For many young Chinese, last month’s annual Spring Festival Gala variety show was the first time they heard one of 2020’s most popular songs. But if neither “The Shepherd in Keketuohai,” nor its original singer, Wang Qi, are well-known among Chinese millennials, their parents knew every word. Such generational divides in music tastes aren’t unusual. What may be surprising is where middle-aged Chinese had first encountered the song: the popular short-video app Douyin. A March search for the song’s name on Douyin returned more than 7 million clips, many from accounts popular among middle-aged users.
That some Douyin users might not be familiar with a song, even as others are constantly hearing it, is a function of the platform’s highly personalized recommendation algorithms, which produce distinct video feeds for each user based on their musical preferences and tastes. “The Shepherd in Keketuohai” is just the latest song to achieve “niche” popularity within a specific market segment on the app. Behind the amusing anecdote, however, lies a challenge: Douyin and other short-video platforms are changing the face of the music industry, leaving once-powerful labels scrambling to adapt, and artists increasingly anonymous.
In the five years since its launch in 2016, Douyin has grown into a major market for pop music. On QQ Music, the largest digital music service provider in China, songs popular among short-video creators are even ranked on a dedicated Douyin Chart. The sheer variety and scale of the app’s user base mean all genres and styles can find an audience, and an increasing number of artists now choose Douyin to debut their new tracks in the hopes of achieving a viral hit.
One of the most popular uses of music on an app like Douyin is known as a challenge video. Short clips from songs are played over a choreographed dance, which creators then challenge their followers to imitate. If a given dance challenge shows promise, it is quickly identified by the platform’s algorithms and pushed to a larger user pool. Over time, more and more pop music has been produced specifically with such uses in mind, and songs are now composed to be easily adapted to short videos.
In the early years, however, Douyin struggled to negotiate deals for popular songs with big labels, which typically charge high royalties. Instead, to build a music pool from scratch, the platform shifted its focus onto small- and medium-sized music enterprises. Capitalizing on these companies’ desperation for visibility, Douyin created what it calls a “resource swap”: Small labels offer their music free-of-charge to Douyin, in exchange for top positions on the trending music chart curated by the platform.
A lot of smaller music companies have benefited from this scheme. As for the larger labels, in the words of the Douyin employees I interviewed, the company’s strategy is known internally as “starve the big, feed the middle and small.” This has reshuffled China’s music industry, upending the big labels’ monopoly status and creating a new market. Already, major labels have lowered their royalty fees in order to gain access to the platform’s 600 million users.
But simply lowering these fees isn’t enough for Douyin. It wants to reshape the entire music industry.
While copyright was once a barrier hindering its growth, Douyin now leverages it to threaten copyright owners not going along with its corporate interests. In 2018, a song named “The Taishan Mountain Next Door” showed potential for going viral on Douyin. However, its owner was not inclined to sign over exclusive short-video rights to the app. Trending songs generate user traffic, and in theory, that traffic can be used to negotiate deals with other platforms, diverting users elsewhere. But when Douyin found “The Taishan Mountain Next Door” appearing on its competitor Kuaishou, it quickly capped the song’s audience reach, according to company insiders.
Nor is this the only way the company is throwing its weight around. For small companies, it’s no longer enough to offer Douyin access to their song libraries for free. They also have to create traffic for the app. More specifically, music companies are advised to produce their own choreographed dances for their songs. This requires them to recruit paid influencers to create videos to dance to the songs. Douyin benefits enormously from this arrangement, which brings in both free new songs and traffic. Influencers, too, benefit, as companies pay them to play songs over videos.
All this is having an impact on our relationship to music. Users often find they can barely recognize or remember the artists’ names or the titles of viral songs. And the songs themselves are often cut up to focus only on the catchiest parts, while covers often go on to achieve far more fame than the originals.
For example, the version of “The Shepherd in Keketuohai” that first attracted public attention wasn’t Wang’s original rendition, but that of a female cover artist on Douyin. A street artist then pushed its popularity to new heights by performing it at tables in restaurants. After that, various covers of the song were used in a variety of creative videos, with content including square dancing, singing and dancing tutorials, and lip-syncing. By the end, few of the song’s new fans knew who was originally responsible for it, or even what the original sounded like.
This, too, is a function of how Douyin manages its relationship with the music industry. One reason covers are so popular on Douyin is because labels are expected to give Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, rights to reproductions and adaptations of their intellectual property. If a user “likes” a video, videos set to that song will automatically be recommended to the user’s feed. Users dub these songs “god songs,” a reference to how often they pop up.
One side effect of this arrangement is that a song’s adaptability is increasingly prioritized over the advancement of artists. This differs from the traditional recording industry business model, in which pop star production and management carried much greater weight. In a way, the emergence of the short-video business model has made recording artists almost disposable.
The logical conclusion of this trend may be their disappearance altogether. Since 2017, ByteDance has been working on a new initiative, dubbed AI-Lab, dedicated to intelligent speech and developing the technology needed to automatically synthesize songs. Whether or not this works out, the pursuit of artificial intelligence-made music could have profound unforeseen effects on the music industry. In the meantime, it’s worth asking why a platform ostensibly dedicated to and built atop individual human expression seems so committed to replacing human creativity altogether.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Children visit a promotional booth run by Douyin in Beijing, Aug.22, 2020. People Visual)