How To Send Your Music Behind The Great Wall Of China
We had a nice chat with Groove Dynasty's Kyle Bagley about China's huge music scene and about how to become popular there!
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More or less the same strategies can be appllied in all corners of the world when it comes to promoting music. What works in Europe might work in Northern America. What works in a province down Southern India might work in Turkey also. But when we turn our heads to the Far East, in China where an audience of billions is digging through the DSPs’ for good music, things start to get complicated. Different stream platforms and social media channels. A language barrier doubled by cultural specific elements are making China almost impenetrable for a Western made song. All you need is a gatekeeper who understands both worlds and who can “translate” the artist social image into one that’s appealing for the Chinese music market.
Kyle Bagley, owner of Groove Dynasty, a music agency based in China that has a pretty extensive experience in social media and marketing services for artists and record labels who wish to expand their fanbase there.
Kyle was kind enough to draw us a very detailed picture of the Chinese music scene, emphasizing on the huge potential of the market but also on the obvious challenges that needs to be addressed.
Tell us a bit about Groove Dynasty and you: how did you end up working in China, what is your main business with GD, how do you help artists on the Chinese music scene?
I describe Groove Dynasty as a social media and marketing services company built specifically for China. Meaning that most of our work is directly handling artist or label accounts and running social media, DSP pages, and other campaigns for them. We also do release promo including playlist pitching, PR, influencer marketing, etc.
I got into this business in around 2016, when I started working in the marketing department of a music streaming platform. At that time, very few foreign artists were using social media in China, and I quickly saw the value in helping third parties explore the market. Over time, I grew these services into a formal offering, then a department of the company, until personally acquiring it a few years ago to focus solely on this work under our own brand.
With no access to Youtube or Spotify, how does the music landscape in China look like?
I think most people get the wrong idea of China when they hear that social media and other sites are blocked. There are a slew of music streaming platforms, video platforms, and other local social media apps that have hundreds of millions of users, and loads of content. Music fans in China love to chat about music, make recommendations and playlists, and share content and information online.
The main DSPs, NetEase Cloud Music and QQ Music (part of Tencent Music), are fantastic apps that have music from all around the world, social content, videos, podcasts, and more. My work with artists and labels primarily focuses on these platforms. Other apps like Douyin (Chinese counterpart to TikTok) and video platform Bilibili are also great places to see music videos and other musical content, and used by many artists.
What are the chances for a Western musician to breakthrough in China by himself?
Despite the number of users and level of activity Chinese platforms enjoy, Western artists often have difficulty managing their presence in the market themselves. Physically, the apps can be quite difficult to use, given the language barrier and myriad of content found on each. Moreover, the cultural intricacies and online style can be hard to navigate, even for Chinese natives. This is the crux of the service Groove Dynasty provides.
That said, if an artists’ music is released through a reputable label or distributor, there is a good chance that music is available on Chinese platforms, and has listeners, and this is a great jumping-off point for starting to get their foot in to the market.
Do you have an example of an artist coming from US / Europe who is successful in China?
There are loads! One of our favorite artists to work with is the electronic music duo Vicetone. They had a hit in China several years ago called “Nevada”, which we’ve helped them grow into a massive presence across all platforms in China. They now have several big tracks in the region, and are one of the most popular foreign artists in China.
In that vein, there are many DJs and electronic artists who have built a big following in China. For the last few years (before Covid), China was a great place for these artists to tour and join festivals, and I expect that to continue as touring opens back up again. Pop artists, rock bands, and many others have a good following and active profile in China.
What are the main channels for an artist to promote his music in China? Radio stations? Social media?
There are others, but those are the biggest names at the moment. Radio is not big for Chinese music fans at all, especially younger ones that are more digitally savvy. Some stations are HitFM and KFM.
What does it take for track to become a hit in China, even if only on the local DSPs’?
There are a few different paths to a ‘hit’ in China. International pop artists are generally very well received. The DSPs also hold a lot of power, with the ability to feature songs in their official editorial, playlists, banners, etc.
China also has a lot of what we call KOLs, or ‘key opinion leaders’. This is somewhere between an influencer and a PR outlet; they are power users on any of the above platforms who share news, music, videos, etc. Following KOLs are a great way for fans to stay connected, and are often paid for helping break news and music.
Beyond that, there are plenty of artists who are putting in the work themselves, to build up a following and put out awesome content that inspires people to listen and engage with their music.
If an artist puts an effort into promoting his music in China, should he expect a ROI at some point, from royalties or some other source of income? Given that the song fits the market :)
Royalties from streaming-only, like anywhere else in the world, can be difficult to sustain an artist. And Chinese DSPs pay out even less than Spotify, but of course there are artists and labels who make quite a bit from China.
Many artists work to build their profile in China in an effort to increase their bookings and overall presence in the region, as live events in China can be very lucrative. Others aim to sell merch, license their music for other uses, or collaborate with brands, as they would in any area.
From your experience of working with lots of artists, what are the pillars of music promotion in China? What works best?
The most important thing is to make sure the artists’ music is available in China, then activating profiles on the DSPs and to begin using them to reach the artists’ fan base. The last thing I would say is to create and share regular content that suits the market, which is different for every artist.
What are the biggest challenges for a company like GD for operating on such an atypical music market as China?
Music fans in China are unlike those in any other place. There are legacy artists from around the world with millions of fans, that nobody in China cares about at all. There are also small and mid-level acts unknown in the West that have a large and loyal local following, and it’s not always obvious who would be popular here.
Each artist has their own unique factor that needs to be communicated to Chinese fans in order to be properly understood. It’s not enough just to share photos and music on a timeline, success in China relies on taking what people like about an artist and maximizing on it.
Another challenge is that the market and trends change very very quickly. New apps will launch and rise in popularity in mere months, others will go out of style but may still be very powerful if you know how to use them.
What are your plans for this year?
As the world begins to open back up after Covid, we’re getting a lot of new interest in China from artists, which is great to see. I’m expecting to be quite busy this year in that regard.
We’ve also got an email newsletter that I work hard on, not just sharing headlines that go out in the tech sites, but really diving in to how they affect the music industry and people who operate in China.
I hope to go to a few music festivals this summer as well!