Taiwan is a country that has consistently pulled above its weight, and it's culture is no exception. While there are only 23 million inhabitants living in this sub-tropical island, Taiwan is Greater China's (Mainland, Hong Kong & Taiwan) culture superpower with revenues from domestic TV, film and pop music industries reaching US$45 billion in 2009. Its dominance of the pop music industry has produced the sector's top earning stars such as Jolin, A-Mei and Jay Chow, with over 85% of the music listened to in Greater China being produced in Taiwan.
While Taiwan is not alone in culturally pulling-above-its-weight on the world stage - think Canada, Sweden and South Korea - it finds itself facing some unique challenges in an increasingly competitive environment. Taiwan has always had to compete with Japanese Pop culture since the 70s, however, now Korean Pop (K-Pop) has grown within East and South East Asia's cross-regional musical phenomena. This has pushed countries across the region, notably Singapore and China, to invest in developing their soft power, ie., global cultural reach.
But it is the Mainland that presents the greatest challenges and opportunities for Taiwan. Take just one statistic - a survey in 2011 found that Taiwan had 2.9 million smartphone users, however, China is estimated to have 100 times as many users and continues to grow rapidly. 2013 is also likely to be a landmark year for China's music industry as the government is to begin rolling out a new model to clamp down on piracy and track usage, enabling royalty payments to creators. As one expert consulting the Chinese government on digital music standards recently told me, "Perhaps next year, music will no longer be free in China." This tremendous opportunity, of course, also presents Taiwan with its greatest challenge of holding its lead in the sector as the Mainland's music industry inevitably develops.
MIC Taiwan Speakers
This was the context for the Music Industry Conference (MIC) Taiwan held at the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel in November. Since 2010, Taiwan's Government Information Office has been increasing its support of Taiwan artists performing in the West. MIC, on the other hand, gathered international expertise for an open discussion on key issues to form the building blocks of Taiwan pop music's international development, including:
* Artistic collaboration between Taiwanese and Western artists, from songwriting and co-production, to live events and touring.
* Investments in music education and curriculum, particularly of music professionals through training and certification
* Digital platform: mobile & web audiovisual stream business collaboration
Wow! Even my Chinese name is long.
I had the opportunity to participate in several of the panels, so I wanted to share some of my takeaways from the forum.
I often have "discussions" with individuals knowledgeable about Asian Pop as to its potential crossover in the West. While Psy on the surface appears to bolster that potential (Billboard's Rob Schwartz laid out an interesting 5 step plan Psy would need to take to go from fad to star in the US), I still contend that Asian and Western Pop are very different animals and not very translatable in the respective markets. Even in Asia, Western Pop lags far behind K-Pop, J-Pop and C-Pop (with the exception of the Philippines where US Pop is dominant).
As such, if Taiwanese acts want to branch out internationally, collaborating with their Western counterparts will be key. First off, they need to come equipped with English songs. Apart from the odd exception ("88 Luftballons" in my day), Americans just don't get down with foreign-language lyrics. K-Pop has understood this and is responding with English-language releases in 2013 from major acts like The Wonder Girls.
MIC Taiwan speakers meeting with Minitry of Culuture Official
But this demands research and collaborating with the right people. Iggy Dahl and Hayden Bell, one of the most successful European songwriting duos in Asia noted at the conference the amount of time and research invested in understanding the difference between Asian and Western pop song structure. The same would be true for Taiwanese performing artists wanting to release music in the US.
A particularly untaped and challenging sector is the live music market. Having myself promoted several Taiwanese showcases in New York and Paris, I can attest to the potential audiences from the Chinese expat and immigrant community. But in order to go beyond those niche audiences (and the casinos of Atlantic City and Mohegan), Taiwanese acts will have to develop a broad collaborative strategy with their Western counterparts, from recordings and music videos to live production - what I would call an integrated collaborative strategy.
Simple Plan with Kelly Cha
The opportunity for Western acts are potentially even bigger as this would provide them with relatively easy access to the Chinese market. I gave at the conference the example of Simple Plan, which put together different versions of their song "Jet Lag" with other female stars from around the world, including a Chinese version with Kelly Cha.
Of course, the ability of Taiwanese artists (or those from other nationalities) to monetize their success in China has been problematic. While Taiwan artists account for over 70% of ticket sales in the Mainland, digital piracy has stunted their true earnings potential. While they dominate the world's largest music market by listeners, they have relatively little to show for it in sales or royalties - thus the interest in Western markets such as the US.
While things on the copyright side in China are improving, we've long learned in the US that it is striking the right business/user model that leads to success and revenues (see Apple). Several speakers, including Ed Yen from the Pop Music Project Office and a-Peer Holding Group CEO Thomas Olscheske, noted new policies by the Chinese government that will lay the foundation for a legal digital music market to develop. Bill Zang, the chairman of the China Music Industry Committee and VP of Shanghai Synergy Culture & Entertainment Group, emphasized the agreements his group achieved with several of the major digital stakeholders (both online and mobile) allowing them to provide full transparency for copyright holders - a constant complaint for international artists trying to figure out their royalties.
But Ed Yen explained how transparency goes well beyond royalty payments. Locked in that data are the keys to identifying emerging talent, providing it with the proper direction driven by real market data that consequently will be attractive to advertisers and brands. Importantly, this would also be the first global platform allowing brands to leverage campaigns on a worldwide scale. Imagine an A-Mei-Coldplay World Tour, sponsored by Perrier, with digital assets beamed worldwide to fans through the leading digital platform, its usage monitored and analyzed for the benefit of the sponsor, and thus better monetized by the artists.
Finally, an industry is only as good as the people that make it. It is the aspirations and hard work not only of the talent, but professionals that support and nurture them that create a thriving industry. So let me start by sharing a disturbing statistic: the proportion of Taiwanese music students that are eventually employed in a music-related industry is only 30%. This is to some extent because a music industry career was traditionally built on climbing the ladder from the bottom (roadie, DJ,...) rather than getting a degree. In our industry, we've largely learned by doing - the more we do, the more we learn, the higher we climb the ladder.
In the US, while music business/management as well as audio engineering programs have blossomed, schools from Berklee to Full Sail have also emphasized continuing education and career development. Full Sail reports that career placement rates range by degree from 70-97%. But as ex-Pink Floyd manager and IMMF Founder Peter Jenner noted, "I'm afraid of certifications and degrees." While investments in education are essential, aspiring music professionals need to embrace the indie's DIY credo, go beyond education and get their hand dirty in the field. As such, where education can be the most effective is where it melds academics with real-life professional experience.