The write stuff

New hit show aims to improve the quality of Chinese songwriting

Chen Yihan-w

Chen Yihan: one of the contestants on reality TV show I am CZR

How much do songwriters get paid? In an era when music is primarily consumed online, just a sliver of streaming revenue is earmarked for songwriting royalties. Worse, most pop songs these days involve small gangs of writers, further eroding individual earnings.

Prominent songwriter Sam Barsh revealed in a blog post recently that he made just $20,000 from writing a song with Kendrick Lamar. “For my songwriting on Kendrick Lamar’s Institutionalised from the album To Pimp A Butterfly, I have earned less than $20,000. I have a 12% share of the song. The album went Platinum, won a Grammy, and was a worldwide phenomenon,” he wrote.

The economics improve for singer-songwriters, particularly repeat hitmakers – step forward Taylor Swift who Forbes estimated was worth $320 million last year.

A new reality show in China, I am CZR, short for ‘chang zuo ren’, which means singer-songwriter, now wants to pull back the curtain on how music is made in China and highlight the importance of songwriting. Producers of the show say China’s music industry still lacks diverse and high-quality original music and they hope to improve public awareness of this issue by promoting gifted performers.

I am CZR started airing on online video platform iQiyi in the middle of the month. The show pits eight professional singer-songwriters against each other every week, tasking them with performing an original song. Each introduces their work on stage, sings and is then voted on by the audience and a panel of critics.

Some of the contestants include Wang Yuan, a member of the boy band TFBoys, MC HotDog, a Taiwanese rap artist, pop rock singer Liang Bo and actress-singer Chen Yihan.

Most of the chang zuo ren admit that owing to the limited time it’s a challenge to finish each song. “I have to write a new song between the little time that I have between filming. On the days when I have a writer’s block I almost broke down,” Wang said in an interview with Sina Entertainment.

Industry observers say the show is important because of its emphasis on songwriting at a time when original music is on the wane. “The difference between I am CZR and other singing competitions like Singer and Voice of China is that the latter two shows are about the vocal performance; contestants are cover artists. On the other hand, I am CZR is a lot more challenging for a lot of artists,” says Harper’s Bazaar China.

The show comes at a time when music lovers complain that there are fewer memorable songs emerging from the Chinese music industry.

“I don’t know about everyone else but I have a feeling that there are fewer and fewer Chinese songs on my list over the last two years… At a time when there are so many mediums for audio content, and the music industry is thriving more than ever thanks to copyright protection, for the masses there is still the feeling that there are ‘no songs’ in the Chinese music scene,” Harper’s Bazaar opines.

Hong Tao, director of the show Singer, concurred: “The market for pop music has shrunk. Now almost all the people that go to KTV [karaoke lounges] still choose songs that are from 10 or 20 years ago. So what kind of music will the next generation enjoy?”

Add another factor: social media. More often than not, songs that become massive hits on streaming sites feature repeated riffs and a vocal with only a few tweaks.

“Recently, new songs like Desert Camel (by Rabbit Bros), Kebu Keyi (by Zhang Zihao) have become hugely popular through Douyin [the short-video platform]. The problem, however, is that only 15 to 30 seconds of a song goes viral. Nobody even knows the whole song anymore,” Che Che, an industry insider, told National Business Daily. One survey revealed that 95% of the country’s songwriters could not support themselves financially based on money they make from songwriting alone, says ThePaper.cn.

“No matter how good a songwriter you are, without a record label or support from a platform, there is no way you can promote your work, let alone get paid,” says National Business Daily.

Even songwriter Mao Buyi, another contestant on the show, admits that he didn’t think it was possible to make a living out of songwriting. “Songwriting is fun to do, but I never expected my songs to make money,” he told the China Daily.

Still, will the show have a lasting impact on the Chinese songwriting industry?

“Of course, we should know that Rome was not built in a day. It is impossible to change the situation of original music through one or two variety shows. But we still hope that shows like I am CZR will let more people understand the importance of songwriting and also let them hear original work. That way they will choose and support songwriters and songwriters will get the recognition they need to continue to promote the development of original music in China,” the website ThePaper.cn concludes.

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