By Hans Ebert
It’s been mentioned enough, especially over the last couple of years: In music, the really big money up for grabs is by appearing in the tsunami of television singing competitions that have again suddenly swept across Mainland China. This big dosh is in being a celebrity judge or being a contestant who has a certain track record.
These singing competitions are also a very quick way of reviving flagging careers. Suddenly, many in Hong Kong who have seen better days and with that thing called Age having caught up with them, but still having some marquee value, are rushing to be on one of these competitions.
Even someone as established as the UK’s Jessie J got in on the act. She and her management parlayed a winning appearance on one of these shows for established artists called “Singer China” into an an upcoming tour of Mainland China.
The includes one off concerts in Taipei and Hong Kong, all of which start next month. Smart? Definitely.
Was Jessie J known in Mainland China? She is now. To some her appearance as a celebrity contestant on “Singer” came out of left field. To others it was a very savvy career move. It was certainly better than being on Spotify and getting lost in all the clutter of nothingness and going nowhere except down some bottomless stream.
All this can’t help some of us think back to trying to get “China’s Pop Princess” off the ground. This was a programming idea which Simon Fuller and his team came up with well over a decade ago. It was during the early days of his “American Idol” juggernaut.
With EMI Music at the time, we were partners in this project. Despite a more creative concept than what’s churned out today and despite numerous meetings with television stations in Mainland China- the government-owned CCTV, the more independent Shanghai TV, Hainan TV- doing the maths, speaking to production teams, meeting so many “China experts”, talking to local and global sponsors and the chore of dealing with Team Simon from the UK headed by one Charles Garland, nothing happened. Zilch. Zero. Nada.
Perhaps Charles Garland was too pedantic to complete The Art Of The Deal. Perhaps the constantly revolving team from our end was out of its depth. Especially when it came to dealing with international partners with a name who were equally lost about how to make things happen in Mainland China. Sometimes the bowing and scraping must stop. It’s about being right upfront about what exactly is in it for everyone involved. No free lunches.
It was something learned when in advertising and involved in launching McDonald’s in China. Doors magically opened when needing the best locations. When there was something in it for everyone. And their relatives. Every relative had some kind of factory for producing something McDonald’s needed for a Big Mac, Quarter Ponder etc. It’s called The Greasing Of Palms.
This modus operandi goes on today with the head offices of the major music companies completely in the dark as to why, after so many decades of chanting the mantra that “China is potentially the largest music company in the world”, this potential is yet to be realised. But it is. It’s just that the money being pumped in from head office goes into financing the personal agendas of the local senior executives who have their own companies within the corporate mothership. Geddit?
It’s a “business model” that has gone on for years and with the big cash cow today to be somehow being involved in television singing competitions crammed with real and pseudo celebrities as judges and contestants and the occasional competitor with some real talent or else that freak factor. The X Factor? Nah. Far more interesting, Simon Cowell, is the Freak Factor. It’s easier to go viral. It’s better for winning the ratings game.
As for Simon Fuller’s journey to find China’s first “Pop Princess” and then launch her in the States after a year of taking her over there and working with world class record producers, various creative teams etc and which would have become a reality show of its own, perhaps there were too many lightweights involved. After almost two years of going around in circles, all that happened was Hainan TV launching a very similar type of television singing competition called “Super Girl”.
“Super Girl” was a copycat “trailblazer”. It was a huge hit. “Pop Princess”? It was another of those good ideas that remained a good idea. Why did it not go anywhere? Who really knew when no one trusted each other? The contracts, the smooth talkers, the deals behind the deals. Charles Garland, for example, jumped ship. Or was pushed? Who knows?
It all became a blur after that. For EMI, the initial interest in being involved with the Simon Fuller brand had run its course. There was no money in it. Why work for free? Why did we even need him? Plus, he had his own business agendas. He also had quite a string of flops. But in those days, we were dazzled by the hits. The man could walk on water. No, he couldn’t. He was just another fairly nice guy with some ho hum ideas for this and that and whose big hit at the time was managing the Spice Girls and owning Pop Idol which became American Idol.
“Super Girl” meanwhile and a couple of its brother and sister shows had a good 3-4 year run until the government clamped down on them. For some reason, these competitions were suddenly deemed “unhealthy”. Guess someone wasn’t being paid enough…
Other copycat competitions came and went, but nothing ever happened until “The Voice China” was launched in Mainland China a couple of years ago.
Fobbed off by some as an old idea that had missed its time in a similar way that the American version found it impossible to compete with “American Idol” while the two Simons- Fuller and Cowell waged their own legal battles over the “American X Factor”, the world moved on and became buried in mind numbingly dumb reality television shows like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life.
This eventually gave way to the relentless marketing of the Ryan Seacrest produced “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” on E! and everything else unreal on a channel on its last legs today.
It started to look tired at least two years ago. For myself, the reality series based around a Hollywood medium was tough to stomach. E! is pretty much a dead brand these days. It’s on Celebrity Overload. No one CARES if Ben Affleck is back in rehab.
Of course before the E! world there were those MTV reality shows like “Real World” and “Jersey Shore” that came and went and where so many nobodies got their fifteen minutes of fame. But what was missing was the music. It still is.
Interest in “American Idol” tapered off and the reboot this year was an unmitigated disaster. “The Voice” limps along with very few of the winners going anywhere other than maybe a gig at a shopping mall in the Philippines while the world gets very excited every few months when some young talent captures the imagination of what is usually a middle aged television audience on one of singing competitions featuring a judging panel where no one can sing. Mel B can sing? Really now. Only Grace Vanderwaal from America’s Got Talent shows the potential to become a bona fide artist. A star.
The rest? Though not from a television singing competition, remember the blue eyed soul of then 15 year old Joss Stone? Remember Hansen and “Mmmmmbop”? Remember Charise? Renee Olstead? Despite that initial burst of interest, they all quickly fade into oblivion. But over in Mainland China things are different. There’s some kind of weird music revival going on.
Television singing competitions are back bigger than ever. The shows’ judges rule though of course the real shake your money makers are the puppet masters behind them. There’s almost an Orwellian vibe to them. Or at least a touch of the Willy Wonkas.
Earlier this week while at home, we somehow ended up watching a Chinese entertainment channel. On was a show called “Sing China”.
The judges looked familiar. The format looked very much like The Voice. It was fake as hell. But, who really cares today? We were drawn into watching this show, not because the talent was good. They weren’t bad either. It was just darn interesting. An education into what might be working in Mainland China for whatever reasons. The possible business opportunities available.
There were very strong French and folk music flavours to some of the songs performed. In fact one was beautifully haunting and which segued into La Vie En Rose before returning to the original melody based around the same chord structure. Want to make it big in Mainland China? Get on ANY of these television singing competitions and sing La Vie En Rose bilingually- in French and Mandarin.
Another duo performed a beautiful version of “500 Miles”. In Mandarin. I was reminded of just how damn pretty the song is and how it had been the biggest hit in Hong Kong for Peter and Gordon. Peter and Gordon were hugely popular in Hong Kong. For a very short while, even more so than the Beatles. Seriously.
So where exactly are we? No idea though strongly believing that we keep allowing ourselves to be conned. Forget the nobodies trying to be somebody they never will be on social media. They’re time wasters with nothing to offer and looking for a free lunch.
What some of us have seen and keep seeing today are those who we once looked up to having feet of clay. They’re not the people we thought they were. Though financially set for life, their former power has been lost to their own version of kryptonite.
Their brands have lost their gloss but they hide it better than most. It’s about keeping up false pretences. Who needs it? These days, it’s about being no one’s running dog and some fawning muppet.
Almost everyone has something to hide except for me and my monkey. John Lennon sang about that. It’s true.
Dylan warned us not to follow leaders and watch our parking meters. It’s true.
In the end, it’s only about you and what you believe in and with whom you wish to break bread. This is a good thing. It’s simplifying life and getting rid of the strays and those suffering from terminal pettiness. It’s about doing what you believe to be right and not being distracted by bullshit. There’s way too much of it flying around.
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