China, mobile music, and subculture: Jing Wang

Music is not the primary driving force among young people in China. There are four basic assumptions underlying traditional music marketing strategies. First, segmentation hinges on the basis of musical taste. Second, people specialize in terms of musical taste. Third, music is youth’s main currency for self-expression. These assumptions have worked fairly well for transnational marketers, but so far they haven’t in China. So my assignment was less about music than about the Chinese “linglei” youth. [1] – Jing Wang, in a recent talk about her work with Motorola in China.

A while back I ruminated on the uptake of mobile music in China, and suggested that U.S. companies would have a difficult time competing with Chinese MVNOs in this space. If Jing Wang is correct (and of course she is), there’s more to this story than simply economies of scale and cultivating revenue streams that function properly in different economic systems (Wang notes that the failure of iTunes in China is due to its Western bias toward the credit card).

No, there’s also culture to be considered. I am particularly interested in Wang’s finding that music has less to do with identity among Chinese youth than for their Western counterparts. Wang writes elsewhere:

Although a strict dichotomy of subculture vs. tribal cultures cannot be so neatly drawn, the Chinese music scene can be effectively conceptualized as a spectrum. On one end is a music subculture, on another is pop music that is essentially tribal in nature. Fans and artists, usually in their late 20s, of sub-musical-cultures have distinct elitist musical tastes. They constitute a tightly knit cult circle in pursuit of a spirit (jingshen) that ‘soulless’ pop music is considered lacking. Whether their heroes are Cui Jian or some emerging electronic music bands like Panda Twin, the spirit of subculture (ya wenhua) is characterized by an intense desire for belonging. In sharp contrast, the music tribes (teens, late-teens, and mid-twenty somethings) chase after cool fashions and revel in their skin deep allegiance to the changing idols on the bulletin board … lifestyle is a matter of choice and musical taste is not reliable as a sustained marker of personal and social identities even for metropolitan youths in China, and that the equation between cool youth and cool music is not a simple one, especially for transnational cell phone marketers. The research focus, once again, should be placed on the consumers themselves, the single-child generation who sets their own agendas and who knows how to get what they want with a determination and optimism rarely seen in the previous generations. Nobody can hold them hostage for long. [2 (PDF download)]

I’ve written about a parallel spectrum as regards subculture and style on the Internet, and this is a persistent interest of mine. Wang’s work informs my original thesis on digital subculture quite appropriately, I think. If a continuum of production and consumption (from performance to audition) is assumed with popular music, then I think we can argue that subculture will be felt most strongly in areas where there is more effort invested (Wang’s “subcultures” versus her less musically-interested “tribes”). Hence subculture is like an emergent property of ‘working’ in music. It’s an emergent property of colluding actors trying to write their identities into the culture, like a wikipedian trying to keep their entry about their band from being deleted. To take it a step further, the communication media and spatial settings for this collective ‘work’ by subcultures influence the content of the subculture, how it manifests in the social world. Peripheral fans, who, like Wang’s fickle tribespeople, shift from one musical genre to another, changing their opinions frequently, get to invest their identities elsewhere, places other than the troubled grain of Ian Curtis’ voice, or Wolfsheim’s sweetly tepid romances, etc.

Wang argues that Chinese punks do not drive popular culture in the way that marginal music tends to drive Western popular culture. While this may be true, this characterization of the West might be overstated, given the wide manufacture of markets for western pop music whose subcultural origin is suspect, or nebulous. To clarify, I think marginal music drives Western popular culture (and music buying patterns) to a lesser degree than most critics are willing to attest. It’s the Marilyn Mansons and Oases that drive people to buy the Christian Deaths and Boo Radleys’s, respectively, not the other way around. Looking at what’s legible in popular music in the West, it’s clearly widespread demand (in part manufactured) for familiarity and sameness that puts Paris Hilton and not Katzenjammer Kabarett on MTV, not exotica and difference grown at its peripheries.

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