Listener Engagement with Music from Greater China on Spotify is Higher than You Think
Artists and bands from Greater China on the US-based music streaming platform Spotify are stacking up the number of plays, but from where and by who?
In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to listen to music from every corner of the world in every corner of the world. As the Hamilton Brothers put it in their 1978 dance single: ‘Music makes the world go round.’ With everything from Russian hookah pop to Māori metal, listening options are endless.
Streaming platforms are the main way that people are moving their bodies to the beat in the 21st century. A report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the self-proclaimed ‘voice of the recording industry worldwide’, illustrates just how much the world is moved by music. The report states that 46 per cent of listeners in 2022 jammed out to music, --mostly pop--, using a streaming service such as Spotify. These music lovers from across the globe spent over 20 hours a week listening to music using ‘on average’ six different ways. The two most used methods of engagement were video and music streaming platforms.
Guagua, a Chinese student currently studying abroad in the UK and the bassist/vocalist for Shanghai-based Shoegaze quartet RUBUR, concurs. Guagua tells Hybrid that Spotify is the ‘main music streaming platform’ that she uses. ‘I listen to all kinds of music on Spotify but I usually turn to YouTube if I [can’t] find a certain album.’ Music is uploaded onto Spotify by either a designated distributor or record labels.
The data from IFPI represents listeners worldwide but excludes India and China because of the effect these countries’ populations would have on the weighted outcome. Instead, both India and China have individual profiles. In China, a country where Western media platforms like Spotify, Netflix and Twitter are banned, listening habits aren’t that much different from the world at large. According to the report, listeners in the Middle Kingdom predominantly play music from licensed streaming services. Their weekly listening habits average around 28 hours and pop music, in the form of C-pop, is China’s most “popular” genre.
‘The main reason for me, personally, is because of the lyrics and the language of Chinese.’ Emily Liu, a London-based acafan who focuses on fandom surrounding popular culture in China, states, ‘some Chinese pop songs are beautifully written. The lyrics are very rich and very dense, and I think that's the perk of the Chinese language… It's a tonal language and that makes lyric writing obviously very hard and yet very interesting as well.’ One of Liu’s favourite Chinese pop artists is the king of Mandopop, a form of C-pop, Jay Chou.
Like Guagua, Liu uses Spotify and YouTube when she’s not back home in China. This is because if you’re accessing a Chinese platform like QQ Music or NetEase Cloud Music with a foreign IP address it’s almost impossible to play anything. Trying to listen to Jay Chou’s 2007 album “I’m Busy” on NetEase Cloud Music from Oxford currently triggers a message in Mandarin Chinese that explains listening from your location is unavailable because of ‘business requirements’. So besides Liu and Guagua who else is turning to Spotify to listen to C-pop?
Tracking listenership on Spotify shows that listeners are predominately in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Spotify is openly accessible. For artists like Jay Chou and JJ Lin, two of ‘the trio of C-Pop’, their monthly listeners top over two million. A month on Spotify is equivalent to 28 days.
‘The first market of Chinese music is China itself and other Sinophone countries,’ says Nathanel Amar, researcher and director at the Taipei branch of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. Sinophone countries refer to nations where Chinese languages are spoken, such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Jay Chou’s and JJ Lin’s discographies are avidly streamed in the capital of their homeland of Taiwan, Taipei.
‘I think the Sinophone [community] can be broken down...into categories. It includes, first of all, Chinese-speaking populations in regions that have access to Spotify,’ explains Liu, ‘…and [the] Chinese-speaking population abroad…like foreign students, like people who have emigrated outside of China, who are still culturally connected to C-pop and who still want to listen to it.’
Both Liu and Amar acknowledge that there exist listeners who don’t come from a Chinese-speaking heritage but still engage with C-pop. However, their numbers aren’t large enough to be anything more than outliers.
That’s not exactly the case with more obscure genres. Although the number of streams on Spotify for punk, metal and indie rock bands hailing from Greater China barely reaches a few hundred or even a thousand, their listenership has a notable portion coming from outside Asia. “I think it's true that Chinese metal has found listeners abroad,’ states Amar, whose research focuses on China’s independent and underground music communities, ‘I think about Nine Treasures which is an Inner Mongolian band from China.’ Nine Treasures has been invited to perform in Europe multiple times and has built up a presence in the West based on their novelty. Through blending metal music instrumentals with traditional Mongolian music and throat singing, Nine Treasures' music possesses strong Chinese and Mongolian cultural elements.
The greatest engagement with bands outside of China’s underground is in groups of diehard fans. “Weirdly enough there are some obscure Chinese bands that are really well-known in some fringe communities outside [of China],’ says Amar sharing the example of Wang Wen, an indie band from Dalian, China who has found an audience abroad through ‘the niche market.’
Spotify listeners of Guagua’s band, RUBUR, could also be defined as abroad and fringe. The Shoegaze foursome’s hypnotic discography has the highest listenership on the platform in cities outside of Asia, with London ranking number one. When posed with the question about their music being streamed the most in London, the band’s guitarist and vocalist Maojia was uncertain as to why. ‘Maybe because shoegaze music [was] developed in the UK in the late 1980s,’ they guessed. Besides some promotional support on Twitter from Mat Osman, RUBUR hasn’t really gotten any attention from the Western world’s indie music communities. The number of monthly streams in London on April 15th was 52.
‘I think overall the majority [of listeners] would still be the Chinese-speaking population who are living abroad. Chinese indie music doesn't have as much fandom culture as pop music or the idol industry, nor is it as outward looking as the latter,’ says Liu, ‘the artists and their fans are not necessarily thinking about expanding their notability beyond the national border or catering towards a Western audience. I think most listeners would have already known about indie music/the specific indie artists beforehand and are just using Spotify as a platform to meet their listening needs because it's more accessible.’
Regardless of how minor listener engagement is from users outside of Greater China or coming from an Anglo-Saxon lineage, it’s still important that songsmiths and rockers from the Sinophone world are on Spotify. ‘I think it's important for them to be on international platforms for archival purposes,’ exclaims Amar, ‘[and] to show that the Chinese scene is a really vibrant music community.’
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