Two hours before the concert was scheduled to begin in Shanghai’s Xuhui district, young women were already lined up outside a coffee shop under a pink neon sign that read, “Please don’t tell my Mom.” One wore a hooded sweatshirt bearing the name and face of the night’s performer, the Danish pop star Christopher Nissen. Others were dressed, for unclear reasons, like Harry Potter and his classmates. Most wore all black, as the invitation instructed. When the doors opened, around 7pm, on a Monday evening in December, these early birds – many of whom had already intercepted Nissen the previous night at the airport – swarmed to the front row, bypassing a table offering free snacks and drinks. They were followed, at a more leisurely pace, by ad agency executives and social media influencers, who had come at the invitation of the evening’s sponsor, Dynaudio. Guests chatted through a presentation about the Danish stereo company’s new wireless speakers, then hushed when a Chinese emcee standing on a makeshift stage introduced the event’s musical guest – his fans know him simply as Christopher. He ambled out wearing a V-neck white T-shirt and a black leather jacket. “Is this your first time in Shanghai?” the emcee asked him in English. “Noooooo,” the crowd answered for him. “They know,” Christopher said, beaming. He dedicated his first song, Heartbeat , to the fans who had met him at the airport and later performed a brief verse in Mandarin. “It’s my little party trick when I’m out here,” he said, with a knowing wink. The girls in the front row roared. Christopher is 27. He has sandy hair, blue eyes, a strong jaw, and looks like he walked off the assembly line at some global pop star factory – which, in a sense, he did. To his record label, Warner Music Denmark, he is “the Danish Justin Bieber”. He performs songs in English, almost exclusively about romance. Some of his tracks include Naked , Baby Making Interlude and All About Sex . On his latest mildly suggestive single, Monogamy , he croons, “ These pretty girls they tryna get me confused / Though I get cravings, they got nothing on you / Damn, it’s so tempting, but I leave on my own / My heart is hungry, but I eat home .” Then he proposes that the listener “ put that sexy thing on top of me ”. Critics may find Christopher’s songs unimaginative, and he has never cracked the Billboard Hot 100, that American measure of pop stardom. But he is huge in two places: Denmark and China, the latter having adopted him as a native son. All of the 12 singles he has released in the mainland since 2014 have broken into the top 10; eight have gone to No 1. He has performed in several of the country’s biggest cities, and he is a spokesman for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Being big in China didn’t used to mean much. In 2013, the music industry made less money there than it did in Denmark. Piracy was so pervasive that Baidu, the Chinese Google, had been branded a copyright infringer by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents record labels. That’s changed. Baidu now runs a streaming music service that pays for rights, and other Chinese internet companies have invested billions of yuan into their own streaming services. In 2017, China became one of the world’s 10 biggest music markets for the first time. By next year, it could be in the top five. Major music labels and artists have scrambled to capitalise, striking deals with the streaming services and opening offices. “China could be the biggest and healthiest music market in the world, if we get it right,” says Alex Taggart, a consultant with Outdustry Group, which advises record labels and artists on marketing themselves in the mainland. Beijing has limited access to much of the Western internet – and, therefore, Western pop music. Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi, Oasis and Bieber are all banned from performing. (The reasons are varied and not always clear. Perry was blackballed for expressing support for Taiwan; Maroon 5, Bon Jovi and Oasis for supporting Tibetan independence; Bieber for “bad behaviour.”) Local artists account for more than 80 per cent of listenership in China. The rest is a mix of American pop, Korean pop and electronic dance music (EDM). That makes Christopher a pioneer of sorts in China. He already makes more money there than he does in Denmark, and has been to the country eight times over the past four years. He is taking Mandarin lessons and hopes that a new album will make him a household name from Guangzhou to Harbin. “There is no clear way to do it in China,” he says. “It’s such a young market, especially for international artists. Can we build it from the ground up? I am an experiment.” Christopher grew up in a suburb of Copenhagen. He says he’s wanted to be a pop star since he was 10, when he first listened to Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. His parents indulged their son by buying him a guitar and listening to his impromptu concerts in their living room. Christopher taught himself how to play by watching videos online. In the third grade, he performed in public for the first time, at a school competition, singing an original song in Danish. In the song, Are You Coming to the Party Tonight? , the prepubescent Dane warned a girl that he’d never be able to love again if she turned him down. Christopher won the talent show and spent the next few years performing at any venue that would have him, most often at an Italian wine bar across the street from his high school. At 17, he walked into the Copenhagen offices of EMI Denmark (now part of Warner) without an invitation. His hands were so sweaty that he could barely hold his guitar while strumming a John Mayer song, he has said. Even so, an executive invited him to play his own songs for a small crowd. Three days later, EMI called his parents and offered to sign their son. They agreed, with one condition: he had to finish school. He settled on the stage name Christopher and got busy writing songs. His debut album, Colours (2012), included a few catchy tunes, but his second, Told You So (2014), was a hit. The title track topped the charts in Denmark and won pop album of the year at the Danish Music Awards. Advertisers, concert promoters and reality TV producers all came calling; Christopher said yes to everything, playing 150 shows that year in Denmark. “My face was on 12 million water bottles,” Christopher says. “I was on every poster in every gas station.” Having conquered the Danish fuel and beverage markets, he and his record label started exploring opportunities abroad. The music video for his song CPH Girls had racked up 10 million views on YouTube, and some of those had to come from outside Denmark. Christopher travelled to showcases in Germany, Norway and Sweden – but the shows didn’t lead to any new business opportunities, let alone offers to play in Britain or the United States. Christopher tried to understand where he had gone wrong. He had been careful to avoid the trap that many Danish singers who write songs for their home market fall into. “You can tell it’s a guy who grew up right around the corner,” he says. People told him he sounded “Justin Timberlake-ish”, which wasn’t necessarily a compliment. Crooners were increasingly losing radio airtime to big-name EDM artists and their pop-star collaborators. The love-song market in every other country seemed to be dominated by domestic talent. Ultimately, he decided his music just wasn’t up to global heartthrob industry standards. “ CPH Girls was good, but not a worldwide smash,” he says. There was one bit of good news: Christopher’s manager informed him that the track was high in the charts on QQ Music , a popular streaming service owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent. Christopher had never heard of QQ before – nor had he ever been to Asia – but this was all the prompting he needed. He booked a flight to China. Because it is still a relatively small market in terms of revenue, the mainland has been treated by most international musicians as just another part of Asia – stops in Beijing and Shanghai added to tours that include Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul. This works for a handful of global superstars, such as Bruno Mars and John Legend, but for most artists, it’s not an effective way to become big in the mainland. To do that, according to Warner Music China chief executive Andy Ma, who helped Christopher develop his strategy, you need to slug it out in lesser-known cities, such as Chengdu, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Wuhan. These concerts won’t be moneymakers, Ma says, but they are crucial to building an audience in the country. Otherwise, he says, “they won’t remember you”. You feel like you are losing your artistic integrity. Now I’m just a monkey Christopher Nissen Christopher made his first visit in 2014 to perform on television shows in Shanghai and Changsha, in Hunan province. From day one, Ma decided to position him as less aloof than the typical pop idol. He needed to come off as funny and personable but not silly. Chinese talk show hosts love to subject celebrities to weird challenges, dares and activities. No matter what they ask, label executives told Christopher, just go with it. During an appearance on the Chinese equivalent of The Tonight Show , the host asked Christopher to lift his shirt and show off his six-pack. Christopher appeared startled for a moment and then obliged. Over the next couple of trips, he ate pork intestines and jellyfish on national TV. He sat down for awkward interview after awkward interview, putting on blindfolds and sharing his workout routine. “You feel like you are losing your artistic integrity. Now I’m just a monkey,” he says with a laugh. “But you trust your label people.” Christopher’s third album, Closer , was something of a disappointment in Western markets when it was released in 2016. One song, I Won’t Let You Down , topped the charts in Denmark, but the album didn’t register anywhere else in Europe or in the US. China was another story. Heartbeat , an ode to his fans, held No 1 spot on the QQ charts for eight consecutive weeks, racking up 250 million streams. Pop ballads, passé in Europe, are still all the rage in China, says Karl Rubin, a producer who has worked with popular musicians in the country. “China is really hyped on 2014 pop music,” says Rubin. Warner felt confident enough in the appeal of Christopher’s love songs to send him on a two-week tour. The first rule of touring in China is don’t pull a “Björk”. The avant-garde Icelandic performer ended a 2008 concert in Shanghai by singing Declare Independence , a track written in support of activists in Greenland and the Faroe Islands but that Björk has since repurposed for other regions. Her adapted lyrics for the occasion: “ Tibet, Tibet / Raise your flag! ” The incident prompted international headlines and a Chinese government clampdown. Today, foreign artists must obtain a special visa to perform in mainland China, which can require them to submit a passport, headshot, biography, playlist, lyrics of all their songs translated into Mandarin, and a video of everyone who will appear on stage. Ahead of his first solo show in Beijing, Christopher was less worried about censorship – love songs are generally OK, as long as they are not explicit – than he was about the possibility that nobody would show up. The charts in China are notoriously difficult to decipher. There’s no Billboard-like central body that issues weekly sales figures. Musicians are forced to rely on QQ’s charts and social-media followings. “I don’t know if there will be 29 people or 300 or what,” he told his crew. “But we will convert them.” The show was sold out. In addition to Beijing and Shanghai, Christopher would pack venues in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Wuhan, none of which he had heard of before the trip. He was scheduled to perform on the Hito Music Awards show in Taiwan alongside Eric Chou, who is known as the “king of the lovelorn people.” They would do one song of Christopher’s and one of Chou’s. Warner Music suggested Christopher sing the chorus to Chou’s song in Mandarin. He nailed it, in front of 15,000 people. “That was the first time I felt like I could see and feel the success,” Christopher says. Last year, Christopher started taking Mandarin lessons. Dissatisfied with his progress, he recently reached out to his countryman Viktor Axelsen, who – as well as being a former world-champion badminton player and Olympic medallist – is conversant in the language. He connected Christopher with his Chinese teacher. Even so, progress has been slow. “Being able to answer a few questions in Mandarin would make a huge difference,” Christopher says. I can’t think of any artist who would do half the sh*t I did yesterday. You have to know when to say no Christopher Nissen Backstage after the Dynaudio event in Shanghai, Christopher seemed worn down by his latest two-week sprint through Asia. He was about to board a 5am flight to Beijing, where he had a half-dozen performances lined up in one day. Over the previous 24 hours, he had eaten squid ink jelly, dressed up as a fashionista’s personal assistant and offered his opinion to the media on everything from home furnishings to superheroes. “I can’t think of any artist who would do half the sh*t I did yesterday,” he said, trying to relax in a chair alongside his manager and keyboard player. He had drawn the line when asked to wear a pink tutu and crown. “You have to know when to say no,” he says. The fatigue briefly lifted when Christopher learned of a new opportunity. Chinese artists, a publicist informed him, live-stream on QQ Music, earning gifts, including sports cars, from fans who can spend thousands of dollars during a stream. “Daaaaaaaamn,” Christopher said. “Hook a brother up with a live-stream session.” The publicist then awkwardly clarified that he meant digital sports cars, not actual sports cars, but that did nothing to dampen Christopher’s enthusiasm for trying it. The relationship between the virtual and the real is something that Christopher has been exploring in his music. Among the singles he promoted in Shanghai was Irony , about his addiction to social media, its role in his success and the falseness of its images. Irony peaked at No 7 in Denmark and reached the top 10 in China. The song, he says, is an artistic turning point as he seeks to expand his repertoire beyond love. “I have some songs that are even better,” he says. “They have a more international approach and sound.” Christopher’s strategy for his fourth release is to build on his momentum in China and give Europe another shot. Having released a new album, Under the Surface , last month, he plans to tour Germany in May. He will tour Asia in June, with stops including Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing. At the end of the night in Shanghai, Christopher headed downstairs for photos with fans who had been waiting for four hours. A woman in her early 20s, wearing a black peacoat and bright red lipstick, was prepared for her moment with phone and autograph pad in hand. When the time came, she rushed over to meet him and snapped a picture, using a digital filter to superimpose a cat emoji under his chin. She left, beaming, with an autograph that read, “For Dasy, From Christopher.” It ended with a heart sign, outlined in gold ink. Later that night, she uploaded a photo of the page to Instagram and captioned it “See u again.” There’s little doubt she will.