Artists send their beats into the digital stratosphere
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2022-05-09  ·   Source: NO.19 MAY 12, 2022
Cui Jian and his band perform at a New Year's Eve gala hosted by Bilibili, a leading video-sharing platform in China, on December 31, 2021 (VCG)

With a black short-sleeved shirt, a guitar and his trademark white baseball cap with the five-pointed red star, Cui Jian, know as the "godfather of Chinese rock," took to the stage on April 15. At 9:00 p.m. sharp, the 60-year-old and his band unleashed their guitar riffs on the digital universe with over 10 million fans already tuned in, screaming and cheering—via real-time comments appearing on the screen.

Though the live concert is the legendary rock star's first time hosting a virtual concert on WeChat Channels, a short-video platform launched by technology giant Tencent, singing at online events is nothing new to the artist. During an online gala performance on June 18, 2020, Cui actually mentioned he didn't particularly like the real-time bullet comments, but on April 15 he encouraged audiences to keep them coming. "Leave your comments, show me your words," he said.

The concert

Organized by WeChat Channels within China's most popular multi-purpose social platform WeChat, Cui's Don't Stop Being Wild concert saw over 46 million viewers, who left about 120 million likes, a new record for the online concert genre. One hour before they could rejoice in some musical mayhem, 8 million people were already patiently waiting online, watching interviews with the band and rehearsal footage.

The "podium" was set up in an indoor studio, with some new technologies adopted to create more immersive stage effects, including a huge high-definition screen previously used for China Central Television's 2022 Spring Festival Gala.

"We poured a lot of time and effort into the preparations for this concert," Cui said during an interview. "The lack of direct and exciting interaction is the virtual gig's Achilles' heel. Audiences can't scream out loud and sing together like they would at offline shows."

The real-time comments are a small "comfort" in this regard. As Cui said, the real-time comments are the most instant feedback they can receive from live online audiences. "It's also a way for us to get used to the relatively new playbook of online concerts."

The show lasted almost three hours, with the rock star performing about 20 songs, classics and new works alike.

"He is the icon of an era," Peng Yuan, a 54-year-old Beijinger told Beijing Review. "It was in 1986 that Cui performed his first song Nothing to My Name at the capital's Workers Gymnasium. It was also in 1986 that I enrolled at Peking University as a student. His music was the soundtrack to my college days."

Together with other rock fans, Peng formed a band on campus; they even set up a Cui Jian fan club and created their own music. "We called ourselves PKU 86," he added. "Cui's earliest followers are mostly in their 50s and 60s today. His concert on April 15 was like a flashback to those unforgettable times."

Viral virtuosi

Online concerts were starting to make waves even before the pandemic erupted. In 2014, musician Wang Feng held a live concert both offline and online at the same time, with over 70,000 people paying to watch it online, raking in a profit of over 2 million yuan ($302,690). In 2016, singer-actress Faye Wong did something similar, with the number of online viewers surpassing 21.5 million.

Whereas in the aforementioned cases, online concerts were merely complementing their offline versions, the COVID-19 pandemic gave online gigs the chance to stand out as an independent form, given that clubs, bars and livehouses were all forced to shut down.

Figures from the China Association of Performing Arts show that by mid-2021, over 20,000 offline music performances had been postponed or canceled across China, causing a direct loss of nearly 2 billion yuan ($303 million). But by performing online, musicians have found a new way to get back to work. And the digital perks don't end there…

On April 1, in memory of Leslie Cheung, a famous Hong Kong singer and actor who passed away in 2003, a remastered version of his 2000 Passion and Love concert was aired on WeChat Channels, attracting over 10 million viewers.

Foreign musicians are also hopping on the bandwagon. On December 18, 2021, Irish pop act Westlife hosted their first online concert for Chinese followers, attracting 27 million viewers. Held in London, they performed hit songs, including a cover of Seasons in the Sun and their 2000 hit single My Love. They even sang a popular Chinese song, in standard Chinese, sending the fandom into a collective meltdown.

"Younger generations are more open to online channels and all that comes with them," said Pan Helin, co-director of the Digital Economy and Financial Innovation Research Center at Zhejiang University's International Business School. "Online concerts have become a premium way for video platforms to attract users."

Businessmen, too, have sniffed out the potential of the online show, but making an actual profit from this budding genre has proved harder than expected. A survey by The Beijing News shows that even though the number of people that would enjoy online concerts has seen a steady increase, their willingness to spend money on such events was somewhat lacking. Among the respondents, about 44.5 percent said they were willing to spend less than 10 yuan ($1.51) and only 5.56 percent would spend over 50 yuan ($7.56). 

Cui's concert actually marked a breakthrough because it had managed to attract a sponsor, a first-ever for the online genre. The sponsor's logo was carefully, and clearly, positioned on the screen throughout the show. Furthermore, viewers could buy digital gifts to send to the band during their performance.

"Online concerts are evolving into a dynamic form of online entertainment and more upcoming endeavors in the field are expected to raise consumer enjoyment to the next level," Pan concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Live Music Animates Lockdown Life)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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