Another Way of Looking at China

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
  • March 2018
• Created: March 12, 2018

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China has occupied a protean place in the business of MI.

At times it’s been reviled for well-documented and pernicious intellectual property piracy and price cutting, and at other times it’s been lauded for mass-producing cost-effective entry-level musical instruments that make decent-or-better-quality instruments accessible to more students and musicians than might otherwise have been able to afford them.

Conversely, musical instruments have had their own perceptual ups and downs in China. The Chinese Communist Party, which rules the country culturally, as well as politically and economically, took a dim view of the electric guitar for decades after the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the central authorities banned rock music performances altogether for a time. While that stance has loosened some, the Party has continued to target certain individual Western music artists, such as Jay-Z in 2006 (citing profanity), Oasis in 2009 (alleging due to the band’s links to the Free Tibet movement), and Bob Dylan in 2010, viewing him as a one-man counter-revolutionary movement.

But in light of recent political and economic current events, China’s profile and influence is only going to increase. So it’s worth noting that NAMM has done a lot to tamp down the negatives and accentuate the positives of Chinese MI. It’s been working closely with Music China, the country’s indigenous MI trade show, for a dozen years now. Anything that fosters musical expression in a place like China is a positive. If anyone doubts that, think about how music was widely credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, which took a similarly dim institutional view of rock & roll. In the early 1960s, then-premier Nikita Khrushchev declared the electric guitar, “an enemy of the Soviet people.” In 1989, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was holed up in the Vatican’s embassy in Panama City, indicted by the U.S. government on charges of drug trafficking and election rigging. He was driven out by a barrage fired through loudspeakers (with the accent on “loud”) and featuring songs chosen as much for irony as volume, including “I Fought The Law” by The Clash, “Panama” by Van Halen, U2’s “All I Want Is You,” and Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.”

Could music have a similarly revolutionary effect on China? The New York Times recently wrote about how saxophone manufacturing has transformed a town in northern China. In the course of producing 10,000 saxes a month in over 70 factories in the area, the instrument – once decried by orthodox Communists as a representation of “decadent” jazz and free expression – has become the city’s flagship, played by thousands of citizens. It’s made Kenny G an unlikely icon in parts of rural China.

The story underscores how China is changing when it comes to musical instruments. It’s now a $7-billion industry there, growing at a rate of 10 percent in the past five years, according to research from Daxue Consulting, a Chinese market-data firm. More critically, the country’s MI manufacturing base now exports only 22.4 percent of its output, down from 70 percent in 2005. That’s because China’s burgeoning middle class is buying more domestically-made instruments, and those are overwhelmingly Western ones, with the piano and guitar the most popular.

The MI retail models, however, are radically different. The vast majority of instruments sold in China are through online portals, which have embraced the Amazon model of no-hassle returns. In fact, Daxue Consulting cautions, “Foreign brands wishing to do business in the music instrument market in China would do well to pay attention to the online side of their business to really take advantage of the size of the local market.”

There is no shortage of hurdles and barriers – political, economic, and cultural – to doing business in China today, but it’s less so than even a dozen years ago. Short of a trade war (which can still happen, given Donald Trump’s antipathy towards the Chinese, with tariffs on washing machines and solar panels so far this year) it could become less difficult to do business in and with China. And ironically, it may be music itself that will ultimately help that process along, as it did other challenging authoritarian markets in recent history. The old 1920s song title, “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong” can be easily adapted to China, where 1.2 billion consumers who want to play what we play can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – be ignored.

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