Touring China: What You Need to Know…
So, you want to tour in China?
So many artists are hypnotised by the idea of touring in China simply because this is where one-fifth of the world’s population resides. ‘It’s a huge market’, my friend said, dollar signs widening his eyes. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘But who are they? What do they like?’ He had no answer.
The Great Wall of China no longer keeps foreigners out, but a new and equally powerful wall stands in its place. We expats here call it ‘The Great Firewall of China’ and it lies quietly in the background. Many foreign websites are censored here, like Facebook, YouTube, Google and any popular blog platform.
In other words, no one’s heard of you here.
So, imagine you have been invited to tour in China. They say they most certainly have an audience for you. They offer you an ‘all-expenses on the ground’ opportunity and all you need to do is cover the airfare and the visa costs. There will be no wages, just this amazing ‘promotional experience’ where you might become ‘famous’ in China.
Can you see the red flag waving?
First of all, it is very inexpensive to feed, house and transport a band around China. If they only have this to cover, they’re laughing. And Western wages in this economy are, indeed, hard to come by, but don’t console yourself with the idea that your album sales will make up for it. This market is built on piracy. If you miraculously sell any, people don’t expect to pay more than $5 Canadian a unit.
Sadly, foreign artists are mainly sought after here for their non-Asian and non-Chinese lyrics—their demographic, not their talent. Additionally, countless ‘venues’ have no connection to the actual live music industry. Hotels, conferences, press release events for corporations, and so on. And, what is the promoter being paid for your appearance? How much is he or she taking for themselves? You may never know. Transparency is not considered necessary for good business here.
But, the biggest issue is the language barrier. Even though a lot of people study English in China, the majority of people in China speak Chinese. Period. Learning a few Mandarin phrases before coming over will go a long way to warming your audience to your presence on stage. After all, they won’t understand your lyrics. I also advise hiring one’s own translator. No one wants to get ripped off.
The good news is that the festival scene is growing in China, although most are either heavily sponsored or running on shoestring budgets. International musicians who appear on their stages are usually funded by international granting bodies or consulate programs separate from the festival. In short, the music market here is just not ready for an influx of Western artists expecting Western fees.
What’s more, there is no copyright control in China and no royalty rights organisation. No artist gets paid for a television performance on national TV, for instance. There is no public granting body. So, performance fees are the only way that artists have viability here. For that reason alone, you should be making performance fees. That’s how it works here.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good promoters who are truly trying to help foreign bands develop this market. China is full of good people and plenty of ancient wisdom. Spend more than a few months on Chinese soil and you’ll feel that too, but taking the time to listen and explore this cultural reality is what most foreign artists don’t do, to their detriment. No one can hope to understand Chinese culture in a passing glimpse called a ‘tour’. Humility is, by far, our strongest asset.
Nevertheless, I think everyone should come to this amazing country and play music! Just clear your expectations and don’t impose Western standards on the experience. Oh, and drop the soapbox of the West. Our Western media doesn’t accurately depict what’s happening here, politically or socially. Do lots of listening. Learn some Chinese. Open your mind and your taste buds! Authentic Chinese food is absolutely delicious. Maybe touring here won’t yield fame and riches, but it could be a great adventure.
Approaching all touring with cultural respect and human integrity will go a long way to extending our welcome anywhere. Perhaps we will forever be foreigners on Chinese soil, but if we plan it right, we can be privileged witnesses to great change in modern China. And, if we’re lucky, our music may get swept up in the wave of it all too. As fascinating as this developing country is, it is also a time for stepping gingerly into this unknown territory rather than barreling in, blinded by imaginary dollar signs.
Music Feature by Ember Swift