What you need to know
Chinese singing competitions display the proud legacy of Mandopop to their billions of viewers. However, they may be deflating the value of originality in music.
By Jocelle Koh and Matt Taylor
In the final part of this series, we go deep on a topic near and dear to our hearts: the Mandopop industry. This topic has caused a fair amount of division among professionals in the Asian music business, who all have differing opinions on how to traverse new territory and what one can gain from it.
While these lucrative televised singing competitions represent a higher guarantee of commercial success and provide the music industry with a much-needed boost, these shows may adversely impact the integrity of musical works being produced within the Mandopop market in the long term.
Issue 3: Chinese Televised Singing Competitions and Their Effect on Mandopop
PRO: Revives interest in Chinese music and cements the importance of Taiwanese artists in Mandopop
We now know all about the cultural powerhouses that are Chinese televised singing competitions. But what does the exposure of music and musicians through this channel really mean? And, in the end, does it positively impact the rich tapestry of Mandopop’s past?
Perhaps the most important service these shows provide is cementing the rich legacy of Chinese language pop music – most of which originates from Taiwan – not only to an entirely new generation, but to those who may have little (or no) prior knowledge of the genre.
In the 2016 debut season of "Sing! China", 53 percent of all songs performed were originally by a Taiwanese artist. In "Hidden Singer" Season 1, every single song performed was Taiwanese in origin. And it goes beyond just the classics. Plenty of contemporary songs were also performed, such as "Mountains & Rivers (山海)" by No Party for Cao Dong (草東沒有派對).
But it is also important to note that the Taiwan brand is not driven solely by the island's native talent. Artists from across the region who are drawn to this cultural center in search of skills and opportunity. These Asian talents, like Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿) of Singapore and Fish Leong (梁靜茹) of Malaysia, coalesce in Taiwan and make it the spiritual heart of Mandopop.
The trend of Taiwanese appreciation, which is echoed in almost every singing competition, reinforces Taiwan’s long-standing reputation as a pop music superpower in the minds of younger Chinese generations. In turn, this allows audiences of these shows to appreciate the beauty and diversity of Mandopop’s rich history.
However, as nice as it is to hear Taiwanese music on China’s singing shows, this may not always be healthy for Mandopop.
CON: Singing shows, by regurgitating old ideas, diminish the cultural power of Mandopop
The majority of Chinese reality singing shows are centered on the performance of cover songs. Contestants pick popular tunes and try to grace them with their own individual character. Many of these covers are innovative, fostering an exciting “remix” culture in the Mandarin popular music industry. But what if this culture of remixing takes over Mandopop? What will happen to original music?
Artists, who increasingly see these shows as paths to success, may stop focusing on creating their own original works. Instead, they will continue to sink their effort into the cover performances the shows demand.
By no means does this represent any significant decrease in the value of original, new music. However, it does mean two things:
- Originality in Mandopop is being prioritized less than ever before.
- The lines between the value of original and cover music are being blurred.
Instead of being treated to the diversity and authenticity of Mandopop, fans of the shows succumb to the familiarity of rehashed cover songs – which go on to dominate the charts of Spotify and the playlists at your local karaoke (KTV) bar.
Chinese televised singing competitions have a slick marketing plan: Release big budget shows, cut it into digestible three-four-minute song segments for social media, and upload the songs in their recorded form onto major streaming platforms and KTV systems. To the production companies behind these shows, these platforms are a way of generating, reusing, and profiting from content. However, this equation fails to consider the broader cultural impact on Mandopop itself.
Listeners are becoming increasingly trained to slip into cycles of familiarity, rather than diversifying their playlists.
Social media is disposable. Music, however, is not – and this is where problems begin to arise. Music streaming platforms and the available selection at your neighborhood KTV have become the proverbial gatekeepers of what is considered “official” music and what is not. Historically, for those who want to break into these platforms, original content is a plus. Artists who make their names by covering the works of other artists are barred from their own commercial success – unless, of course, they pay expensive licensing fees.
This costly hurdle used to keep the cover songs entering the system at bay. However, televised singing shows have found a way around it. They can easily afford to pay usage fees for the covers performed on air, which are then disseminated to iTunes, Spotify and other major streaming platforms.
Artists who emerge from singing shows thus fill their discographies with covers that fail to differentiate them from their peers. Furthermore, record labels and other upcoming artists watch these shows and, for better or worse, start to see cover songs, rather than original music, as an easy path to recognition and riches.
Audiences thus start to regard these bits and pieces of content as legitimate cultural texts, allowing these covers to take up more space on the charts and on users’ playlists. Listeners are becoming increasingly trained to slip into cycles of familiarity, rather than diversifying their playlists. Recognition becomes prioritized over discovery. Diversity and innovation are being lost.
As this theme persists, Mandopop will not be able to move forward towards more progressive, dynamic and interesting ideas, ultimately leaving it less competitive on the global stage. If that day comes – when music as a medium becomes completely devoid of new ideas and mental nourishment for the young and old – it will truly be a sad day for us all, and for Mandopop.
As we reach the end of this series, we hope that you have in some ways gained new perspectives about these Chinese reality music shows. We do not want to dethrone them or make people think they are unhelpful or ineffective. Instead, we want to put forth some refreshing and informed perspectives on the situation that we feel have not been particularly well articulated in past years.
In order for us to move forward as a society, we hope we can all learn to be more critical about the content we consume – especially in this content-heavy day and age. The content Chinese televised singing shows feed us is no exception. While we enjoy their presence on the airwaves, we hope their viewers consider the broader effect they have on Mandopop. So, by all means, continue watching. But please – watch with a critical eye.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall
Weighing the Worth of Chinese TV Singing Competitions
China’s televised reality singing competitions have taken the region by storm. How have they pushed 'brand China' and impacted Mandopop?All feature article