The New Music Biz

From Beijing to Warsaw, hot local talent is pounding away at U.S. dominance of the music industry

It didn't matter that they were packed into a drafty college dining hall or that they only had a few hours' notice. They were ready to rock. For four hours on a recent Sunday night, 3,000 students from the Beijing University of Science & Technology abandoned their books to enjoy the forbidden sound of a live concert. They chanted and waved lighters while six bands--including two of China's hottest stars, He Yong and Dou Wei--blared out Chinese versions of rock, grunge, and heavy metal.

Because Chinese authorities rarely permit rock concerts, no tickets were sold. So neither the bands nor the music company that backs them made any money. But the underground concert was nonetheless a huge success. The event will help the bands sell hundreds of tapes and compact disks by word of mouth. And that will bolster the reputation of Taiwan's Rock Records, an independent label that's promoting local talent--and taking on PolyGram, Sony, and other giants in the region.

Welcome to the new frontiers of the music business. New York and London are on their way out as the world's hottest music towns. And the standards for what's hip on the global music scene may no longer be determined primarily by U.S. megastars. Instead, the action is shifting to spots such as South Africa, where Johannesburg's pop jive sound--a mix of traditional African beat, jazz, and rhythm and blues--is gaining in popularity worldwide. Or to Hong Kong, where superstar Jacky Cheung is creating hits that sell like gangbusters as far away as Amsterdam.

These days, talent scouts are fanning out to coffee houses in Latin America, karaoke clubs in Asia, and even school dances in Central Europe. They are searching for singers and rock groups who can make it big on their home turf or catch on around the world. Says Ken Berry, president of EMI Music International: "The demand for American music is starting to recede. Now, the big growth is in local artists."

The $40 billion music industry is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. It is changing from a business relying heavily on U.S. sales and exports to one that is far more decentralized and geared to local tastes. Many experts think the U.S. portion of the worldwide music market will shrink to just 20% by 2000, down from a third today and 50% in 1987. After years of selling the tunes of Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey to overseas markets, the five large companies that control 80% of the industry--PolyGram, Warner, Sony, EMI, and Bertelsmann--are pouring billions of dollars into regional studios, plants, and distribution networks.

Driving the change is a sales slump in the U.S. After a decade of double-digit growth, music sales in the U.S. grew just 2.6% in the first half of 1995 (chart). One reason is the slowdown in compact-disk sales. Over the last decade, music sales soared as collectors converted vinyl records and cassette tapes to CDs.

But that wave is cresting just as other problems are surfacing. A dearth of new superstars has forced companies to dig into their vaults and recycle hits by aging rockers to boost sales. At the same time, profitability is taking a pounding as top artists with global appeal are able to extract higher fees. EMI paid $50 million to sign Janet Jackson in 1991. Now, the company is close to signing a new contract for $80 million to keep her, or she'll bolt to a competing label. "You have to pay a [top] price to get a top artist to sign with you," says Rudi Gassner, CEO of Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment International.

Overseas, the picture is far brighter. In the first half of 1995, sales grew 44% in Poland, 45% in Indonesia, and 55% in Brazil. From Warsaw to Beijing, young people want to spend their rising disposable incomes on tapes and CDs. And while they will still flock to the likes of Bon Jovi and Michael Bolton, they increasingly want to hear stars who speak their own language and reflect their own culture.

NEW RIVALS. An engineering student in Beijing says he prefers Chinese rock singer Dou Wei to stars like Madonna because "her lifestyle is too far from our own." That poses major challenges for the music giants. With tight government controls and rampant piracy still the rule in many countries, investing in the music business in India or Thailand is fraught with risk. In the old days, exporting Madonna's records involved little extra overhead cost and even less imagination. Now, music companies must scout out China's emerging pop idols--and struggle with all the cultural, political, and logistical difficulties of starmaking. While local artists make far less than their U.S. counterparts, they can snag $10 million deals if their music sells across a region. With recording and video production costs higher in overseas markets, the onus is on companies to find artists with wide appeal.

To make matters worse, the Big Five are facing new competition. Powerful new players such as Seagram Co.'s recently acquired MCA Inc. and DreamWorks SKG are both determined to build a global music business from scratch. Other media giants--Sumner M. Redstone's Viacom Inc., Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and Michael D. Eisner's Walt Disney Co.--are nosing around the business. One of these companies is expected to pounce on EMI Music when its parent company, Thorn EMI, splits in two later this year.

The Big Five are also battling new regional independents, such as Taiwan's Rock Records, Brazil's Sigla, or Japan's Pony Canyon. Often run by street-wise local entrepreneurs, the independents can more easily spot new talent. In the past 16 years, Rock Records has built itself into eastern Asia's largest independent record company, with 50 Chinese-language artists, including the region's most popular stars. Sales were an estimated $85 million for 1995.

The strains of going global are causing turmoil in the gilded suites of music management. Squabbling over slumping domestic profits and the high price of international expansion are behind some of the tumult. Warner Music Group Inc., for example, is on its third chief in 18 months. Sony's U.S. chief, Michael P. Schulhof, was ousted after poor performance in the company's movie and record businesses.

And while management is stable at PolyGram, weaker-than-expected sales plus delays in new albums forced management to issue a warning that 1995 profits will be flat. "We've all had a good run in the U.S., but it's slowing down," worries BMG's Gassner. "The question is, can we increase revenues in mature markets while we wait for the new ones to develop? It's a very critical time."

The changing currents in the business initially took many music executives by surprise. Although music companies began to look offshore in the late 1980s, they were mainly selling successful U.S. artists. "Music from the rest of the world was an afterthought," says EMI's Berry.

But America's hottest acts aren't selling as well outside the U.S. Alternative rock bands, such as Warner Music's Green Day and PolyGram's Blues Traveler, haven't been as well received as were Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the early 1990s.

BUBBLEGUM MUSIC. Nor is rap music easy to sell internationally. The lyrics conjure up the things Europeans and Asians most dislike about the U.S.--crime and violence. French teens are opting for "rai" music, and Italians "ragamuffin," less harsh equivalents to rap. Even more popular in Europe is "techno," or dance, music with its ear-splitting bass and minimal lyrics. In 1985, U.S. and British artists accounted for 65% of music sales in Europe; now it's just 45%.

In Asia, tastes are changing even more rapidly. In the early 1990s, as political winds shifted in markets such as Taiwan, newly liberated music fans went for Western pop idols such as Whitney Houston. Later, a Cantopop genre developed, mostly bubblegum music lip-synched by film and soap-opera stars. Now, local music is becoming more sophisticated. Fans seem to want songs that rediscover a common heritage and are sung in their own language.

Take China, where 32-year-old singer Wei Wei soared to fame with ballads and love songs. She cut four albums that sold 106 million copies, making her more popular than Madonna. But when she began singing in English to broaden her appeal a year ago, her popularity plummeted at home. Still, she has been asked to sing at the Atlanta Olympics this summer and could become a star outside of China.

In Malaysia, America's "gangsta rap" isn't popular, but Malaysian teens love their homegrown rap group, Kru. An EMI scout heard the three brothers who make up Kru singing a jazzy song for the local Selangor soccer team on the radio. He signed them to a contract in 1993, and in two years they have sold 300,000 albums.

After a slow start, the Big Five music companies are catching on to the demand for local talent. "Developing local repertoire is our No.1 goal," says Robert M. Bowlin, president of Sony Music International. He estimates that 80% of the music sold in Latin America is by Latins, while 60% of that sold in Asia is by locals. Says Don Atyeo, general manager of Murdoch's Hong Kong-based Channel [V] satellite music-video channel: "At first they threw us Stone Temple Pilots and grunge music, which doesn't work here," says Atyeo. "Now they send us 80% local repertoire and Western music that works in this market, such as love songs."

Another trend surprises even the most experienced music managers. Known as "the crossover," it's when music from one region outside the U.S. and Britain carves out a big niche in another. European artists are now selling in astounding numbers in Japan, Korea, and Brazil. Warner's Italian chanteuse, Laura Pausini, has swept through Europe and, having recorded a Spanish-language album, is a big hit in Latin America. So is BMG's Italian superstar vocalist, Eros Ramazotti.

ROLLING DICE. Warner's Luis Miguel, Mexico's favorite balladeer, last year sold 500,000 albums in Korea, where he was voted top international artist of the year. EMI's obscure Danish rock band, Michael Learns to Rock, sold 2 million records in Asia, including 500,000 in Japan.

So far, no one has found an emerging-market Madonna with worldwide appeal. But Warner Music maestro Seymour Stein, who discovered the U.S. singer, is rolling the dice by promoting a mainland Chinese singer called Dadawa worldwide. Warner's Elektra label will release her Sister Drum album in the U.S. in mid-January, following a European tour.

The Shanghai singer, whose real name is Zhu Zheqin, doesn't sound a bit like Madonna, but they think alike: She adopted the name Dadawa because it's easily pronounced in both Asian and Western languages. Warner's hope is that her music, a mix of Tibetan chants using such ancient instruments as the long trumpet, the barreled drum, and the erhu fiddle, will resonate with millions of Gregorian chant aficionados. Says Bill Roedy, president of MTV Networks International: "I think it's only a matter of time before a Michael Jackson or Madonna [emerges] from Russia or Vietnam or India."

Recently, the Japanese have become the most voracious consumers of music from other cultures. Despite the turndown in Japan's economy, teenagers seem to have more spending money. Sales in Japan last year were up about 20%. Japan's hot music scene is in Tokyo's Shibuya district, where shops and cafes blast out an eclectic mix of rap, reggae, and acid rock from China, other Asian countries, and Europe.

The Big Five are beginning to see a payoff from their push in other countries, too. South Korea, Taiwan, and Poland are already reliable money-spinners, especially with their governments reining in illegal sales. Once the greater China market develops--including the 1.4 billion or so Mandarin-speakers from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia--music companies expect big profits from investments in Mandarin artists.

And if Mexico and other large Latin American countries can stabilize their economies, the music business could see double-digit earnings growth once again, even without the U.S. Many companies are building a Latin American presence now that Brazil and Mexico are No.7 and No.8, respectively, in the world in total retail music sales. PolyGram recently paid $57 million for the region's largest independent, Rodven Records in Caracas.

PolyGram is the market leader so far. Asia accounts for 25% of total sales, with such superstars as Cheung and Faye Wong under contract. Cheung's 1993 album, Kiss and Goodbye, sold 4 million copies worldwide, which made him the first Asian artist to get on PolyGram's annual Top 10 roster. "You've got to take your hat off to PolyGram, which was doing 15 years ago what the rest of us are starting to do now," says Michael Smellie, senior vice-president of BMG Entertainment, Asia-Pacific.

ROUGH TIMES. But others are racing to catch up. "We haven't grown by less than 50% for the past three years, and we expect that to continue," boasts Lachie Rutherford, regional managing director of EMI Music, Southeast Asia and China.

No doubt, there are rough patches ahead. It will likely take years for government controls to be rolled back and for piracy to be curbed in markets such as China and Russia. But in the meantime, as the new middle class grows in Shanghai, Prague, and Mexico City, music lovers clearly want a mix of local, regional, and U.S. tunes. As the industry responds, some executives can already hear the sound of money.

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