Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts About Taiwan Music And MIDEM

I am not yet very familiar with Taiwanese music, though I hope to find out more later. Some of what I want to say is fairly general and some is specific.

Clearly the first market to look at for Taiwanese music is mainland China and the Greater Chinese overseas market. I understand that Taiwan is already strong in these markets, but the problem in mainland China is the state of the market , where getting paid for the use of recorded music is a continuing problem.

I would just say that every effort should be made to encourage the authorities to find a way to monetise the use of music, which is consistent with consumer behaviour. I would encourage this effort to focus on the huge musical potential on the mainland and on the Taiwanese desire to engage with this development to help and stimulate it. But without sensible and reliable revenue sources for the use of recorded music, the domestic market will never achieve its potential. The developments in Taiwan are an example of the possibilities that open up for both creators and investors when there is a coherent market for recorded music.

When going beyond the Chinese market, the first challenge is clearly that of language. There will be few artists who are sufficiently at ease with English that they can hope to make real contact with the mass market outside of the Greater China, and/or south East Asia. Obviously, there are exceptions to this as there are many types of music that do not rely on lyrics for their sales appeal.

There is one thing that all commercial music needs for a truly successful and long life, and that is having a unique sales proposition. This uniqueness is both a positive and negative challenge. If it sounds unlike anything else, many will find it strange and not be willing to make the effort to get into it and make it part of their lives. However, those that do will find that there is nothing else quite like this. In my personal experience, the Pink Floyd, T Rex, Ian Dury, The Clash and Billy Bragg are all artists who were distinctive and if you got to like them, you wanted to keep coming back to them. Their works could be built on and developed, whilst maintaining their uniqueness. I think virtually any long-lived international artist has that unique quality which leads them to long lasting success.

It is, of course, not just a matter of uniqueness but also of hard work from the artist, and their professional advisors, which leads to finding new markets and keeping the artist's appeal continuing and developing. Balancing between keeping true to previous success and styles, whilst providing fresh ideas and interpretations are crucial. International artists are rarely overnight sensations, their careers have usually been built up at home for some time before they achieve national and then multi-national success.

However, it was also very good to have had the Taiwanese delegation attend my 'round table', which was addressing the issues of data and metadata coming from the announcement of the International Music Registry which was announced by Mr Francis Gurry. Mr. Tsutsu Wu made clear that he felt sure that the Taiwanese industry and government would be keen to play their part in this project. Furthermore, he said that the Government and industry were continuing to explore ways of monetizing the use of music on line, and to develop appropriate technologies to help to deal with the challenges arising from the digital challenge.

In assessing the possibilities for Taiwanese music in the rest of the world, one can look at the acts who came to Midem this year. Desert & Algae is an accomplished singer and is fluent in English. The problem is that there are, at this moment, so many wonderful female singer/songwriters and her Chinese-ness is not of much relevance to her music. Either she has a big hit overseas or she will get lost in all the other singer songwriters. It is hard to see a really distinctive character in her music, which differentiates her from the competition. Clearly she is very talented and her music is very good, but... competition is fierce in a declining market.

1976 seem like a very decent band but bringing a band that is modeled on English indie music is a severe marketing challenge, when there are so many other English and American Indie bands competing for the same space, which seems to be a shrinking space. I like the fact that they are singing in Chinese and addressing their own young people, and I suspect that they could do well in Chinese speaking markets. It would not be a solution for them to try to sing in English as their sort of music relies on authenticity, and a feeling for their audience. If there was a more 'Chinese' feel to their music it might help to differentiate them for the competition.

Finally, we come to SUMING who is drawing on his tribal and local roots to provide both colour and feel. At the moment, I do not feel the quality of the songs is quite there, but I do like his energy and the fact that he is drawing on his unique cultural background. If he can get some more powerful songs and combine that with the language and the traditions of his people, combined with his feel for colour and movement, and there could be real international possibilities. In the West, he would probably have to go via the 'world music' market initially as that market enjoys and appreciates cultural diversity and dance.

This is clearly a very superficial and instant assessment of those three artists. But there is a greater challenge and that is to present these artists to the wider world. In the context of todays recorded music market, it is going to be very difficult to get record companies to pick up on these artists and promote them in the West. So what is required is to work out how one can present these artists in the West and build an audience. It will clearly rely a lot on digital promotion and the giving away of music to attract fans in the public and in the media. It will also require marketing and promotion around live events/concerts. But this approach requires a consistent and long term commitment to markets. It is probably fair to say that the UK and US are the only major markets that drive sales and interest outside of their own borders, but equally they are the hardest to break into as the local talent and industry are both so strong. So maybe working other markets is a good way to develop the artists', and their teams, confidence and skill in breaking into foreign markets.

But one thing is for sure: just coming in to do a festival or a conference might help to get started, but there is a need to have persistent follow up activity. There is no question that the attention span of the music industry is very short, as is that of the audience who are fed a continuous diet of 'new sensations'.

Working out who to get behind can be gauged by the impact an artist has in showcases, but it is only likely to be the start of a successful career is there is a carefully conceived development plan and substantial resources, both of money and manpower, behind that plan. Much of this can be done from Taiwan, but a regular contact with the targeted market is vital. Determination, reliability, commitment and an ability to work to budgets and schedules are as important as money and talent in turning an artist into a major hit act. The character of the artist and the support team are what counts as much as anything else in the international market.

By Peter Jenner

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