Pop music finds its voice

Pop music has come a long way since sneaking into China in the late 1970s. It all began after the Cultural Revolution, when underground sales of pirated cassettes gave mainland music fans access to Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop for the first time.

Stars such as Taiwan's Teresa Teng both shocked and enchanted mainland listeners with songs about love and emotion. It was ground-breaking stuff for a population brought up on ballad-based folk songs about bountiful harvests and pride in the nation.

Although she never got to perform in China, Teng helped pave the way for other artists, whose regular mainland tours are usually sell-outs. Part of that legacy is Taiwan's Jay Chou, the undisputed king of modern Chinese pop.

Chou's music shows a massive sea change in the themes broached by Chinese pop. In one song, he gets tough with a wife-beating father, but he also manages to show a soft side when he takes grandma out on a birthday drive.

'Jay's brand of hip-hop-laced pop is also popular with overseas-born Chinese because he pays respect to traditional Chinese values,' said Jennie Zhao, a Beijing-based entertainment journalist. 'His music is influenced by hip-hop and R&B, but it is still very Asian ... This is really refreshing compared with most Chinese pop music, which is quite bland and generic.'

While Teng and other artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, such as Angus Tung, Qi Qin, Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing dominated the Chinese pop scene during the 1980s and 1990s, a homegrown mainland pop scene also found time to develop. Just take a look at the nearest thing to music charts you'll find on the mainland - MP3 download data.

China's leading search engine, Baidu, has a top 100 list of the most frequently downloaded MP3s. The current top 10 shows a 50-50 breakdown between homegrown pop artists and stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The first, second and seventh spots go to three former contestants of the hugely popular Hunan TV talent show, Super Girl, the Chinese version of American Idol.

But winning in the MP3 download charts does not mean financial success. While free MP3 downloads (and rampant CD piracy) make an artist more accessible and speed up his or her rise to fame, they are a mixed blessing because they eliminate royalties.

'Another problem for some rising stars is that they are not able to fill big concert venues, so they have to rely more on advertising gigs and TV or guest appearances to survive. This is what Li Yuchun , winner of Super Girl, is doing,' said Zhao.

Another development is that mainland singers are learning from their traditionally more showbiz-savvy counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where whole entertainment franchises are built up around famous stars. It is common for singers in these two regions to branch into movies and TV, and establish a cross-media presence. Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong (the mainland singer who made her name in Hong Kong) are good examples.

However, on the mainland, the reverse is generally true. TV and movie stars go into singing to capitalise on their popularity, and companies find it easier to make money by converting existing stars into concert-packing commodities and product endorsers.

Video might have killed the radio star, but clever marketing has certainly breathed new life into many more.

Eanna O'Brogain is a Beijing-based journalist