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China Sanctions Western Rock--but Watch Your Language

November 26, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

As far as marketing hard rock is concerned, China is virgin territory.

Now an effort is underway to turn China into Virgin territory.

Virgin Records, through its parent company EMI's China office, has been granted permission by the Chinese government to release "Mer de Noms," the recent debut album from the L.A. rock band A Perfect Circle. It becomes only the fourth Wxestern rock album (as opposed to pop) ever approved for release there, following the 1997 approval of Guns N' Roses' 1991 two-volume "Use Your Illusion" set and Nirvana's 1994 "MTV Unplugged in New York."

And EMI is now following up with authorization to release Radiohead's recent "Kid A" and Blur's new "The Best Of" compilation. Other rock acts, from Aerosmith to Metallica to the Smashing Pumpkins, have been available there only in pirated copies.

Cindy Tai, Hong Kong-based managing director of EMI China, had been wanting to expand the range of Western music released there beyond teen-pop acts, and after hearing A Perfect Circle's album at a company conference before its release earlier this year, she felt that both the musical and lyrical content might be acceptable to the Chinese authorities.

Tai says there are no fixed standards for what the government will or will not accept, but sensitive topics for both lyrics and video images include politics, advocacy of nontraditional values, violence, obscenity and decadence--though she adds there are indications that the authorities are becoming open to more variety in music and culture.

"I have been working in China for many years, and before we ever submit lyrics for approval, we roughly know what can be approved or not," she says. "So we have good credibility with the government. Some other labels submit anything, so they always get rejected."

But the real challenge started after the approval. China is not a developed market for rock--MTV has almost no presence there, while radio and other media are government-controlled.

"We took the album from university to university, one by one in major cities," Tai says. "The response was really encouraging."

Now the company is developing strategies to build on that response. Among the plans, says Nancy Berry, Virgin Music Group chairman, is to work closely with Chinese publications targeting students, as well as mount an Internet campaign. Most tantalizing are discussions with Chinese officials about A Perfect Circle possibly performing at a festival there in the summer.

"It's not very often I've had to work on marketing plans for China," says Berry. "I wasn't even sure how much CDs sell for there."

The answer, she learned, is about $9. But more important was who gets the $9. The vast majority of albums sold in China are pirated copies--as many as 90%, by EMI estimates. Berry hopes the freshness of the new releases can cut down on that.

"By the time Guns N' Roses was released, there were so many pirated copies in the market," she says. "With A Perfect Circle, it's so close to the global release that we as a record company stand a chance of making some money."

But how much money? China may have a population of more than a billion, but the number of rock consumers is a small fraction of that. Even for Western pop releases, the market is relatively tiny--the Spice Girls' debut album was considered a major success with sales of about 100,000, while the Nirvana album reached 25,000. Tai and Berry say the target for A Perfect Circle is 30,000.

So why even bother?

"I strongly believe it is the record company's responsibility to bring a variety of music to our customers, not just teenage pop," says Tai, adding that it's worth the effort just to establish a presence. "It's definitely encouragement for the market to see varieties of music being more acceptable, to have new elements."

RAGE ON: So have you heard that the new Rage Against the Machine singer will be Ralph Nader?

OK, it's not true. But the idea gets a hearty laugh from Tom Morello, guitarist for the politically charged rap-rock band from which singer Zack de la Rocha recently departed.

"I think that Nader and [linguist] Noam Chomsky are both vying for it," says Morello. "Both of them have considerable microphone skills."

But Morello and drummer Brad Wilk said in separate interviews that real plans for the future have not been addressed yet, dismissing such rumored replacements for De la Rocha as Public Enemy founder Chuck D. Each stresses one thing, though--there will be a new Rage Against the Machine singer.

"I want to point out that Rage has not broken up," Morello says. "One thing I can commit to is we will continue to make groundbreaking music and fight for social justice and show respect and love for our amazing fans, hopefully to an even greater degree than now."

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