to the UK and were manufactured in the North-East of England in Washington, it was like ‘these are cheap’ and they fell apart after two years.

‘The Japanese have copied initially what was happening in the West with BMW and Mercedes and now they are on a par with Korea. Malaysia and China are doing great cars as well. They put their own stamp on things. It’s inevitable that they will take influences from the more mature markets around the world in music too.’

Anecdotal stories of government control and censorship of the music industry are frequent. A Sony executive once told Patterson that they were putting a compilation together with Cyndi Lauper’s I Drove All Night and it was rejected by the Ministry of Culture because they said they didn’t want people to actually drive all night. Record lyrics have to be looked at and deemed appropriate and all live shows have to submit their set lists beforehand for scrutiny.

But with streaming flooding the market, the government has now put the onus back onto the artists, with bands such as 10 Cent having to regulate themselves or face being shut down.

A land of discovery – both ways

‘It’s interesting to look at how it’s all evolving,’ says Patterson. ‘There’s more emphasis on festivals now. There are over 20 cities in China with more than 20 million people and all the things that we think about as ‘big’ markets get blown away by India and China. It really is a land of discovery for everybody, both ways, and they are all looking for the opportunities to tap into both sides.’

Liverpool's Sound City festival © Jazamin Sinclair
Liverpool’s Sound City festival © Jazamin Sinclair

In the early noughties, only 120 to 140 international albums were officially released in China per year. The equivalent amount was released weekly in the UK so there is still a lot of catching up to do on many fronts. But with the festival scene in China, Korea and Vietnam growing rapidly (‘a lot of the time, I think they don’t know a lot of the visiting artists but they will do their homework on them’), music is getting out there and being heard, with a touring circuit becoming established and international artists now able to plan a three-week tour across Asia.

Even in Japan, where pricing controls mean that the physical market is the second most valuable in the world (a domestic artist album retails at 3,500 Yen, about £25, with an international album retailing at 2,500 Yen, £19), the festival scene is healthy, with July’s Fuji Rock 2018 and August’s Summer Sonic 2018 attracting some of the biggest global artists around.

Fusing cultures and ideas globally

The Great Escape
The Great Escape’s all-day seminar aimed at those hoping to crack the Chinese market © Harry McCulloch

Asian bands are also starting to travel more: China’s Leah Dou, South Korea’s 3rd Line Butterfly and Japan’s Maison Book Girl and DAN all performed at The Great Escape festival in Brighton from 17-19 May 2018. The festival even hosted an all-day seminar aimed at those hoping to crack the Chinese market, with leading figures from the country’s entertainment industry hosting sessions on the logistics of touring, how to get your music heard on Chinese streaming services and how to best use Chinese social media to connect with fans.

Liverpool’s Sound City festival hosted a Korean stage last year and, in 2016, became a global partner with Modern Sky Entertainment – incorporating Modern Sky, the largest independent record label in China and organiser of 30 festivals across the country. As part of the Sound City Korea initiative, artists from England can apply to showcase at two of South Korea’s most important industry events, MU:CON and Zandari Festival, with applications open until 6pm on 27 July 2018 here.

UK hard rock band, Rival Bones, at last year
UK hard rock band, Rival Bones, at last year’s Zandari Festival in South Korea

An organic product of this fusion of cultures and ideas is the growth of collaborative songwriting. ‘Japanese and Chinese artists are looking to sell their music internationally and they need help with English lyrics and production of their songs,’ explains Patterson. ‘They want more and more Western writers and producers. Opportunities are definitely there and it’s a healthy environment to move forward.

‘You can take the BMW apart and try to work out how it all goes back together again and copy it but actually, there is a bit of magic in there too.’

It is this Asian magic that is keeping British interest well and truly hooked. The fact that it is boosting revenues and creating an artistic wow is a glorious result and there is very much a sense that this cultural fusion and blend of inspiration and talent is just the beginning.

Plug in, switch on. The buzz starts here.

Header photo: Maison Book Girl on the Clash stage at this year’s Great Escape festival © Mike Massaro

Q&A – Emmy the Great

Singer and songwriter, Emmy the Great, travelled to Xiamen, China, as part of the British Council‘s Musicians in Residence programme last year. She used the month-long experience to explore her Chinese heritage and work on a new album inspired by her surroundings and now spends her time between Hong Kong and the UK.

Emmy the Great at her welcoming party in Xiamen
Emmy the Great at her welcoming party in Xiamen

Why did you choose to spend your residency in Xiamen?

I was drawn to the fact it has a very vibrant scene of local musicians and I did indeed find musicians and artists everywhere I looked. It was a kind of open community with a lot of sharing and a very uncompetitive and super-community-centred way to make music.

How did you start to meet people and gather material for your songs?

The first thing I did was to ask my hosts to throw me a party and ask everyone they knew locally who could make it that night who was in the music world. I met a few people through that. I had a translator called Iris and she became my really good friend. We would just go out… I would say that I saw on Instagram that there was a yoga festival – surely where there’s a festival there would be people to talk to? When we got there, we met a musician who I ended up writing music with and another guy who introduced us to another musician so it was just about following instincts and your nose and putting it out there.

Did you have preconceived ideas about what you would find?

My thing was that I wanted to attempt reportage songwriting so I went to interview people. I literally went with a blank slate. I had no idea what China would be like. From when I grew up [in Hong Kong], there was really a veil of confusion over what the mainland was for us. I went there completely ready to be surprised and to explore and every single day I would discover something that fascinated or delighted me. It was really one of the most exciting months of my life.

What musical influences did you encounter on the Asian music scene?

A lot of people listen to a lot of Western music. There was one artist who was really into Frank Ocean and another really into Seventies spiritual jazz. I didn’t meet that many people who are making original music in Mandarin but we did bond and a lot were making just instrumental music as well. It’s a very chilled-out place. There were a couple of Chinese artists that I love – in particular, Faye Wong, who is one of the main Chinese pop stars, and through people knowing I like her, gave common ground musically. We always had something we could fall back on. We had music, shared pop culture references and technology.

So how did you get over the language barrier?

The thing that really transcends in China is WeChat. It has this function where you can translate stuff but you can also send really exciting gifts so if there was someone who I couldn’t communicate with at all, we might just end an evening by texting each other stickers on WeChat and feel that we had connected on some level because of our shared taste in stickers!

Emmy the Great was born in Hong Kong and raised in the UK
Emmy the Great was born in Hong Kong and raised in the UK

Did you find it easy to locate musicians that you really connected with?

There’s this thing called ‘yuan fen’ in Mandarin and and it’s basically synchronicity. It’s that moment when you haven’t seen your friend in 10 years and you think about them and then you go to the supermarket and bump into them. That’s yuan fen. Everything that we wanted to do or achieve would just magically come together. If I said, ‘How do we interview this person? Should we interview them?’, they would just wander into the studio, saying, ‘Which way to the toilet?’! Everything just fell into place and I gave myself up to this thing and it’s still a part of my life now. If you said to anyone in London that destiny or karma led me to you today, they would think you had become some kind of hippy but in China, it’s just accepted. ‘Of course I bumped into you today – it’s meant to be.’ It’s not higher power stuff – it’s a very grounded way of looking at things.

How do you feel that the experience has changed your music?

It really changed my approach to music because I had limited time there and instead of staying in my studio and writing, there was a whole world to discover. Every day, I just went out and experienced things and enjoyed life and people and the music actually benefited from that and it really has changed my process because instead of feeling I need to spend eight hours a day writing songs, I feel like I can spend that time discussing life with people and the songs are writing themselves.

Emmy the Great’s new album (as yet unnamed) is due out in early 2019. She is currently working as a freelance.


About the author

After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.

Email: karen@1hub.co