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    Life Among China’s ‘Apprentice’ Livestreamers

    Making a name for oneself online isn’t as easy as it used to be. For those unwilling to sign a contract with a promoter, apprenticing with an established streamer is an attractive option.
    Jul 04, 2024#livestream

    “The first thing you need is a handle — something simple, catchy, and easy to remember,” explains Uncle Iron, a well-known livestreamer based in the central Chinese city of Changsha. “Then there’s your bio, which is like your business card, and is written specifically for the fans. You also want to add a little info about yourself and something about your values, or that will attract people.” Uncle Iron’s latest crop of mentees listen intently as he goes through his pre-stream checks, hoping to glean something that could help them jumpstart their own livestream dreams.

    There are an estimated 15 million people in China working as livestreamers. A handful, like the “Lipstick King” Li Jiaqi or the wildly popular English tutor Dong Yuhui, are bona fide stars, but the vast majority are scraping by on the fringes of China’s digital e-commerce boom, hawking cut-rate clothes, taking part in dangerous but attention-grabbing drinking games, or busking for digital tips.

    Given the competition, aspiring livestreamers are desperate for an edge. Many turn to corporate entities known as “multichannel networks,” or MCNs, which offer streamers help with content production, promotion, and revenue generation — and traffic. There are roughly 25,000 of these MCNs in China, and they are a popular choice for streamers looking to establish themselves in the industry.

    The operating practices of these agencies are not without controversy, however. The high degree of involvement of agencies in content production means that hosts are unable to control the direction of their livestreams. And their corporate organization often leads to disputes around revenue. For example, livestreamers who sign contracts must hand over a share of their revenue to their MCN; they also must meet certain targets set by the MCN bosses. Some hosts keep as little as 20% of their earnings, while the MCNs get 30% and platforms take 50%. The hosts have little bargaining power, while the platforms and agencies — which control the interface, traffic, and payment systems — split most of the profits.

    For those unwilling to accept an MCN contract, there is an alternative: apprenticeships with established independent streamers like Uncle Iron. After a host reaches a certain level of popularity, they’ll often post an advert in their bio recruiting “apprentices.” Those looking to get into livestreaming often need help building their audience and so will contact a more established streamer and pay for their mentoring services in the hope of attracting more viewers to their own channels. The new apprentices will typically add their mentor’s name to their own handle, along with a message in their bio thanking them. In response, the mentors are expected to provide their apprentices with professional guidance, share various tips, and drive traffic to their accounts.

    These informal arrangements reflect the fiercely independent yet collaborative culture of streaming outside the MCN system. One of the most common forms of content in this scene are “street battles,” whereby one host invites another host to perform in a split-screen challenge, with the total amount of virtual gifts received by each side determining the winner.

    There are no specific skill requirements for taking part in street battles. According to Uncle Iron, you just need to “take risks and keep going,” and “go hard or go home.” Such low barriers of entry can be attractive relative to signing up to an agency and handing over a portion of your revenue.

    “Never join (a company) when you start out as a host,” explained Da Liu, a livestreaming host. “You’ll spend more money than you’ll earn, and you won’t even receive the basic payment if you don’t livestream for the required time.”

    “They call it training, but what training do those of us doing battles need?” he added. “We’re not professional singers or dancers — if you’re really not good enough, you can take a class.”

    The terms “apprentice” and “master” that are used by the participants in these mentoring arrangements emerged spontaneously; the relationships are reciprocal and can be dissolved through simple negotiation. Whereas MCNs require damage payments for breach of contract, mentorships allow individuals the freedom to easily enter and exit the industry.

    At the same time, the relationships between mentors and their apprentices also provide a powerful form of support. Mentors will generally require their apprentices to work alongside them as assistants every night when they go live. Apprentices will help prepare any items that are needed, shout out messages to fans during battles, act as warm-ups in the livestream, or perhaps even send gifts to encourage fans to follow suit. In this situation, new hosts begin to integrate into the community of livestreamers as they assist in battles, while also familiarizing themselves with the basic process and eventually inheriting the traffic of their mentors. “(When it comes time) to say something, they’re able to just do it,” said Zhao Guangming, a mentor. “At that time, I’ll officially introduce them in my livestream and tell my fans to go follow them.”

    In contrast with the enterprise-oriented employment model, the master-apprentice titles imply a more grassroots, down-to-earth spirit. Some mentors who no longer do their own livestreams will still try to help their apprentices with their shows. As such, mentoring often leads to the creation of communities and default group norms, allowing even street livestreaming — which is otherwise highly fluid — to maintain a certain degree of stability and continuity.

    Nevertheless, the majority of these grassroots street livestreamers don’t consider being a host as a stable career. Meanwhile, the chaotic nature of livestreaming in recent years has led to increased official scrutiny, further transforming street livestreaming. Take the city of Changsha as an example. Street artists and performers who work in the city’s Wuyi Square now need a license to engage in literary and artistic activities. Most street performers with licenses are engaged in more “respectable” types of performance, such as singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, or painting, while the noisier livestreamers involved in online battles have disappeared from the most prominent locations.

    Eventually, many of the hosts I interviewed in my fieldwork abandoned the idea of becoming independent online creators. Those that stayed still operate on the fringes — of time, of the city, and of the industry. As one host, Yao Ge, told me: “(Many streamers) don’t know how long they can keep going or where it is they’re going.” Finding mentors and taking on apprentices, clamoring and shouting, coming and going — the streamers are a microcosm of China’s urban and rural floating population as it chases an almost impossible dream.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: Two performers stream at a fruit store in Shanghai, 2020. Yan Daming/VCG)