The music industry in China has significantly changed over the past couple of decades, from a tightly government-controlled propaganda pipeline into an increasingly powerful and sophisticated economic sector. Spearheading the way in China’s entertainment industry is Kenny Bloom, music veteran of over 30 years, and Founder and CEO of VisiTek Holdings, Ltd. Born in New York City, Mr. Bloom, at age 56, has accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime, and he has no plans of slowing his pace. To say that his list of accomplishments is impressive would be a gross understatement.
A winner of the Lincoln Center Award for Music Achievement at age 15, Bloom attended both Julliard and Manhattan Schools of Music Prep Departments. He joined Atlantic Records in 1977 (a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group) and launched KB communications in 1984, one of the first entertainment marketing companies. He formed a joint venture with China Film (China’s film monopoly) in 1988 and secured the China license for the Warner Music library, which led to the first foreign owned PRC record company since 1949. Over the years, Bloom went on to produce numerous radio shows, television programs, concerts by internationally renowned artists, soundtracks, and Broadway plays. He is widely recognized as a major player in the entertainment industry.
One might wonder if Bloom would be ready to ride on his reputation for a while, coasting through the years to come after having such an illustrious career. But nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Bloom is moving faster, striking harder with a bold strategy to become a leading content producer. Leading the charge is MOGO, a video site covering the emerging independent music scene in China to the young, hip (undeserved) urban music consumer.
I had an opportunity to interview Mr. Bloom regarding his past, and his vision for the future. It was one of the most enlightening, thought provoking, and inspirational interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing.
Q: You’ve had over 20 years experience in the Chinese music business, beginning with the launch of Warner Music China. What are some of the unique characteristics that have shaped its development?
For one thing, massive piracy. The only business left now is ringtones and live shows. That said, there are more artists now then every before. 20 years ago there were half a dozen big pop stars and 4 rock bands. Now there are scores of pop stars and well over 300 working rock bands.
Q: So what’s sustaining that growth in the face of piracy?
Basically, live shows. The entire industry is going through a global transition. China is no different in that regard.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the recent WTO decision opening the Chinese market to more Western entertainment, including music. The RIAA reaction to the decision was to state: “Enhancing the ability of the U.S. creative community to do business in China will generate needed revenue and jobs to the U.S. economy.” This seems to fly in the face of the piracy problem. But having said that, do you believe that the decision will at least result in an increase in the international repertoire’s share of the overall market?
China’s music market has a 98% mandarin language repertoire. It’s what they like. The WTO decision is certainly not going to change the musical tastes of the Chinese consumers. And why should China embrace western music in a language they don’t understand. Does the West embrace Chinese music? That’s a totally open market. This has been an inane concept for quite some time, that every market has a pent up demand for Western culture. In a way, it sends a very disturbing message that “your culture is not as relevant”.
Q: Let’s discuss the latest western invasion in China – Google’s oPhone vs. Apple’s iPhone, China Mobile vs. China Unicom… While the iPhone launch in China thus far has been disappointing, it is turning into a new platform being seized by indie bands and labels to release content and manage their fan base. How will the smart phone impact the Chinese music business?
It will be a long time before smart phones are in the hands of the “average” Chinese consumer. They are just too expensive to have a huge impact outside of business applications.
Q: But, the Chinese are super-status oriented and there is an upper-middle urban class. Why, when these products are launched in China, would they not be successful – especially with 400 million mobile users?
Even with 400 million users, you are talking about a relatively small percentage of the population who are upper-middle urban class. Out of the total population, maybe 3% can be classified as such. And they’re not necessarily listening to music, certainly not Western music.
Q: Pepsi has been making big moves in China with their nationally televised Battle of the Bands “Vox Rock” and launch of their music label QMusic. Is Pepsi really serious about supporting the independent Chinese music scene? And if so, is this a model that will have legs in China (i.e., might we someday listen to Tsingtao’s latest buzz band)?
It is essential that corporate sponsors support the music industry. We are now seeing more of it focused on rock and hip-hop. But we also need local media to embrace those musical styles in order to build the consumer base. Otherwise, sponsors won’t be able to quantify their investment in music that is outside of the mainstream.
Q: Isn’t QMusic much more than sponsorship? They’re talking about developing and launching new bands, like Starbucks Hear Music.
Let’s see what they do. It’s still too early to make judgments as they have not yet started their operations.
Q: I have one final question for you. Mogo is something of a 21st century MTV-like pioneer in China. You are creating original and professionally produced WebTV content (not user-generated), in support of the emerging independent scene (art, music…). That’s difficult enough in the West. What are some of the unique challenges you face – the consumer, the government, advertisers?
It’s China’s own home-grown music TV station and all parties have been very supportive. The biggest challenge we are facing is finding qualified staff. Every company has problems finding experienced workers. Don’t forget, the modern era of China is only 30 years old with most of the development coming in the past 10. The word of the day is “patience”. It will all happen, but it will happen on China’s terms.