“At first I struggled a lot in mainland China; I had to educate people what it means to be a singer-songwriter,” says Qu Wanting, a 30-year-old Chinese musician whose last album, Everything in the World, went triple platinum in China and Hong Kong. In the early days of her career, Qu had trouble gaining traction in part because the concept of a vocalist writing her own music didn’t fit with the Chinese industry standard of a pop princess belting out pre-written ballads. But that wasn’t her strength. “I think my voice is OK, but my songs are unique because I sing about my own life,” she says.
One of Qu’s initial boosts came from having her songs uploaded to the online music streaming and subscription site Xiami.com, which was founded in 2007 and bought by Alibaba last year. China’s traditional music industry is controlled by a handful of labels that are not only responsible for censorship—practically speaking, that means denying ISBN numbers to songs or albums deemed vulgar or politically inappropriate—but also tend to favor acts similar to ones that have been successful in the past. Although it’s been hard for musicians with novel voices or viewpoints to break into the industry, new online music platforms have now widened the possibilities for musicians like Qu to find fans—and for listeners to be exposed to a much broader spectrum of songs.