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Straight Outta Chongqing: How an Online Rap Competition Dominated Chinese Entertainment
origin : WSJ
Date : 2017-09-29
Views : 2
Until a few months ago, Zhou Yan, a 30-year-old rapper, performed at local bars in Chongqing city for about $75 a night. Now he is one of China’s biggest hip-hop stars and makes enough money that he says his parents don’t need to work any longer. Mr. Zhou, who goes by the stage name GAI, is a phenom from China’s most popular entertainment program in 2017: “The Rap of China,” a 12-episode hip-hop reality series that shows the power of online entertainment and its younger audience. The show, created and shown by online video site iQiyi, attracted 2.7 billion views during its run from late June to early September. Short videos pulled from the content were watched eight billion times on social-media platform Weibo, according to iQiyi. Mr. Zhou and a clutch of other audience favorites now rap in advertisements for big brands that include McDonald’s , e-commerce giant JD.com and mobile-payment app Alipay. “The Rap of China”’s breakout success demonstrates how internet companies are starting to dictate entertainment and pop-culture trends once defined by television. In doing so, the online upstarts are learning to thread the needle between an authoritarian government that wants to control what its people read, watch and think, and a huge young online population eager to express their identity, often through consumerism. Traditional TV still dominates in China. But as in the U.S., that is changing. The number of registered cable TV users fell by 2.5 million in the first half of 2017 to 250 million, the first drop in decades, according to the broadcasting regulator. Meanwhile, the internet regulator says, online video services added 20 million users for a total of 565 million. Those who stopped paying for TV services and watch online instead tend to be younger, making them a natural target for consumer brands. Annual ad spending on TV is projected to remain flat at about $17 billion between 2016 and 2021, while spending on online video is forecast to triple to catch up and eventually surpass TV, according to research firm eMarketer. Internet research firm iResearch calls this huge young group that grew up with the internet and more means than their parents the “nouveau middle class.” “This is a group full of desires and hormones,” an iResearch report says. “They’ve got only one goal: live a better, higher-quality life.” It is that demographic that “The Rap of China”- and its sponsors - are after. The show centered on rap contests and to viewers appeared more authentic than many of the TV talent shows of recent years. Mr. Zhou, for example, rapped in the local Chongqing dialect, instead of the standard Mandarin used by government diktat on TV. The show allowed the rappers “to be themselves, be real, be straightforward with each other and with the judges, and that resonates with the young generation,” says Shen Lihui, general manager of music label Modernsky . “They’re also consumeristic and apolitical, which is typical of this era.” Five of Modernsky’s hip-hop singers participated in the show, including Wang Hao, known as PG One, who shared the champion title with Mr. Zhou at the end of the season. “The Rap of China”’s success is all the more unusual because hip-hop remained largely outside the mainstream in China. Known for its social activism, political awareness and explicit lyrics in many other societies, hip-hop is hardly an ideal pop phenomenon in China in 2017, a politically tense year as the Communist Party prepares to announce a new leadership in October. Authorities have upped already high censorship, policing all media for signs of dissent and purging prime time of entertainment and talk shows. In recent weeks, a long-running talk show on Phoenix TV, a celebrity letter-reading TV show and sci-fi-themed online talk show got the ax. IQiyi-which is owned by China’s dominant search engine, Baidu  Inc. - and competitors Tencent Holdings  Ltd.’s Tencent Video and Alibaba Group Holding  Ltd.’s Youku Tudou are learning to navigate those risks. “The Rap of China”’s creator, Chen Wei, spent 15 years at state-owned provincial broadcaster Zhejiang Television, where he produced top singing competitions such as “The Voice of China.” He joined iQiyi two years ago and says he wanted to produce a show for iQiyi’s young user base. About 83% of iQiyi’s mobile users in August were younger than 35, according to iResearch. Fox’s hip-hop musical drama TV series, “Empire,” was an inspiration, Mr. Chen says. Advertisers were initially skeptical, but, as the show gained traction, McDonald’s, smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. and others joined as sponsors. The first season broke even, bringing in about 250 million yuan ($38 million), a person familiar with the situation says. Mr. Chen expects the second season to be highly profitable. Besides sponsorship, the show also makes money from iQiyi membership subscriptions, e-commerce, games, and licensed products of clothing and accessories that rappers wear on the show. One of those is a gold chain with a big “R!CH” sign. “Hip-hop has huge commercial potential,” Mr. Chen says. “Music is just an excuse.”