During coronavirus, China’s music industry finds creative ways to keep going

Society & Culture

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in China has resulted in the cessation of a number of cultural activities throughout the country. According to numbers released by the China Association of Performing Arts on February 7, nearly 20,000 live shows have been canceled or postponed, resulting in the loss of 2 billion yuan ($287 million) in box office sales.

While some industries, such as the video game industry, have inadvertently benefited from the widespread closures, cultural industries have been hit hard — none as much as the live music industry, which largely relies on ticket sales and advertising revenue to stay afloat.

“It was always tenuous, I think,” said Archie Hamilton, founder of live music company Split Works. “The margins were small, the costs were very high — visas, hotels, venue costs were insane before the virus. I think it’s going to be key what happens for the government from here, whether they turn up the heat [on approving shows] or turn it down.”

As an example of these difficult times, the music content company and festival organizer South Window posted to its official Weibo account that it would run out of money in less than two months. It has resorted to selling 199-yuan ($28.50) coupons that can be redeemed at future group festivals.

“I just don’t know if anything will return to how it was,” said Katy Roseland, one of the founders of the streaming platform Shanghai Community Radio. “It’s time for complete innovation.”

Innovation, indeed, is happening. In response to venue closures and gig cancellations, many musicians and venues have taken their acts online, to sites such as Bilibili and Douyin. Performances are streamed, whether they be pre-recorded electronic sets from Shanghais ALL or Wuhan-based Vox Records’s themed sets for Lantern Festival and Valentine’s Day.

Online tipping on streaming platforms is well-established in China, and during this period, some major venues have benefited from a huge influx of tips. As Zhào Yuè 赵悦, COO of Chinese indie music label Merrie Records, told us, “It’s crazy how the vibe induces you to tip. I can never resist it.”

In the case of One Third, a large club based in Beijing and Hangzhou, a stream on Douyin (which spawned TikTok) brought in nearly 2 million yuan ($287,000) over the course of a five-hour broadcast on February 9. One Third took to Douyin on February 10 and pulled in another 770,000 yuan ($110,000), and got another 600,000 yuan ($86,000) the day after.

Everyone is buckling down for the long haul, even as they hope that the epidemic is nearing its peak. “Being relatively optimistic, we may be able to resume submissions for live shows in April and May, with performances beginning again in June, but it’s possible this [epidemic] may continue until the second half of the year,” said Shén Yuè 沈玥, vice president of China’s largest independent label, Modern Sky, as quoted in the WeChat platform Yīnyuè Xiānshēng 音乐先声.

On a more local basis, venues want to stay active and engaged. Labels, promoters, venues, and musicians all agree that they need to maintain their interaction with fans.

Sam Mau Mau from the Shanghai club Elevator, speaking about the underground venue’s recent weekly stream on Shanghai Community Radio, said they are considering other ideas to offset the financial impact of the novel coronavirus, but “for now the streams’ aim is to keep a community engaged.”

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Shanghai Community Radio has noticed an uptick in the number of users tuning into their streams. There’s a feeling that music is helping quarantined people pass the hours.

“I’m just worried about my friend’s mental state,” Roseland said. “It’s never good to be inside for so long. People are commenting how they miss partying and how this is like a virtual party.”

Three shows to check out:

Mau Mau:


Ankar Arken: