Live Music Exchange Blog
In this blog post Keith Negus (Professor of Musicology at Goldsmiths, University of London) and Qian Zhang (Associate Professor at the School of Music and Recording Art, Communication University of China) present observations and a case-study from their new journal article on the evolution of the live music economy and new patterns of commodification that are emerging in the face of digitalization.
The article is published in Popular Music and Society and can be accessed at:
The Covid-19 pandemic halted many activities we took for granted, yet accelerated changes underway long before the virus started circulating. It disrupted our habits and routines, yet introduced new patterns of behaviour into our lives – whether in homes, schools and workplaces, or at sport stadiums, and in bars and restaurants. As recounted in many posts on the Live Music Exchange and beyond, it has had a huge impact on live music, yet also given momentum to changes already underway.
We consider these changes, and their broader context, in an article just published in Popular Music and Society which provides a genealogical narrative of these shifts in the economies and industries of live music, along with changing understandings of the live experience. In this post, we outline some of the key arguments of the article and provide an illustrative example of how these changes to the music economy have played out in China.
Changes to the live experience
The article highlights how digital technologies have been integrated into live events within a broader ‘experience economy’, and how live music has been incorporated into digital platforms and social media within an ‘attention economy’. The experience economy (typically thought of as the specialness and scarcity of concerts), and the attention economy (requiring us to negotiate an abundance of tracks, clips, messages, apps, games and so on) exist together. As audiences capture performances on smartphones for uploading and sharing, so live music becomes a recorded element of content. The streaming of live action – whether a set from a basement club, festival field, or a singer’s kitchen – can offer access to a unique experience. Yet, it also struggles for attention in the swirl of abundant content, and then becomes a fragment of data stored in the warehouses, mountains, and subterranean caves of cyberjunk.
Digital platforms, streaming, and social media are changing how we think about live music, and adding further dimensions to being a musician. Becoming a pop musician no longer involves turning yourself into a ‘performing artist’ and a ‘recording artist’. It also entails becoming a ‘platform musician’ or, perhaps, a ‘platform artist’. In the following paragraphs we’ll explain what we mean by these statements.
In our research we have drawn on the work of Philip Auslander who pointed out that the term ‘live music’ began appearing in dictionaries during the 1930s to distinguish between live and recorded sound in radio broadcasting. When people listened to a phonograph cylinder or disk they were quite obviously hearing voices and music transmitted from a recording. But, the sound of a radio broadcast was more ambiguous. The live/recorded distinction became an ethical and a legal way of categorizing broadcast sound (Auslander 2012). As Auslander also notes, the idea of live music always implied a sense of spatial and temporal co-presence. Yet, for many years, the liveness of the real place was valued more than the liveness of the real time.
Social media and digital platforms are increasingly demonstrating that an experience occurring in real time is beginning to acquire greater emphasis and value in the streaming of music. The live experience is no longer primarily about being present in the place where a performance occurs. Just as the Walkman made recorded music more mobile and integrated into varied surroundings, so streaming allows audiences a different experience of live music. Live streams can be accessed during a transitory journey on a train among strangers, when sitting alone in a park, or when gathered with friends in a private home or in bars and cafes.
Platform Musicians in China
In our article we include a more extended discussion of how the live becomes a recording, and how the recording becomes part of a live stream, and how this both challenges and bridges the live and recorded models of reaching audiences, and gaining success. We illustrate this here with reference to the increasing importance of streamed Chinese talent shows, and the way digital and social media have provided opportunities for what we call ‘platform musicians.’ We include these examples, in part, to counteract the way China has been neglected in discussions of the international music industries, with scholars often assuming a North Atlantic structure of the music business and careers of popular musicians derived from the study of rock music.
Talent shows have been central to the music industries of Japan and South Korea. Talent shows in China started life as showcases for the type of variety entertainment associated with television. They were similar to other talent shows broadcast around the world, but particularly influenced by shows produced in Korea. Yet, a newer type of talent show has been introduced and can be viewed as part of a longer history that traces back, outside of television, to the ‘battle of the bands’ that took place in local rock venues from the 1960s, and to contests in jazz ballrooms during the 1930s. It is a modern digital heir to these pre-digital competitions, as well as drawing on reality television.
The streamed Chinese talent show has become an important route through which musicians can reach fans and attain stardom. Although initially dominated by pop idols, the format now embraces a wider range of genres, styles, and identities. It has become a strategically significant format for indie, rap, singer-songwriters and dance musicians to break out beyond limited opportunities in small venues in local scenes, and outside of the industry structures still dominated by idol production. Success on a talent show increases an act’s value and provides performance opportunities across the traditional stages of venues and festivals, along with the proliferating social media and digital platforms that require live and recorded ‘content.’
So, for example The Rap of China (Zhōngguó yǒu xīhā) has opened up a space for the presentation of a genre of televisual Chinese rap, while encouraging debates about aesthetics, identities, and codes of public expression. Rave Now (Jì kèdiànyīn) is an electronic dance music talent show that gives viewers a window into the way tracks are produced and remixed using turntables, laptops, and software. I’m CZR–I’m Singer-Songwriter (Wŏ shì chàngzuòrén) follows contenders from their early demo tapes, through studio arrangement, and then on to rehearsal, and staged performance.
The Big Band (Yùeduìdexiàtiān), streamed on iQIY owned by Baidu, is a show that enables bands to be recognized, often after years of playing small gigs. It has helped revitalise the indie scene, and allowed older performers to reach newer audiences. A notable example is the band New Pants (Xinkùzi) that were formed in 1996, released their first album in 1998, yet only achieved wider success and recognition after winning The Big Band in 2019.
Streamed Chinese talent shows cross the live and recorded. Performances may be streamed as they are taking place. They may also be pre-recorded, together with narrative sections, and then streamed to allow voting and for live comments to be inserted across the screen. Talent shows provide live music to those unable to attend a gig venue (like live broadcasts), and the exposure gives musicians access to a more conventional touring career on stage in front of audiences.
The talent show dramatizes what Simon Frith once referred to as the ‘shifting boundary between the “staged” and the everyday’ (1996: 204). This observation from the pre-digital age is equally applicable to digital platforms. It is dramatized in the narratives and representations in the talent show, as much as in the staged video or streamed performances on YouTube, Kaishou, or TikTok. The talent show condenses the mechanics of the modern music industry. It becomes a metaphor for the clash of competitive individualism and collective participation, as performers travel the mythical journey from obscurity to stardom, profiting from a winner-takes-all economy whilst simultaneously embedded into scenes, communities and fan cultures.
Outside of the talent shows in China, a dynamic digital music infrastructure is developing within which over 100 platforms, currently reaching over 600 million streaming users, provide outlets for musicians to upload recordings, stream performances, and receive commentary. Although, in the early days the rewards were via types of ad-hoc ‘virtual gifting’, the platforms are becoming increasingly redesigned to allow amateur and unknown musicians a structured route towards audiences, and to connect with media and music industries intermediaries. For example, in 2017 Tencent Music – a Chinese company online platform that develops streaming services – initiated an ‘incentive project’ to motivate indie musicians to upload their recordings, claiming to reach potentially 800 million monthly users. Tencent reportedly paid out 590 million Yuan (approximately 84 million U.S. dollars) to musicians (although contractual details of this are not clear, and it’s an issue for our ongoing research). This project became more formally constituted as the Tencent Musician Program – a platform that allows musicians to create and share their music, connect with publishers, and to receive input and advice on publicity, marketing and copyright. At the same time, the platform enables listening, watching, socialising and interacting. Music platforms in China, ranging from short video platforms like TikTok, social media platforms like SinaWeibo, and music streaming platforms like QQ music, have initiated similar projects to encourage musicians and gain ‘content.’ Last year, Tencent announced additional projects to support more traditional folk and Chinese dialect music.
In our article we refer to ‘platform musicians’. This emergent identity builds upon and extends the way commerce, industry and technology, intersecting with the activities of musicians and audiences, allowed for the emergence of the ‘recording artist’, and commercial venues afforded the ‘live performer’. A good example of this would be No Party For Cao Dong (Cao Dong Meiyou Paidui). This Taiwan band has, since its formation, used platforms to release recordings, to live stream recordings and performances, and created the title song for the video game Devotion. Although there are many differences between what No Party For Cao Dong are doing and the presentation of musicians on talent shows (and the way idols and celebrities use platforms), there is a growing trend for bands to use audio streaming and live apps from their earliest days. A variety of platforms afford the blending of performance and recording with other visual arts and moving images. Platforms allow musicians to create with other musicians, and to put their work online and receive immediate responses, and to gain fans and to interact with these followers. The platform musician bridges the stage, studio, and screen. The stage becomes a platform, and the platform becomes a stage.
Keith Negus and Qian Zhang
Auslander, Philip (2012) ‘Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective’ PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 34/3, pp. 3-11.
Frith, Simon (1996) Performing Rites, Oxford: Oxford University Press.