22 January 2019

Sounding off: Reality TV and the death of original music

– An interview with Taiwanese love song maestro Yao Chien {姚謙} (excerpt)

An irony lies at the heart of popular music reality shows like Hunan Television’s I am a Singer — their quest for the next big thing relies on recycling the tried-and-true chart-toppers of the past. Rare is the program that inspires a new, original hit for today’s generation.

It reflects a wider malaise in a music industry struggling with a collapse in album sales and a dearth of new music. Prolific Chinese pop music lyricist and producer Yao Chien {姚謙} has seen and done it all, penning many pithy and popular songs for leading music lights such as Faye Wong {王菲}, René Liu {劉若英}, and Winnie Hsin {辛曉琪}. The Taiwan musician is also a successful music businessman — Sense It {《一個人的品味》}, a book about his take on the Chinese pop music industry, became an instant bestseller when it came out in June.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal’s Liu Yi {劉怡} sat down with the songwriter once described as “a man with an ear for a woman’s heart,” to find out just what he thinks about the state of play in the industry.

Liu: What do you think about this long stream of music reality shows and singing competitions?

Yao: These kinds of shows have been around for a long time — ever since I started out in the recording industry. And they were a good way for me to discover young singers, introduce fresh blood into the industry and nurture talent. But later as compact disc sales collapsed, I stopped paying attention to them. Besides, I think I’ve become washed-up too …

Liu: What do you mean by “washed-up”?

Yao: I mean that the music album business model no longer functions — you can’t sell CDs anymore and you have to find a new way for the industry to survive. The copyright system was destroyed and music is free for anyone to share. I’ve really wondered over the last decade if it’s possible for us to find a new copyright system to replace it.

These shows came back to life again around the same time and have been popular for a while now. Initially I didn’t think much about them because I thought I couldn’t use the shows to discover and train young singers anymore.

But I’ve noticed that these shows are becoming more about entertainment — show producers now follow something of a script. They boost ratings by stirring up interest with sensational content like family tragedies, marital disputes, night clubs and nudity. It creates a media circus with a lot of noise. A lot of the audience doesn’t take it seriously but the higher ratings mean producers can still fool advertisers.

Taiwan media are rotten to the core in this regard. It’s like media tycoon Lai Chee-Ying’s {黎智英} commercialization of news. If media take a predetermined position in news reporting they can be commercially successful and force others to follow suit, but my fear is that’s all just a dead end.

Liu: You seem very upset about it …

Yao: Album sales may be dying, but music is still alive. Classic songs can easily touch a chord with the audience and show producers can use that to create an extraordinary amount of buzz. You can see why they’re doing it, and as a lyricist, I can even make some money through copyright.

But I still wonder after all these years why there are so few new songs. Visual entertainment now dominates the media, marginalizing makers of original music. The positive side is that with these shows people are now beginning to embrace music again. There were days I thought people had closed their ears.

Super Girl was another music reality contest that helped audiences rediscover the pastime of listening to music. But that show was about creating stars — not making music. I am a Singer, though, lets contestants cover old songs in new, innovative ways and the audience is touched by the genuine pleasure of the music. So I thank the show for that.

The audience is a vital factor. They will gradually learn how to appreciate music and ultimately attach more importance to the music itself and drive these shows to evolve.

I also have to give kudos to The Voice of China for its commendable breakthroughs in the selection of songs and the quality of the sound. Recording and broadcasting live shows with top sound quality takes professional skills. Although some critics suspect there’s a lot of post production involved, it’s still remarkable for a TV show to begin to take the sound of its singers more seriously. I am a Singer is outstanding in terms of stage lighting and visual impact.

Producers of these shows now edit the clips to fit a script to make the programs more sensational, entertaining and Hollywood-like, a style that originates from American and European shows. But there is a limit to the number of classics and the audience will tire of them if the songs are repeated too much in similar shows. So I have hopes of hearing original work.

The key to success for a new song is not about trying to top the pop charts. You have to study some factors like how many times your song is played on different platforms, such as the radio or websites.

Also don’t rush the singer to market. What really matters is whether your work that can echo our times.

Liu: Why did you stop writing love songs?

Yao: I stopped on purpose.

Liu: Why?

Yao: The young nowadays are different from what we were. When we were young, our emotions were purer. The new generation of girls has changed a lot, and I don’t think I understand them anymore.

Liu: You wrote so many love songs before, but we don’t have catchy songs like that anymore. Why?

Yao: It has something to do with both music and the business. Like I said, the single most important goal for talent shows is good television ratings, so the content must be eye-catching.

When the audience tires of being bombarded by that kind of variety show, their attention will shift to the content. A good example is the film industry. Even with some hefty investment, superstars, Hollywood-style visual effects or press conferences with a lot of fanfare, filmmakers can never sell movies to an audience without a good story.

The music industry will be just the same. When audiences mature, good songs will come.

Liu: How do you see today’s Chinese pop music industry?

Yao: The secret to success in the past was having enough channels for a song to reach its audience. Before a song was released, there’d be articles and interviews telling people the story and the background so they could appreciate it better. But now, most of the songs are manufactured for commercial performances and advertising, and naturally people feel that these works are superficial and don’t have anything to draw them in.

Liu: Is that because we have too many choices?

Yao: A good song has a story and a particular setting for you to experience. If you just listen to a song quickly while browsing the internet, then you will never have a feeling about it. In this sense, I think the major contribution of music reality shows is that they make music a part of people’s everyday life.

You ask me why there are almost no good love songs today, and I think the first reason is the lack of a mainstream platform for the audience to experience and appreciate them. Also, no one has the patience needed to do the necessary storytelling and work to immerse listeners in the songs. In the CD era, these things were central to the process and songs could be therefore embedded in people’s lives and become a part of their memory. If we couldn’t do that, we couldn’t really call them true love songs.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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