Photo by Alex Eriksen

Bands, record labels and concert promoters will be heading East in the coming years. Why? For the vein of yet-to-be-tapped disposable income in the new-rich East. But before you forsake the West and make out for the Silk Road there’s a few things you should know. The Asian market, particularly the Chinese, has yet to be opened fully to Western businesses, including entertainment. A panel of experts at the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon gave an audience a glimpse of its notes on how to get in. Among the speakers were two officers of a company that specializes in getting music past the barrier, 88TC88. The company specializes in the complex process of getting music overseas and into Chinese ears, and the 88TC88′s Robert Singerman, senior vice president, and Thomas Reemer, co-founder and CEO, were on hand for the talk.

“The Great Firewall Of China” is what Eric De Fontenay, founder of Musicdish China, calls it because the barrier blocking everyone from the major music labels down to the indie outfits is as high as it is long. If you want to sell, distribute or promote your music in China, you will have to scale it. On the other side waits a market of 1 billion mobile devices waiting to get your music onto them; however, doing this is no simple task, even once you’ve cleared the wall. Say for instance you’re a major music label and you want your top-10 artist’s record out in China. First you’ll have to submit a request to the Chinese Ministry Of Culture and wait months for each individual song to be translated, sifted through for subversive content and then finally approved. Meanwhile, your record’s been out for six months and no doubt has made its way into the hands of software pirates. Piracy is one of the major hurdles to be overcome before serious development of the music market in China can begin.

Piracy is so bad in China that the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry representing Universal, Sony, Warner, BMG and EMI filed suit in China against the country’s largest Internet search service, Baidu. The IFPI claimed that Baidu was “deep linking” access to illegal music downloads in its Internet search results, but last year a Chinese court cleared Baidu of any wrongdoing. According to the panelists though a deal is in the works now that will give labels better access and assurances from the Chinese government with curbs against piracy.

According to Prashant Bahadur, VP of strategy for the Orchard, an independent music and video distributor, 98 percent of the music bought in China is by domestic artists and only 2 percent of it foreign. Jeffrey Liebenson, president of the International Association Of Entertainment Lawyers, said 75 percent of recorded music profits in China are digital. These come from a variety of iTunes-like services hosted by Chinese telecommunication companies such as China Mobile and China Telecom. Once approved, labels can upload their music to these services and receive royalties from download sales. Before a touring or club culture can germinate, they say, the seeds of a digital business have to be planted first.

Among the variety of things that make access to China seem like an impossible effort, there is one thing working for artists and labels: In their experience, the panelists agreed that all styles and kinds of music have equal chance of catching on in China. The issue remains whether the investment will be made to get the music through. “They [major music labels] work very hard to try to open up the market,” Liebenson said. “I doubt it will change how they develop artists until they start seeing money coming out of that market.” For now, Taiwan and Japan remain the dominant sources for talent in the region, while the predominant style of music in Asia is J-pop, said De Fontenay. “A lot of Chinese people literally have no idea who the Beatles are,” said Singerman. But the panel agreed that this isolation won’t last forever, as the musical infiltration from the West has already started.

All photos by Paul Williams.