MUSIC / Number One with a bullet: In 1985, Simon Napier-Bell took Wham] to China. Last month he went back to see if he had been forgiven

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EIGHT years ago, just after Wham] had become the first Western rock group to perform in China, I went back to Peking to negotiate a deal for CBS records. On the way into town I passed the arena where four weeks earlier Wham] had played to 15,000 Chinese. 'What's going on there this week?' I asked. 'There's a show trial,' my Chinese friend told me. 'It's quite normal,' he explained. 'They have them every month. Petty criminals, adulterers, black-marketeers. For most of them, the penalty will be death. They're taken to a field near the river and get a bullet in the back of the head.'

Later, I sold Walter Yetnikoff of CBS the idea of setting up CBS in China and after six more trips, I sold the Chinese authorities. Then Walter couldn't persuade the CBS board. But it was a fascinating idea: a billion people, the world's No 1 market.

Last month I went back to China for the first time since Tiananmen Square, and passed where Wham] had played. I asked my translator, 'Do they still hold trials there?' 'Of course,' she answered. 'It's one of our best halls.'

I'd known what China was like long before I'd taken Wham] there. I couldn't pretend their visit was an attempt to change things. It was conceived as publicity; another chapter of rock'n'roll hype. Peking is booming, but it's still depressingly bleak. In Shanghai and Canton they seem to boom more cheerfully. When Wham] went, there was almost no Western music on sale. Now things are altering. But despite government assurances, there is little copyright protection and all the foreign records being sold are pirated.

A Wham] album was the first Western rock record to be released with official permission. It was also the first record released in China that paid the artist a royalty. However, the money could only be used to buy Chinese goods. For sales of a million, Wham] could have taken 25,000 army-issue bicycles and shipped them to Paraguay where a local entrepreneur was prepared to exchange them for coffee. Unfortunately there was a world coffee glut. Last week in Canton I met a Japanese businessman who had changed royalties for oolong tea and done rather well.

As for Chinese artists: the government encourages 'pop' music, providing singers praise the glorious army of the People's Republic. 'Rock' is seen as subversive. But in Peking I saw an authorised concert. One of the groups was '1989', a name the government particularly dislikes; the other was 'Black Leopards'. Permission had been given on the basis that proceeds would go towards an old people's home.

On this showing, these artists would not make much impact outside China. 'Personal liberation should be the goal of politicians and proletariat alike.' Admirable sentiments; but as choruses go, not too catchy.

If Western rock groups were to appear, the public would flock to see them, but with wages miserably low it would be impossible to sell tickets at a price that would cover the cost. When Wham] played in Peking, it cost them close on pounds 500,000. Apart from chartering a 747 for their freight and taking a 50-person crew, they had to rent the hall and print the tickets, then had to donate the proceeds to a local charity. Even the official reception by the Ministry of Culture was at the group's own expense.

Although Western record companies have branches in Hong Kong, they are doing nothing to stimulate the mainland Chinese market. They are waiting, hoping sales in Hong Kong will keep them in profits until the rest of the country takes off.

To secure the Chinese market, record companies should be increasing their investment in surrounding countries where there are emerging middle classes. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are almost untapped, and they have all enacted legislation to clean up copyright infringement. Legitimising record sales throughout South-east Asia would be the best way to stimulate the Chinese market. But the Western music industry is lazy about working to create new markets. Record companies like their profits on a plate, and all too often that's how they get them. In China, they will not.

Comments